Tuesday, 20 December 2022

My Disney Dream Come True: Our Once In A Lifetime Orlando Holiday

If you've followed this little blog of mine for a while, then you'll no doubt be aware that I'm one of those Disney Adults.

You know the kind - the sort of grown up who collects Minnie Ears and spends her spare time day dreaming about walking down Main Street toward that beautiful castle.

Visiting Disney World Orlando has been the biggest dream of mine for as long as I can remember, but it always felt so very out of reach to me. I've lost count of the number of times I've priced the trip up over the years, only to feel baffled at how people manage to afford it and convinced that I'd never be able to make it happen.

But in 2018, I decided to finally take the plunge and book a trip. If I'm totally honest, I still wasn't convinced it would really happen - although we'd saved some money, we still hadn't covered the cost of it and I wasn't sure that we'd manage it in time. 

But little did I know, there were other factors at play - and our planned 2020 trip was never going to come to fruition for reasons none of us could possibly foresee.

When the world shut down and that dream trip was cancelled, I was determined not to give up and so I rebooked the trip and got through the Covid years by focusing on saving every penny I could. I sold things on eBay and did car boot sales, I started a second and then a third business...I focused all of my attention on trying to build that savings pot up. And eventually - finally - it was time.

With the pandemic restrictions behind us and our savings pot looking healthy enough at last, it was finally our turn to get on the plane and head to the magic for our once in a lifetime, 25 night trip. The trip I'd dreamed of taking for 41 years.

But after a lifetime of building somewhere up in your mind, can it ever really be as magical as you hope?

Here’s a break down of our trip, the highs and the lows:


We flew with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow, and - as we always do - we travelled down to the airport the night before and stayed over in a nearby Premier Inn. 

If I'm totally honest, I think that flying from Heathrow was a mistake for us. I'm a very anxious passenger, and I hate being on the motorways around London. I find them to be total sensory overload (especially with 3 over excited kids in the back of the car!), and I always end up super stressed out by the time we arrive.

We had to pay an OBSCENE amount for parking due to the long length of our holiday, and I found the carparks and the airport itself to be totally confusing and overwhelming. By the time we got to the Virgin check in desk, I was already in the midst of a panic attack.

Luckily for me, the Virgin Atlantic staff were incredibly helpful and kind. They took us through their fast lane security and escorted us every step of the way, which was amazing. Once we were past duty free, my nerves settled right down and we were able to have a nice breakfast while we waited to board.

Boarding the flight was really smooth and although I was nervous on take off as always, the staff on board were so calming and attentive. We were also lucky enough to be seated by a lovely family who were really kind and friendly, and they made the journey really pleasant too. The flight was half empty and the kids were so taken with the inflight entertainment and constant flow of drinks and snacks that they were no trouble at all.

I had dreaded landing at Orlando International Airport after hearing some real horror stories but we got really lucky and sailed through security in minutes. We found our transfer service (Sunshine Flyer) really easily, and were on the bus to our resort within an hour of landing.

I would absolutely use both Virgin Atlantic and Sunshine Flyer again in future, but I would probably look to travel from Manchester airport instead as Heathrow is just not for me.

Our Disney Accommodation

For the first 15 nights of our stay, we were at Disney's Caribbean Beach resort. From the moment we arrived, we honestly felt as though we were in the lap of luxury.

When our coach pulled in, the staff at bell services were straight over with a luggage trolley to take our bags and welcome us. They told us how to get checked in and kept our luggage safe for us while we got sorted. The check in process was so efficient and the staff at the hotel were so helpful, and remained so throughout our stay. Nothing was too much trouble, and they were always so friendly.  They were especially friendly with our kids, with some staff giving them "Pixie Dust" such as free ice creams and mickey rice krispie treats randomly throughout the stay.

Bell services were fantastic too - nothing was too much trouble for them, and even the lifeguards at the resort were incredibly friendly and engaging with the kids - offering pintrading and playing games on rainy evenings when the pool was closed.

Speaking of the pool, this was a real highlight of our resort. The main pool was large and well themed, I wish we'd been able to make more time for evening swims. They also put on a lot of activities around the pool during the daytimes too such as quizzes and scavenger hunts.

As well as the main pool, there are "small pools" close to each building (the hotel is separated into various buildings) - the small pools were still large by my standards, and ours was right outside our hotel room door which was super handy. They were always quiet which was lovely.

The main lobby of the hotel was beautifully decorated and smelled incredible, and it housed a decent gift shop and a food court which we used quite often. We could also mobile order which was handy too, and the food was always good.

The biggest perk of our resort was the Skyliner - Disney's cable car transport service to Epcot and Hollywood Studios. We were closer to the Riviera Skyliner station from our building so we always used this, but it was just a short and very pleasant stroll around the lake. The Skyliner was so handy, we loved how fun and convenient it was. The bus services to other parks were regular and efficient too.

The only downside to our stay at Caribbean Beach was the hotel room decor was a little tired and dated but it was comfortable and large enough for our family of 5, and we would absolutely stay there again.

Visiting The Parks

I had planned out an itinerary for our visit which we mostly stuck to, and this did help us to make the most of our time but  the weather did get in the way on quite a few occasions.

 One thing I really was not prepared for was just how often it rains in Orlando and how heavy the rain is! I had heard that it was a warm rain that isn't much of a bother but I personally didn't find this to be the case - we were visiting during hurricane season, and some of the storms we were caught in were truly torrential resulting in flooding and even a badly leaking roof at Cinderella castle so it was certainly incredibly heavy at times! My kids hated getting caught in it and the thunderstorms that accompanied it really frightened them too, so it was a bit of a pain. In future I would certainly look to choose a less volatile weather month if at all possible.

As for the heat, I had really worried about how we'd manage it but I have to say that it was nowhere near as bad as I expected. Yes it was hot, but I never personally found it to be overwhelming. My kids would probably disagree though, they did struggle with it at times and ask to head back to the pool which we usually did. Most of our days were split with a few hours spent in the parks, then an afternoon break and a return to a different park in the evenings.

My favourite park turned out to be Animal Kingdom, which I had unfortunately planned the least amount of time in! I loved Epcot and Magic Kingdom too, and also really enjoyed Typhoon Lagoon and Disney Springs - I wish I'd planned for more time in both of those. 

Although I enjoyed Hollywood Studios, it was probably my least favourite over all but this is probably because of the focus on Star Wars which I'm not a fan of. My other half and the kids loved it for this reason!

We managed to ride everything that we wanted to (which was almost all of the rides except for one or two, and we did numerous re-rides of most!) - I even forced myself to ride the new Guardians Of The Galaxy coaster despite the fact that I hate roller coasters! I was not a fan at all but I'm glad I at least tried it!

My favourite rides were Test Track, People Mover, Soarin  and Seven Dwarves Mine Train.

We also got to meet lots of characters, watch all of the shows and fireworks, and do a whole lot of character dining - I'll be doing a separate post about my thoughts on all of the restaurants we visited soon, as well as a break down on each of the parks.

Universal Orlando

After our amazing and busy 2 weeks at Disney, it was time to move on to the last part of our trip - a 10 night stay at Universal's Endless Summer Resort.

We stayed in the Surfside resort, and we all really loved it. The hotel room was much larger than our room at Caribbean Beach with a kitchenette which made it much easier to eat some meals in the room, and save some money. We had a pool view which was lovely too, and we made use of the large pool fairly often.

Although the on site transport to the parks was nowhere near as efficient as Disney's, it was good enough and we loved the on site restaurant which opened until 3 am on nights that the Halloween Horror Nights event was running (which was most nights of our stay). The on site Starbucks was a great perk too.

As for the Universal parks, we were unfortunately quite underwhelmed after spending 2 weeks at Disney. I say "we", but that's misleading...in all honesty my kids adored Universal and to my horror they all state that they preferred it to Disney! It's easy to see why though, as most of the rides and attractions at Universal are more up to date and relevant to their childhoods - things such as the Marvel island and the Minions ride for example were their favourites, and they loved meeting Spongebob and Shrek!

I, however, found myself always comparing Universal to Disney and it came up short for me on everything. The overall cleanliness of the park was distinctly lacking and really demonstrated how good a job Disney do of keeping a busy theme park pristine, I also found the food to be really poor quality and the staff to be far less helpful and friendly overall. 

Having said all of that, we still enjoyed it - there were some rides that I loved (The ET ride was a favourite!) and I did think that Universals shows were much better than Disneys overall (the Bourne Stuntacular and The Horror Make Up Show especially were fantastic).

If we were visiting Orlando again with the kids, I would go back to Universal but if we were visiting on our own I don't think I'd bother. However, its worth keeping in mind that we're not fans of the Harry Potter franchise - I can see the appeal of Universal for people who are.

Water Parks

We also visited Universal's water park Volcano Bay which, after enjoying Typhoon Lagoon so much more than I thought I would, I was looking forward to. Unfortunately I found it to be a huge let down - although the main pool was beautiful and the kids area was good, I thought the lazy river was awful and the organisation in the park was chaotic - I couldn't wait to leave and I'd rather not go back! Typhoon Lagoon was the definite water park winner for me - it was just so relaxing and chilled!

Other Orlando Attractions

While we were in the area, we did try out some other attractions which I'll talk about in more detail in other posts but just to briefly cover them...

Discovery Cove - We spent a day here purely because I really wanted to swim with dolphins, which we did. That experience was wonderful and it was worth the entry price for that alone! The kids really enjoyed the snorkelling, the chance to swim with rays was really special and the whole place was beautiful, but one of the selling points is that its all inclusive food and drink - if you're someone who's going to take advantage of that its probably great value, but personally I don't find it appealing to eat after swimming with fish so I ate barely anything which made it feel overpriced.  I don't think I'd hurry back to Discovery Cove personally (though my kids would absolutely want to!),  but I would recommend trying it once. 

Seaworld - We visited here purely because it was included in our Discovery Cove ticket price and I was intrigued, but I have to say that I definitely wouldn't bother again and wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

 Most of the rides here are huge so its probably great for thrill seekers but we're not those people - we found the park to be dirty (the smell was overwhelming in some parts like the shark area) and actually pretty boring for people who aren't into big rides, and we couldn't believe how over priced the food and drink was. It made Disney look like a bargain! 

The Titanic Gala Dinner - We booked this experience as my eldest son is really interested in the Titanic, and it sounded like something different. The dinner takes place at a small museum displaying artefacts from the ship, and is hosted by a small cast of actors playing famous passengers from the ill-fated ship. Each guest is given a part to play, and the experience is a sort of mix of a play and a dinner. Throughout the course of the evening, the cast lead you through the final night on board The Titanic - beginning with drinks and a meeting with the Captain, followed by dinner and culminating in a sobering re-enactment of the moment the news of the ships fate was given. The whole thing was done in a very tasteful and respectful way, and really gave an insight into the tragedy. At the end of the evening, you exited through a corridor displaying names of some of the real passengers - here you could look up the fate of your character. There was also a large slab of ice on display which you could touch to understand the temperatures in the water that night, which my children were fascinated by.

The 3 course set meal we had during the experience was lovely, probably one of the best quality meals we had in Orlando. The cast were all fantastic and the experience was very immersive. It was expensive but an unusual experience that I feel was worth the price tag. I would recommend this for something a little different.

Other Experiences

We also made some stops in some random places such as the Mall at Milennia and the discount outlets (both of which I would have liked more time in, but my kids were not so keen), we visited Target and Spirit Halloween (which was epic!), and we also went to Chuck E Cheese at the kids request too which was...an interesting experience! 

We had planned to visit Kennedy Space Centre during our visit but it was just too much to fit in and so we decided to save it for a future trip instead, which I sort of regret now but at the time we were just too exhausted! We did get to see a rocket launch though, as it was visible from Universal!

The Lows Of The Trip

It goes without saying that any holiday this long with 3 children in tow is going to have its ups and downs. I see so many YouTube families sharing the highlights of their Disney trips which can make you think that anything less than picture perfect Shiny Happy Families 100% of the time is a failure, but it's just not realistic to expect perfection.

The heat was definitely an issue for my kids - I kind of suspected it would be, they take after me in that they don't enjoy very hot days even in the UK so they were always going to find the soaring Floridian temps and humidity tricky - but I don't think I was fully prepared for the problems it would cause. 

 We did everything we could to make it more bearable for them - we had our owns handheld fans to use, we slathered them in factor 50 every day and made sure to choose light and comfortable clothing with hats, and we hired a pushchair so that they could take regular breaks from walking. We also made sure to keep popping indoors to get some air con, and kept our outside time limited during peak heat. But it was still hard to manage and it did have an impact on our time. I would probably try to visit during a cooler month in future.

The sensory overwhelm was also an issue - the parks are busy, there are all sorts of sights and smells and sounds around you constantly, and all of the walking and excitement makes for some tiring days - it was a lot for an adult to manage, so of course there were days when the kids struggled. The overwhelm would come out in the form of tantrums and sibling arguments - and there were some days when everyone just really wanted to do different things, so reaching a compromise was tricky at times too. 

Trying to keep everybody happy and fit in everything that we all wanted to do also proved difficult to manage, even with 25 days to utilise! There is just SO much to see and do in Orlando, that it is truly impossible to do it all.

There were some days when bad moods and frayed tempers spoiled things, which is a shame. But I feel that i’d be better prepared for it next time simply by expecting some days to go that way - just like they do at home! 

The Highs Of The Trip

There were so many amazing moments that I find it hard to sum them all up.

I will never forget the look on my youngest sons face when on our last Disney day, after trying to hunt down his favourite character Jack Sparrow every single day - we were standing in Adventureland when Jack himself came running up to Sailor out of the blue, to compliment his pirate outfit and ask him to complete a pirate mission on his behalf! 

I will never forget the absolute delight on the face of my 9 year old when Goofy, Mickey, Donald or Chip & Dale hugged him - in those moments he was a toddler again, fully believing in the magic of Disney and delighting in the absolute joy of being there and experiencing it all.

I will never forget giggling with my daughter as we sat together on a broken down Buzz Lightyear ride, laughing at the way the luminescent lighting highlighted our teeth while we waited to be rescued. Or the look on her face when the fairy godmothers at the castle knew her name as she was called in for her Princess makeover experience.

I will never forget how special it felt to have a transgender fairy godmother smile at me and give me a nod of solidarity as she overheard me explain my trans daughters correct pronouns when checking her in to the castle, knowing that inclusivity and feelings of belonging are part of the magic of Disney.

And I will never forget how my inner child completely took over my body in the moment that I saw Tinkerbell fly across the night sky during the firework show, as I jumped up and down in excitement - shouting out "Its really Tink! She's flying!", while tears streamed down my face. 

The magical moments did not happen constantly, but they happened. And there were plenty of them. And I am so very grateful that I had the chance to experience them.

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