Some people like to describe Club Med like "camp". This is probably pretty accurate, although you're not REQUIRED to take part in any of the activities. You could just lounge by the pool with a pina colada all day. But most people who I encountered during my visit to Club Med Sandpiper Bay were not lazing around.
The children's clubs have a busy roster of fun activities scheduled throughout the day...and the adults have not been forgotten!
Each Club Med is a little bit different. At Club Med Sandpiper Bay in Florida, there is a clear focus on wellness and sports academies.
What are the academies?
Unique to this Club Med property are the Tennis Academy, Golf Academy, Fitness Academy, and the Beach Volleyball Academy. Group lessons are included for those who are beginners or looking to improve their skills. For an additional fee, you can opt for private lessons or more intensive instruction.
Currently, the Tennis Academy is directed by Gabe Jaramillo and Scott Del Mastro and their coaching staff. Gabe Jaramillo has trained many top tennis players in the world. Daily group lessons are included In your vacation, whether you are a beginner or you've been playing for years. You can also include the Tennis Boost Package (at an additional cost), that combines a personalized coaching program with spa therapies, healthy cuisine, and specialized fitness training and analysis.
The Golf Academy is currently under the direction of Don Law, a founder and director of one of the largest golf training programs in the country. Group lessons (and full equipment) are included in your vacation package, for beginners up to more advanced players. Guests also have full access to the driving range, putting green, and practice facility. While you're visiting, you can also take advantage of the Active Boost Golf Training Package; if you can't make it, don't worry - there are also remote training options available!
If you're looking to train for a triathlon, or just improve your fitness overall, then consider the Fitness Academy at Sandpiper Bay. Though several packages are at an extra cost for more intensive focus on fitness training, there are several programs offered at the resort that are included, and geared for all levels. Each day, you can try classes in Yoga, Cardio Fusion, Water Aerobics, Zumba, Pilates, and more.
Beach Volleyball Academy
This is actually the first and only Beach Volleyball Academy in the world at this time. Like the other sports, there are group lessons offered that are included in your vacation package. But if you're looking to take your sport to the next level, a Beach Volleyball Boost Package is available.
With all of the enticements from the Academies, I'll admit that I didn't get a chance to try any of them. I think if I stayed for a whole week I would have had more time to branch out and try new things. On a day to day basis, I don't play tennis or golf or volleyball, and I don't have any current plans to participate in a triathlon.
However, my family and I did try to partake in some of the other sports offered around the resort!
Basketball ~ Soccer
I noticed that the basketball courts were often being enjoyed, but anyone who wanted to play could join in. There were also daily pick-up soccer games, including one for kids (every day at 5pm!) After a while, I noticed some kids on the field who seemed to be there all the time! I guess that was just their favorite thing to do!
Flying Trapeze and Circus School
This is a popular activity found at several of the Club Med resorts. I gave it a shot, and it was fun. Again, if I had more time at the resort, I think I would have been able to definitely learn some new skills! The staff at the trapeze was great at making you feel comfortable and confident!
Circus school and Trapeze were also highlights for my kids. Children as young as 4 years old are allowed to participate (though an adults-only session is scheduled each day so the grownups can have their own play time!). For kids, there is also a smaller version that they try before going up on the big trapeze.
Sailing ~ Standup Paddle Board
Though the resort is not located on a typical white-sand beach, it is situated on the St. Lucie River. So the resort's small beach is used as a base for setting out on sailboats and paddle boards, and some people do swim there. Instruction is given for sailing twice a day; once you've taken a lesson, you're free to take a boat out as often as you'd like. Kids as young as 6 can be passengers on a sailboat, but you need to be at least 11 to learn to sail.
Stand-up paddle boarding seems to be a new popular sport these days, and I finally had the chance to give it a try. I thought it was easier than it looks (I was brave enough to try it upside down too!). My 13 year old daughter really picked up on this and loved it. She doesn't really like typical sports, so I was glad she found a new activity that she enjoyed. That's part of the beauty of a place like Club Med - there is a huge variety of things to try, that maybe you wouldn't do in your day-to-day life, and it could turn out to be a personal favorite. You needed to be at least 11 years old for paddle boarding; but for kids under that age, but over age 6, they can be a "passenger" on an adult's board.
On my last day, I noticed an informal sign-up for a sunrise paddle board tour the next morning. It was a 2 hour tour, and included in your vacation package. Too bad we had to leave. I thought about Izzy and the folks at the beach the next morning when I was driving the kids to school!
Swimming ~ Water Polo
There were 3 pools at Club Med Sandpiper Bay: the main pool, where water aerobics and games were held each day; the heated lap pool for swim training (and water polo?); and the children's pool, which was a shallow pool with spray features and a small climbing structure.
Table Tennis ~ Bocce Ball
I saw plenty of people having fun with ping pong! The bocce ball court was not used as much, but my guess is that most people probably don't know how to play bocce!
Club Med Sandpiper Bay is part of a large group of French-owned resorts - over 70 properties around the world! Though Club Med may not be a household name in the U.S., it is well known in Europe. And as a result, a lot of Europeans visit the property. During our stay, we heard other people speaking in French, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and more. At evening shows, the chef de village (i.e. Village Chief, sort of like your 'cruise director') would make announcements in both English and French. As American English-speakers, we never felt out of place or had problems communicating with people. The children's clubs were very accommodating to children who spoke other languages too; I noticed at least one family of children who only spoke French, and the counselors spoke to them in French and made sure they were included.
The rooms are spacious, and clean. But they are not "fancy". On the outside, the buildings do appear quite dated. But on the inside, they have been reasonably updated. There are seven buildings in all, each with 3 stories (and elevators to reach upper floors). Club Rooms are the standard rooms, and most have balconies. Deluxe Rooms are the same size, with slightly different furnishings. You'll also get evening turndown service (with chocolates on the pillows!), a stocked mini-fridge (with water and sodas), robes and slippers for in-room use, and a nicer view. Catering to families, there are plenty of connecting rooms available, as well as Family Deluxe Rooms that have a separate bedroom area for the kids.
Tip: If the cost difference is minimal, definitely choose the Deluxe Room! The kids loved getting the chocolates on their pillow at night, and everyone appreciated the cold bottled water in the evenings, or to bring along to the beach.
If the overall look of the hotel underwhelms you, just remember that the highlight here is not "the look". The rooms are clean, and the food is fresh and tasty... but what's really outstanding here are the programs for kids and families, and especially the Sports Academies. In the next post, I'll highlight what really makes Club Med a great resort for families and people who like to be active.
Hyatt Place Seattle/Downtown
If you're headed to Seattle for some sightseeing, whether it's your entire vacation or a pre- or post-cruise trip, I highly recommend the Hyatt Place Seattle/Downtown.
I recently had the opportunity to check out this Hyatt Place, and it was every bit as great as I expected!
Th Hyatt Place Seattle/Downtown is quite similar to other Hyatt Place properties - spacious rooms, a hot breakfast buffet, free wi-fi, and a super-friendly staff. A big standout here, though, is the location. You literally step out the front door of the hotel, and you can see the Space Needle. For a first-time visitor, it's pretty exciting!
It's less than a 5 minute walk to the Space Needle, EMP Museum, and more! And for places a little further away, the Hyatt Place runs a free on-demand shuttle service. They will take you to the Pike Place Market, or anywhere else you'd like within a 1-mile radius, and when you're ready, give them a call and they'll pick you up!
The lobby was friendly and inviting, with several tables, chairs, and couches for hanging out, or if you're waiting to meet someone. There's a small nook with computers available so you can do your airline check-in, if needed, or for a quick check of your email. If you have your own computer or tablet, there's free wi-fi available. And of course, there's a kitchen area, where a nice hot breakfast buffet is served each morning. For other meals, there is a small counter with a few items for grab-and-go, as well as a small menu (we tried the nachos - they hit the spot!) offering a variety of foods and drinks throughout the day.
One thing I really appreciate about Hyatt Place is their larger rooms. If you have a bigger family, like I do, you know it's tough to find a single hotel room that will accommodate 5 or 6 people. But the Hyatt Place always works out great for us, with a room with 2 beds and a sleeper sofa. And if you are a smaller family, or not traveling with kids at all, you'll still appreciate the extra space in the rooms!
The hotel also had a few other amenities, such as a small gym, an indoor pool, and conference facilities.
If you're going to be in the Seattle area, I highly recommend the Hyatt Place Seattle/Downtown - it's a new, clean, and modern hotel with some great amenities at a fantastic value. Be sure to contact Sunshine Travel for the best prices for your travel dates!
If you're going to Alaska, no trip is complete without a train ride. Whether it's a glass-domed train trip all the way to Fairbanks, or a shorter version from Anchorage to Whittier, a train is a great way to sit back and enjoy all of Alaska's beautiful scenery.
I just got back from an Alaska cruise that sailed from Whittier. The closest airport is Anchorage, which is over 2 hours away. If you're sailing from Whittier, and flying into Anchorage like I did, you have a few options: rent a car, take a bus, or take the Alaska Railroad. We opted for the Alaska Railroad's Glacier Discovery Train, and I'm so glad that we did. The ride is extremely scenic, the seats are comfortable, and it's easy to get up and walk around, get a snack, and some fresh air too. Renting a car might seem like a more flexible option, but it's hard to look around at the scenery while you're driving, and you might run into a slight issue at the tunnel (more on that later).
Our train ride was scheduled to leave Anchorage at 9:45am, and arrive to Whittier at 12 noon. We were supposed to arrive an hour early for check-in, but since our hotel's shuttle left every hour on the hour, we ended up arriving closer to 8:15 vs. 8:45; that worked to our advantage as there were absolutely no crowds! It was easy to drop off your suitcases - just put your cruise luggage tags on there, and they took care of getting them to the ship for you in Whittier. Then go inside and pick up your tickets... and that's all there is to it! While you're waiting, you can browse in the gift shop, go outside to take some pictures, or purchase a cup of coffee or small snack.
Boarding is quick and easy. The seats are pretty plush, and there's plenty of room under the seat or above you on the overhead shelf to store any bags you've carried on. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the view now!
There are Alaska Railroad train route booklets available for purchase onboard for $5 (cash only, prices as of July 2013), as well as a free magazine that was still relatively informative about what we were passing along the way.
Note: the last portion of the ride to Whittier involves 2 tunnels, so it does get dark for a few minutes. The benefit to railroad is that they have priority through the last tunnel, which is shared with trains and cars, and only allows one-way traffic. If you decide to drive, you'll need to know the schedule, or you may be stuck waiting up to an hour until it's safe to drive through!
Great Views of Turnagain Arm
Keep a lookout for Beluga whales in the water!
More Scenery along the way
There's more wildlife to watch for in the mountains, especially Dall Sheep. You can also see some remnants from the big earthquake from the 1960s.
When you arrive in Whittier, it's a short walk across the street to the cruise ship terminal for checking in. Since your luggage was tagged for the ship back at the depot in Anchorage, it will automatically meet you at your stateroom in the afternoon!
The Alaska Railroad Glacier Discovery Train was a really easy and scenic way to get to the cruise port - I highly recommend this for cruisers flying in or out of Anchorage! We also met several locals who were doing a daytrip to Surprise Glacier, so note that the Alaska Railroad has many options, not just cruise transfers.
A thumbs-up from the kids
A few notes on kid-friendliness: This was a great trip with children! Here's a few reasons why:
Siesta Key, courtesy of Sarasota CVB
While Sarasota may be known for being a quiet town, there's plenty to do with the kids!
First of all, the beaches are a big draw.… Siesta Key was rated the #1 Beach in the World last year by Dr. Beach. With soft white sand, and calm waters, it’s a practically perfect beach for the kids (and adults!). Other beaches right in the Sarasota vicinity are also nice, such as Lido Beach and Longboat Key, and you'll find several family-friendly beachfront resorts there as well.
Manasota Beach, courtesy of Sarasota CVB
Venturing south from Siesta Key, be sure to take your kids to Venice Beach, known as the Shark Tooth Capital of the World! (There's even an annual Shark's Tooth Festival every April celebrating this!) But don’t worry: there aren’t thousands of sharks lurking off shore waiting to take a bite out of you - what you'll find in the sand are primarily prehistoric fossils that wash up over time. Whether you stop at Venice Beach, Casparan Beach, or Manasota Beach, you’re bound to come home with some unique finds!
If you can tear the kids away from the beach, they'll be happy at G.WIZ, short for “Gulf Coast Wonder & Imagination Zone”. With 33,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, there’s sure to be something your child will enjoy. There are plenty of permanent and special exhibits for kids to explore, including a race track and a game called MindBall ("Compete against a friend to see who can move matter with their mind!"). For the younger set, there's even a "tot zone". Opening in 2012 is a Medical Simulation exhibit as well as a robotics lab. And for inventors of all ages, an all-access pass to a real fabrication laboratory (“fab lab”) is available so you can build your own invention from scratch! Click here to find out what you can actually make in a Fab Lab!
Mote Aquarium, courtesy Sarasota CVB
The Mote Marine Laboratory is one of the country’s leading facilities for marine research. Through their aquarium, and a variety of outreach programs, such as camps, school programs, lecture series, and more, Mote hopes to educate visitors on the importance of marine conservation and research. At the Mote Aquarium, you’ll find touch tanks, interactive exhibits, and the opportunity to see a variety of marine wildlife up close, including sharks, dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles. Through Mote’s Center for Shark Research, you can view several species of sharks, and see how researchers have learned to train sharks at a Narrated Training Session. At the Seahorse Conservation Laboratory, Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, and Dolphin and Whale Hospital, the focus is on conservation and keeping animals healthy; you can even adopt an animal of your choosing. If you visit before mid-April 2012, you’ll also get to see a special temporary exhibit, Penguin Island!
Nearby Mote, each Sunday at 2pm (except in summer), there’s a free water ski show right in the Sarasota Bay called Ski-A-Rees. Professional water skiiers put on a stunt-filled performance that everyone is sure to enjoy. And did I mention it’s free?! Also on Sundays (and also free), about an hour before sunset, head over to public beach at Siesta Key for the Drum Circle...there are drummers (of course), belly dancers, and plenty of curious onlookers for this unique event.
Myakka River SP, courtesy Sarasota CVB
Just east of Sarasota you’ll find the Myakka River State Park. It's one of Florida’s largest state parks, and is easily explored by hiking, biking, canoeing, or kayaking. A main attraction is the Myakka Canopy Walkway, the first public treetop trail in North America. Suspended 25 feet in the air, you'll literally walk through the trees to a 74-foot tall tower with even more spectacular views. Be sure to get out on the water and explore the Myakka River by canoe or kayak. If that's too strenuous, opt for an airboat tour on the Gator Gal, one of the world’s largest airboats!
For closer animal encounters, visit Sarasota Jungle Gardens, one of the longest-operating attractions in Florida (it opened in 1940!). Kids will enjoy shows featuring birds of prey, exotic birds, and reptiles. You can even hand-feed a flamingo - definitely a one-of-a-kind experience! A new playground and 10 acres of tropical gardens are an added bonus.
Ringling Museum, courtesy Sarasota CVB
And last, but certainly not least, consider a visit to the Ringling Museum. John Ringling, of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, made Sarasota the winter home for his circus in the 1920s. Today, you can visit the entire estate, which consists of the Ringling’s 36,000 square foot mansion, a museum housing their personal art collection, a circus museum, and more. Even though a museum complex isn't a "typical" kid-attraction, families (and strollers) are welcome; the Ringling Museum even has some fabulous suggestions on enjoying your visit with children. On the second Saturday of each month from 12pm to 2pm, there is a special family-friendly event called Center Ring Saturdays at the Circus Museum: a circus performer takes visitors “behind the scenes” and shares their insights on what it’s like to be part of the circus.
So when you visit Sarasota with your family, you'll have the opportunity to do more than just enjoy the best beach in the world. Your kids can also search for fossils, create their own invention, see sharks up close, watch a water-skiing stunt show, experience a drum circle at sunset, take a walk in the treetops, go kayaking or canoeing, feed a flamingo, and learn what it's like to be a circus performer... Contact Sunshine Travel to find the best Sarasota lodging (at the best price) for your family's needs!
Key West has a reputation for being a haven for drinking, a little bit of craziness, and lot of gay pride. (How many other cities do you know with a clothing-optional bar? Or more bars per capita than any other US city?) So maybe that’s not what you have in mind when selecting your next family vacation spot!… However, you might be surprised to find that there are a lot of family-friendly things to do with kids in Key West! Whether you’re just visiting for the day via cruise ship, or staying a few nights, you’ll find plenty of activities to keep the young ones happy, while you kick back and relax in Margaritaville yourself! Here are some great ideas:
There are many museums and tourist attractions available that kids will enjoy. You can start out with an overview from Trolley Tours or aboard the Conch Tour Train (kids 12 and under ride free!). If you think your kids will get bored with the narration, no matter how interesting and informative it might be, why not rent an electric car and tour on your own? Several places offer these rentals, such as Adventure Rentals (who also happen to rent scooters and Harley Davidsons!)
If your kids like pirates, shipwrecks, and treasures, check out Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum and the Key West Shipwreck Historeum. Older kids with an appreciation for literature and history may enjoy the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum or the Harry S. Truman Little White House.
If you have young kids, you may have found that most lighthouses don’t let you climb to the top unless you are a certain height or age - not so at the Key West Lighthouse Museum : while admission is free for kids under 6, everyone can climb the 88 steps to the observation deck of this lighthouse that dates from the mid-1800s!
Be sure to make a stop at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. You and your children will be able to explore over 6000 square feet of interactive exhibits. Through learning about native plants and animals, observing a Living Reef exhibit, and viewing the different South Florida ecosystems, the hope is to increase awareness and appreciation of conservation in South Florida. Best of all, admission is free! Also with free admission is the Turtle Kraals Museum. While there are no live turtles, there are several family-friendly and educational exhibits about sea turtles, and it's worth a stop if you're nearby and the kids like turtles.
If your children are interested in viewing some live animals, note that kids tend to enjoy the shark feedings and touch tanks at the Key West Aquarium.
And for a peaceful and wondrous stop, The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory was recently awarded the People’s Choice Award from TripAdvisor for the #1 Attraction in Key West! This is not a place to quickly breeze through - be sure to really slow down and take it all in. Don't forget to bring your camera!
Key West is actually NOT known for great beaches. However, if you need some beach-time on your vacation, there are a few choices. Smathers Beach is the largest public beach in Key West, and has been recently revitalized. It’s relatively family friendly, with white sand, and calm waters (and right across the street from the Sheraton Suites, see below). Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is another great option. You can tour the fort, and then have lunch (in the café, or bring your own picnic). Beach equipment and watersport rentals are available. Snorkeling is good, but be sure to bring watershoes as the shoreline can be rocky. And if you must stay at a beach-front resort, check out Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort; it's one of the few Key West resorts with their own private beach (see below).
If your kids are older, there are plenty of opportunities to get out on the water. Try Stand Up Paddleboarding, or the Ultimate Adventure from Fury Water Adventures, for a day filled with snorkeling, catamaran rides, jet skiing, parasailing, kayaking, and a water playground. Sebago Key West offers a similar Power Adventure, including banana boat rides and paddle boards. There are also multiple outfitters for fishing and sailing trips.
Back on land, make sure you have your picture taken at the Southernmost Point. And last, but not least, don’t miss the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square. Try to arrive about 2 hours before sunset to watch the street performers (think sword-swallowers and juggling unicyclists), passing boats, and to get a good seat on the edge of the pier!
Family-friendly hotel accommodations in Key West include:
Hyatt Key West Resort & Marina - families can reserve a second room for their kids at 50% off (based on availability) at this hotel that is centrally located to most of Key West's attractions.
Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort - while not right near Duval Street, this resort has an 1,100 stretch of private beach, which is a rarity for resorts in Key West, and families like the quieter atmosphere.
Sunset Key Guest Cottages - part of Westin, on a 27 acre private island reachable by boat launch from the Westin Key West, if you really want to have that get-away-from-it-all feeling with the family.
Be sure to contact Sunshine Travel to find a resort that suits you best...and to get a great deal as well!
A Weekend on the Disney Dream
My family and I just returned from a quick weekend aboard Disney’s newest ship, the Disney Dream. If you’re traveling with children, or are a Disney fan of any age, then I know you’re going to love the Dream!
While the ship is 40% larger than the other ships in Disney’s fleet (Magic and Wonder), it’s still about half the size of the Allure of the Seas. That being said, I want to note that three days is still not enough time to really experience everything the ship has to offer!
While I could go on and on about all the great things on this ship, I’m going to highlight the features of the Disney Dream that really make it unique among cruise ships.
To begin with, you know your cruise is going to be different when the ship doesn't even have a "regular" horn blast at sail away...
What else is unique about the Disney Dream?
Aside from all of this, there is a Mickey waterslide for the kids, a mini-golf course, basketball and sports courts, two family pools, a giant LCD screen by the pool for watching movies, and a 3D movie theater with first-run films (we saw Cars 2 and The Help).
Service was first-rate, the entertainment was fun (and suitable for the whole family!), and the food was pretty good too! So, what did we like the best?
The Adults' Favorites:
The "Big Kids" Favorites (ages 7 and 10):
The "Little Kids" Favorites (ages 2 and 3):
Stay tuned for a series of posts that compare the Allure of the Seas to the Disney Dream when it comes to kids programs, private islands, dining, and more!
I just returned from an amazing week onboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. Now, there are a lot of people out there who feel that a week on ANY cruise is an amazing experience…and I won’t argue that. But this ship is so unique, so different. I don't think you can even compare it to other “cruises”.
Because once you have a huge Central Park, with live trees and foliage, pathways lined with boutiques and cafes; a real Boardwalk, complete with fun house mirrors, a hot dog stand, a carousel, and a clown doing face painting; sports activities like a 40+ foot high rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, 2 surfing simulators, mini-golf course, and a zip line… it hardly feels like you are on a cruise ship!
For my family, the cruise was a perfect match. If you don’t already know, we have 4 children, ages 2, 3, 7, and 10. Choosing a cruise requires a little extra attention – for example, we need one room that will accommodate all of us (a real rarity, but several choices on the Allure of the Seas!) or two connecting rooms. We also prefer a cruise with childcare options for our youngest child so we could see a show, have a quiet dinner, or explore the ship. And as far as the kids go, we needed something that would entertain the little ones as well as the older ones. The Allure of the Seas (or her sister, the Oasis) is perfect for this. In fact, I would whole-heartedly recommend this ship for any family traveling together, from babies up to grandparents. There is really something for everyone here.
There are many reviews all over the internet, so I will just focus here on our favorites, which happened to be geared towards the more "active". But trust me, even if you are not interested in these sorts of activities, there is still so much to see and experience on this ship; my experience is merely one perspective, but I can honestly say I wish I had another week onboard to try to do EVERYTHING! If you have any questions to ask about the Allure or Oasis of the Seas, please don’t hesitate to contact me!
Let me just start by saying we love water parks. When your kids range in age from 1 to 10, you have to make some adjustments in how you’re going to spend your day. While the older kids like the more thrilling rides, the little ones need a place to hang out while they wait. And there needs to be something enticing for the older ones to do while the little kids enjoy their play areas. It turns out Aquatica was pretty accommodating!
Our plan of attack is always the same:
· Get to the park when it opens.
· Do all the “big” rides first while the lines aren’t too bad.
· Spend the rest of the day at the lazy river, wave pool, and playground areas.
According to plan, we arrived just before the park opened. We were able to go through the turnstiles and start heading towards some chairs to make our base for the day. Unfortunately, we had a slight delay as our 3 year old managed to get separated from us in the crowd! That’s one way to get your adrenaline going for the day.
Anyone with a 3-year-old knows they can be stubborn, and when she refuses to hold hands, she usually does a good job keeping up and staying close, but I guess there were just too many people around. When we told an employee what happened, he answered, “Already!?!”
I read a few points online about how there really isn’t a good system in place if you got separated from your kids. We were lucky to find our little one right away, but it was an important reminder about how you need to stick to the buddy system, and what to do in case you get lost. Later in the day, we heard a vague announcement over the PA – something about if you were separated from your party, please proceed to an office that was behind one of the restaurants. We all just sat there thinking: if you were a kid that got separated, how would you know where this place is? So be sure to have a family plan in place BEFORE you go, whether it’s a central meeting point, memorizing cell phone numbers, or asking an employee for help (or all of the above!).
After that, our day was quite fun. The first slides we tried were Omaka Rocka and Whanau Way. While the big kids tried those, one adult stayed behind with the little ones at the wave pool right across the way. The little ones enjoyed playing in the lapping waves, and we picked out life-vests for them so they could bob around freely in the water. Omaka Rocka was first, and it was a big hit. You have to carry a tube up to the top (not so fun), and each person rides in their own single tube. The ride is fast and fun! Whanau Way allows one OR two people per tube. This was even better (despite having to carry the larger tube up all those steps!) – and all of us voted it the “best slide of the day".
Next, we moved over to Dolphin Plunge. This is kind of a signature slide for the park – pictured on most brochures advertising Aquatica. The ride promises that you slide through a clear tube, right through the area where Commersons Dolphins are swimming around. It turned out to be a bit of a disappointment though. You go through the tube so quickly and so briefly, that you don’t really have time to notice the dolphins. While waiting, the little kids were able to enjoy the Dolphin viewing area and the Loggerhead Lane Lazy River.
Also in this area was Tassie’s Twisters – one of those tube rides where you go around a vortex until you fall through the bottom. We always describe this type of slide as getting flushed down the toilet! The overall reaction to this one: the line was too long, and the ride was too short!
The next area of slides consisted of 3 tall slides, with a kids play area next to it. Taumata Racer is like Bilzzard Beach’s Toboggan Racers…a ride where you lay on your stomach on a mat, and 8 lanes of riders race each other to the bottom. Except on the Taumata Racers, you go through a turn in an enclosed tube, the downhill part is a bit more thrilling, and a water-filled bumpy ending which the adults didn’t exactly appreciate. The kids loved this ride, but the adults weren’t exactly enamored. I personally prefer the Toboggan Racers at Blizzard Beach! One note: the bigger you are, the faster and further you go! This was a little frustrating to my 7 year old son, who managed to come in last each time because he was the smallest racer!
Hoo Roo Run is a downhill tube ride – but it requires only 2-3 people per tube…no single riders, and no foursomes either, so be aware before you get on line! You sit in a triangle configuration in the tube, and then hold on tight! Unfortunately, I ended up being the part of the triangle that experienced the entire ride backwards without seeing what was coming up next! I think my kids enjoyed hearing me scream! But we all had a lot of fun. If the lines weren’t so long, we would have done it again.
Walhalla Wave is the 3rd ride in this section, dubbed a “family tube ride”, but we didn’t get to try it (again, long lines). I got the impression it was a kinder, gentler version of the Hoo Roo Run.
Walkabout Waters is the play area positioned at the base of those three slides. During our visit, we gave it a shot, but it was really not ideal for kids under 3. There is a lot of water spraying down, and it’s very loud (in addition to the screams and cries from all the kids playing there). So if you have little ones, it’s hard to call for them if they get separated from you. The play structure is full of water canons and other spray features, and if you’re not paying attention, you can really get slammed with water. This is not particularly appreciated when you look over to see that some kid just sprayed you in the face on purpose and is now laughing about it. There was a no-holds-barred attitude from the kids there, and some of the kids were pretty tough. And although there are some smaller slides to do on the play structure, there were height limits, and the little ones were too short. Fun as it looked, this area was probably one of our least favorite overall!
Our younger ones really enjoyed Kata’s Kookaburra Cove, and the older kids didn’t mind helping out and supervising the little ones there. There is a nice zero-entry pool, with some water spray features, and of course, some small-but-fun slides. Our 20 month old and 3 year old enjoyed all of this. There is one tube slide that an adult (or sibling over 48”) can do with a little one, and that was pretty entertaining to watch. The weight of the parents caused the tube to go pretty fast – you should have seen the looks on the faces of some of those little kids coming out of the slide! Wheeeee!
One of the last things we did was Roa’s Rapids. It’s a lazy river, but very different from any lazy river we’ve ever done. First of all, there are no tubes allowed. Second of all, it’s FAST! As soon as you walk into the river, you’re pretty much whisked off your feet! Even if you’re a good swimmer, I recommend getting a vest (they’re available for free everywhere). We all eventually put a vest on, and it made it even more fun getting whisked along. This was also another big family favorite for the day, and really something unique at Aquatica. We went around the river too many times to even count!
A few other notes: we didn’t spend too much time exploring food options at the park – we were there to swim and play, not eat! We just ordered some typical theme-park fast food at one of the little places, and ate at a covered picnic area. It was tasty enough, and typically priced. They do allow you to bring in coolers though.
Also available for rent are cabanas. For us, this would have been a total waste of money. We didn’t spend too much time sitting anywhere – we were constantly on the go, exploring the park and having fun. We didn’t have any problems leaving our things on a lounger under an umbrella.
An early-entry program like Disney has would have really been appreciated. Having to do the child-swap on the big rides can be pretty time-consuming – we would have liked to have that extra hour to do the bigger slides before the park filled up!
And last, but not least, try to bring a waterproof camera to capture all the fun! Unfortunately, we didn't order ours in time, and it arrived in our mailbox the day we returned!
I’ve lived in Florida nearly my entire life, and I’ve spent more days than I can count at all of Disney’s wonderful theme parks, but I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’d never visited SeaWorld before! In order to do some “very important travel research to better serve my clients”, I spent last weekend in a part of Orlando that’s totally new to me…
This ended up being a real family affair, with 3 generations all watching Shamu and others for the first time!
The day was off to an interesting start as The First Grader lost his first tooth ever (and then proceeded to actually lose it at breakfast, but it was finally found on the floor after a few minutes of searching on hands and knees). My daughter, The Tween, complained of a stomachache in the morning, which we just chalked up to nerves when she looked at the sky-high roller coasters…but then it turned out she really had a little stomach bug. But we managed to make the best of the trip, and it was helpful and fun to have The Grandmas along, keeping us at a 1:1 adult-to-kid ratio.
The way I see it, SeaWorld has a nice mix of three main types of attractions: rides, shows, and animal viewings/interactions. Given the heat, my daughter’s illness, naptimes, and the heat (!), we weren’t able to conquer everything we set out to do, but we had a nice day, and some attractions left over to do during another visit.
So let’s talk about my personal favorite: the rides! I love roller coasters and thrill rides. Let me tell you: the SeaWorld roller coasters are a little CRAZY! Even though my daughter (“The Tween”) was just tall enough to ride at 54”, she would have been scared out of her wits. The coasters are fast, tall, and go upside down multiple times. And on Manta, the ride tilts you forward so you are positioned on your stomach for the entire ride of climbs, drops, twists, and turns!
Journey to Atlantis is a water-flume ride that reminded me a bit of Disney’s Splash Mountain with a different theme. There were a few more drops and splashes than Splash Mountain, and it turned out to be The Tween’s most favorite ride in the park. The First Grader went on it twice, but later admitted he didn’t really like it because he got too wet. When I asked him why he wanted to go a second time if he didn’t like it, he replied that he thought Dad would opt for the mysterious $3 Family Dryer machine after the ride! (Which he didn’t!)
Wild Arctic is a simulator ride where it feels like you ride a helicopter into the Arctic on a mission of sorts. All of the adults who went on this felt they got shaken up too much for it to be fun. But the First Grader enjoyed it, and he likened the feel of the simulator to Disney’s Star Tours.
Shamu’s Happy Harbor is the ride area designed for the younger set, but it seemed to be really set apart from the rest of the park. If we only had younger ones, we probably would have spent more of our day there, with water features, playgrounds, and rides. But since we had a mix of kids and adults, we saved that area until we had seen most of the other attractions in the park. By the time we rolled up to Shamu’s Happy Harbor, the little ones had fallen asleep in the stroller.
The shows were entertaining for everyone in our group, even though we were not sitting in the “wet zones”. We were only able to take in 2 shows: One Ocean and Believe. One Ocean highlights whales (Shamu!), and Believe was more of an aerial-acrobatic show mixed with dolphin tricks. The First Grader thought One Ocean was “incredible” and liked how the whales shot up into the air, and how they were able to slide across the stage. The Tween preferred Believe with all of the acrobatics, trapeze artists, and divers. The Parents and The Grandmas enjoyed both, with maybe a bit of an edge going to Believe.
While we didn’t sign up for any official animal feedings or interactions, there were a few places where we could touch some of the animals. The first stop was the Stingrays. According to The Tween, “if you don’t like touching slimy stuff, do NOT touch the stingrays”. The First Grader flat-out refused to even get near the tank! I’ll admit, they were slimier-feeling than I expected, but I was glad to have checked it out.
Next stop was the Dolphins. There were no feedings available at the time we reached their pool, but we were able to walk up and see them coming out of the water. We reached our hands out, but our arms weren’t quite long enough to touch them. It was neat to be so close though. We held The Toddler up to see, and he was ready to jump in the water with the Dolphins, which made the nearby staff member a little nervous.
We also saw the Manatees (no strollers allowed) and the Penguin Encounter (a bit smelly, and also no strollers allowed), which everyone enjoyed. The Parents and The Grandmas thought it was neat how the penguins were swimming underwater, and then literally flew up out of the water to land on the rocks again. The First Grader was more interested in making comparisons to Club Penguin, but at least now he knows that Captain Rockhopper is named for a Rockhopper Penguin.
There were also various aquarium areas (again, no strollers allowed), where you could see rays, fish, seahorses, and more. These were nice ways to get out of the hot sun and see some pretty neat creatures. The only drawback was that you couldn’t always walk through with a stroller.
I know there’s always a debate on keeping animals in captivity and putting on shows around them. Part of me did feel bad that the whales and dolphins were made to do all these “tricks” to the laughter and applause in the audience. But another part of me felt that it can be beneficial for people to see that these animals are smart and worth protecting, and SeaWorld does provide an educational experience in that regard.
Next stop in our fun-filled weekend: a surprise for the kids - a visit to Aquatica!