Florida: The Funshine State
Sarah Johnston heads to Florida in search of a family holiday with a difference...
The Sunshine State has been unfairly pigeonholed in recent years, written off as a predictably packaged family holiday destination with Orlando its biggest draw - the theme park capital of the world and the honeypot that draws most of the 90 million visitors each year. But, dig below the shiny surface and Florida offers a whole lot more than you’d expect, with plenty to appeal to all sorts of travellers, including families like ours, who don’t necessarily want a ‘family holiday’.
In search of a luxe holiday we’d curated ourselves, we avoided overpriced charter airlines and opted to fly with Norwegian Air, which has quickly garnered a reputation for its Premium economy cabin offering private lounge access, seriously spacious seats, impressive food and complimentary drinks offering. And the best bit? You can pay for economy and place a ‘bid’ to upgrade to Premium, offering what you can afford. We did just that and flew transatlantic in complete luxury.
Arriving refreshed in Orlando nine hours later, our holiday kicked off with a fly drive. Thankfully, our Hertz rental car came with free sat nav and in car wifi so even after the long flight, the boys were content in the back with their iPads.
We ventured two hours south to the city of Sarasota on the Gulf Coast for a piece of hidden Florida. Waterfront restaurants, galleries, chic shopping districts, diverse dining, peaceful beaches and kayaking make it a coastal paradise to immerse yourself in. There’s an array of luxury hotels available but if your budget will stretch, opt for the W Hotel for its unrivalled views and stunning location. A 10-minute drive from the city lies the elegant St Armands Circle, a stylish outdoor dining and shopping area set amongst mid-century modern architecture on one of the many islands off Sarasota. This place was so dreamy we could have stayed there for days. The famed Siesta Key is another must. Powdery sand, turquoise waters and a village of outdoor dining, coffee shops and shopping make for an idyllic destination that feels off-grid.
Next up was Orlando – well, we couldn’t bring the kids and sidestep it altogether! Home to seven of the world’s top theme parks, you’d be mad not to experience at least some of them. So, for the next week, there was no adulting allowed. We opted to stay at the retro Cabana Bay Beach Resort, a cute destination inspired by classic Florida beach resorts of the 1950s. Located within Universal Studios itself, the hotel offers early entry into the parks before the official opening time meaning fewer crowds and smaller queues.
Daniel is only five but he was in his element at Universal’s Islands of Adventure where many of the rides are suitable for his age and height, not to mention fearless nature. As well as discovering a love for Jurassic Park (minus the Raptor Encounter which was perhaps too ‘real’ for him!), he was a huge fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but his favourite experience was meeting his Minion heroes whilst walking through Universal Studios. Little brother Oliver was mesmerised by the Dr Seuss rides and playparks at Universal but it was over at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, where his face really lit up – as did mine. The iconic ‘It’s a Small World’ ride remains my secret favourite more than 30 years since I first experienced Disney as a child.
Seaworld’s Discovery Cove was also well worth a visit. The reservations-only day park restricts the number of guests per day for a more serene experience, which includes the chance to snorkel with tropical fish and rays and swim with dolphins, as well as all-inclusive food and drink. We opted for a private Cabana for a luxurious experience and the views overlooking the waterways alone were worth it.
After a therapeutic few days reconnecting with our inner children, it was mum and dad’s turn for indulgence so we hit the shopping malls and searched out the best restaurants we could find. Our favourite was the buzzy Capa restaurant, located on the 17th floor of the stunning Four Seasons Orlando hotel. With two outdoor terraces and a dramatic dining room, Capa is a fusion of steakhouse and Basque, specialising in fresh Florida seafood, Spanish-influenced tapas and grilled cuts. It also has prime views across the city and is the ideal spot to take in the nightly fireworks displays at Disney - the perfect way to end the ultimate ‘family’ holiday.
• Seven nights at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort starts from $100 per room, per night; UniversalOrlando.com
• Norwegian flies from London Gatwick to Orlando from £329 return in LowFare economy; norwegian.com/uk
• Car hire starts from £24 per day; hertz.co.uk
• A Universal 3 Park Explorer ticket including 14 days unlimited access costs from £272 per adult and £267 per child aged three to nine, attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk
• Tickets for Walt Disney World are available now, 14 days access for the price of seven at £375 per adult and £355 per child; disneyworld.disney.go.com
• Tickets to Discovery Cove cost $199 per person including dolphin swim from discoverycove.com