Disney World, with a toddler? You’re crazy!” warned friends. But we found a great package deal online, so I pushed the thought of a nine-hour flight to Orlando with a 15-month-old to the back of my mind.
As it turned out, it didn’t take long to find some willing help in the guise of my parents. Having never been to the US before, they were keen to join us, and the promise of quality time spent with their grandson was a bonus.
Having four pairs of hands on the flight made the task of entertaining our toddler, Joseph, much easier, as well as constantly dipping into a bag of cheap, new toys. In fact, there was only one mini meltdown and the reality is that on a flight to Orlando, there are perhaps just as many boisterous youngsters travelling as your own.
We stayed at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort. Termed a ‘moderate’ resort, the hotel boasts seven swimming pools and is nestled on a 45-acre lake called Barefoot Bay. White sand beaches, beautiful palm trees and a guaranteed view of Epcot’s nightly fireworks show make this the perfect spot to spend a leisurely evening.
With so much on offer, the best advice I can give is perhaps to not expect to do everything.
There are four theme parks inside Walt Disney World; Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. Each is vast and there will be plenty of walking involved, and even more queuing.
Getting around inside Disney World was easy using the free transportation system, which encompasses leisurely ferry boats, regular buses between all parks and resorts, and my dad’s particular favourite, the monorail running between the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.
Outside of the parks, I would definitely recommend getting a car. Our package included free car hire, which sounded like a great bonus. The only downside was the car we were offered was not big enough for all of our baggage plus a car seat. We had to upgrade to a bigger car, so beware of this possible additional cost.
Planning was key in our case. Using the My Disney Experience app, you can select three fast passes per day up to 60 days before your visit. This worked out great for us – we used them on rides for Joseph so he wouldn’t have to wait in long queues. There was plenty to keep him occupied – he loved taking in all the sights and sounds of the parades and shows.
His favourite ride was It’s a Small World, a slow boat ride featuring some 300 animatronic dolls dressed in traditional garb from all over the globe singing and swaying to a captivating tune.
As my parents were not keen on the faster rides, they were happy to take a break from walking and relax in the shade with the little one while my husband and I got to check out the roller coasters. Our favourite was the Tower of Terror, a drop ride set in a haunted lift shaft. Standing at 199ft, it is the second tallest attraction in Disney World, and offers spectacular views of Hollywood Studios… just before the fall!
There was still plenty we didn’t see. On Disney property, there are a further two water parks, as well as more than 20 themed hotels to explore. Disney Springs is a shopping, dining and entertainment district featuring more than 150 stores and it’s hard to believe this area is undergoing an expansion.
I would recommend making time to watch the nightly fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom at least once. During ‘Wishes nighttime spectacular’, incredible fireworks light up the sky behind Cinderella’s castle, synchronised to a soundtrack of the most famous Disney songs.
Having my parents with us meant my husband and I could plan a day out without Joseph. Being thrill-seekers, we were keen to visit Universal Studios, a more grown-up theme park where the attractions allow you to immerse yourself in your favourite films and TV shows.
Being a Harry Potter fan, I was most excited to visit both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, which have been recreated based on the book and film series. A full-scale working replica of the Hogwarts Express whisked us to Hogsmeade, where Hogwarts Castle loomed overhead. All of the essential Harry Potter haunts have been recreated with such detail it is easy to imagine Daniel Radcliffe running to battle Voldemort somewhere nearby.
The highlight of our trip had to be our day at Discovery Cove. Owned by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, you have the chance to interact with all kinds of marine animals. We had a dolphin swim package booked, as it was one of my mum’s bucket list items.
On arrival, we were met by Todd, who showed us around the park before leading us to our cabana, where we could enjoy the surroundings.
While Joseph played on the sand, we relaxed and enjoyed the all-inclusive food and drinks before our dolphin encounter. The 30-minute interaction took place in a chilly saltwater lagoon, but all thoughts of the cold quickly disappear once your dolphin greets you.
In a small group of eight, accompanied by a trainer, we gave hugs and kisses and even fed fish to Roxy, who measures 2.5 metres long. At the end of the encounter, we swam out into deep water and enjoyed a ride back to shore courtesy of Roxy.
We whiled away the rest of the day snorkelling alongside beautifully daubed fish and rays, idling along through cascading waterfalls in the Wind-Away river, and seeing hundreds of colours of feathers fluttering over our heads at the Explorer’s Aviary.
Discovery Cove’s neighbour and sister park SeaWorld is a marine theme park and home to the world famous killer whale Shamu. The star of the show gave a great performance, flipping and leaping across the pool while the audience learned all about these enormous creatures.
We stopped by Stingray Lagoon, where we fed and felt the velvety creatures; we saw beluga whales, penguins, manatees and flamingos; and my husband and I plummeted 113ft on the Manta roller coaster – one of three coasters in the park.
Kosher food in Orlando is pretty easy to come by. There are a few kosher restaurants – our favourite was Kosher Grill Orlando, where we feasted on fries, burgers and beers. We also stopped by (the also
inventively named) Kosher Gourmet, where we picked up deli platters and groceries for Shabbat.
Disney World offers kosher meals, which you can pre-order to any restaurant on Disney property. Erin Mckenna’s Bakery NYC is a vegan, gluten free and kosher chain. As a store had just opened in Disney Springs, we went to try out a selection of breads, bagels, cupcakes, cookies and other treats.
Remembering the look on Joseph’s face when he met Winnie the Pooh and friends made every minute of our flight home feel that much shorter.
Even if he won’t remember the trip, I’ll treasure the memories. In fact, we’re already planning our return trip next year…
SeaWorld & Discovery Cove:
The Discovery Cove UltimatePackage includes one day reservation at Discovery Cove (with 30-minute dolphin swim experience, all meals, snacks and beverages) plus 14 day unlimited entry to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica Orlando – offering customers more savings and flexibility for their Florida holiday. Prices start from £159 per person for a Discovery Cove Ultimate Package with dolphin swim. Customers with a Discovery Cove Ultimate Package also get free parking at all four SeaWorld Parks for 14 consecutive days, meaning that they can come and go as they please.
For further information about SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment in Florida or to book tickets visit www.seaworldparks.co.uk
Walt Disney World: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com
Universal Studios: www.universalorlando.co.uk