By Susan & Simon Veness
Ready to take a trip with us? This could almost be A Tale of Two Cities (Florida Version), as we showcase the contrast of the state’s two greatest assets – its theme parks and the beaches.
In fact, this also takes Simon back to his very first visit to Florida, in February 1993. Travelling with good old Cosmos (who else remembers them?), he enjoyed 10 days in Orlando and four at the Dolphin Beach Resort in the heart of St Pete Beach, 104 miles to the south-west.
It provided the perfect balance of action and chill-out time, a heady mix of excitement and relaxation. And it is as true today as it was 27 years ago – this classic combination is simply superb if you want to cherry-pick the highlights of the Sunshine State in just two or three weeks.
Just to start with, we DO strongly recommend you do it the same way round that Simon did way back then. Having all the fun and thrills of the Theme Park Capital of the World followed by some blissful beach time makes for a wonderfully balanced holiday that won’t make you feel like a wreck when you get back home!
Essential Tips for Enjoying Orlando
Orlando is certainly a high-energy destination, and it will seem like a non-stop exercise in rides, restaurants and shows if you try to pack too much in. With 11 major theme parks and water parks to choose from, plus dozens of smaller attractions, it can easily feel more like a commando operation than a vacation if you don’t limit your ambitions and ensure you have at least a day or two at one of the less hectic attractions to slow down and avoid theme park burnout.
That’s our No.1 tip for all first-timers to this vastly exciting destination – you can’t do it all. Many newcomers arrive thinking they are just going to go from one park to another until they have all 11 under their belts and, yes, it IS possible. But, especially in the summer months, when it can be 35°C with the humidity to match, you will end up like a worn out dish rag if you treat it like an exercise in ticking ALL the boxes.
Now we have that essential warning out of the way, here’s the next important message to take on board when you sit down to book: choose your accommodation type and location very carefully.
American hotel rooms do tend to be larger than many of their European counterparts, but spending two or three weeks in the same hotel room can be distinctly wearing, especially for families.
Having more space to live in by choosing one of the suites-type hotels or – even better – one of the thousands of vacation villas that Central Florida features will enable you to really feel the benefit of the area’s expansive style, where nowhere is really close to anywhere else.
True, you can pick bustling International Drive – a 14-mile stretch of hotels, restaurants shops and attractions that puts you close to most of the theme parks – but the accommodation choice is mainly limited to standard hotels, and you won’t find any of the large villas, most of which come with their own private pool.
And, for all the great proximity to Universal and SeaWorld, you can still be 15 miles or more from Disney’s parks, with a half-hour drive during peak traffic periods.
The Key to a Great Walt Disney World Stay
Therefore a key question in the booking process is where to be based for most of the Orlando part of your holiday. If much of your focus is likely to be on Walt Disney World, you might want to consider a Disney hotel for at least part of your stay, ensuring a relatively short ‘commute’ to the parks and the essential enjoyment of the House of Mouse.
Staying in the Lake Buena Vista area or the southern stretch of International Drive is also a workable alternative for a Disney-centric trip.
The same would also be true if you are more likely to be spending most of your time at Universal Orlando, with its two theme parks, water park and CityWalk district of restaurants, shops and nightlife. There are now eight Universal hotels to choose from, including a new range of two-bedroom suites.
In an ideal world you could split your time between Disney and Universal, but we realise that involves more organisation, time and expense, especially as it would turn our two-centre holiday into a three-centre one.
We think the lure of booking a vacation villa is strong, though, even if it means more travel time to and from the main attractions (as most are in the three counties immediately to the south and west and Disney).
Being in a purpose-built, private-pool holiday home in a more residential setting away from all the hustle-bustle is a real boon in terms of providing a welcome, quiet haven after a busy day at the parks, while the ability to do your own cooking from time to time is another bonus, as well as being a way to save some money on eating out all the time.
The one thing you can be sure about for the Orlando part of your trip is that there will be plenty of quality, whether you decide on a hotel or villa. There is just SO much competition in this area, no-one can afford to let their standards drop, hence it is one of the most reliable holiday destinations anywhere in the world (and, of course, America First Coast Travel can ensure you make the right choice for YOU).
Get The Most From The Gulf Coast
If those are the basics as far as Part One of this great vacation adventure is concerned, there are fewer considerations for Part Two, but there is just as much to look forward to.
Orlando remains the big honey pot as far as Florida is concerned, and you will probably be amazed at how the pace slows down and the crowds thin out as you take the two-hour drive to the Gulf Coast. Yes, this is still a popular area – especially at weekends – but you won’t find that excited frenzy that typifies much of the theme park atmosphere.
You will get a good sense of the widespread nature of much of the Sunshine State as you head down I-4 and pick up I-275 in Tampa for the leisurely drive across the low-rise Howard Frankland Bridge over Old Tampa Bay, past the city of St Petersburg and along the scenic Pinellas Bayway to the long north-south stretch of St Pete Beach itself.
Here, you will suddenly find yourself with water on both sides of you. As you head north, the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico will be on your left, disappearing beyond the horizon that provides the daily spectacle of a scintillating sunset. To your right will be the Intracoastal Waterway, a partly man-made feature that rings much of the peninsula of Florida.
This often means you have a dual aspect from your seaside accommodation choice and, while the sea itself exerts a truly eye-soothing influence, you will actually have more to see with the view over the Intracoastal Waterway, with its many bridges, islands and boats.
Once here, your only choice is where on this blissful range of unbroken golden sands to call ‘home’ for however long you are able to extend your holiday for. There is little meaningful variation along this part of the coast, although the Pass-A-Grille district to the south is generally labelled the more laid-back section of a fairly chilled area.
Treasure Island is the area immediately to the north, and this is where you’ll find John’s Pass, a lively ‘village’ of shops, restaurants, watersports and boating activity that provides a chance to explore the many activities along the coast, including several dolphin-watch and sunset cruises (our top tip – Dolphin Landings, for sailing in style!).
The Best St Pete Beach Hotels
It isn’t hard to find a hotel that provides almost instant beach access hereabouts. Roughly 75 per cent of the accommodations are situated right on the seafront with nothing between you and the warm Gulf waters but the sand. From that point of view, the ‘best’ hotels are many.
But not all hotels are created equal in Pinellas County. There are several vintage choices, many that date back to the 1950s and have been only minimally updated, and a small selection of ultra-smart, contemporary properties that provide a wealth of mod cons.
Among the latter is the modern, Mediterranean style of Hotel Zamora, nicely situated on the Intracoastal side of the island and with an all-balcony aspect that takes full advantage of the vista. A rooftop bar, lovely restaurant, Castile, and fabulous pool deck complete an enticing picture here.
Looking for something more dramatic? Look no further than the iconic Don CeSar, an exemplar of high style for almost 100 years that remains as smart and cosseting in its period glamour as it was in 1928. With its perfect beach location, beautiful grounds, delectable dining and luxurious rooms, this is a choice with all the deluxe trimmings you could wish for.
Finally, if you’d prefer a more uptown choice and don’t mind the short drive to the beach each day, the Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club in the heart of St Petersburg is a wonderfully graceful choice for another classic 1920s-styled hideaway. Within walking distance of most of the city, this uber-elegant hotel exudes an old-world charm that is surprising to find in such a modern setting, but all the better for it.
Hopefully, that’s whetted your appetite for a genuine, wide-screen, technicolour Floridian adventure and, as good as it sounds, we have really only scratched the surface of this amazing area. Just give it a try – we know you won’t regret it!
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.