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Fyllis: Orlando, Florida
Finding Family Magic in Orlando Outside Magic Kingdom
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Ariane Nicholson and Laura Hockman

watched as my daughter Ari headed to the spa for a well-deserved massage. My son and his wife were engrossed in a heady game of tennis. Nine-year-old grand-daughter Becca was happily floating down the hotel's Lazy River while her 7-year-old sister was designing a tie dye t-shirt in the kid's activity center. Meanwhile, I (AKA Grandma) cuddled up with almost-three-year-old Josh watching his four-year-old sister slide down and go up and slide down and go up multiple slides in the waterpark.

Ellie and Talya coming down a slide at Reunion Resort's Lazy River, Orlando, River

And thus started our intergenerational vacation for 10 in Orlando, Florida recently where the kids and adults were all kept affordably busy round the clock without ever meeting up with Mickey and the gang at their $100 per person, per day DisneyWorld locale.

The epicenter of all this activity was Reunion Resort, whose very name exemplifies its greatest attraction -- a great place for families to come together for quality time without breaking the bank.

Brad, Becca and Josh on the Lazy River, Reunion Resort

With our three families spread out over two three-bedroom villas there was plenty of room for nightly dinners and languid evenings of card and board games, bedtime stories and actual conversation. Okay -- so some of those nights the four younger grown-ups were obsessing over games on their SmartPhones but at least we were all together sharing the obsession -- sort of… But you better like your family: there's not a lot to do in the way of nightlife! Either that -- or bring a lot of books…

Compared to squishing two families of four into two hotel rooms, with another for the grandparents, without the ability to cook in at mealtimes, the savings is enormous. And the service memorable. One night, despite the well-stocked kitchen, we reported a missing a bottle opener which was delivered quickly by housekeeping. Okay -- that is to be expected. But when they called a half hour later to make sure we had received it, that's an impressive attention to detail. Attention to detail #327? Upon leaving a wake-up call for 8 a.m., I was asked if I'd like a 15-minute-later snooze-alarm call. I had never been asked that before.

No doubt the kids would have been perfectly happy to hang out at the waterpark all day (more on that later). "Isn't a vacation supposed to be relaxing," protested my daughter. But I told her this was not a vacation, it was a travel-writing expedition and I appointed her and my daughter-in-law as staff photographers and the kids as cub reporters as we headed out to a different -- and relatively affordable -- adventure every day.

the Waterpark at Reunion Resort

The entrance to WonderWorks -- a visual oddity of upside-down windows, trees on their heads, and a crumbling façade with cracked columns in seemingly mid-collapse, lets you know upfront you're in for a very bizarre experience. And we were not disappointed.

the entrance to Wonderworks, Orlando

Elie blows a giant bubble

We quickly dispensed with the simulated hurricane, earthquake and gravity-defying demonstrations to get to the really fun stuff. Which for the little ones was the making of giant soap bubbles; the older kids, simulated space shuttles; the men, testing the speed of their fastball; the women, attempting a mind-control game where you win through the ability to relax. The women relaxed? With four children in tow? Well, maybe not so much.

The opportunity to lie on a bed of nails comes with the warning that WonderWorks is not responsible for clothing replacement if damage is done. And that's a mere fraction of the numerous rooms on various floors filled with interactive options I've not seen anywhere else. And neither had 7-year-old Ellie, who pronounced it "my favorite place ever."

Did I mention the terrifying 4-D roller-coaster movie? The one through which I mostly kept my eyes closed but which 4-year-old Talya wanted to see again -- and again! (Admission: Adults, $25; children 3-12, $20).

Old Town was a more conventional outing though its name, of course, is a misnomer. Still the several blocks of fun shops, restaurants and amusements sufficiently quasi-resemble an old town to make the designation appropriate. There are rides appropriate for the 3-4 year old crowd as well as more adrenaline rushes for older kids who thrive on roller coasters, zip lines and rope courses. And the shops are somewhat intriguing in their own rite: the General Store has almost two dozen different flavors of bath salts covering a wide range of flowers and fruits and plants. The Black Market Mineral Store has an equal number of free-standing raw minerals plus lots of jewelry, African art and wooden sculptures. The Kissimmee Popcorn Factory boasts 106 different flavors in its repertoire. How about root beer, jalapeno, nacho, coconut, amaretto and salsa verde popcorn -- and those were the more recognizable flavors.

But it was the outdoor ropes course which extended more than 40 feet high with multiple challenging configurations of interlocking planks, wires, steps, and bridges, one more difficult to traverse than the other that really commanded attention. I couldn't even watch Ellie as she progressed to the highest level, leaving many a grown man in her wake. From my perspective, she was walking a tight rope spanning 20 feet across, wind blowing, rope swaying, Ellie suspended in mid-air just below the cloud line. Again I had to close my eyes, but she appeared unfazed. I didn't ask her if she wanted to revise her WonderWorks proclamation. Becca meanwhile was flying through the air several times running on the zip line. (Admission free; $25 per person, unlimited rides).

Ellie traversing the outdoor ropes course at Old Town, Orlando

And then on to Legoland. For every child, no matter the age, who has ever played with Legos -- and does any exist who hasn't? -- this is a throwback to childhood that can't help but elicit a smile on kids and adults alike. Every sign and giant sculpture and character is made of Legos. I checked out the park benches and they were…well, just benches. I actually started touching the trees just to make sure they were real.

Lego animals at Legoland

So many rides and theme areas to appeal to every age from 2 to 12. They do have a minimum height requirement of 36" so Josh's parents spent the night before trying to stretch him to make sure he qualified -- he did and that made all the difference. He has the courage of a kid three times his age and would have been crushed if he couldn't go on at least some of the rides with the big kids…

Becca, Ellie and Talya play with Legos while their parents wait in line for the next ride, Legoland

As the adults wait in line -- sometimes for 20 minutes or more -- there are play areas, filled with Legos, of course, to keep the kids entertained (read: from becoming whiny). Not a bad marketing tool, I thought!

At Miniland U.S.A., there's a whole Legoland nation duplicating all the hotels in Las Vegas with their own special attractions, the monuments of Washington, DC, the skyline of New York, the Daytona Speedway -- and more. With the Lego-buildings over 12 feet tall, it was like a mini-tour of the country. Rumor has it, it took over 100 master model builders over two years to build the cities comprised of over 30 million Lego bricks.

Upon arriving, make sure your kids each buy one little Lego creatures for $3. They will not only have a blast trading them with members of the staff throughout the park but they will have a wonderful -- and inexpensive -- memento to take home. Said Becca: "I started out with a fighter dude and ended up with a pretty pink rock star. Awesome!" (Admission -- online: Adults: $68; children 3-12: $60 -- the most expensive of our three outings but still considerably less than DisneyWorld).

Meanwhile, back at the Reunion Waterpark, with its multiple pools, and a section of ascending inter-connected rope tunnels leading to two winding slides to keep kids of all ages entertained. And if the big bucket on top fills to the point of overflowing, dumping water everywhere -- well then, all the better. There are also daily activities such as balloon toss, parachute games and arts and crafts, some free, some costing a minimal fee.

barrel tipping over at Waterpark

And of course, there are also adult-oriented activities. Reunion boasts it is the only place in world where there are three signature golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson with an Annika Sorenstam Academy at which she teaches. Plus the afore-mentioned tennis courts. And after my daughter, daughter-in-law and I emerged from our spa massages, we were offered not the usual juice or tea but champagne. Attention to detail #328.

As our multi-day adventure neared its end, I turned to my cub reporters for comment. "I have friends who went to DisneyWorld but I can't imagine it could be more fun than Legoland, Old Town and Wonderworks," enthused Becca, touting our less costly entertainment options. Grandma breathed a big sigh of relief!

And as Talya proclaimed at the end of each day we were there: "That was the best day ever." Sort of makes for the best trip ever for the parents and grandparents, as well.

For more information about Reunion Resort, visit Three-bedroom villa rates start at $299, depending upon season and accommodations, but be sure to ask for special promotions which often are available.

Related Articles:
Amelia Island; Key West; Theme Park Survival Guide; Tips for Taking the Kids

(Posted 6-5-2012)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

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