December 1, 2015

Near The Action: Hilton Altamonte Springs Florida

When flying from Omaha to the Orlando area, you’re faced with an overwhelming assortment of hotel options. Deciding where to stay depends on your priorities (theme park junkie? adventure-seeking? part-time beach bum ?)

When looking for a hotel in Florida - you've got to think about your itinerary. Do you want to be near theme parks? Beaches? Adventure zones? A mix of all three? Try the Hilton in Altamonte Springs.

When looking for a hotel in Florida – you’ve got to think about your itinerary. Do you want to be near theme parks? Beaches? Adventure zones? A mix of all three?

We recently flew into the Sanford Orlando International Airport via a direct flight from Omaha with Allegiant. It was going to be a quick weekend Florida getaway. We needed a centrally-located hotel that could make it easy for us to get to attractions like the Central Florida Zoo and airboat rides at Black Hammock, as well as a quick hop onto the interstate to get to a beach.

Knowing our priorities (along with acknowledging a lot of visiting families want proximity to major theme parks in Orlando), Seminole County suggested we stay at the Hilton Altamonte Springs.

Hilton

About the Hilton

The location was convenient and within a mile of Interstate 4. It was also near many dining options, a movie theater, shops and, for the parent who needs it, a wine store.

We stayed at the Hilton in Altamonte Springs, located between Orlando and the Orlando Sanford International Airport.

We stayed at the Hilton in Altamonte Springs, located between Orlando and the Orlando Sanford International Airport.

It also had an outdoor pool and hot tub – a major plus for my kids, as well as a couple dining options for the family.

Like your coffee? They serve Starbucks there. The same counter has a grill, or if you need a cold treat, there’s an ice cream case full of tasty offerings.

The lobby of the Hilton had a cafe that served Starbucks coffee, as well as a grilled burgers and a much-needed cooler full of ice cream treats.

The lobby of the Hilton had a cafe that served Starbucks coffee, as well as a grilled burgers and a much-needed cooler full of ice cream treats.

We tried out the breakfast buffet one morning. If you’re a Hilton Honors member, the buffet is included with your stay each morning (or a reduced cost entree from the menu).

The entrance to the dining room at the Hilton Altamonte Springs in Central Florida.

The entrance to the dining room at the Hilton Altamonte Springs in Central Florida.

The rooms

Hiltons are known for comfort and the one in Altamonte Springs was pretty comfortable.

Nothing beats a Hilton pillow. And the beds were the most crisply made beds I’ve ever encountered – they don’t get more tucked in than the do there.

Another bonus for us were the blackout curtains, which helped our kids get a full night’s sleep without the Florida sun waking them early.

The toiletries provided were high end.

The staff


Everyone we encountered at the Hilton was friendly. We arrived very late on our first night and the evening clerk was prompt and cheerful.

We were warmly greeted by housekeeping, restaurant staff, and front desk clerks. A special shout out to Keith, who took the time to read my Florida bucket list post and left us a local’s guide to checking off some of it – including brochures, restaurant suggestions and a couple oranges. It was very thoughtful and helpful!

The pool

Outdoor pool time in November? Yes, please.

Outdoor pool time in November? Yes, please.

All my kids are about is the pool at a hotel. If they had their way, it’d be the only thing we visit while on vacation.

The Hilton’s pool stays open until 10 p.m. We swam before dinner one night (you could get takeout and have it at one of the tables on the pool deck). We had the pool and hot tub to ourselves for most of our swim.

The only downside to the pool area was the steady hum of the interstate. While I count the hotel’s proximity to it as being a perk for getting around, there’s no escaping the sound of it, even with high privacy walls.

The quintessential Florida view beyond the pool's privacy walls.

The quintessential Florida view beyond the pool’s privacy walls.

The kids never noticed. It’s only if you’re trying to unwind in the glorious hot tub and you were seeking some quiet time do you notice it. But, if you’re reading this, you’re a parent and you never get quiet time.

 

If you go

Hilton Altamonte Springs

Where: 350 Northlake Blvd., Altamonte Springs, Florida

Website

 

Additional posts about Seminole County

Central Florida Adventure 

ZoomAir Adventure Park Orlando (Sanford, Florida) 

Central Florida Zoo (Sanford, Florida) 

Wekiva Island (Longwood, Florida) 

Tips on Flying Allegiant from Omaha to Orlando Sanford International Airport 

 

Disclaimer: A special thanks goes to Seminole County for hosting our Florida adventure. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

 

November 23, 2015

Exploring The Central Florida Zoo

Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens offers a relaxed kid-centric outing to families visiting the Orlando area. Located about 20 miles north of Orlando in Sanford, Florida, the zoo is smaller than what we’re used to in Omaha, but offers some hands-on and fun activities we don’t have.

Central Florida Zoo collage

We visited during a recent weekend getaway hosted by Seminole County, Florida. As luck would have it, Allegiant just started a new direct flight to the area, so this adventure makes sense to share with you guys. This zoo is pretty close to the Orlando Sanford International Airport!

Highlights

By far, the runaway hit of this zoo is actually located just outside its main gates: ZOOm Air Adventure Park.

Farley conquering the kids' zip line course in Sanford, Florida.

Farley conquering the kids’ zip line course in Sanford, Florida.

My kids and I got a chance to try out the adventure ropes and zip line courses during our visit. It was challenging but fun for all of us.

Read about my family’s ZOOm Air adventure here and see if it’s something you should plan on (Answer: Yes)!

One animal encounter at the Central Florida Zoo that we don’t have back home is the daily giraffe feedings. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., you can try to feed one of the male giraffes there (for $5 for the food). I write “try to” because when we visited, the big guys weren’t motivated to move much, least of all by the food kids were trying to offer them.

They also offer Rhino Encounters on the weekends, something I think we’ll do the next time we’re visiting!

The Wharton-Smith Tropical Splash Ground was a large play area right near the entrance.

Cool off in the splash garden at Central Florida Zoo. Remember to pack swimsuits!

Cool off in the splash garden at Central Florida Zoo. Remember to pack swimsuits!

It would’ve been wonderful to cool off after ZOOm Air with a run through the splash ground, but I’d forgotten to bring along swimsuit. My friend, Marisa (AKA @tampamama)  had warned me to always, ALWAYS pack swimsuits when visiting attractions in Florida, every place seems to have a splash ground.

Guess I’ll never learn.

Anyway.

There’s also a children’s garden, which was less about animals and more about nature.

The kids really wanted to check out the children's garden at the zoo.

The kids really wanted to check out the children’s garden at the zoo.

Don’t skip the cute area of the zoo dedicated to domestic animals like goats.

The greediest goat we've ever encountered. This guy wanted all. of. the. food.

The greediest goat we’ve ever encountered. This guy wanted all. of. the. food.

At the Barnyard Buddies Children’s Zoo, you can spend a couple dollars for a large amount of food to feed the goats, and my favorite, the llama.

You can feed a llama, goat and alpaca at the Central Florida Zoo.

You can feed a llama, goat and alpaca at the Central Florida Zoo.

Feedings at the barnyard start at 11 a.m.

The goats are waiting for you.

The goats are waiting for you.

Since my kids are still pretty young, they wanted to ride the train. If you’re long-legged, I’m sorry, this ride is not going to be comfortable.

The cozy little train at Central Florida Zoo. The kids loved it.

The cozy little train at Central Florida Zoo. The kids loved it.

It doesn’t matter where a little train goes, it’s always a big deal. Throw in a tunnel and kids lose their minds. (FYI, the train does not go through the zoo, and you’ll see no zoo animals – just cutouts).

The train station is at the entrance to the Central Florida Zoo. Just try to walk past it and not have a kid ask if they could have a ride.

The train station is at the entrance to the Central Florida Zoo. Just try to walk past it and not have a kid ask if they could have a ride.

The playground at the zoo, KaBOOM! Playground, was a big hit with my kids – it never fails… I have to tear them away from a playground wherever we go just so we can see what we actually came to see – animals!

There’s also a carousel that your kids will try to talk you into, and depending on the season, other add-on activities like WOW Balls and Bungee Jump. They weren’t in operation when we visited in early November.

Another seasonal offer is camel rides.

 

Regular activities at the zoo

Weekend & Holiday Show Schedule

Keeper Chats & Demonstrations: Every Saturday, Sunday and Holiday (weather permitting)

10:30 a.m. Rhino*

11 a.m. Cheetah*

11:30 p.m. Flying High!

Noon Venom! outside Herpetarium at the Tiffany and Charles Davis Animal Showcase

1:30 p.m. Wild Tales! at Magpie Jay Stage

2:30 p.m. Giraffe*

3 p.m. Lemur*

3:30 p.m. Snake or Alligator/Crocodile Feeding

*Meet the Keeper

 

What else?

Farley trying to navigate the zoo.

Farley trying to navigate the zoo.

It was a good size zoo for our kids, who were both under 6. It was small enough that we could get away with not having a wagon to cart the kids around.

There were a lot of stealth animal encounters if you look for them. We found one volunteer sitting on a bench with snake. He had a lot of interesting facts for the kids.

Be on the look out for animal encounters when visiting the Central Florida Zoo. The kids learned about this little snake from a friendly volunteer.

Be on the look out for animal encounters when visiting the Central Florida Zoo. The kids learned about this little snake from a friendly volunteer.

We also caught the cheetah feedings on accident. Don’t ask what kind of meat they were feeding them (OK, ask, I’ll tell you).

We stumbled upon the cheetah feeding time and got the insider scoop on what's for lunch there. You don't really want to know.

We stumbled upon the cheetah feeding time and got the insider scoop on what’s for lunch there. You don’t really want to know.

With just over 200 species in the zoo, you could breeze through things in a morning. The zoo does not allow outside food, so if you are there around meal time, there are concession stands offering the typical zoo fare.

Or you can do what we did and head to the charming downtown Sanford for lunch. I recommend lunch at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe (even if you think you don’t like German food, you’ll like this German food).

Another perk of visiting Florida in November - dining outside. We grabbed an outdoor table to enjoy our German lunch at Hollerbach's in Sanford.

Another perk of visiting Florida in November – dining outside. We grabbed an outdoor table to enjoy our German lunch at Hollerbach’s in Sanford.

I knew I loved German beer but I didn’t think i was a fan of the food until Hollerbach’s. Everyone said I should go to this restaurant, and I’m glad we did.

Prost from a great German restaurant in Florida!

Prost from a great German restaurant in Florida!

It was a busy place, but we were still promptly seated outside. The menu is large, the food is heavy and not exactly vegetarian friendly. I ordered off the lunch menu and got a manageable portion of wiener schnitzel with a side of Heaven & Earth Potatoes and red cabbage.

I tried the schnitzel, red cabbage and the best potato dish ever - Heaven & Earth Potatoes.

I tried the schnitzel, red cabbage and the best potato dish ever – Heaven & Earth Potatoes.

Do not miss out on those potatoes. So good.

The kids each got a kinder plate of sausage.

The kid's sausage plate at Hollerbach's in Sanford, a little bit of healthy mixed in there with the fresh fruit.

The kid’s sausage plate at Hollerbach’s in Sanford, a little bit of healthy mixed in there with the fresh fruit.

The fresh fruit was a nice touch, but it couldn’t compete with gummi bears.

For dessert, we split German chocolate cake. It was a huge slice, and more than enough for four people after eating a big lunch. I recommend getting the cake, but share that big boy.

A family of four attempts to finish the German chocolate cake at Hollerbach's (after a full lunch) and fails.

A family of four attempts to finish the German chocolate cake at Hollerbach’s (after a full lunch) and fails.

Don’t skip this place. They have live music on the weekends, as well as soccer breakfasts.

 

If you go

Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens

Where: 3755 Highway 17-92 (Exit 104 off I-4), Sanford, Fla.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas)

Cost: $16.50, adults; $13.95, seniors 60+; $11.95, children (3-12); FREE, children 2 and younger.

How to get a 50% off discount: If you’re a member of your local zoo, you may qualify for 50% off admission – Omaha Zoo & Aquarium members do! See the 2015 list here.

How much time you’ll be there: 2 to 3 hours at the zoo, longer if you eat lunch there and your kids play in the splash garden. Add at least an hour to your visit if you plan on doing ZoomAir Tree Adventure.

 

Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe

Where:  205 E. First St., Sanford, Fla.

 

Explore More of Central Florida:

Central Florida Adventure

ZOOmAir Adventure Park Orlando (Sanford, Florida)

Hilton Altamonte Springs (Altamonte Springs, Florida)

Wekiva Island (Longwood, Florida)

Tips on Flying Allegiant from Omaha to Orlando Sanford International Airport 

November 18, 2015

ZOOmAir Treetop Adventure Park

We’re an outdoorsy kind of family, and I’d like to think we’re up for most adventures… that can accommodate young kids.

The idea of trying out a ropes course with zip lines was one of the first things that caught my attention when researching family-friendly things to do on our upcoming trip to Seminole County, Florida.

And I found one that was suitable for even my youngest child!

ZOOMAIRTreetopAdventure Park

ZOOmAirTreetop Adventure Park has two locations in Florida – one in Daytona and one in Sanford, just outside the Central Florida Zoo. I’ve never found a zip line outfitter that offered courses suitable for children young as 4 until ZOOMAIR. I was so excited for us to try it out.

I’m glad we did!

It was one of the highlights of our whole trip, and I recommend giving it a shot if you’re not afraid of heights.

Me and Farley after we conquered our zip line courses at ZOOMAIR.

Me and Farley after we conquered our zip line courses at ZOOMAIR.

What to expect – Kids Course

Children who are 4 and older (between 36 inches and 60 inches tall) can do the children’s course. They are fitted into harnesses and provided instructions on clipping themselves on to the safety ropes.

Maggie was the patient instructor for the kids' course at ZOOMAIR.

Maggie was the patient instructor for the kids’ course at ZOOmAir.

The kids Upland Course is never gets higher than 4 feet above the ground ground, but does provide a challenge and a thrill of adventure. Farley likened the experience to being on “American Ninja.” It ends like the adults’ course, with a zip line (but much lower to the ground).

Mooch kept up with her big brother on the zip line course.

Mooch kept up with her big brother on the zip line course.

A guide walks with kids on the Kids Upland Course, while a parent stays on the ground. Safety is a priority and even a 4-year-old can understand having one clip on a rope at all times. The kids’ guide, Maggie, was very patient.

It was a challenge for our younger daughter and while she struggled to get through each obstacle, our nearly 6-year-old cruised along. She’s an agile girl, and was determined to keep up with her big brother – and she did.

The end of the first course includes a zip line. Farley got to do the zip line several times while Mooch finished the course.

Farley loved each new challenge along the course. All three of us got a kick out of the adventure the courses presented to us.

Farley loved each new challenge along the course. All three of us got a kick out of the adventure the courses presented to us.

Older kids have the option of continuing on to the Kids Jungle, which is a little higher above ground and more challenging. The guide stays on the ground with the parent along the course. I stayed with Farley so he could continue on while Mooch and Mr. Wonderful went to the zoo.

It gets a little more challenging if a kid opts to go on to the second ropes course.

It gets a little more challenging if a kid opts to go on to the second ropes course, the Kids Jungle.

When they complete their course, they’re rewarded with a little candy and a bumper sticker.

Note: Adults, for some reason, do not get candy after completing their course. Hmph.

 

What to expect – Adults Course

Before you begin your course, you’re fitted into a harness and walked through a practice course so you can get the hang of clipping yourself on to the safety ropes and how to do a zip line without injuring yourself.

You’re also advised that you get three warnings and if you break a rule (horse around, forget to clip yourself in, etc.), then you’re kicked off the course. You also are warned that if you get stuck and have to be helped out of a bind, you’re done for the day.

Since it was just me on the course, I was a dutiful rule follower.

The dutiful rule follower. Except for this stealth selfie.

The dutiful rule follower. Except for this stealth selfie.

I did the Upland Course, which took about 45 minutes to complete (they recommend estimating an hour and a half, especially if there are more people on the course). You do need some coordination and balance walking along, but it’s still something any beginner could do. It was very physical, which was welcoming since I fully intended to eat way too much at lunch.

Most of the course is a series of ropes obstacles and a bit of climbing. If you’re afraid of heights, it’s not for you.

The experience was thrilling and made me feel like I was reliving childhood again, only this time it was like I was for real on “Swiss Family Robinson.”

The end of the first course is a fast zip line back to ground, where you can either continue to the more challenging Rainforest Course (if you purchased that option), or you return your gear and go on with your day. The Rainforest Course has more zip lines.

 

Other details

Here's where you'll get fitted into your harness, sign a bunch of papers and get started on your safety training.

Here’s where you’ll get fitted into your harness, sign a bunch of papers and get started on your safety training.

– We arrived just about an hour after the location opened (opens at 9 a.m.) and we were able to get started right away. No one else was on the course with us at that time and it was awesome. I’m told during the busy season (around Thanksgiving to Christmas especially), you can expect a longer waits to get started and to progress through the course if you’re not there first thing in the morning.

– You need to buy your ZOOmAir passes at the ticket booth for the zoo. Walk past the ticket booth and follow the signs to the Harness House.

– You’ll fill out waivers for everyone and hand over ID. If you want your ID back, you need to remember to return your harness and gloves.

– Wear comfortable, close-toed shoes. Athletic shoes are a smart idea. Farley had slip-on shoes and he had to double up socks to be sure they wouldn’t fall off.

– This is located just outside the Central Florida Zoo, sharing the same parking lot and ticket booth. If you’re going here with kids, might as well make a day of it and visit the zoo.

 

If you go

ZOOmAir Adventure Treetop Adventure Park Orlando

Where: Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, 3755 Highway 17-92 (Exit 104 off I-4), Sanford, Florida

Hours: Open every day, except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, at 9 a.m. Last admission for Upland & Rainforest combo admissions at Zoom Air Orlando is 3:30 p.m. Last admission for other tickets, including upgrades, is 4 p.m.

Cost: Kids’ Course (must be 36”-60” tall and at least 4 years old) $19.75 plus tax; add a second round on Kids’ Course, $12.95 plus tax; Upland (must be over 54” tall), $30.95 plus tax; add all of Rainforest after Upland, $24.95 plus tax; add Big Zips after Upland (part of Rainforest). $15.95 plus tax; Upland & Rainforest (the whole adventure), $50.95 plus tax; Family Pack (4 people, Upland & Rainforest), $159.95 plus tax

Website

 

Additional posts about Seminole County

Central Florida Adventure 

Central Florida Zoo (Sanford, Florida) 

Hilton Altamonte Springs (Altamonte Springs, Florida) 

Wekiva Island (Longwood, Florida) 

Tips on Flying Allegiant from Omaha to Orlando Sanford International Airport

 

Disclaimer: Our visit was hosted by Seminole County. All thoughts and experiences are my own.

November 17, 2015

Adventure In Central Florida

Adventure

Seminole County, Florida, asks visitors to explore the wild side of Florida, to discover Orlando’s natural oasis. Challenge accepted.

Our two-and-a-half-day trip to the north Orlando area included seeing an alligator while canoeing, zip line courses for the whole family, a sunset airboat tour and a quick trip to coast to play at Cocoa Beach. I’m writing about it because Allegiant now offers a direct flight to an airport that puts you in the middle of it all.

Home base

We stayed at the Hilton in Altamonte Springs, located between Orlando and the Orlando Sanford International Airport. My kids are lizard hunting in this photo...

We stayed at the Hilton in Altamonte Springs, located between Orlando and the Orlando Sanford International Airport. My kids are lizard hunting in this photo…

Our trip was hosted by Seminole County, and knowing my family wanted adventures both on water and land, they suggested a centrally-located hotel that was affordable (and near theme parks, should we choose to visit…er, next time, kids).

We stayed at the Hilton-Altamonte Springs, a beautiful hotel near familiar chains and close to the interstate we’d use to get everywhere – I-4. I’ll share more about the hotel in a future post, but for traveling families – yes, there’s an outdoor pool  (the only hotel amenity important to my kids).

Outdoor pool time in November? Yes, please.

Outdoor pool time in November? Yes, please.

It’s approximately 20 miles from Orlando Sanford International Airport, which is a direct flight from Omaha on Allegiant. Check out my post on what to expect when flying this route – I include helpful tips for making it a smooth experience with kids!

Adventure in the air

On our first day, we headed to the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford. ZOOMAIR Treetop Adventure Park Orlando is located at the zoo. Our plan was to try the ropes and zip line course first, then go to the zoo.

Farley conquering the kids' zip line course in Sanford, Florida.

Farley conquering the kids’ zip line course in Sanford, Florida.

While the kids tackled their age-appropriate course with the help of the wonderful Maggie from ZOOMAIR and Mr. Wonderful , I tried out the more challenging course. It was not too easy, but also manageable for any first-timer.

Both kids did great on the smaller course, and our nearly 6-year-old went on to try the more difficult kids course after conquering the easy one. He said it was like being on “American Ninja.”

(I agree. I loved the physical challenge of this activity.)

Mooch kept up with her big brother on the zip line course.

Mooch kept up with her big brother on the zip line course.

Mooch had a harder time, being only 4, but was proud of herself for finishing. Expect at least an hour for the kids to get through their ropes course. If you do a course, you can get through the first one in 45 minutes, and if you add on the rain forest course, you’ll double that, at least.

Central Florida Zoo

After our zip line adventure, we checked out the zoo. This small zoo covers about 116 acres and is great for little ones. Bring a swimsuit so kids can cool off at the splash garden (which will be refreshing after the adventure on the zip lines). I forgot and was reminded repeatedly.

Cool off in the splash garden at Central Florida Zoo. Remember to pack swimsuits!

Cool off in the splash garden at Central Florida Zoo. Remember to pack swimsuits!

There are hands-on experiences there that kids will like – mostly feeding animals and enrichment encounters. There are extras like a carousel and train ride, as well.

The train station is at the entrance to the Central Florida Zoo. Just try to walk past it and not have a kid ask if they could have a ride.

The train station is at the entrance to the Central Florida Zoo. Just try to walk past it and not have a kid ask if they could have a ride.

After our zoo and zip line adventure, we headed to charming downtown Sanford to have lunch at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café.

Another perk of visiting Florida in November - dining outside. We grabbed an outdoor table to enjoy our German lunch at Hollerbach's in Sanford.

Another perk of visiting Florida in November – dining outside. We grabbed an outdoor table to enjoy our German lunch at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe in Sanford.

The German food was so good, and the beer was even better.

Prost from a great German restaurant in Florida!

Prost from a great German restaurant in Florida!

If you manage to save a little room, try the German chocolate cake there – we split it between the four of us and couldn’t finish it.

Adventure by water

Our second day was going to be all about water. But first, breakfast.

One of the fountains in the park at Winter Park.

One of the fountains in the park at Winter Park.

We made the short drive to Winter Park to grab some pastries at Croissant Gourmet – which we enjoyed in the cute park before strolling through the farmers market.

Exploring Winter Park's Saturday Farmers Market. So many goodies to find there!

Exploring Winter Park’s Saturday Farmers Market. So many goodies to find there!

Breakfast Part II was a breakfast quesadilla from a the Tastebuds food truck at the Winter Park Farmers Market, and citrus fruit samples.

We got some breakfast quesadillas to go from this food truck at the Winter Park Farmers Market.

We got some breakfast quesadillas to go from Tastebuds food truck at the Winter Park Farmers Market.

It’s fun to check out farmers markets when traveling – we don’t have avocados or oranges at the Omaha ones.

We met friends at Cocoa Beach at around noon – the drive was about an hour (beware of the tolls). I don’t regret the drive – the kids could’ve played in the water all day.

Cocoa Beach is about an hour drive from Seminole County, Florida.

Cocoa Beach is about an hour drive from Seminole County, Florida.

Little tip from my Florida friends: Shephard’s Park is a convenient spot to park at Cocoa Beach but also the most expensive ($15). Found that out the hard way. Go toward the Cocoa Beach Pier for meter parking or head farther south for cheaper or free parking at city and county park entrances to the beach.

The good thing about the location is that there is a place to change, bathrooms, a shower to rinse off and a lifeguard.

Collecting seashells at Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Collecting seashells at Cocoa Beach, Florida.

And it wasn’t crowded.

We didn’t pack a lunch for our time at Shephard’s Park, so our friends suggested we try the Cuban sandwiches at Seven Eleven across the street. Don’t knock it ‘til you try them. They hit the spot.

After the beach, the kids were surprisingly still awake so we decided to check off an item off my Florida bucket list – an airboat ride.

Black Hammock had some beautiful views - and we hadn't even gotten on the airboat yet.

Black Hammock had some beautiful views – and we hadn’t even gotten on the airboat yet.

We arrived at Black Hammock in time for their final 30-minute tour of the day, timing it perfectly to catch a gorgeous sunset.

The kids loved the ride (so did the adults).

Enjoy some wind in our hair during our sunset airboat ride with Black Hammock in Seminole County, Florida.

Enjoy some wind in our hair during our sunset airboat ride with Black Hammock in Seminole County, Florida.

Unfortunately, our boat got stuck after stopping to look at cows. So what would’ve been a lovely sunset ride ended in darkness. Our funny captain swore it’s only happened to him two other times in all his rides.

The kids forgot about it after they each got to hold a baby alligator afterward.

Holding an alligator made up for not seeing one while on the airboat,

Holding an alligator made up for not seeing one while on the airboat,

Black Hammock also has a few cages to see alligators and parrots, and an awesome tiki bar. There’s a restaurant on site serving up gator.

Get to Black Hammock early and enjoy a little rum drink from the tiki bar.

Get to Black Hammock early and enjoy a little rum drink from the tiki bar.

The kids tried the gator bites with Cajun flavor and loved them.

We ended our late night with some ice cream and gelatti at Jeremiah’s – a frozen treat chain offering ice cream and Italian ice, and the combo of laying ice cream and Italian ice called gelatti.

Wekiva Island

Canoeing toward Wekiwa Springs State Park.

Canoeing toward Wekiva Springs State Park.

Adventures on our water carried over to our last day. We went to Wekiva Island to rent a canoe so we could paddle roughly one mile to Wekiva Springs State Park. The route was gorgeous and not challenging if you’re familiar with paddling.

You’ll spot lots of birds along the way, and with luck, other wildlife like an alligator.

We caught this guy sunning himself as we paddled by.

We caught this guy sunning himself as we paddled by.

You can paddle about 30 minutes to Wekiva Springs or take a four-hour round trip to Rock Springs. We were short on time and went to Wekiva where sadly, we only got to pause and watch others swim. We’ll definitely return to take a dip.

There were quite a few people swimming in the spring water at Wekiva Springs State Park. Entrance is $2 per canoe.

There were quite a few people swimming in the spring water at Wekiva Springs State Park. Entrance is $2 per canoe.

We finished canoeing in time to grab lunch on the run, fill up our rental car and head for the airport to fly home. Yes, we were a stinky mess on the plane.

Food options during your Central Florida adventure

The kid's sausage plate at Hollerbach's in Sanford, a little bit of healthy mixed in there with the fresh fruit.

The kid’s sausage plate at Hollerbach’s in Sanford, a little bit of healthy mixed in there with the fresh fruit.

Breakfast: During our trip, we had breakfast at the Hilton Altamonte Springs (a buffet that’s complimentary for Hilton Honors members), pastries at Croissant Gourmet in Winter Park (try the pain au chocolat), hearty breakfast quesadillas at the Tastebuds food truck at the Winter Park Farmers Market, and a filling breakfast at Keke’s Breakfast Café (there are several locations; we went to the Altamonte location on the way to Wekiva Island).

Lunch: We enjoyed lunch outdoors at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café in Sanford. The other lunches were on the go, courtesy McDonalds (hey, we were running late to the airport after canoeing), and Seven Eleven (you do what you gotta do at the beach).

Dinner: We enjoyed take out pizza from Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza in Altamonte Springs and it was delicious. We also tried several variations of alligator during dinner at Black Hammock Restaurant in Oviedo.

Snacks: Our visit to the Central Florida Zoo involved some snacking at one of the concession stands (usual fare, Dip ‘n Dots, chips, etc), kettle caramel corn from the Winter Park Farmers Market, and ice cream and gelatti at Jeremiah’s.

 

Additional posts about Seminole County

ZoomAir Adventure Park Orlando (Sanford, Florida) 

Central Florida Zoo (Sanford, Florida)

Hilton Altamonte Springs (Altamonte Springs, Florida)

Wekiva Island (Longwood, Florida)

Tips on Flying Allegiant from Omaha to Orlando Sanford International Airport 

 

 

October 19, 2015

My Central Florida Bucket List

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Omaha is about to get another direct flight to a prime vacation destination courtesy Allegiant: Orlando (or rather Sanford International Airport, located just north of the city). Just a few hours – no layovers – and you’re in Florida.

That’s a tempting destination, right? You’re not far from some of the most exciting theme parks in the country, AND about an hour’s drive from the beach. Get a guidebook like this one for more ideas of great Florida attractions!

Daytona Beach is one of the closest beaches to the Orlando area. Photo courtesy Visit Florida

Daytona Beach is one of the closest beaches to the Orlando area. Photo courtesy Visit Florida

 

After the announcement of the flight was made, it got me daydreaming. If you remember, when Allegiant started flying to the Tampa Bay area, they invited my family to try out the route and we had a whirlwind of an amazing adventure.

Guess what? Allegiant asked if I wanted to try the new route with my family so that Omaha readers could hear about the experience!

So time to start planning, right?? Here’s my bucket list of the Central Florida area, if time and money were not constraints. It goes beyond Orlando and the obvious choices of theme parks – they’re there too – and it includes the closest beaches along the Space Coast.

Central Florida bucket list

Central Florida Bucket List

Airboat Tour – Never done one of these in my multiple visits to Florida over the years. I’m hoping to change that.  Most operators say kids can safely ride on these too, so the whole family can come along.

Airboating in Seminole County, Florida, just north of Orlando. Photo courtesy Seminole County

Airboating in Seminole County, Florida, just north of Orlando. Photo courtesy Seminole County

See Manatees – If it sounds like I’m repeating myself, it’s because I am (they graced this Tampa Bay bucket list too). I still haven’t seen one. My trips never time out right for prime viewing time. I read somewhere that Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on the coast has Black Point Wildlife Drive with a chance to look for the sea cows at Haulover Canal.

Big ol' manatees in Florida. Photo courtesy Visit Florida

Big ol’ manatees in Florida. Photo courtesy Visit Florida

Beach Please – I live in the middle of the Midwest. If I’m within 100 miles of a beach, I shall seek it out. I have my eyes on either Daytona Beach or Cocoa Beach, but I’m not picky. What I’d really love to find is a great hotel with beach access. Suggestions?

If you have inquisitive kids, and want to be prepared for their questions about the things you find on the beach, make sure you have a beachcombers guide to Florida’s beaches, because you’ll encounter some doozies.

Ziplines – I haven’t been on a zipline for years, not since my glorious 20s while I was in Costa Rica. It seems Central Florida has a couple different places offering a speedy zip through the trees, but the most interesting location has to be a zoo – Central Florida Zoo. There, you can find ZOOMAIR Treetop Adventure Park.

I'd totally look this put together ziplining in Florida. Totally. Hope to try this zipline course at the ZOOm Adventures. Photo courtesy Seminole County

I’d totally look this put together ziplining in Florida. Totally. Hope to try this zipline course at the ZOOMAIR Treetop Adventure Park. Photo courtesy Seminole County

Animal Kingdom – I’ve never been to this theme park, though I’ve been to the other biggies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s on a side bucket list to take the kids to the Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios and all those others, but since this is my list, I want to put a place I’ve never been to.

Fresh orange juice – Is it a thing to want this? Can you go to an orange grove and get the most freshly squeezed orange juice ever known to man?  I don’t know if there are even groves in this part of Florida, but I’ll just put this on the list regardless.

Kayak in a zoo – Seems like a strangely specific item to have on a list, right? Turns out, the Brevard Zoo is the only zoo in the U.S. that offers kayaking on the grounds. How cool would that be?

Canoe Wekiva – I’ve seen countless pictures of the pristine Wekiva River and it looks gorgeous. The State Canoe Trail winds through a semi-tropical forest, and the water is jewel-toned. I also heard there are guided tours through picturesque Shingle Creek, the headwaters of the Everglades, offered by two Orlando hotels, the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott at Grand Lakes. In addition to paddling at Wekiva, I’ve seen gorgeous pictures of people swimming at Wekiva Springs. I want to go there, too. If you’re into exploring Florida waterways, definitely check out this water trail guide for Florida!

Look how clear this water is in central Florida. Just look at it. Photo courtesy Seminole County

Look how clear this water is in central Florida. Just look at it. Photo courtesy Seminole County

See a launch – This would require some luck and better timing, but someday, I’d love to be near Cape Canaveral on a launch day. When the kids are a little older, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will be a destination. If you want to read up on the the space center’s history before you go, I recommend “Gateway to Space.”

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Photo by Peter W. Cross

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Photo by Peter W. Cross

Stroll Winter Park – In my research, I kept coming across restaurants and wine bars in Winter Park that seemed to be calling my name. Then a friend recommended I go there. So that city is added to my list…to visit when I’m not traveling with kids.

Visit an organic brewery – How granola of me. I heard Orlando Brewing Company is the only USDA-certified organic brewery south of Vermont and east of Colorado. 

Eat ridiculous amounts of good food – I have a growing list of restaurants that pique my interest. Among them: Polonia Restaurant in Longwood (I read one person’s review that insisted diners order the Wazanki); Orlando spots like Pom Pom’s Tea House, Beefy King, Imperial Wine Bar and Beer Garden, White Wolf Cafe and Bar; Winter Park’s Cask and Larder; and the German restaurant, Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, in Sanford (I’m told to try the German Chocolate Cake).

The dining situation at Hollerbach, Looks like a fun place to dine, right? Especially when the band plays. Photo courtesy Seminole County

The dining situation at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe in Sanford, Looks like a fun place to dine, right? Especially when the band plays. Photo courtesy Seminole County

Your turn: Tell me what you would add to this list! Tell me some of the great things you’ve experienced in Central Florida, or the things you’d love to do someday. I especially love restaurant tips.

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May 11, 2015

Why Science Museums Like MOSI Are Fun For Adults

One thing I’m beginning to learn when traveling with kids is that a science center is similar to a children’s museum, only with things adults can play with, too.

Case in point: Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry, MOSI for short.

We brought the kids here while visiting Tampa Bay – and while our visit was shortened due to it falling smack in the middle of one kid’s nap time – I’m using our visit to make an unscientific and untested point that science museums are really just huge children’s museums for grownups.

Which is to say, they’re a lot of fun.

 

Science Museums Are Just Big Children’s Museums For Adults Because…

 

1. The exhibits are interactive

Children’s museums are all about hands-on activities and it turns out, so is MOSI. But they’re not kid-sized, so you don’t feel silly interacting with any of it.

The permanent exhibitions, the giant IMAX dome theater, the planetarium, the flight simulator and the bike on a wire thingy are all stuff adults can enjoy shamelessly without kid in tow.

Yeah, you can can a bike on a cable 30 feet in the air  at MOSI. When we were there, I only saw adults riding this bike though. See? I told you this place is fun for adults.  Photo courtesy Museum of Science and Industry

Yeah, you can can a bike on a cable 30 feet in the air at MOSI. When we were there, I only saw adults riding this bike though. See? I told you this place is fun for adults. Photo courtesy Museum of Science and Industry

And then there’s this: The ropes course and zip line.

With an outdoor setting like this, it's nto so easy getting your kids to go back inside MOSI. Photo courtesy Museum of Science and Industry

With an outdoor setting like this, it’s nto so easy getting your kids to go back inside MOSI. Photo courtesy Museum of Science and Industry

My 3- and 5-year-old were not old enough or tall enough to do it, so we skipped it.

If we didn’t have the short ones with it, you bet both Mr. Wonderful and I would’ve been in line faster than you can fasten your superhero cape.

However, the Kids in Charge! area?

Do not go there without a kid.

That would be awkward.

The Kids in Charge building at MOSI has activities perfectly suited for toddlers, preschoolers and grade schoolers.

The Kids in Charge building at MOSI has activities perfectly suited for toddlers, preschoolers and grade schoolers. My 3- and 5-year-olds really loved this area.

Same goes for the outdoor playground.

With kids only, please.

 

2. You learn stuff through play

We all probably should remember facts about weather.

Mr. Wonderful and Farley see how much they can handle in the hurricane simulator.

Mr. Wonderful and Farley see how much they can handle in the hurricane simulator.

And elementary physics.

And dinosaurs.

And natural disasters.

Mr. Wonderful attempting to explain how earthquakes happen, right before the room started shaking on us at MOSI.

Mr. Wonderful attempting to explain how earthquakes happen, right before the floor started shifting on us in the earthquake simulation room at MOSI.

But we don’t remember any of that stuff.

Visiting a science museum makes relearning it fun.

And, if you’re visiting with kids, it’s fun relearning teaching it to your kids, especially when both of you have that aha! moment at the same time.

 

A few things about our visit

MOSI head titled

We only saw a fraction of MOSI while we were there – you’ll want to factor in several hours for your visit, not two. MOSI recommends a minimum of four hours.

Kids in Charge! is great for elementary-aged kid and younger. They get the most out of the exhibits in that building. That’s not to say you can’t take them around the main building. They’ll like it too, but the STEM concepts may be harder to absorb. They’ll have fun, regardless, so don’t skip it just because you have a preschooler.

 

If you go

Where: 4801 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa


When: Open daily, Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (ropes course and zip line are open Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

Website

Disclaimer: I received complimentary admission to MOSI in exchange for writing about my family’s experience there. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

* * * * *

Thinking of flying your family to Tampa? Check out my sample two-day itinerary for Tampa Bay! We crammed a lot in, which I actually wouldn’t suggest. Mix and match my recommended places to see:

The Florida Aquarium

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Morean Arts Center and Hot Shop

Columbia Restaurant

 

I also wrote about the Allegiant Air direct flight from Omaha to the Tampa Bay area, so check that out, plus if you need a hotel suggestion and you L-O-V-E food and pampering, read my post about Epicurean Hotel in the beautiful Hyde Park area of Tampa.