Before the serenity of Sanibel Island, we spent two full days in two of Florida's newest theme parks. This requires much mental preparation as we are not Theme Park People. But our kids, 9 and 11, are in love with Lego and Harry Potter, respectively. So, with clear stipulations that these were the first and last theme parks we will ever visit, we dived in. The problem is – it being winter holidays – much of America has dived in with us.
Admittedly, we had low expectations. But Legoland (in Winter Haven, 45 minutes south of Orlando) surpassed them, and then some. The whimsy and art of the miniature worlds were delightful. San Francisco's Chinatown brimmed with life, New York bustles with shops, and there were the Obamas, waving from the White House (a security detail on duty on the roof). Elsewhere, we shot lasers on a ride through Egyptian pyramids. The kids made Lego cars and raced them down ramps. They climbed through an old-fashioned, fortress-like playground beside a castle. They drove in a driving school. Best of all was the unexpected delight – a pre-existing botanical garden lies in the middle of Legoland. And in the middle of the lush garden in the middle of the theme park was the most jaw-droppingly beautiful tree we have ever seen. A banyan tree, branches seeping roots in a tangled web of beauty. A tree so magnificent, it alone is worth the price of admission. florida.legoland.com
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
A word of caution to Muggle parents of enthusiastic Potter fans: Be prepared to part with a slew of sickles and galleons at the World of Harry Potter (at Universal Orlando). Temptations – from frothy butter beer to Bertie Botts Every Flavoured Beans to robes and scarves – will beckon your children with a siren-like danger. Still, there is nothing quite like the sight of Hogsmeade, the village of wizards, and its street leading up to the mighty Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We had stepped into the world of J.K. Rowling – a peak inside store windows showed Quidditch equipment, strange, wonderful instruments and quills that moved by themselves over parchment. The main ride, through Hogwarts, was both magical and magnificent: Dumbledore lectures you from his podium, portraits move and speak. We arrived at 7 a.m., and yet still wait more than an hour. Outside, a choir of Gryffindor students sings Hogwarts songs. We enter the Three Broomsticks for an early lunch. It is awesome. The kids have shepherd's pie and mugs of butter beer. The latter – they proclaim, slightly drunk on it all – is the single best thing about Harry Potter World. universalorlando.com/harrypotter