Orlando, a Homeschooler’s Perspective

Dear Reader,

Some of you may remember that long ago I asked for suggestions of what to see and do in Orlando, Florida. We weren’t actually able to go a year ago as we had planned because my mom got sick. But we made up for it last month and made our trip.

I am calling this a homeschooler’s perspective on what to do in the Orlando area though of course I now that there is a lot of variation among us homeschoolers. For us, the reason for going to Florida was to see birds. My older daughter loves birds, studies bird guides, and had been asking for years to go to Florida because “all the best birds are there.” So our initial impetus was not to do the Disney thing but to see nature we can’t see here in New England. I went to Florida saying I wanted to see real things, not people dressed up as fictional characters.

But I am also not the sort to make everything a homeschool lesson, at least not an obvious one. I have seen other moms who find the need to point out things and lecture on them. I am sure at times I have been that mom. But when I see it, I don’t like it. It seems to blatant and I can’t help thinking kids will get very turned off by it. So I did remind myself a number of times this trip that we were not here to do lessons and I bit my  tongue and didn’t point out every educational tidbit I could find.

If you are a homeschooler, the time we went, early to mid December, is a wonderful time to go. I love taking advantage of the fact that everyone else is in school. There were lots of discounts this time of year. We got a great deal at Marriott’s Cypress Harbor which was a great place to stay. We got a two bedroom suite with full kitchen there for the price of one hotel room elsewhere (and just one hotel room won’t fit all six of us). Since we have a lot of dietary restrictions, it was great to be able to make at least some of our own meals. We also got a discount at SeaWorld (see below) which is a hard place to find real discounts for. Plus nothing was too crowded. We are spoiled by being able to do things midweek, not during holidays, and so aren’t used to crowds. Even bigger plus — it is the time of year to see manatees in the wild.

So here are the things we did in Orlando, in the order in wich I liked them, from least to most:

5. Nothing was horrible but the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum makes the bottom of my list  of likes. We went because a) my kids love the Ripley’s books and read them all the time and b) I found a Groupon that made it cheaper (tip: when planning a trip, sign up to get Groupon and Living Social deals from that location ahead of time; you may find some great discounts and discover places you never would have heard of otherwise). Probably a theme I will return to, but everything in Orlando is expensive. Way more than it seems it should be. Sure Ripley’s is a lot cheaper than any of the big parks, but it also takes maybe an hour and  a half to see. I don’t think it would have been worth full price so I am glad we didn’t pay it. There were cool things to see and the kids enjoyed it, but I also feel that now that I have seen one of their facilities I have had enough for this life. One pleasant surprise though was how much art there was. All of it was art made out of weird things like matchsticks, stamps and hair, but it was cool. We like art around here.

4. Sea World — My girls had really wanted to do Sea World. We weren’t going to do it if we went in January but since their trip had to be postponed, I felt bad. We also (as I said above) got  a big discount and were able to go for $50 a person which in my mind is still a lot (especially for 6 of us) but is a lot less than their regular rates (and it seems like the age when one begins to pay adult rates is really low in Orlando; since when is 10 an adult?). The two best things we saw at Sea World were the manatees and the flamingoes. We had seen manatees in the wild (more on that below) but at Sea World we could really get a good look at them. It helped that no one else was by their cage which is a bit tucked away and that there was an employee there who was eager to answer questions. Flamingoes we had seen before but we got to see a flock of them being taken for a walk at Sea World. We just looked up and there they were coming at us down the street with a few zoo keepers. Very cool.

The flamingoes go for a walk.

The flamingoes go for a walk.

I had heard that the shows were the thing to do at Sea World. We saw three of them. By far the best was the Sea Lion and Otter show. It was hysterical. There was also a cameo by a walrus at the end; my younger daughter loves walruses and they were a big reason why we decided to do Sea World. If you go, get a seat early and don’t miss the pre-show act. It was funnier than the show itself.

Sir Winston Walrus saves the day and steals the show.

Sir Winston Walrus saves the day and steals the show.

The killer whale show

The killer whale show

We also saw the dolphin and killer whale shows. I have to say I was a bit let down by these. They really tell you nothing about the animals (there goes the homeschooler in me again). It is all about loud music and the animals doing a few tricks over and over again. The first time you see a dolphin or an orca jump out of the water, it is pretty cool. But then it seems they keep doing the same tricks. Even my kids were let down. The dolphin show was only 20 minutes long and about half of it was human acrobats flying around, not dolphins. I was irked that at the killer whale show they talked about how each animal has its own unique personality and then called them all Shamu, an animal which died more than 40 years ago.

The dolphin show

The dolphin show

As I said, one of the big things we had wanted to see was walruses. I had looked online and there are only a handful of places one can see them in captivity in the US. I was really glad we got a good look at the one in the Sea Lion show because the display of them was a big disappointment. This may be a seasonal thing, but we had to wait in line and sit through a very shortened version of the Polar Express movie even to get into the building which housed the walruses (and all the time my kids are whistpering to me, “Why are we doing this? We have seen this movie.”). And then when we did fight the crowds and finally get to the walrus enclosure, there was one walrus that one could not see very well.

There is a lot to do at Sea World — there are rides and lots of shopping and places to eat. But we were there to see animals, and that was a disappointment. Yes, we did get to see some that one can’t get other places like walruses and manatees and for that I am glad we went. But one has to walk past an awful lot of other, non animal, attractions to get to those exhibits. Like Ripley’s, I am going to say of Sea World that I am glad we went once, but I am also really glad we didn’t pay full price for what we got.

3. The Kennedy Space Center — I couldn’t find any discounts for this. Their website says it takes 6-8 hours to see everything. I think the truth is to really see everything would take well more than eight hours. When we were there, it was winter (gets dark earlier) and off-season and the space center was only open for 8 hours so there is no way to do absolutely everything in a day. We were there most of the eight hours and while there were still things we missed, we had about had our fill (well, the kids had) when we left. The best parts are the historical exhibits which talk about past victories (and defeats) of the space program. I am not sure the kids appreciated them as fully as my husband and I did but they still seemed to get something out of it. Maybe we should have had them watch The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 ahead of time. Seeing a real space shuttle was also a highlight though it was the last thing we did and the kids were too beat to do the shuttle simulator. I was pretty skeptical about the ride over to the Apollo/Saturn V Center. There was a line for the shuttle bus which I am sure would be much, much longer at peak tourist times. The ride itself was 45 minutes which I was not prepared for (I am still not sure if this is standard or if it was part of the longer tour which we didn’t pay for). But the tour guide was mildly interesting and we got to see some birds and alligators along the way too. The exhibits once we got there on the Apollo rockets were pretty good. One big complaint I have about the whole space center is that they don’t tell you how long waits are and how long things take or even what is at the end of the line you are in. So while the stuff may be good when you get there, you don’t really know what you are getting yourself in for. The Robot Scouts exhibit was cute and well done and no one else seemed to be in it. We could have done with the Angry Birds exhibit (way too crowded with school kids) and the Exploration Space exhibit where one waits (even on a  fairly empty day) for hands on simulators which don’t seem to respond well and just frustrate the children.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis

The Space Shuttle Atlantis

2. Our two best experiences were both a bit off the beaten track and were both boat tours. Coming in at number two is an airboat tour we took through Spirit of the Swamp. This was a last-minute decision we made when we had one more day to fill. It ran about $400 plus tip for the six of us, but we got a private airboat tour with a knowledgeable guide who was happy to answer the kids’ questions. And we saw about 10 alligators, most of them large. Apparently this is more than one typically sees. Really I have nothing bad to say about this experience and I would highly recommend it. It only comes in second place because we saw fewer birds than on our other boat tour.

View from the airboat.

View from the airboat.

1. Which brings us to the best thing we did in Orlando — a river boat tour with Blue Heron Boat Tours. I cannot say enough good things about this experience. The river boat is much slower than the airboat (less appealing to my boys maybe). It also seats 30, though when we went there were only two other passengers, so I imagine it may not be as good at peak tourist season. But our guide was really knowledgeable. We saw a couple of dozen kinds of birds, most of which we had never seen before. The guide knew every one. We also saw turtles, alligators and . . .  manatees! Now it turns out when you see manatees in the wild, you don’t see much, just a shape breaking the water for an instant, but it was still really cool and we can say we saw them in the wild. I had originally found Blue Heron through Groupon but since we weren’t able to go in January, out Groupon had expired and we ended up paying full price (using the money we spent on the expired Groupon as part of it). But this was still about the cheapest thing we did and the best. Highly recommended.

If you look closely, there's an alligator in there.

If you look closely, there’s an alligator in there.

And that was our trip to Orlando. It was a vacation that actually made me anxious to take more vacations to cool places. Any suggestions??

Nebby

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One response to this post.

  1. […] are other sources of possible heroes. Perhaps I was brainwashed by our recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center but I tend to think that our astronauts, past and hopefully future, have the potential to be true […]

    Reply

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