ORLANDO — The revelation unfolded just beyond the turnstiles for Adventure Land, after the FitBits clocked 12,000 steps, the prophylactic ibuprofen had long since worn off, and the last swaths of cotton candy began to give way to regret.
Standing in line to rent yet another Electric Conveyance Vehicle, Grandma discovered that if she paid $50 at another park on the same day, she didn’t have to go through the process all over again. No waiting in line, no filling out forms, no additional charge – she was in the system. The motorized transport was wheeled around, and off she scooted, down the souvenir-dappled pathway to Africa.
Such are the small discoveries that lead to outsize elation, on a trip we dubbed Intergenerational Orlando: visiting Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and the Kennedy Space Center on February school vacation week — with both the 68-year-old grandparents and the 8-year-olds in tow.
Our group of nine covered the demographic spectrum: grandparents born just after World War II, my wife and I born in the 1960s, brother- and sister-in-law Generation X, and kids aged 8 and 12. Most of the grownups had been here before, creating an echo chamber of Disney memories. My mother brought me and my sisters just after the Orlando theme park opened in 1971; I still have my Brownie camera snapshot of the fake snake draping out of the fauna in Jungleland. In turn I brought my oldest son in the late 1990s. My wife’s grandmother brought her in the 1970s, and my mother-in-law brought her son after Ronald Reagan was elected.
And so when thoughts of Tulum were derailed by high airfares, the family turned to the classic Florida itinerary: bring the young kids for the first time, and add the grandparents to the entourage. Part nostalgia, part rite of passage — what could possibly go wrong?
We booked on Southwest Airlines, and studied the vast array of places to stay. For those of us more Riveria than roller-coaster, we sought a vaguely classy property, in close proximity to our destinations. Disney’s Polynesian and Grand Floridian properties beckoned, as did the Four Seasons, but we settled on two family suites at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando. The complex is delightfully retro, all linoleum and tail fins and turquoise, mid-century modern furniture, a cafeteria showing 1960s-era footage on big screens overhead, bowling alley, two giant pools with a lazy river and a towering, twisting slide.
Accommodations: check, But how does a party of nine get around? Renting a single vehicle to accommodate us all required a van at $180 a day. The alternative was renting two cars, but that had texting while driving written all over it (“No. It’s I-4 West, not East”). So we chose to be ferried around, beginning with a Destination MCO Mercedes minibus tricked out with purple beaded lights, we think more typically deployed for bachelorette parties.
Once at Cabana Bay, mobility was a piece of cake. Shuttle buses were constantly standing by for a 7-minute ride to Universal – and better yet, a winding walking path to the campus, letting out through a no-waiting security checkpoint by Margaritaville. Though it was just the ticket to be first in line for Harry Potter in the bright Florida morning, the grandparents demurred — a sign of things to come.
When it came time to visit the Disney parks, however, we needed a new transport plan. Staying at a Universal property and visiting Disney parks reminded us just how much these two places are like Coke and Pepsi. It was like, why would you want to go there? All we needed to do was get inside the Disney gatehouses; once there, the famous on-site transportation system, by boat, train, monorail, or bus, would facilitate our planned park-hopping. (Walt Disney had some good urban planning chops; he was friends with New York’s master builder Robert Moses, who tried to convince him to open Disney World in Queens, at the site of the 1964 World’s Fair).
For the roughly 11-mile trip from Universal to Disney, enter Uber – or more precisely, two Ubers, because there’s a strict 7-person passenger limit. Splitting up the group was no problem – one might almost say it was welcome – and my brother-in-law and I ran a little competition for best driver and lowest cost.
But choosing a hotel and calibrating ground transportation – let’s face it, that’s all child’s play. The biggest challenge for multigenerational Orlando is navigating the parks themselves. How much walking? How to keep everybody hydrated, much less happy? I felt like Bill Belichik, charting a course through the playoffs, fighting a war of attrition, anticipating injuries, adjusting the game plan.
This particular endurance test, to pack everything in within the framework of February school vacation week, called for the first day at Universal, days two and three at Disney (Magic Kingdom, followed by Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom), and the fourth and final day at Kennedy Space Center. On the first morning we broke from the huddle, to continue the metaphor, with great optimism. Reality sank in quickly.
I had read a great many blogs and travel tips for a strategic approach for tackling the parks with maximum efficiency. The size and age range of our entourage introduced more complexity. There’s only one way to handle this, and that’s by bullet points:
• Appoint a cruise director. A pre-deployment discussion is good, but on the ground, there is little time for theme park by committee. Somebody has to make a decision. The apps are helpful, and we did a lot of texting on our mobile devices, but there was no substitute for the paper maps. A key moment was breaking for lunch – finding just the right place that serves chicken tenders and Nebbiolo.
• Concede to the Fast Pass. As long as these destinations continue to be so wildly popular, ushering in millions of visitors, short-circuiting the lines is a necessary premium. Nobody likes waiting, but 70 minutes in a queue is a particular recipe for disaster with young kids and grandparents.
• Measure twice, cut once. Minimizing unnecessary energy expenditure means knowing timetables and rendezvous locations cold; there is no room for error. The guided bus tour of Cape Canaveral departs by the Atlantis building, not the rocket park. That “yes, I’m sure” hubris doubled walking distance and robbed us of a window seat.
• Divide and conquer. An advantage to our numbers was that we could send Grandma to Dr. Seuss with the 8-year-old, while mom headed off to the more intense encounter with Voldemort’s wand whip; Grandpa stayed with the pre-teen who didn’t want to get wet, and take pictures of the rest of us on the Rip-Saw Falls flume. Rely on texting to get back together again.
• Enjoy the transportation options. Whether inside a park or between parks, getting to and fro is an experience unto itself. The boat rides in particular are a great break — relaxing for the elders, and a time to allow the young ones to be fascinated by a crane coming in for a landing on the surface of the glimmering lakes. Don’t miss the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure to the new Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.
Predictably, eating and drinking became paramount. Breakfast at Cabana Bay’s Bayliner Diner set us on our way each morning, with a designated line-waiter dispatched to Starbucks. Lunch at the parks was hit or miss — we had to bail at Jurassic Park because it was taking too long. Recognizing this is not an original observation, the food at Epcot was a big hit — falafel at Morocco, lasagna at Via Napoli, a margarita at Mexico. We found ourselves getting popcorn a lot. And drinking copious amount of water.
Dinners were a time for the whole family — at the bowling alley at Cabana Bay, Cowfish and Emeril’s on separate nights at Universal, and the Tusker House at Animal Kingdom. Inexplicably, we all seemed to get a second wind at supper, once some appetizers and IPAs were before us.
And that’s the bottom line on energy levels. The 8-year-olds were wiped out, to be sure, after each day, but dug deep and dove in once they saw the hotel pool each evening. The parents, perhaps rejuvenated by the knowledge of all the calories burned, were up for partying. It’s the grandparents we needed to worry about. It wasn’t a question of if, but when, the first motorized scooter would be procured (at the base of Main Street, the second day).
All that means is being realistic, and building in rest stops. Finding the shady spot for the grandparents to wait, while our 12-year-old designed his own race car; or taking the water taxi, even if it meant missing a few attractions.
Then again, one must resist the temptation to hold back too much. The Toy Story ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, for example, was truly for all ages. Every single one of us delighted in shooting the targets in this live-action video game, and comparing scores at the end. If memory serves, my brother-in-law walked away with it.
Waiting in one more line on the last day — to board our Southwest flight home — we could pat ourselves on the back. No major meltdowns, no hurt feelings. We got this.
Anthony Flint can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org