We start our journey with every kid's fantasy destination: Orlando, Fla.
Orlando's Amtrak station
The Trip: Spring Break at Universal Studios, with side trips to The Kennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach
The Mode: Amtrak's Silver Star from New York Penn Station to Orlando
The Hotel: Cabana Bay Beach Resort
The Adventures: We arrived in Orlando after a pleasant 24-hour train ride in coach seats. Cost: about $620 round-trip for one adult, two children over three, and a toddler, who traveled free.
We spent our first day getting a sense of the place. Cabana Bay could be a travel destination on its own with its late-50s vibe and a ton of activities.
The pool, which is never deeper than four feet at any point, is a highlight, framed by a really awesome slide! Gabe gave it a thumbs up, but Seb, who isn't the strongest swimmer, was not a fan. Zoë is too little for the whole thing and, therefore, has no opinion. She did, however, love playing in the pool and getting a free ride in the water from Mommy.
Gabe takes the plunge
If swimming isn't your thing, maybe bowling is. The resort has a 10-lane alley called Galaxy Bowl.
Perhaps it rains on your parade, as it's wont to do in Florida. There's an arcade for that!
If the weather is fine, and you're looking for a little manufactured, theme-park fun, a shuttle departs every 10 minutes for Universal Studios, but we found at least two buses waiting each time we headed over to the park. They work hard to keep you happy.
Zoë seems pretty happy
The park itself is pretty much what you'd expect. The security area was mobbed in the morning on Tuesday, our first full day there. The following day, when we went in the early afternoon, it was easy to get through.
There are plenty of places to spend your money. The Simpsons Ride features a carnival at Krustyland, where you can be parted with your cash for games of chance.
The Simpsons Ride is like experiencing a live-action Simpsons episode. Confession time. I am a huge Simpsons fan. I've been watching the show since I was in junior high school. Seeing a mock-up of Springfield was seriously cool for this kid-at-heart. Shopping at the Kwik-E-Mart? Ah, yeah!
Thank you! Come again!
Zoë has a new babysitter. It's Krusty the Klown! Hey-hey!
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is just past the purple triple-decker bus near the Simpsons area. You'll find a massive fire-breathing dragon chained to Gringott's Bank. Little kids might be intimidated. My seven year-old was terrified, but the lovely staff helped calm his nerves. I found that the staff, from actors to security and even the cashiers working the souvenir shops, were all kind and helpful, and they truly seemed to enjoy their work with kids.
All fire and no bite
Islands of Adventure, on the other side of Universal, offers big thrills and rides for the little kids.
Adventurous boys about to take on Islands of Adventure
My 18 month-old daughter, Zoë, took her first ride on the One Fish, Two Fish ride at Seuss Landing. She loved it! Just be aware that most rides require children to be over 40 inches tall. Petite Zoë probably has a few years to grow before she can enjoy most of the things the park has to offer.
Zoë embarks on the One Fish, Two Fish ride at Seuss Landing
My boys, on the other hand, never had a dull moment, raving about the Jurassic Park River Adventure. Dinosaurs and water combine for an epic adventure.
A quick side note: if you have children who don't meet the height requirements, and you're pretty confident your other kids are going to be fine riding alone, there are child swap areas to wait for them.
Memorable Meals: There is no shortage of places to grab a bite, from burger stands to nice restaurants.
My boys are big sushi fans, and we really enjoyed The Cowfish Bar and Grill. There's a kids' menu, which includes some sushi rolls for the novice sushi eater, but my boys each ordered a Tropical Storm roll. So, parents, don't let your kids do as mine did! Order one roll. It will feed at least two kids. The place also has an interactive fish-creator, which allows you to invent your own fish and send it off to the "aquarium," a screen that displays these fishy creations.
We also devoured a massive, pink doughnut, complete with sprinkles, we acquired at the Kwik-E-Mart.
Mmmm ... Colossal donut!
The Monster Cafe has a cool atmosphere and some awesome monster-movie memorabilia, which I found super-awesome. I love Universal's classic monsters, and it made a stop necessary. The food is pretty standard fast-food fare, so don't expect haute cuisine.
Don't look behind you, guys!
Once my kids drained every last ounce of fun from Universal Studios and Cabana Bay, we hit the road for The Kennedy Space Center. It's worth noting that you'll have about an hour drive from Orlando to the space center, just in case you have an event planned, as we did.
Houston, we have a gift shop
Our event was Lunch with an Astronaut, and our astronaut was Bob Springer, who joined the space program back in the late 70s. Over a buffet lunch, Mr. Springer told us about his experiences in space and shared photos. My nine year-old son Gabe was enthralled. Younger children, however, might not get as much out of it. My seven year-old seemed bored and distracted, and my toddler, Zoë, became fidgety and fussy. As a former young kid with astronaut dreams, I thought it was cool. Plus, my boys got their picture taken with a real-life astronaut, which is kind of like getting a photo taken with a rock star to grade school-aged boys.
Sebastian and Gabe with Astronaut Bob Springer
NASA seems to be pushing hard for an expedition to Mars. There's an area devoted to enticing starry-eyed youngsters to train hard, study advanced astrophysics, and join that Mars adventure! There are interactive stations for the kids to explore, and a quick program to inform visitors about NASA's hopes for its next major interstellar trip.
There's also an amazing exhibit devoted to the Space Shuttle Atlantis. You are led into an amphitheater, where a short film describing the arduous task of constructing the Atlantis is shown. Visitors are then led into a smaller theater area for another feature, and the screen lifts to reveal the actual space shuttle, suspended for display.
We were scheduled to leave by train late Friday evening, so we did what any family looking to make every moment count would do. We hit the beach! Cocoa Beach, to be precise. Oh, Cocoa Beach. How I wanted to love you. Alas, I was disappointed.
Zoë takes a stroll on Cocoa Beach
Don't get me wrong. The beach is beautiful. It's clean, and the water was clear and lovely. The city itself, however, is not exactly kid-friendly.
Its numerous strip clubs and bail bond places indicate that this beach is aimed more at keg-toting frat boys in airbrushed T-shirts than little kids.
Still, the beach might be worth it for a day trip, but beware that there are no public showers or changing areas, which makes sand removal and bathing suit changes a little tricky.
We'll be back!
Our trip was not without its setbacks, but we left feeling happy and carrying with us a lifetime of memories -- not to mention a suitcase full of souvenirs. My biggest souvenir? My credit card bill. Ouch!
If You Go
If you take the plunge, be sure to bring some comfortable walking shoes. You will walk a lot. My brood and I averaged six to eight hours of walking each day, which I call the Bataan Fun March! Also, bring plenty of water, sunscreen, some cool clothes, and your patience. There are lines. Lots and lots of lines.