If you’re thinking about a trip to Florida and the Gulf Coast beaches, check out Georgina’s itinerary suggestions. To find out how she planned eat and where they ate, check out this earlier post.
Day 1 & 2 – Travel from London to Orlando
Virgin Atlantic flight from London Gatwick to Orlando International Airport.
Our 9 hour daytime flight was smooth and comfortable, but pretty long and boring. Virgin has a great selection of in-flight entertainment, so we watched plenty of films to keep ourselves occupied.
On arrival we were grateful to see that we wouldn’t have to wait too long at immigration, and then picked up our bags and headed to our car hire. Bizarrely we weren’t allowed to take our luggage trolleys out of the baggage hall, which made things a bit tricky. Luckily our kids are old enough to wheel small cases, so we managed to make it work.
As we are members of the Avis Preferred loyalty scheme (anyone can join) we were able to walk directly to the car park to pick up our car. They have an electronic board listing all of the names and showing exactly where your car can be found. I was a bit surprised that our name wasn’t listed, and we joined the queue. Turns out that our car was waiting at the other terminal (oops) but luckily a kind member of staff was very helpful and gave us another car and supplied us with the two high-back booster seats that we had requested. We had booked a ‘Chrysler Town and Country or similar’ and were given a Dodge Caravan. It was perfect, a 7 seater with sliding doors. As a family of 4 this gave us tons of room for luggage and our rental buggy. We had brought our Tomtom with us from home but found the satnav info on Google Maps to be more reliable throughout our trip.
We drove to our first hotel, the Sheraton Vistana on International Drive. Check-in was simple, I collected our rental buggy from the concierge and declined the offer of a timeshare presentation. We stayed there a few years ago and once again we weren’t disappointed. This sprawling resort offers huge two bedroom apartments, plus everything else you’d need. I don’t have too much more to add since our last review. This time we were much closer to the main pool and restaurant, although we were next to the basketball courts which were a little noisy in the evening. Our room was on the ground floor (block 11, room 106) which made it really easy to access, although the balcony felt quite blocked in and dark. We ate on site a couple of times at the restaurant by the pool and found the food to be very average, although the restaurant staff were really lovely.
We all slept well and spent the next day relaxing. It was a little overcast so I googled ‘rainy day activities in Orlando’ which sent us to the Aquarium. I also dragged the family round Walmart so that we could stock up on basic food items, cheap Disney gear, and random things that you can’t get in the UK.
Days 3 – 9 – Disney (all 4 parks plus the 2 water parks)
Day 3 – Ordinarily we would have started our trip at the Magic Kingdom, but we were saving this for a few days later, when we were to be joined by some relatives.
So our first stop was Hollywood Studios, where we met O’Shea Boyce, our guide from World Class VIP
Our favourite rides were Slinky Dog (rollercoaster) and Toy Story Mania (interactive ride, like a giant arcade game), Star Tours (simulator), our favourite show was Beauty and the Beast, and we met some characters at a buffet lunch at Hollywood & Vine.
We took our (rented) double buggy, even though it’s been years since our kids have used one. It was so helpful to store all of our stuff for the day (raincoats, snacks, autograph books, water bottles) and the kids jumped in and out when they needed a rest. There are places to park buggies next to every ride and attraction so it’s really easy to have one with you.
For dinner that night we discovered Café Tu Tu Tango, which was a real treat. The food was an eclectic mix of small sharing plates, plus they offered a children’s menu.
Day – 4 Typhoon Lagoon water park
This trip we really enjoyed the water parks. When the kids were younger and less confident in the water I found them a bit stressful. Now that one of them can swim well, and the other one is very confident with a float vest on, it’s great fun. We just take one big bag with towels, swimsuits, UV swim tops, goggles, float vest, water bottles and snacks. On arrival we rent a locker for our valuables and find a sun lounger to use as a base camp and place the rest of our stuff.
We enjoyed the lazy river and LOVED the huge wave pool. The kiddy area was a bit too young for our kids and we didn’t try any of the slides there. That night our relatives arrived from New York so we enjoyed an afternoon and evening relaxing by the pool with them.
Day 5 – Animal Kingdom
We had originally planned to go to Magic Kingdom today, but we were advised by World Class VIP that it would be very busy with Disney resort guests taking advantage of ‘Early Magic Hours’, so we swapped our days over. Our guide O’Shea Boyce gave us a fantastic day. Our favourite rides were Flight of Passage (Avatar simulator), Everest (rollercoaster), Kali River Rapids (water ride), and Kilimanjaro Safari. Lunch was a character buffet at Tusker House, and we headed back to the hotel mid-afternoon to chill out by the pool. That night we ate at Bongo’s at Disney Springs. It’s a fun restaurant with live music and dancing but we were underwhelmed by the food and it’s pretty pricey.
Day 6 – Magic Kingdom
Once again we met our guide and she whisked us round the best attractions that the Magic Kingdom has to offer. Our favourite rides were Splash Mountain (log flume) and Thunder Mountain (roller coaster). As with all of the Disney parks, just being in the park itself is a feast for the senses, and a total nostalgia trip (if, like me, you have amazing memories of going to Disney when you were a kid). Lunch was a character buffet at Crystal Palace with Winnie the Pooh characters. We headed back to the hotel mid-afternoon and just relaxed/collapsed by the pool for the rest of the day.
Day 7 – Blizzard Beach (morning) / Animal Kingdom (evening)
By now we were fully over our jetlag and we knew that if we had a chilled afternoon we could do an activity in the morning and in the evening. This worked really well with a morning water park trip to Blizzard Beach and an evening trip to Animal Kingdom.
The day started off with breakfast at Denny’s to bid farewell to our relatives before their return flight to New York, and then straight on to Blizzard Beach. This is the other Disney water park that was included in our passes. It’s newer than Typhoon Lagoon and is themed around an alpine resort. Initially I preferred Typhoon Lagoon as I like the tropical island theming and we all love the giant wave pool. However, I felt that Blizzard Beach had a little more to offer our children at this age. There’s a great section with a small tube ride and a floating obstacle course, plus ‘Teamboat springs’ where the family all gets in one big tube. And of course there’s the ubiquitous lazy river, plus a wave pool.
In the evening we headed to Animal Kingdom. Highlights were the Kali River Rapids and Everest (we loved it so much we did it three times – we had a fastpass the first time and then the queues weren’t too long after that). I was also really excited to see Pandora at night-time. I found it magical and otherworldly, although the kids mostly found it a bit creepy. I scored some late fastpasses to the Navi River Journey so we probably stayed a little later than we intended to. This ride was a disappointment as our kids found it a bit slow and boring, and also a bit creepy!
Day 8 – EPCOT
We had a slow start to the day as our daughter had been a bit poorly overnight, so we cancelled our plans to rush straight to EPCOT for opening. After a few hours she was feeling better, so we headed there for lunch. Last time we went to EPCOT I felt that our kids were too young to enjoy it all, and it was too hot for us to explore the World Showcase. This time we loved it all. We had lunch at Coral Reef, which has a beautiful aquarium to watch. Our favourite rides were Soarin’ (simulator) and Mission Space (another simulator, with a gentle option and a more intense option). I also dragged the family on some old school nostalgia-laden rides, Spaceship Earth (feels really dated now) and Living with the Land (also dated, but quite interesting). We were just about to head over to the World Showcase when I managed to score some fastpasses to Test Track, a ride we had never been on before. This was a huge hit with all of us. You design your own car (the ride is sponsored by Chevrolet) and then get to test it out on a track, which simulates different road conditions. It’s fun, interesting, and really fast at the end. Then we took a stroll around World Showcase, starting on the left hand side with ‘Mexico’. We didn’t get very far as everyone was pretty hot and tired, but we saw some great acrobats in ‘China’ and had our first taste of funnel cake in the ‘USA’.
Days 9 – 12 – Clearwater Beach
On our final morning in Orlando we fitted in a quick second trip to the Magic Kingdom to get our fix of rides and Disney magic. We then made the two hour drive to Clearwater.
When we were planning our trip, it felt a bit unusual to ‘sandwich’ a beach break in the middle of our time in Orlando. However, we knew that by this point we would be ready for a quick break to refresh ourselves before returning to Disney. I was looking for somewhere that was a couple of hours’ drive away from Orlando, with nice beaches, and a chilled, fun atmosphere. Clearwater was mentioned several times on various facebook forums, and we booked a one bedroom suite at the Sandpearl Resort.
We had a lovely time in Clearwater, playing on the beach and in the pool. We rented jetskis and also had a really fun afternoon with some friends on Captain Memo’s Pirate Boat. Our daughter in particular loved the touristy shops in Mandalay Road, and we all enjoyed the ice creams at Kilkins and at Ice & Cream.
We visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which served as a fun outing to help us to escape the fierce midday sun. The attraction is a rehabilitation centre for many injured and rescued sea creatures. We all learnt something, and our kids enjoyed the stingray feeding experience (prebooked online). Much of the aquarium is devoted to the film of ‘Dolphin Tale’. Unfortunately we hadn’t seen this film, so lots of the references went right over our heads.
The most memorable part of our trip to Clearwater was the exquisite sunset that could be seen each night from the beach.
Days 12 – 16 – Orlando
We checked out of Clearwater and drove back to Orlando for the second half of our Disney adventures. We stopped at the Florida Mall for some shopping and lunch at the food court, which was fun and also used up just the right amount of time before checkin. In the end our journey was a little longer as we actually went to the wrong hotel to start with (if you’re heading to a Sheraton in Orlando, make sure you have the right address!) and then we finally checked in to the Sheraton Vistana Villages.
On our drive back to Orlando we were already feeling pretty sad that we were heading towards the end of our trip. We contacted Virgin and juggled some things and managed to add 3 days to the end of our trip. At first we considered staying in Orlando for those extra days, but then we decided it would feel more exciting to try somewhere new. I spent some time online looking at options (including Anna Maria Island, Captiva, Sanibel) but we were limited by hotel availability (it was so last minute!) and also location (we really didn’t want to add a very long drive). When we had been in Clearwater, we had heard that nearby St Pete offered similar beaches and sunsets, but with a more laid back vibe. I searched Tripadvisor for available resorts and we booked the Rumfish resort. More on that to follow, now back to Orlando.
Day 13 – Magic Kingdom (morning) / EPCOT (evening)
Time for one final trip to Magic Kingdom to do a few favourite rides, and to see a few things that we hadn’t yet seen. We enjoyed Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Monsters Inc Laugh Floor Show.
Highlights at EPCOT were Test Track, more food (this time we started on the right hand side in ‘England’) and an unexpected open-air Sister Sledge concert. We didn’t make it to the fireworks but we had a great time.
Day 14 – Blizzard Beach (morning) / Hollywood Studios (evening)
Highlights at Hollywood Studios were Star Tours, the Indiana Jones show, and the Toy Story Mania. The Rock N Roller rollercoaster was not working (it also hadn’t been working the first time we went to Hollywood Studios) which was a bit of a disappointment, and we just didn’t feel brave enough for the Tower of Terror!
DAY 15 – Gator Land (morning) / EPCOT (evening)
We prebooked tickets online to Gator Land, including the Grunt Package, which offered us the opportunity to meet a Gator up close. We thoroughly enjoyed our morning at this park. It’s nicely laid out, with lots to see, and some really entertaining shows. Our kids got up close and personal with a gator and a massive snake (rather them than me). We were there for a couple of hours and there was still plenty that we didn’t see and do.
That evening we had our final visit to EPCOT, the park that had really blown us away this trip. We did the Figment ride, plus Mission Space (the more intense version this time around) and Test Track. Dinner was a selection of food and drink from World Showcase (our favourite was Zeppole in ‘Italy’), and we finally got to see the fireworks before heading home.
Days 16 – 19 St Pete Beach
We left Orlando feeling like we had well and truly ‘done’ the Disney parks, and ready for a good rest at the beach. On the way to St Pete we stopped off at the Tyson Square mall for a shop and lunch at the food court. We then drove into St Petersburg city, which has a thriving arts scene, for some culture before check-in time.
I can’t namecheck many artists beyond the most obvious and well-known ones, but for some reason I know and love Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures. St Petersburg happens to be home to the Chihuly Collection, a permanent exhibition of his work. We knew that an exhibition of glass sculptures would be a bit of a gamble with young children, but it was really worth doing. The exhibition itself was stunning, really nicely laid out and beautifully lit (if slightly spoiled by my loud voice shrieking ‘don’t touch anything!’ every ten seconds). There’s also a rolling screening of a film showing Chihuly’s team at work. Across the street at the Morean Arts Center the exhibition tickets also entitle you to a glassblowing demonstration. This was really interesting, and although we didn’t make it right to the end (it lasts around 45 minutes, and our kids got a bit hot and restless) it was lovely to have seen it. I would have loved to visit the Salvador Dali Museum too, but I think that might have sent the kids over the edge. We also drove past some very cool looking cafes and restaurants, which would be great to explore if you have more time in the area.
Then back in the car towards St Pete’s beach for our final destination. Tradewinds Island Resort is actually two hotels, the larger Island Grand, and the smaller Rumfish (previously known as the Guy Harvey Outpost). They share facilities and are a few hundred metres apart. We had booked the Rumfish, for no other reason than that it was the only room available. We loved it!
We loved our time in St Pete’s, because the resort was perfect for us. It offered the beautiful beach and stunning sunsets that we had experienced at Clearwater, but had a much more fun and chilled atmosphere. The food on site was of a really high quality, at a reasonable price. Plus there were lots of extras that were free of charge for hotel guests, including a huge water slide on the beach, and a S’mores campfire each night. We also took a parasail trip with Suncoast Watersports, and drove to Johns Pass Village to check out the shopping boardwalk. The only downside to St Pete’s, or at least to the area that we were staying in, is that there wasn’t much to do within walking distance of the resort.
Day 19 Homeward bound
Not much to say here! The weather was appalling on our final day and we ditched our daytime plans (a couple of hours at a children’s museum) as the drove to the airport took hours. We had a quick lunch stop at a branch of Sweet Tomatoes and then ate dinner at the food court in Orlando airport (note that the food options are much better in the general departures area than they are once you have gone through security). A smooth flight home with Virgin Atlantic, and then back to reality at home.