It’s hard to imagine a hotel so captivating to kids that, when given the choice between staying inside and going to Disney World, the kid would choose the hotel.
But there is one: Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn in Orlando. When hotel officials, our hosts, boasted they have overheard kids say, “Do we really have to go to Disney World? I want to stay and play at the hotel,” I scoffed. But then my son, Evan, 11, said it.
The first (and so far only) hotel to carry the Nickelodeon name, the hotel operates under a licensing deal between the kids’ TV network and the hotel owners.
Evan liked the three televisions—one in each room. He liked having his own room, complete with PlayStation 2 (bring your own games or rent them at the hotel). He liked staying in a room decorated with characters from one of his favorite Nick shows (“The Fairly OddParents”). And he really liked the two huge pools with water park-style jungle gyms and slides.
But, Evan said, the biggest reason it’s the best hotel for kids is the staff: “They don’t ignore kids. They actually acknowledge that they’re there and they’re nice to them.”
The renovated, 777-suite hotel officially opened Memorial Day weekend, but we got a sneak preview in mid-April.
The hotel opened in 1996 and was already a popular family destination. But the addition of the Nick theme—complete with daily “slimings” at the pool—gives it financial stability and more kid appeal.
Evan’s opinion: This is the best kid hotel ever.
My opinion: Evan is right. And it’s pretty great for parents, too.
Despite Evan’s desire to stay and play, we were in Orlando to see some of its less-well-known attractions, so we had a busy three days.
For multigenerational families, Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven is the spot. First opened in 1936, Cypress was the first theme park in central Florida. But it went bankrupt during the tourism decline after 9/11.
Rescued, renovated and renamed, Cypress Gardens Amusement Park reopened November 2004. It still has plenty of grandparent appeal—they can clap along to a country music show, watch the ski show, shop and stroll through the gardens—and even more stuff to engage kids on the other side of the park.
There, we found an amusement park with a variety of rides ranging from gentle to exhilarating. My only complaint: You have walk the arcade gauntlet to get there. Getting an 11-year-old boy past those games was a challenge that left me feeling grumpy on a sunny Florida morning. But once we got to the rides, all was fine. Because so many of the visitors were seniors, we found few lines.
Evan’s opinion: “I don’t really like it that much. I’m sort of in the middle.”
My opinion: If you’re traveling with grandparents and kids, this is the place to be.
Horses and whales
On our way to Disney World, we took a detour to the Disney Campgrounds. Who knew? This is upscale camping, but affordable for Orlando. We spent a morning on horseback—the gentlest, slowest horse ride I’ve had.
Evan’s opinion: I wish we had ridden faster.
My opinion: It is nice to slow down an Orlando vacation that can easily kick into overdrive. But don’t go on your way to the park—kids can’t take the waiting.
At SeaWorld Adventure Park, we watched a corny seal show and were disappointed there were no manatees on display. The highlights were petting a dolphin (it felt like a smooth and slightly slimy piece of hard rubber) and a stingray (slimy and spongy) and feeding the sea lions.
Then there is the Shamu whale show. Think Shedd Aquarium’s dolphin show with 6,000-pound whales.
But SeaWorld is about more than sea creatures. It’s also about adventure. We loved the Journey to Atlantis log ride and I finally bit the bullet and hopped on the Kraken, which SeaWorld claims is the tallest, fastest roller coaster in the country, turning riders upside down seven times. I survived. With my eyes closed.
Evan’s opinion: I liked petting the animals but not the rides.
My opinion: It was fun, but felt small and crowded. Keeping track of several kids could be tough.
Only for the tough
Closed eyes were also the key at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. We visited Universal in California when our kids were 4 and 6 and discovered it was no place for small children. The realistic rides, which do amazing things with 3-D technology, graphic design and engineering, are too much for sensitive kids. The Jaws ride in Orlando sent two kids in our party, ages 7 and 9, into hysterics—they were convinced a killer shark really had eaten the folks on the boat ahead of ours.
Evan’s opinion: It was awesome.
My opinion: Not for the faint of heart. Even the E.T. ride is dark and can be scary for younger kids.
Cindy Richards is senior editor and travel editor for Chicago Parent.