Sunshine state of mind
Mark Evans finds that Florida has got plenty of attractions for the whole family to enjoy
I'VE found the number one family holiday destination. Florida.
Plain and simple. I've never seen as much joy on the children's faces as during the 10 days we spent in the Sunshine State this summer. And there's nothing better than a family trip to Orlando -- right? Well, wrong. There is five days in bustling Orlando and then five more relaxing on the Gulf-washed beaches of Florida.
And the pain has been taken out of getting to the Sunshine State, especially if you're on a non-stop service from Dublin to Orlando with Aer Lingus.
The two-centre mix made it a wonderful break, with guaranteed sunshine, great shopping and terrific, well- priced dining out.
Put simply, there is no better all-round destination for a family holiday than Orlando.
A Vegas for kids, it's got all the old favourites, but is constantly changing, so you could visit time and again and find something new to do or see every time.
Our hotel, Bahama Bay Resort and Spa, was a destination in itself. It offers all the comfort of your own home (accommodation in two- or three-bedroom villas) with every convenience of a standard hotel room. Situated just 15 minutes' commute from Walt Disney World, it boasts four heated pools (if needed in these sunny climes) and its own spa and salon.
The children loved the wading pool, waterfall and playground, where we got to relax under its thatch-roof cabana while the children played.
Throw in restaurants, bars and even fishing (it's situated beside Lake Davenport), plus complimentary wi-fi and it's a great package.
Nice at it is, the kids will drag you (literally, on arrival) off to the playground that is Orlando.
Our favourite is Universal, which has two distinct parks in Universal Studios and Universal's Islands of Adventure.
The former is home to one of our favourite rollercoasters, The Rip Ride Rockit (complete with your own personal music playing as you whizz around) and the nerve-jangling Incredible Hulk Coaster.
Slightly gentler, but as much fun, is The Simpsons ride, using massive screens (and water flung on your face) to achieve the feeling of having an adventure with Homer and Co.
The neighbouring Universal's Islands of Adventure features the biggest name in showbiz -- Harry Potter -- in his Wizarding World. Lines are long. Very long. So get there off-peak and marvel at the amazing recreation of Hogwarts, buy some wands to bring home and enjoy the thrills of the Dragon Challenge and Forbidden Journey rides.
And it was great to have Disney so close to our base. Disney's Hollywood Studios was our favourite as it houses the incredible Rock'n'Roller Coaster, with its blistering blast-off to the sounds of Aerosmith.
The Backlot Tour, with its highlight of Catastrophe Canyon, where an earthquake, a flash flood and explosions (you're safely watching from a moving tram) will delight kids of all ages.
As amazing as Orlando is, it's great to have a bit of r'n'r for adults and children alike.
Clearwater, two hours' drive west of Orlando is a beach lover and shopper's paradise. Silky white sands stretch for miles and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are safe and warm.
We stayed in the Sheraton Hotel, which has a host of keenly priced restaurants to suit every taste. It's an upmarket hotel but with a resort-type feel where you will feel at home in no time at all.
Clearwater itself has an olde-world feel to it, although it is a very modern town. There are literally dozens of restaurants to choose from, with a great variety of fish eateries.
It's also close to any number of shopping malls, where Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren lovers will have a field day. When we visited, many of the shops were offering a 40pc discount on prices which were already 30pc below Irish prices and the keen exchange rate makes your hard-earned euro go that bit further.
The higher-end malls also offer the likes of Michael Kors and Nordland at very keen prices.
And even if shopping's not your thing, the Caribbean-like beaches will set you up nicely in the perfect chill-out mood.