Florida has earned its crown as the king of family holiday hot spots. It has everything under an unrelenting sun - from Mickey and his friends to paradise beaches, shopping havens and a generous menu of fun dining options! With the school holidays over for another year, now is the perfect time for empty nesters and romantic couples to head off to the Sunshine State for some grown-up fun of their own.
Far from ordinary Orlando
Three RCI member couples, who call Florida home for two weeks every year, share the very different holiday experiences they each enjoy out in the US state of fun. Read on to learn about all that you can do in and around Orlando without children in tow, and beyond the thrill rides.
After many years of taking their children to see the big mouse himself, today Terence and Sharon O’Connor prefer to relax in the laidback lifestyle of Orlando. While their daughters and grandchildren are still enjoying the theme parks, for Terence and Sharon the beauty of the capital is that they can explore at their own pace.
"We love Orange Lake Resort (0670) and now spend quite a bit of time there, making the most of all the facilities around the resort’s four villages,” said Terence. "Lounging by the pool and enjoying the more than ample entertainment programme, day and night, is the perfect way for slipping into holiday mode.”
After relaxing on resort, the couple like to explore the local sights of Celebration in Kissimmee. "We were there last November, and the town’s lake was decorated for Christmas. They even had snowfall machines to create a winter wonderland - so anything is possible, even in the Florida sunshine! They have different themes throughout the year but we love November, as it’s a little bit quieter, yet the weather is still glorious."
Celebration is the brainchild of Walt Disney, modelled on small town American suburbia. Picture-pretty clapboard houses, complete with perfectly manicured lawns and white picket fences, together with vibrant boutiques, are sprinkled around the charming community.
There is always something waiting to be discovered here with a packed events' calendar, from car shows and concerts, to food and art festivals. "Being able to slow down the pace is what it’s all about for us. Celebration is perfect, having just enough to entertain us without making us feel overwhelmed.”
The community also offers a fabulous selection of cafés, bistros and patisseries, allowing you to experience something different on each visit. To go upscale, request a spot on the patio at Imperium Food and Wine to dine on a platter of delights, including divine cheese plates, Asian beef skewers and cilantro lime shrimp, not forgetting the comprehensive wine menu to complement your lunch.
The couple also like to indulge in a little retail therapy and Orlando is a shop-until-you-drop haven for designer items from the premium outlets and shopping malls. "Our favourite is The Mall at Millenia," says Sharon. "It has a wide selection of brands, from Tommy Bahama and Gap to Gucci and Chanel, and it’s only a 30-minute drive from the resort.”
And the best way to top off the day? Sampling one of Orlando’s thousands of restaurants. “There are several dining venues near our resort, Sharon explained. "Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze and Outback Steakhouse are our top go to places - where you’re assured of great food at great prices, compared to the UK.”
So on your next visit to Orlando, consider swapping theme park thrills for small-town charm on your tailor-made food and shopping adventure.
Miami and The Keys coastal adventure
Go casual on Florida’s southeast coast, a prime spot for getting into the 'chill out' zone the state is known for. Something that Jayne and Michael Weston love about holidaying here.
"After 25 years of visiting Orlando, we love nothing more than discovering the real Florida, away from the theme parks,” Jayne tells us. "The parks are great of course, but now we like to turn things down a notch and explore the Florida coast to our own beat - and not Mickey’s!"
The couple own two weeks at Oyster Bay (0211) in Sebastian, situated on the Intracoastal Waterway. "Oyster Bay is fabulous, you can hire a boat out to enjoy dolphin or manatee spotting out on the waterway. Meanwhile back on dry land everything is compact and within walking distance, so it’s perfect for an afternoon wander," says Jayne.
Jayne and Michael then spend a week at another resort to explore a little more of the state. A few months ago they stayed at Mizner Place (7559) in Weston - less than an hour from Miami. "The concierge at Mizner organised some coach trips for us to Miami and The Keys, which allows you to soak up more of the views than if you were driving yourself," Jayne explains.
"We spent six hours in Key West which was ample time to wander the sights. We even had time for the spectacular sunset and the street entertainment at Mallory Square, including fire acts and jesters. Travelling by coach was super convenient as it gave us more time to explore without worrying about parking nearby," says Jayne.
"Plus it’s always five o’clock somewhere in Florida, so we could responsibly savour a few drinks while listening to live music acts in the sun, which added to the whole experience."
The tour fits in a range of iconic and unusual attractions, including a visit to Key Largo to see the ship made famous in the 1951 movie African Queen, starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Other stops include Miami’s South Beach and the less well-known Holocaust Memorial Museum.
"Miami and the Keys are surprising destinations and throw up such contrasts of experience, with both a sunny and serious side to them. The memorial is a bit of an odd Miami attraction, but south Florida is home to the largest population of holocaust survivors in the US, so it’s all the more poignant. It was a haunting experience, but we’re glad we did it, as it opens your eyes to things."
Wherever you decide to call home for a week, keep your options open, as Jayne advises: "Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten track and follow advice from locals and fellow tourists. Floridians are so hospitable and it’s how we have found some of the most memorable places to drink and dine in on our travels."
The Westons are planning their next Miami trip, which will include Bayside Marketplace, a popular shopping and dining venue which hosts live bands and entertainment. Perfect for a sunset sip, savour and shop experience. After all, as Jayne says, it is always five o’clock somewhere in Florida…
Anna Maria Island - shores with sophistication
Over on the west coast of Florida lies a bounty of beaches and places for nature and culture lovers. Margaret and Michael Barnes own two weeks at Limetree Beach Resort (6098) in Sarasota, and have spent a number of holidays enjoying the delights of the west coast.
Last winter the couple had a wonderful week's stay at Gulf Stream Beach Resort (3415) in Bradenton - a small and friendly island community. It proved the ideal resort for their family, including their one-year-old grandson. "Travelling with a little one, the resort turned out to be perfect, as we could enjoy plenty of pool time and it backed onto a bay which was simply beautiful, with the beach just across the road.
"Being able to leave our apartment and immediately feel the sand between our toes felt like heaven and instantly transported us onto island time. A week on the west coast is perfect for us, as we can fly into Tampa which gives us more flexibility on flights. We love revelling in the island life of ‘Old Florida’, with days at the beach and dining at leisure."
The Barnes also opted to spend a day on Anna Maria Island in the Gulf of Mexico, just a 20-minute drive from Bradenton. It boasts a pristine beach to suit every traveller, from hidden beaches to family-friendly options, all places where you can enjoy the hypnotic turquoise waters. Elsewhere, visitors can usually be found wandering the pier or browsing the island’s quaint mix of shops, galleries, museums and parks for a culture and great outdoors fix.
"We still head for Orlando with our older grandchildren, and will usually alternate our days on and off the parks to avoid feeling burnt out. But we find the best way is to organise a week in Orlando, followed by a week on the coast. Florida gives us the flexibility to enjoy different kinds of holidays to match our needs and those of our family and friends. This lets us create the perfect blend of thrill and chill. You just have to go with the flow here,” says Margaret.
Whether you’re a foodie fan, culture vulture or are beachy keen, look no further than the Sunshine State for this trio of treats - and everything in between.
So, if you're looking to experience a different side of Florida from the theme parks, one where you can relax and explore at your own pace, visit the RCI Resort Directory below to plan your own bespoke Floridian travels...
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