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Child's play

Taking the kids to Florida is a parent's duty, but there's a way to lessen the pain (if not the cost)

in Orlando - When I was a child, I thought as a child. I thought the world revolved around me, and that grownups-especially my parents-experienced the world the way I did. So, when they took me to Orlando during summer vacation, I assumed they loved it as much as I did. When I became a man, I put away childish things. Including Orlando. Especially Orlando. My first trip back as an adult came as a shock. When had this city of my childish memories become so crowded, so expensive, and most of all, so incredibly, inexcusably tacky? Then it hit me: This had been torture for my parents as well. They had sacrificed perfectly good vacations on sugary beaches or in European capitals so my siblings and I could catch a glimpse of a guy in a mouse suit. Forget labor pains and private school tuition-I owed them big-time for suffering through all those Orlando getaways. Maybe this summer it's your turn to make the sacrifice. You've been putting it off as long as you can, trying to convince your kids that the local Six Flags is as good as Disney, any day. In a last-ditch effort, you even tried using the boycott as an excuse. But your 10-year-old pointed out that you watch ESPN all the time, and it's owned by Disney, so what's the difference? You're busted. Trapped. Looks like you've got to do the Orlando thing this summer. The question is, if you're going to spend all that money, shouldn't you enjoy the trip just a little? Here are some suggestions for wringing a few moments of adult pleasure out of the ultimate kiddie vacation.

Stay on-site. Sure, it's ridiculously expensive, but it can save your sanity in a city that's increasingly gridlocked. If it takes you 45 minutes to get to the park from one of the "nearby" hotels, you're going to feel like a captive once you're there. Even the most hyperactive 6-year-old can overdose on Donald Duck after a while. The easiest thing to do is jump on a monorail or a water taxi and go back to the hotel pool. Water and sun are a powerful antidote to Disney-induced sugar shock. After everyone re-charges in the pool, then head back and finish your day in the park. You'll feel like you got your money's worth, without holding the kids hostage at the park all day.

Which hotel? If your kids are young, the Magic Kingdom is going to be their top park pick, and the Contemporary Hotel-which opened the same year as the park itself-is literally across the street from Space Mountain. The rack rate for this convenience starts at about $200 a night, but packages and specials can lower the cost considerably. Disney wants the Contemporary to appeal to grownups as well. Because this hotel has the largest convention facilities of any Disney property, it draws an unusual number of adults without kids. They appreciate the six clay tennis courts, the spectacular view from the rooftop California Grill, and the motorized water sports on adjoining Bay Lake. Don't worry, the kids can still eat breakfast with Mickey. At nearby Universal Studios Orlando, there's only one on-site lodging choice-but it's a doozy. The Portofino Bay Hotel, operated by the upscale Loews Corporation, opened in September 1999. It's not only one of the best hotels in Orlando, it's one of the best anywhere. The 750 rooms are set in an uncanny reproduction of the village of Portofino on the Italian Riviera. Universal brought Italian craftsmen over to recreate the ambiance of the village in incredible detail. The ceramic tiles behind the sink are hand-painted by a family-owned company in Naples, for instance. And the crystal vases on every table in the signature Delfino Riviera restaurant came from the famous Murano studio (at $1,500 a pop). This is a very grown-up hotel that can easily make you forget you're in Orlando-high praise, indeed. But Portofino Bay doesn't forget the kids, by any means. The elaborate Beach Pool is a kiddie magnet, with its sandy banks and waterslide disguised as an Italian aqueduct. Neighboring Splendido Pizzeria has a great gimmick: floating menus that waitresses toss into the pool for hungry swimmers. Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are within easy walking distance, and there are no streets to cross. On the way back, be sure to take the water taxi: Rounding a bend in the tranquil lagoon and seeing an Italian village in the moonlight is undeniably romantic. Rack rates during the high season start just under $250. But again, no one pays rack rates, and this is a world-class property.

Pick your parks carefully. All theme parks are not created equal, and despite their best efforts, Disney and Universal don't have equal appeal across all age ranges. Sales agents will try to convince you to spend thousands (literally) on multi-day passes that offer "something for everyone," but you should just say no. Kids of all ages will certainly find something to like at each park, but often not enough to keep them engaged for a full day. The Universal parks-Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure-are probably better for older kids who don't care about shaking Mickey's hand, but would see the humor in a dead-ringer for Lucille Ball who wanders the streets of "Hollywood" doing spot-on impressions. The studios are more about movie nostalgia than about thrills. The most exciting attraction is Back to the Future-which, despite some amazing virtual reality effects, doesn't ever move a single foot. Islands of Adventure, on the other hand, is all about serious thrill rides. Younger kids will likely get scared. Mom and Dad may well get sick. And the Disney Parks? With attractions based on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the Muppets, just to name a few, Disney/MGM Studios will be far more interesting than Universal to tourists under four feet tall. But the thrill rides just aren't as thrilling, overall. Tower of Terror is a great free-fall attraction, but the new Rock 'n' Roller Coaster is a mess. Do you really want to hurtle along a darkened roller coaster while Aerosmith shrieks at you? It's meant to be an older-skewing Space Mountain, but the original is far better. Speaking of Space Mountain, the Magic Kingdom still rules after nearly 30 years. Kids get wide-eyed, and adults can get misty-eyed. The classics like It's a Small World are going strong, and recent additions, like the new Winnie-the-Pooh attraction, maintain the classic Disney spirit, for the most part. There's a sweetness about the place that you can't miss. And while this park, more than any other, is geared to the youngest children, it's the one place where the adults are smiling as much as the kids. Epcot, on the other hand, is really a sermon disguised as a theme park. The futuristic, high-tech side of the park preaches at you from every pavilion: Save the earth! Save the seas! Trust in science! It's as if all the suits at the sponsoring corporations were trying to assuage their guilt for selling out the hippie ideals of their youth. Even shriller is the multi-culti sermon you get in the World Showcase section of the park. The national pavilions offer some interesting architecture, music, and shopping, but it's all served up with a relentless one-world message. Whatever you do, skip the highly touted millennium parade that takes place each night. It's slow and repetitive, and the narration is mind-numbing: something about the Sage of Time who wanders through the earth every 1,000 years, saddened because "the family of nations no longer sings and dances together." Where are the Pirates of the Caribbean when you need them?

Give yourself one great, grown-up memory. At Universal, I'd have to nominate the Portofino Bay Hotel-a place with so much class and attention to detail, it's an experience unto itself. Spring for one of the upgraded Villa Rooms, which include exclusive access to one of the prettiest pools on the planet. Surrounded by impeccable formal gardens, gurgling fountains, and wrought-iron lamp posts, the villa pool feels like something straight out of Tuscany. There are even two grass bocce courts nearby. (Don't worry, the guy who brings your drinks will teach you how to play.) At the Disney parks, there's nothing more memorable for grownups than a visit to the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Walt Disney World Speedway (next to the Magic Kingdom). After you sign the proper waivers, a professional driver will strap you into the passenger seat of a real, $150,000, 600-horsepower stock car and take you for a spin. At 165 mph, you can feel the battle between gravity and centripetal force, and you pray that gravity wins, lest you go airborne over the white cement walls flashing by just a foot or so away from your right shoulder. It's the quickest $89 you'll ever burn through-the three, one-mile laps are over before you can pry your head off the headrest-but it will give you a story you'll never stop telling. Bet you didn't expect to find that in Orlando, did you?

Bob Jones

Bob Jones

Bob is a former WORLD reporter.