In my book, crossing five items off a family's diverse Bucket List in a single Florida vacation can be considered a successful adventure.
During last year's March Break our family of four was able to do just that in a week-long trip to Orlando and the nearby Space Coast: Zoos and amusement parks for the kids. Beaches for me, the mom. And for my spouse? Late-night kayaking and lunch with an astronaut.
Bucket List Item No. 1: Amusement Parks
We began our five-in-one dream vacation in Florida at a spacious hotel called the Swan and Dolphin. Part of Walt Disney World, it's a water taxi ride from Epcot and Hollywood Studios, and an easy bus shuttle from Magic Kingdom. Our two-night stay was the ideal alchemy of Disney parks, late-night pool swims and proximity to outlet shopping in Orlando. Everyone was happy, even me, a noted non-fan of fun parks.
At nearby Universal Studios I was introduced to the incredible concept of the VIP Tour. Eureka! Led by a VIP guide, we experienced zero waiting -- zipping to the front of the line. Expensive? You betcha -- a group VIP Tour that includes eight rides runs about $150-200 per person. But for this crowd-abhorring mom, it was as close as one gets to amusement park heaven. Beware: VIP status spoils you for future visits.
Bucket List Item No. 2: Beaches
Orlando is not exactly a desert. There are lakes, ponds, rivers and pools every few metres in this middle-of-the-state oasis. But without the ocean, seaside beaches or any thundering surf -- for this mom -- it's not a complete Florida vacation. Lucky for me, Orlando is less than an hour away from Cocoa Beach -- perched on the very edge of the Atlantic along the so-called Space Coast.
Reaching the coast is incredibly simple. We hopped in our rental car around 10 a.m., drove a smooth multi-lane, traffic-free highway, and by about 11 a.m. we were cruising Cocoa Beach -- incredible! The first street sign I noticed was for the nostalgia-inducing I Dream of Jeannie Lane, which led straight to a wide white wind-swept beach. The TV show's fictional characters lived in Cocoa Beach (but filming was done in California), and as a kid, I had cut my teeth on I Dream of Jeannie reruns -- so another item crossed off this 40-something's Bucket List.
We quickly stripped down to our bathing suits and plunged headlong into the surf. Wait, I'd better tell the truth: We pulled wetsuits over our bathing suits -- the Atlantic in March isn't warm enough for bikinis. Then we played in the waves for hours.
The surf is huge along Cocoa Beach -- so huge, it's one of the U.S.A.'s top surfing spots. The iconic Ron Jon Surf Shop is along Cocoa Beach -- a giant warehouse of a store selling every surfer dude item one can imagine.
Ron Jon also runs a brightly coloured, well-appointed set of condos called Ron Jon Cape Caribe Resort in nearby Cape Canaveral. We checked in there right before our surfing lessons.
My 10-year-old son and I signed on for lessons with the Ron Jon Surf School. Again, in truth, neither of us had much luck standing up, let alone hanging 10 on those longboards. But it was a sweet mother-son experience nonetheless. And we can both cross that one off our Bucket List.
Bucket List Item No. 3: Lunch with an astronaut
When it was Dad's turn to eliminate items from his bucket list, we planned an outing that would do just that: A visit to the Kennedy Space Center.
Located within a 20-minute drive of Cocoa Beach, and 45 minutes from Orlando, the centre tells the story of the U. S. space program in infinite detail. Among its highlights are the Apollo/Saturn V Center with an actual Saturn V moon rocket, the new Angry Birds Space Encounter, the Shuttle Launch Experience and 3D IMAX space films.
The centre's latest attraction is the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which promises to bring visitors nose-to-nose with Atlantis as only astronauts have seen it -- with payload bay doors open as if it were floating in space. Launched this past June, the new exhibit also includes educational touch-screen experiences and hi-tech simulators. Visitors can conduct a virtual space walk, create a sonic boom and glide down the re-entry slide to experience the sensation of floating in space.
This exhibit was not yet open during our visit, but we did have an opportunity to do something nearly as exciting: Dine with an astronaut. The Lunch With an Astronaut Program puts patrons elbow-to-elbow with men and women who have travelled through space. During our lunch, we learned what astronauts eat and how they eat it -- riveting stuff for the entire family, especially our seven year old daughter. See KennedySpaceCenter.com.
Bucket List Item No. 4: Brevard Zoo
Our daughter is fascinated with animals so our family vacations must include encounters with exotic creatures. We found plenty at the Brevard Zoo, home to more than 450 animals from Florida to Africa to Australia to Asia.
Located in Melbourne, about 33 km inland from Cocoa Beach, this compact zoo is perfectly sized for young children. Its tortoises, camels, lemurs, otters, crocodiles and sloths are only a few of the funny faces we encountered. Best experiences include train rides, kayaking, paddle-boating and zip-lining through the zoo! See BrevardZoo.org.
Bucket List Item No. 5: Night Kayaking
Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve near Cape Canaveral is a 57,000-hectare refuge for manatees, turtles, birds, fish and glowing mullets living in or around the Indian River. My husband's kinship with kayaking meant we had to experience this refuge.
We opted for a night-time Bioluminescent Tour. Guides from A Day Away Kayaking Tours lead these after dark paddling adventures with only the stars and the moon for light. It wasn't long before we entered Mosquito Lagoon, where an entirely different light show greeted us. A swish of our paddles caused tiny underwater globes (mullets) to light up. Again, eureka! Dad crossed another -- truly illuminating -- experience off his list. It was a perfect ending to our diverging Florida Bucket List vacation. See AdayAwayKayakTours.com.