Welcome to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique,” sings out a grown woman in a princess dress. “No photos please.” Ella and I peek into The Magic Kingdom’s makeover salon, where tiny girl patrons are getting locks and frocks attended to, seated in throne like chairs. “Woah,” says Ella. “That is weird… but amazing.” I’d been worried that at the grand old age of 10, Ella would be too grownup to enjoy Magic Kingdom’s fairytale schmaltz. But from its buffed, polished castles and cobbles, to its manically in-character costumed staff, this place delivers pure Disney charm. My somewhat self-conscious tween dances with everyone from Goofy to the Incredibles family, and goes gaga for the Electrical Parade, the nightly cavalcade of brightly lit floats that’s been entertaining families since the 70s (sadly soon to be decommissioned).
By contrast, Universal Studios seems brash and hungry to cash in on any film franchise going. But there’s no doubt that for high-octane virtual reality (VR) rides — including the truly impressive, if ludicrously packed Harry Potter World — Universal has Magic Kingdom beat. Beat is what we all find ourselves, running the gamut of the parks in 90-degree heat — even allowing for an essential cool-down day at the Aquatica water park (probably Ella’s most cherished memory from the trip). This was our reasoning for book- ending our holiday with a lake and beach break.
If you don’t want fried small fry, this is the smartest choice a family can make. Winter Park, an old Floridian neighbourhood of stately mansions and Spanish moss draped oak trees, is set around a chain of lakes offering boat tours and stand-up paddle-boarding. Away from the theme parks and malls of International Drive, this offers a taste of the real Orlando, including a happening food scene around the Mills SO area. Here, we eat ribs that Ella dubs the “ biggest, bestest” we’ve ever tasted, at Pig Floyds Urban Barbakoa; and go candy crazy at Rocket Fizz, a cavernous shop selling soda pop and fudge in flavours from PB&J to pumpkin pie. The white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast is where we park our weary bodies at the end of the trip, the perfect natural compliment to central Orlando’s man-made fun. We go alligator and manatee spotting in the mangroves of Caladesi Island nature reserve, and Ella cartwheels around the dunes of Clear water beach, tropical storm Colin fast building over the ocean. Who needs thrill rides?