Don't let the credit crunch put the squeeze on your family holiday in the Florida sun. With a bit of advance planning, your getaway can be affordable as well as enjoyable
There is good news to report if you are planning a visit to Florida and are on a tight budget. The price of petrol in the US has plummeted from a high of $5 per gallon last summer to the current price of under $1.80 per gallon. This means that renting and driving a car is an affordable option and important if you want to visit areas outside Orlando. The even better news is that there are some crazy prices and deals on flights and package holidays at the moment. It’s worth checking tour operators like Virgin Atlantic and Thomson, as they have some great bargains going.
If you plan to book a package holiday, the Disney Pop Century Resort is a good accommodation option for families. Importantly, the shuttle bus service to Walt Disney World parks is excellent, as is the concierge service. The rooms are basic but comfortable and clean and there is much to please the eye in this fun resort. Vibrantly coloured giant structures, from jukeboxes to huge yo-yos, massive cars to famous rock stars, are scattered around, and the pools are fantastic. Consider booking the dining plan as this is a good value option, with a selection of counter service, sit-down dining or snacks on offer. The ‘limitless refill’ mug for $14.95 is very good value.
Booking flights and hotel separately? Howard Johnson Inn on International Drive (only 10 minutes from Walt Disney World) has family suites for a very affordable $59 per night. Suites are fairly spacious - except the bathroom - and include a kitchenette. However, be warned: the swimming pool is quite small for a hotel with this many rooms, so you might need to head to the water parks to beat off the heat.
There is a bewildering array of theme parks and entertainment in Orlando, but I tried out a few of the best new attractions on offer at two of the parks.
Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World, as always, has new shows, parades and attractions. By far the best new attraction was Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor with Mike Wazowski (that’s Wazowski with one ‘eye’ - get it?) at Magic Kingdom. The premise of the show is that they need human laughter to power up the monster city, so this interactive performance is full of cringeworthy jokes and gags.
Disney Hollywood Studios’ Pixar Block Party Bash was suitably manic and energetic. The kids really enjoyed the Toy Story and A Bug's Life characters, particularly when they were invited to get up and dance. If you want a special treat, try out the 50's Prime Time Cafe. It's authentic and quirky – you really feel like you are eating in someone’s badly decorated dining room – and the prices are reasonable, with Dad's Traditional Meatloaf and Aunt Liz's Golden Fried Chicken only setting you back about $15.
Epcot's latest attraction is called The Seas with Nemo and Friends and is a ride in a 'clamobile' following Nemo around various watery environs. We really enjoyed the World Showcase and rocked out to the Mo-rockin (Moroccan) band, which had an eclectic mix of rock and world music. And, of course, we had to stop in England for fish'n'chips and a pint!
Of all the other parks, Busch Gardens is unique. It started off as a bird refuge and visitors' centre in 1959 and has expanded to become a wildlife park and refuge as well as a theme park, with the Brewmaster’s Club thrown in for the adults.
If you have teenagers, they will head straight for the roller coasters. I overheard one saying, 'Dude, Busch Gardens is boring if you don't ride the rides!' So I thought I had better try out Sheikra, the newest roller coaster at the park, to see what all the excitement is about. The ride has a nearly 180-degree drop, which accelerates to 70 mph! The best part was being suspended nearly a quarter of a mile above the earth – before being plunged to the ground below. Not for the faint of heart!
There are loads of water parks in Orlando, including Sea World, Wet n’ Wild Orlando, Aquatica, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, providing plenty of opportunities to cool off when it gets too hot.
Visas: don’t forget there are new requirements for anyone travelling from Britain on the Visa Waiver Program. It is called ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) and is a simple form that can be filled out online but must be done at least three days before you travel.
Transportation: if you plan to stay at Walt Disney World, there is excellent transportation throughout the park and your transfers to Orlando airport are included with most package holidays. The Busch Express offers $10 return fares from Orlando to Busch Gardens in Tampa, about an hour and a half's drive west of Orlando, and they will pick you up. But if you stay outside the park, you will definitely need to rent a car. Thrifty car rental offers rates as low as $28 per day if you rent for a week.
Food: there are low price ‘all you can eat’ buffets like Sizzler, which offers breakfast for $4.99, and Cici's Pizza, where you can eat any time for $4.99. Keep an eye out for ‘kids eat free’ specials. Old Town has a fun Kool Katz themed restaurant, where kids eat free on Tuesdays.
Shopping and souvenirs: if you want Disney-branded stuff, Walgreen Pharmacy is your best bet. They have loads of heavily discounted merchandise such as T-shirts (3 for $12!), pyjamas, stationery, caps, mugs and loads of toys. Old Town - on Highway 192 - has unusual gifts including memorabilia and sporting gear. Remember that Florida state tax is 6 per cent and is added on top of the purchase price of any item.
Exchange rate: it's not great at the moment, so it is important to shop around for the best rates. The Post Office is a fairly safe bet - I got $1.39 to £1 - but Marks and Spencer’s bureau de change and others have special deals and offer 0 per cent commission, so check around before you travel.
Prices: a one-day entrance pass to Busch Gardens costs $67.95 (plus tax) per adult, $57.95 (plus tax) per child aged 3-0. (Florida state tax is 6 per cent.). There's a two-day entrance pass offer - you can visit the park again within seven days of your first visit at no extra charge.
For Disney attractions, the Seven Day Premium ticket allows unlimited access to all of the Disney parks and six additional admissions to other Walt Disney World attractions (includes the two Disney Water Parks). Prices from £170 per adult and £150 per child.