Sure, there are the typical Orlando vacation experiences -- theme park visits, outlet shopping, dining at Denny's or TGI Fridays. But if you're feeling financially flush or you'll have a Christmas bonus burning a hole in your wallet, there are a couple of Orlando experiences that are both fun and unforgettable for the family as well as being a tad over the top.
Orlando's land-locked location means ocean beaches are at least an hour's drive away. Discovery Cove steps in with a beachy experience -- a reservations-only, all-inclusive water park with the feel of an exclusive private club for about $229 per person per day (including dolphin swim, $169 without).
Visitors check-in at a front desk complete with a thatched roof where they are given masks and snorkels, then encouraged to enter a jungle-oasis filled with man-made rivers, beaches, reefs, pools and palm trees.
Owned by SeaWorld Orlando, Discovery Cove is, as a result, filled with exotic sea and jungle life from dolphins and parrots to colourful toucans and turtles. Families can snorkel around the reef with the tropical fish, float along a long lazy river, hand-feed birds in the Explorers Aviary or simply sit on a quiet beach and read a book.
Thirty-minute Dolphin Interactions can also be reserved (children must be six years of age or older), including an introduction to the dolphins and a chance to pet, swim -- even kiss -- the gentle animals. For more in-depth dolphin interactions, Discovery Cove's Trainer for a Day program allows you to shadow a trainer, and even teaches you how to be pushed through the water by two dolphins. The Trainer for a Day starts from $458 per person and includes admission to the park. Many packages include unlimited admission to SeaWorld Orlando and the Aquatica water park for 14 days surrounding your visit.
There are few better ways to feel like a celebrity than on a VIP Tour of Universal Orlando. For a mere $2,700 per day, you and up to nine family members or friends can tour Universal Orlando's two main parks -- Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure -- with the services of a VIP guide.
Throughout the day you will experience no waiting. You'll zip to the front of every single line, no matter how busy. Better yet, you'll duck into the side door of every ride and walk straight to the front of the line, regardless of wait times.
Guides know the park layouts very well and will offer suggestions on where to go and when. They'll ride with your kids on the upside-down attractions if you really don't want to, and they'll even hold your stuff while you go to the washroom. During the five-hour experience, you'll easily cover both parks with virtually no effort. And you'll experience all the best Universal has to offer, including Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey, and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.
For a less pricy experience, you can join a group VIP Tour for about $150-200 per person. These are limited to one park and eight rides chosen by consensus.
Warning: There is one drawback to the Universal VIP Tour. Once you experience its ease, you'll always want to be a VIP.
This experience isn't costly but it does require a rental car, a late-night out, and some planning.
About one hour west of Orlando near Cape Canaveral, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve is a 57,000-hectare refuge for manatees, turtles, birds, fish and a whole lot of glowing mullets!
A Day Away Kayaking Tours offers day and night-time tours of the Reserve's waterways from about $35 per adult. Perhaps most fascinating is its Bioluminescent Tour along the Reserve's Indian River.
Guided kayak tours depart in the darkness, with nothing but an experienced guide and some glow sticks to lead the way. By the light of the stars and the moon, kayakers paddle their way deep into the estuary to Mosquito Lagoon, where a swish of the paddles encourages tiny underwater globes (mullets) to light.
The experience is both spooky and fascinating -- a fantastic way to get back to nature, not to mention escape Orlando's concrete and hype.