Top Ideas for a Florida Family Vacation

The Family Suites of Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort sleep up to six with two queen beds and a pull-out sofa.

Now that the big holiday travel season is over and school is back in session, it’s time to get your family clients to start thinking about their next vacation opportunities. Winter recess is around the corner (third week in February) and not long after that comes Easter / Passover vacation (first week of April).

Florida is a perennial family favorite, especially for those seeking escape from the cold winter and early spring weather of northern climes. And when you add children to the equation, theme parks are a prime consideration. Competition between Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando ensures that there will always be something new to see at both, even for frequent visitors. Here are some of the most recent developments.

Marvel-ous Dinners at Universal

Universal Orlando Resort just added the Marvel Character Dinner — a commissionable option that travel agents can book for their clients. The buffet-style fete takes place in Cafe 4 in Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and offers an original, kid-friendly menu and appearances by such fan favorites as Captain America, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm and Rogue.

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Each character will visit the tables to sign autographs and take photos, so tell your clients to start practicing their superhero poses. Kids and their families can share this epic experience with their friends (think bragging rights) with a digital photo from My Universal Photos — included in the experience.

The menu includes specialty pizzas and pasta dishes, as well as varieties of chicken and salads — and of course, desserts. The Marvel Character Dinner will be available Thursday through Sunday, from 5 to 7 p.m.

Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort has unveiled 20 new two-bedroom suites. With a view of Universal’s Volcano Bay water theme park, these suites offer 772 square feet in which to spread out and unwind after a day in the parks. With two full bathrooms, a living room, three flat-screen TVs, and a kitchenette with a mini-refrigerator, microwave and small sink, each suite has a family-friendly maximum occupancy of eight.

Looking ahead to summer vacation, Universal’s Aventura Hotel, the theme resort’s sixth onsite hotel, is slated to open in August. Highlights include floor-to-ceiling guestroom windows with views of all three Universal Orlando Resort parks. Each room comes with a tablet that allows guests to order pizza to their rooms in addition to controlling many of the rooms’ features, such as the TV and room temperature.

Avatar at Animal Kingdom

At Pandora — The World of Avatar, Disney’s hottest new theme park experience, guests are enveloped in the land of Pandora well before they enter either the headline thrill ride, Avatar Flight of Passage, or the mysteriously intriguing, family-friendly boat ride called Na’vi River Journey.

All around the queuing visitors are the alien tropics of the 2009 movie “Avatar” by filmmaker James Cameron, whose Lightstorm Entertainment team worked with Disney’s Imagineers on the Animal Kingdom reproduction. There are mountains seemingly suspended in air and sprinkled with waterfalls descending to pools on the rainforest floors. There are sounds of exotic flying creatures such as Pandoran Stingbats and alien plant life with names such as vein pods, scorpion thistles and puffball trees, among others. One giant plant, when tapped on its pod by guests, releases its “reproductive” spores into the atmosphere.

The two new rides in Pandora ultimately deliver distinctly different, yet uniquely compelling experiences. Avatar Flight of Passage puts each guest in 3-D glasses to ride solo on the back of an animatronic, bird-like banshee (similar in size to a motorcycle).

There are two pre-ride videos explaining to guests that the movie’s conflict between humans and the alien Na’vi people has ended before the ride begins. The rider’s flight simulation perch rises above a 65-foot-wide, 90-foot-tall 3-D screen. Thrills come from the banshee and its guest diving and soaring through forests and over waterways to avoid threatening air, water and land animals, as well as a giant, tsunami-type wave.

Disney’s creators were careful to make the tranquil Na’vi River ride through the tropical jungles of Pandora accessible to younger family members unable to reach the 44-inch height line for the Flight of Passage.

The Na’vi River interior landscape sparkles with bioluminescent foliage and all manner of alien flora and fauna. Na’vi natives and animals hop through the foliage in the same direction as the boats. A payoff near the end of the ride is a close encounter with the goddess of the Na’vi people, the 10-foot-tall Shaman of Songs, who sings and moves with lifelike gestures from an elevated floral throne on the river embankment.

Pandora – The World of Avatar is Disney’s newest theme park experience.

Disney Tips for Clients

The Fastpass+ system allows a bypass of long lines for one (not both) of the Pandora attractions per day. One Pandora Fastpass+ plus two other passes in Animal Kingdom per day can be reserved, once a park entry ticket is purchased, up to 30 days before arrival at the park. If guests book a Disney hotel in a package with their park tickets, they can book the Fastpass+ reservations up to 60 days before arrival.

Animal Kingdom guests can order their food in the Satu’li Canteen via a new Disney mobile app and pick up the food when it is ready, thereby skipping potentially long restaurant waiting lines.

Also inform your clients about time-saving Extra Magic Hours that allow early entry to different theme parks on different days. Guests staying at any Disney on-property resort hotel, whether it be the family-affordable All-Star Resort or a luxury option such as the Animal Kingdom Lodge, can currently enter the Animal Kingdom park between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Saturdays and Mondays, and move quickly for an early entry before long lines form at the Pandora attractions.
Extra Magic Hour days and times may change, but agents can keep up by checking the calendar of hours for any immediate five days at disneyworld.disney.go.com/calendars/five-day.

Winter Park for Pups

If the family wants to bring their dog along on vacation or if your clients are strictly pet parents, consider booking a “VIP Pup Package” at The Alfond Inn at Rollins in Winter Park. Voted Florida’s #1 Hotel by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler, it’s less than half an hour’s drive from Orlando’s theme parks.

Winter Park is a historic, walkable city known for its dog-friendly shops and more than two dozen dog-welcoming restaurants and sidewalk cafes, along with a 23-acre green space on Lake Baldwin where dogs can run off leash during specific posted hours.

The “VIP Pup Package” includes two nights in a dog-friendly guestroom, complimentary keepsake water bowl, signature treats at turndown, tennis balls and dog toys, and one complimentary ThunderShirt — a special, soothing vest that gives dogs a “hug” as it applies a gentle, constant pressure with a calming effect.

For each VIP Very Important Pup Package booked, a donation is made to the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando.

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