Our trip to the sunshine state started out as you would imagine. My son Noah and I were super excited to spend time at the happiest place on earth – Orlando. We love the hot sunny weather, even with the occasional summer sun shower.
Orlando officially became a city back in 1885 and since then it has grown from a rural citrus growing area to a major place for families to vacation. Orlando is now host to 60 million tourists from around the world every year.
We were going back to our favourite resort – the Swan and Dolphin – for the second time. Last year we fell in love with their twirling water slide, five outdoor swimming pools, swan paddleboats, hammocks, sandy beach, and Noah loves the cool kid’s activity center.
Since it’s a resort on Disney property, we can walk, ride a boat, or take a shuttle bus to visit all our beloved characters like Mickey, Pluto and Winnie. Our first few days were spent in total fun magical bliss.
Orlando is one of those cites where a car is essential. If you drive to Orlando from home you will obviously have your car with you, it’s approximately 20 hours from Toronto.
If you fly to Orlando there are multiple car rental agencies or you can go with a service such as Mears Transportation, a ground transportation company that will pick you up and take you where you need to go. One of the advantages of this option is you get to chat with the driver and learn all about the destination.
Noah and I met smiling Michael from Mears and liked him instantly. We also really loved his swanky spiffed up car – a sparkling white 2016 Lincoln MKT SUV. Noah was in awe that the car was equipped with WIFI and insisted on going online just for fun.
Noah and Michael compared their favourite sports teams while I admired the green landscape on either side of us as we drove along. Orlando is home to many retention ponds that collect the rainwater and they add to the beauty of the city. They are used to manage storm water runoff so flooding and erosion doesn’t happen. Being in Orlando in June it can be raining one moment and sunny the next. Or as Michael tells us, it can rain at the front of the car and be dry at the back!
The next day we set off for Wonderworks on International Drive, about a half hour drive away. Michael explained how popular International Drive is and points out the famous Hilton hotel that Paris personally opened. This stretch of road has become Orlando’s tourism corridor and becomes more popular daily – the billion-dollar development plan obviously contributes to this! Other cool activities to check out in the area are the Orlando Eye where you can ride high above the city on a 400 foot-tall observation wheel, volcano themed mini golf, or Wet ‘n Wild – Orlando’s thrilling waterpark that’s great for a hot summer day.
Wonderworks is appropriately called an amusement park for the mind and boasts 35,000 square feet of fun with over 100 hands-on exhibits. We went into a hurricane shack to experience intense wild wind, an earthquake café that shakes, and we explored Google Earth on a massive screen.
After an adventurous day of learning about the world we were starving. Noah and I are vegan, so Michael, whose wife is vegan, told us about a buffet restaurant called Sweet Tomatoes that serves healthy fresh food and lots of vegan options. We are in love at first bite. The soup, salads and dessert are delicious! It turns out it’s a chain under the brand Souplanation and there are six locations in Orlando and 26 across Florida.
Sunday morning we got ready for our big road trip adventure to Wekiwa Springs State Park. We were excited to go kayaking down the flowing river and hike along the nature trails. Every day forty-two million gallons of water flow through Wekiwa Springs. We heard there is wildlife such as deer, turkey and even Florida black bears, so I packed my camera. It’s about an hour drive from the Swan and Dolphin and 20 minutes north of Orlando, located off Interstate 4 at exit 94.
As we drove along the freeway I decided to take advantage of the car’s WIFI and read the news for the day on my phone. It was Sunday June 12th.
Sunday June 12th – the day of the deadliest shooting in American history. I started reading story after story about the terrorist attacks at Pulse Nightclub where 49 people were brutally killed hours earlier. Since the news stories were only starting to unravel, some of the details had not yet been made public. By the time we arrived at Wekiwa Springs I did my best to put on a smile for Noah’s sake.
However this lovely brown sign was unfortunately the closest we got to the park that day.
The park ranger told us the park was full to capacity that morning and we couldn’t get in. I didn’t know if it was because the park is always that busy on Sundays, or because of the Orlando shooting more people decided to go to the park and get out of the city that day. Regardless, Noah was really disappointed the park was full. So I did what any loving parent would do. I took him to Walmart and bought him a toy.
Although there were plenty of fun attractions we could have done that day instead of Wekiwa Springs, I felt I needed to process what happened and just chill with Noah and be grateful we were safe. Michael graciously drove us back to the hotel (Okay fine, we stopped at another Sweet Tomatoes restaurant first!).
Noah spent the rest of the afternoon playing with other kids in the resort pool while I chatted with parents about the Orlando shootings. Not a single person said they wouldn’t come back to Orlando. We all know it could have happened anywhere, in any city, in any country, around the world.
On our last night in Orlando Noah and I watched the Disney fireworks from the Swan and Dolphin and said a prayer for the 49 people that tragically lost their lives in the senseless attack at Pulse nightclub. Life is a gift and we should treasure every moment that we have on earth. Orlando is a beautiful place and the horrific actions of one person cannot destroy the magic and love that exists there. I continue to read about the heroes and acts of kindness and compassion that persevered during the tragedy. I will definitely return to Orlando one day, after all, I have to take Noah to Wekiwa Springs and go kayaking!
If you want to donate and help provide support to the victims of the Pulse tragedy and their families, please visit the One Orlando Fund.
For more information on travel to Orlando check out their website.
Images property of Miriam Porter.