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 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