February 1, 2017

5 Star Wars Experiences At Disney World

I braved Disney World during the holidays in 2016, and survived to tell you all about it. What I didn’t mention in that post was that I was traveling with two young Star Wars fans, so our first day in Orlando, we went to Hollywood Studios to take in all Star Wars Disney experiences we could handle excitement.

Here are the five Star Wars Disney experiences that were the biggest hits with my young kids.

Jedi Training

My 5-year-old daughter got to take on Darth Vader at Hollywood Studios during Jedi Training.

A rare freebie at Disney World, your kids have the chance to take the stage and battle the likes of Darth Vader. Training is held several times each day. However, this is extremely popular. You must arrive to the park before it opens and then zip over to the Indiana Jones area to get in line to sign up. Bonus: Since we missed prime ride time, a cast member kindly gave us some Fast Pass+ tickets good for up to five people for one ride.

Jedi Training involves a march to the stage, where costumed cast members teach them some basic moves with light sabers. Then, the kids take turns battling Darth Vader or another baddie. There’s a bit of theatrics to watch, and it’s all pretty entertaining. Disney has photographers there to capture the entire experience.

My son was really into learning the moves of a Jedi.

This is kinda intense for some youngsters, so know your kid’s comfort level. They are on stage without you and Darth is an imposing figure. If your kid is uncomfortable spending a lot of time away from you, this might not be a pleasant experience. Also, take into account your kid’s natural energy level. I signed mine up for training right in the middle of their usual nap time. We were on the verge of a meltdown the entire experience.

 

Character Interactions

Meeting Chewbacca was a highlight of character meet and greets.

Head to Star Wars Launch Bay to meet Chewbacca, Kylo Ren and a Jawa.

Tip: Plan ahead and have something to trade with a Jawa.

Heads up, though, Kylo Ren is an intense character. My usually afraid-of-nothing daughter was totally scared of him. It didn’t help that he zeroed in on her and said he’d been waiting for her. Chewie, on the other hand, was fun and huggable.

You will likely see Storm Troopers throughout the park. Occasionally they interact with you. They interrogated my teen niece.

Side notes about the Launch Bay: When you arrive, you have the option of going straight to the characters or watching a short documentary first. Skip it if you’re with small children. There are displays of movie memorabilia at the Launch Bay, and fans are going to want to take the time to check it all out. There are also some video games to play there.

My friend Cat and her boys looking at light sabers at Star Wars Launch Bay.

 

 

Star Wars: The Adventure Continues

There is a lot to look at if you wait in line for the Star Wars: The Adventure Continues Ride. That line is going to be long, though, without a Fast Pass+ time.

One of the kids’ favorite rides of all the parks was Star Wars: The Adventure Continues. You’ll want to get Fast Pass+ times because this will be a long wait otherwise.

The “ride” is actually a 3-D simulation of flying or being chased through space. There are dozens of variations so each ride will be different. There is a height restriction as the simulation can be intense for itty bitty ones.

 

Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away

The ending of Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away is memorable.

This short, live theatrical show is held several times a day. It involves some favorite characters re-enacting scenes from the franchise. Stick around for the end. They light off a couple fireworks.

There’s also a nighttime show called Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. We didn’t catch it on our trip, but no doubt it has show-stopper moments.

 

Star Wars Penny Press

All the Disney World theme parks have penny presses. My kids had sorted their coins before the trip (I was inspired by this post).

Star Wars penny presses can be found at the Star Wars Launch Bay. Penny presses, costing two quarters and the penny you press, are a lot cheaper than most souvenirs, don’t you think?

But just try getting your kid out of the stores at Hollywood Studios without a new stuffed Ewok or light saber (they can even build their own). The Force was strong with my kids and they got their bonus souvenirs.

 

What are some of your favorite Star Wars experiences at Disney?

January 17, 2017

Surviving A Disney World Christmas Trip

“We’re going to Disney World this Christmas. What tips do you have?” I asked a coworker who had once worked at Epcot.

“Pick another time to go.”

Helpful, right? The two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s is one of the busiest times of the year to go to Walt Disney World, but I had no choice. I was locked into the dates because of a family reunion.

With a lot of planning and patience, we survived enjoyed Christmas at Disney. Here’s what I learned from our trip so that you too can experience Disney magic even during the busiest time of year:

Pre-Trip Survival Tips

1. Plan early. Plan obsessively.

Even if you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler, Disney is not the place to do it, especially during the holidays.

Unless you like eating popcorn for dinner and spending $100+ per person to ride three rides.

I used TouringPlans.com to plan each day and I highly recommend the site. For a small fee, you can customize each day, to minimize walking and wait times. The site’s algorithms calculate wait time for the date you picked, too.

Here’s what part of the touring plan looks like. The first row of numbers is for estimated arrival time, the next is for wait time, then duration of the ride, and the last two rows are for free time and walk time to the next attraction.

Even on busy days at the end of December, our wait times were pretty accurate when we followed the plan, and of course, when we strayed from it, it wasn’t.

And, Pinterest is going to be your new best friend when it comes to planning.

2. You will be able to make meal reservations 180 days in advance if you’re staying on property. Do it.

It was pretty fun meeting Donald Duck and the gang at Chef Mickey’s, a buffet character meal at the Contemporary Resort.

If you know what day you’ll be at each park, you can reserve tables at preferred restaurants and maybe at typical meal times. Yeah, yeah, planning a meal six months out is hard—I don’t even know what I want to eat for dinner tonight—but it was totally worth it. We reserved the following places I really wanted to dine in:

–  Three character meals: Breakfast Cinderella’s Royal Table at Magic Kingdom, lunch at Akerhus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot and breakfast at Chef Mickey’s at Contemporary Resort.

– Late lunch for a large group at 50’s Prime Time Cafe at Hollywood Studios.

Tip: Do not make reservations chronologically, but in order of priority. The first reservation made was for Cinderella’s Royal Table, so that we could have one of the first breakfast times available. I waned shots of Main Street without the crowd, plus the chance to get a head start on rides once we were finished eating.

 

3. Book your Fast Pass+ rides early.

Fun story. Every Disney ride we went on, I managed to block Mr. Wonderful’s face.

If you’re staying at a resort, that is 60 days in advance. If you made your touring plans for each park, you already know what rides you plan on doing and when, so that makes things pretty easy.

Without our Fast Pass+ times, we would’ve had to wait 150 minutes for the Seven Dwarves Mine Train and 120 for Space Mountain. Fast Pass+ is still free, so don’t miss out on securing yours.

Tip: Like meal reservations, book the priority Fast Passes first no matter which day of the vacation they fall on.

4. Pack for cold weather.

We’re used to cold in Omaha. But seriously, Florida can get chilly. Pack a sweatshirt and jeans, just in case. We needed them for one day in December. On our Epcot day, the high was 63 and I regretted only bringing a light cardigan. By nightfall, it was in the 40s and I was tempted to buy gloves.

Mornings were rather cool, too, so a sweatshirt was needed for the kids. By noon most days, we were all in shorts and T-shirts.

With two cardigans layered, I wasn’t even remotely warm when I took this photo with my son. It was chilly even for Nebraska standards.

During the trip

1. Be there at rope drop.

Rope drop is lingo for when the park opens. That makes for ridiculously early mornings, but you can ride a lot of rides before the parks start becoming really crowded (which is around 10 a.m.).

Tip: If you’re staying at a Disney resort, plan on trying to catch the Magic Express bus about 45 minutes to an hour before park opening. There may be traffic, even at 7 a.m.

2. If you’re getting up early anyway, take advantage of Extra Magic Hours.

We went to the Magic Kingdom at 7 a.m. one day. By the time lunch had rolled around, we rode most rides on our two-day touring plan. We just had our Fast Pass+ rides to do after lunch.

Tip: If you aren’t going to get up early, do not go to the park with Extra Magic Hours that day. It will be really crowded by the time you get there.

 

3. Reconsider that break mid-day break from the park.

Main Street at Magic Kingdom on January 1.

Parks can reach capacity during the holiday season. Magic Kingdom reached capacity on New Year’s Eve in 2016. If you try to return early enough in the day, you may not get back in. My nieces returned to Magic Kingdom late at night and had no problem, though. With two little ones, that wasn’t an option for me.

Disney Expectations

Visiting the Magic Kingdom between Christmas and New Year? Have realistic expectations: It will be crowded and you will be exhausted.

1. Have realistic expectations: There will be waiting.

It’s going to suck. Expect the worst so you may occasionally by pleasantly surprised. Might as well expect a little wait time for your meal reservations, too.

I also assumed I wouldn’t check everything off my touring plans. Because, well, kids.

2. Sneak in Breaks. Disney during the holidays is overwhelming and tiring. There aren’t a lot of places to escape the crowds. At the Magic Kingdom, there’s a nice seating area by the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House that felt slightly removed from the bustle, as did Tom Sawyer’s Island.

At Hollywood Studios, Mooch and I chilled at the Art of Animation. I had heard it was a quiet, not-too-crowded spot. Well, it was crowded (thanks a lot, Moana), but at least it was more subdued than outdoors.

Your turn

I want to hear from you. What are your tips for surviving Disney World during the busy season?

* * * * *

Thinking about booking a cheap flight to Orlando, Florida? Here’s what you need to know before booking Allegiant!

December 7, 2015

Jet Off To Orlando With Allegiant

We’ve got it good here, Omaha travelers. We can fly directly to the Orlando area with the low-cost carrier Allegiant. It’s pretty easy and affordable to get to your dream vacation now.

Florida gator

Florida gator

Allegiant started flying out of Omaha in the past year, and they invited my family to try out their Omaha-Clearwater Florida route earlier this year. It was not without a hitch and I shared my experiences and tips for making yours go better here.

Allegiant logo

In spite of it all, I was willing to give it another try. It’s so cheap to fly with them, that I knew I had readers out there who could only travel when fares were that low. And, the airline does do some things well that help ease (a little) the sting of delays and other issues.

So, when they offered to fly the family again on the new route to see how it compares, I took the bait.

 

It went so much better than our first flight!

Cocoa Beach is about an hour drive from Seminole County, Florida, where the Orlando Sanford International Airport is located.

Cocoa Beach is about 70 miles from the Orlando Sanford International Airport. We went there during our weekend visit.

Omaha to Orlando Sanford International Airport

Less than three hours on a plane and you’re a 30-minute drive to major theme parks – and if you are into outdoor adventures, you’re even closer to zipline courses, airboat tours, and canoeing in the wilds of Florida. I tried all those adventurous things on a recent trip.

Adventure

The perks of the  Orlando Sanford International Airport

– On-site car rentals and easy returns

– It’s so near Orlando!

– A much, much quicker check-in for departure than what we experienced on a previous trip. We got to the check-in counter with minimal wait and for security, they were directing families with small children to a shorter line. Made it less stressful for all involved.

– This is so smart for anxious kids: They have a large-screen TV set up to Disney shows (but of course). So, if you’re like me and prefer getting to the airport super early, you have an easy way to pass the time.

Tips On Flying Allegiant To Sanford/Orlando

(or any destination Allegiant flies, really)

We did things a little different than our first trip, and it made our Allegiant experience even better. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. When they say arrive two hours early, they mean it. At Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, you can get away with edging closer to one hour early like you do for other airlines, but I’ve found at the vacation destination spots, early is best. Allegiant flies to and from Omaha on Thursdays and Sundays, and that appears to be the case of many other cities with Allegiant routes to and from prime vacation destinations. Those flights all leave at pretty similar times. And all those travelers have to file through the same check-in counters and security lines.
  2. Boarding time is fluid. The airline also says boarding begins an hour before take off. So far, that has never been the case. Since they board by zones, you’re fine moseying up to your designated zone right as those doors open. You might be the last in your zone, but your seats are already assigned, so nothing is gained by standing in line for that long. There’s nothing that makes young kids more anxious than waiting in line.
  3. Pack more snacks than you need and empty water bottles to fill at the airport. There is a snack and beverage service on the plane – for a cost. It’s totally acceptable (and smart when traveling with kids) to bring on food. Flights are about three hours and there’s a good chance you’ll be traveling over a mealtime anyway. Plus, there’s also the chance of a delay, so it’s better to be prepared to feed your brood during that wait too.
  4. Relax about seating arrangements. If you’re traveling with young kids, you will get seat assignments with at least one parent with one kid. On our first flight, we were 2 and 2; on this recent flight, we had three seats together and one on the other side of the aisle (great for the parent who needs a time out). For adults traveling together but without kids in town, you do have to pay extra to be seated together.
  5. Bring travel pillows and/or blankets if traveling with kids who might want one. I’ve never seen comfort items like a blanket handed out on Allegiant. Side note: If traveling with the booster or carseat age crowd, those are free to check in either as luggage or at the gate.
  6. Expect a wait. When we were leaving Omaha this month, I explained to Farley the concept of hurry up and wait. Such is the way of air travel. Accept that a delay is likely and you won’t get angry at the desk clerk who has nothing to do with said delay. Come prepared with distractions and food.
  7. Sign up for alerts for your flight. You’ll get texts if there’s a major delay expected.
  8. Get the Allegiant app on your phone. It was pretty nice cruising through security and boarding the plane and NOT having to shuffle through every family member’s boarding passes. There are phone scanners at security and the boarding gate in Sanford.

Your turn: What tips do you have for flying with Allegiant?

Additional posts about Seminole County

Central Florida Adventure

ZoomAir Adventure Park Orlando (Sanford, Florida)

Central Florida Zoo (Sanford, Florida)

Hilton Altamonte Springs (Altamonte Springs, Florida)

December 4, 2015

Into The Wild At Wekiva Island

Nothing man-made can compete with the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.

Which is why one Sunday morning in November, while canoeing on a river, we were asked by some British folk in a canoe passing by if we thought the alligator sunning itself was real.

It looked too cool to be real.

We caught this guy sunning himself as we paddled by.

It was real. 

Welcome to Florida!

Wekiva Island collage

We took the kids to Wekiva Island one late morning while exploring Seminole County, because of a picture. I’d come across an image of people swimming at Wekiva Springs State Park and it looked surreal, and I. Had. To. Go. There. (This is how a lot of adventures start with me. A single picture.)

Exploring Wekiva Springs

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.

You can opt to go straight to the state park and get your swimming-in-a-spring on right away, or go the route we did – canoe from Wekiva Island (or if you’ve got all day, standup paddleboard your way there).

Seth from Wekiva Island gave us a primer on the water trail – if we wanted a short trip (yes please), then we’d head left at the fork in the water and head toward Wekiva Springs State Park. It’d be about 30 minutes of paddling each way. For a longer adventure, we could take a right at the fork and head to Rock Springs.

Since our kids were still small, we fit four of us in a canoe.

So these waters, guys, were beautiful! Serene and shaded – if you time it right.

In case you're wondering, not a single photo from Mooch's camera turned out.

In case you’re wondering, not a single photo from Mooch’s camera turned out.

You’ll see plenty of waterfowl.

And, yeah, we saw an alligator.

And paddlers. You'll see a lot of paddlers on the river.

And paddlers. You’ll see a lot of paddlers on the river.

Because of my poor planning (we had a flight to catch), we had just enough time to walk around the swimming area, stopping by the nature center to pet a snake and glancing down inviting trails we wouldn’t get to explore.

There's a small nature center at Wekiva Springs State Park. A volunteer was on hand to tell us about animals native to Florida.

There’s a small nature center at Wekiva Springs State Park. A volunteer was on hand to tell us about animals native to Florida. Mooch wasn’t afraid of any of the critters there.

There was no swimming that morning.

There was a lot of whining from the kids.

I wish we had more time there. Two hours to canoe and explore was not enough. It was a setting you can’t find in the Midwest and something that can’t be replicated at any theme park. We’ll be back.

More about Wekiva Island

The view of the water at Wekiva Island. Yeah, I could spend a day there.

The view of the water at Wekiva Island. Yeah, I could spend a day there.

– To get into Wekiva Island, you’ll pay $1 per person (our kids were free). There’s a fun looking bar, sand volleyball court, several lounge chairs and just a general oasis feel to it.

– It’s the kind of place you’d head to with friends for an afternoon of beer and sun. You can swim at Wekiva Island, though we only saw one or two people hanging out in the water, talking to friends sitting in the chairs. The water is a constant 72 degrees there.

Yep. Definitely could spend a day here.

Let’s play spot the tourist.

– You can rent cabanas (tents), which would be great since there isn’t a whole lot of shade at the launch site.

– It’s also a prime spot to rent a canoe, like we did, or a kayak or standup paddleboard. They also let people launch their own watercraft from their dock.

The dock at Wekiva Island

The launch site at Wekiva Island.

– You’ll have to sign a waiver before hitting the water. Save time and do it online here.

 

If you go

Wekiva Island

Where: 1014 Miami Springs Drive, Longwood, Florida

Cost: Canoe ($30 before noon; $25 after); single kayak ($30 before noon; $25 after); double kayak ($35 before noon; $30 after); paddleboads ($40 before noon; $35 after noon; $30 after 4 p.m.); boat launches are $10-$20.

Note: No alcohol is allowed on the water.

Website

 

Additional posts about Seminole County

Central Florida Adventure 

ZoomAir Adventure Park Orlando (Sanford, Florida) 

Central Florida Zoo (Sanford, Florida) 

Hilton Altamonte Springs (Altamonte Springs, 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.

 

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