116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MELBOURNE, Fla. — Dreaming of a white sand Christmas?
Central Florida might seem a big stretch for A Day Away, but in the same time it takes to drive from Cedar Rapids to the Bridges of Madison County, you can fly nonstop to Orlando Sanford on Allegiant Air.
For my October jetaway, my plane left Cedar Rapids at 9 a.m., and with the one-hour time jump on the East Coast, I arrived in Sanford, just north of Orlando, at 12:34 p.m. Everybody onboard was in a good mood, with lots of families heading to see the Mouse. Two years ago, my flight left in the afternoon, so just check out the schedules to see which departure time best suits your schedule.
Both return flights left at 6:30 a.m., meaning I needed to be at the airport at 4:30 a.m., but with an hour jump backward, I landed in Cedar Rapids around 8 a.m. Those flights were very quiet, since many passengers across the generations hit the seats and fell asleep.
I’m a big fan of nonstop flights, and round-trip was $333, since I opted for a checked bag and carry-on bag, chose a seat with extra leg room (so worth it) and added priority boarding to avoid the long lines at Sanford for the return flight.
Of course, Orlando also has its own international airport, 23 miles south of Camping World Stadium. That’s where the University of Iowa Hawkeyes will face the Kentucky Wildcats in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, and where the Iowa State Cyclones will meet the Clemson Tigers in the Cheez-It Bowl on Dec. 29. But the Sanford airport is just 29 miles north of the stadium, so take your pick.
Or maybe you just want to escape Iowa in the winter or treat the family to a theme-park holiday where it’s summer year-round. Whatever the reason or season, you’ll find plenty to do in the center of the Sunshine State.
Orlando lives up to its nickname as the Theme Park Capital of the World, being home to Disney World Resort and its Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, Magic Kingdom Park and Disney’s Hollywood Studios; Universal Orlando Resort, with its Islands of Adventure, Volcano Bay water park and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter; SeaWorld Orlando; and LEGOLAND Florida Resort. For a shortcut to info on all of them, go to visitorlando.com/things-to-do/theme-parks/
I’ve been to all but LEGOLAND, and each one has its charms.
I grew up on the “Wonderful World of Disney“ television movies, so my folks packed the car and the kids and drove to Disney World in 1975, four years after it opened. That’s when it was in the middle of nowhere, but once through the gates, the Magic Kingdom rides and Cinderella’s Castle opened the doors to a land of enchantment my teenage self had never imagined.
I went back almost 20 years ago, and needless to say, it’s now in the middle of everything — its own bustling metropolis of sight and sound explosions. In case you hadn’t heard, Disney World will be golden through March 2023, as all the parks under its umbrella celebrate the site’s 50th birthday.
And through Dec. 31, all the parks will be decked in Technicolor holiday style. EPCOT is not only offering its usual trip around the world, but also is showcasing holiday traditions from countries far and wide. The Magic Kingdom will be even more magical all lit up; catch a “Frozen” singalong and Santa Claus Motorcade in Disney’s Hollywood Studios; and look for a Merry Menagerie and festive flotillas in Animal Kingdom, where even the Tree of Life will be aglow.
Tickets: Disney’s standard theme park ticket starts at $109 for ages 10 and up, with lots of options and discounts for visiting for more than just one day and more than just one park. COVID-19 protocols are subject to change, but as of this week, face coverings are required for all indoor attractions, lines and transportation, and are optional outdoors. For prices and details, go to disneyworld.disney.go.com/admission/tickets/
Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is celebrated through Jan. 2, chock full of activities. Or kick back with a Butterbeer and enjoy seasonal serenades from the Frog Choir and Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees. Tickets to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure start at $109, while Volcano Bay access starts at $80. Wear face coverings indoors, optional outdoors. Details: universalorlando.com/web/en/us
I’m lucky to have a friend who moved from Cedar Rapids to Orlando’s next-door neighbor, Melbourne. When she, her sister-in-law who moved to Arizona, and I discovered we all knew each other from various musical endeavors, we vowed to meet at Mel’s house annually for a Girls Week Getaway.
Two years ago, we were all about doing touristy things. We had to skip the trip in 2020, but coming out of the pandemic halt this past October, we kept it all low-key to avoid throngs, even bypassing a crowded art fair we all wanted to go to. We also ate outdoors whenever possible. Next year, we hope to explore more sites, like the Brevard Zoo.
Here are some highlights if you want to venture beyond the theme parks and football stadium.
Kennedy Space Center and the Space Coast: As a child of the ’60s Space Race, “Star Trek” and “I Dream of Jeannie,” the Kennedy Space Center speaks to my inner child with its grown-up vibe that also will capture the imagination of today’s younger generation. It’s STEM heaven, everywhere you turn. Daily admission is $57 ages 12 and up and $47 ages 3 to $11, with multiday admission options, too, at kennedyspacecenter.com/info/tickets. It’s worth every penny you fork over in tickets, eateries and the gift shop. The main website lists the must-see attractions as the Rocket Garden, Heroes & Legends U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, Saturn V Rocket, the Space Shuttle Atlantis — yes, the real deal — and Journey to Mars: Explorers Wanted; all are included with admission. Holidays in Space is being celebrated through Dec. 31 (except for Dec. 25). Unfortunately, the full Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour is currently unavailable, which is a real shame, because the restricted area are so very cool to see. My friends thoroughly enjoyed the Shuttle Launch Experience, and since I’m prone to motion sickness, I enjoyed watching them. There’s just so much to see and do here, and I can’t wait to go back. We viewed a rocket launch from our hosts’ backyard, but the Kennedy Space Center has a blog guide to watching launches; go to kennedyspacecenter.com/blog/03/how-to-watch-a-rocket-launch
Airboat Rides Melbourne, Fla: Departing from Lake Washington Park and Three Forks Marsh Conservation Area, by appointment only. We left from Lake Washington Park on a windy, chilly November day in 2019. I was not prepared for the weather, and we nearly froze to death until Capt. Dan broke out a boat cover in which to wrap up. Note to self: Pack one pair of pants, and a jacket that zips. Still, we had a blast, skimming the water, looking for gators who were wiser and stayed underwater, with just their snouts poking out. We did see beautiful pink roseate spoonbills, which Capt. Dan referred to as “swamp flamingos.” A roseate by any other name still is as sweet. Cost: $45 adults, $40 under age 12, four-adult minimum or you can pair up with others. Details: airboatridesmelbourne.com
Beaches: Let’s face it — Florida’s beaches are a huge draw, whether you’re on the Atlantic side or the Gulf side. They’re equally gorgeous, and even if it’s too chilly to swim during Bowl season, at least dip your toes in the water. Both years, we headed to Indialantic Boardwalk and Park to spend a few hours with our toes in the sand and water, but the Space Coast has lots of other spots for fun in the sun and sand. For a guide to Orlando and Disney World’s closest beaches, go to visitspacecoast.com/beaches
Brevard Zoo: This tops the list for the next time we gather in Melbourne. It’s open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last admission at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $24.95 ages 12 and over, $22.95 ages 65 and over, $15.95 for ages 3 to 11, and free under age 3. Guests are advised to order tickets online at brevardzoo.org/visit to guarantee admission; if you take your chances and buy on-site, tickets are $2 more. Special adventures are available for an added fee, like $2 to feed a giraffe or $9.95 to go kayaking. The zoo is home to more than 900 animals from around the world. They had me at sloth. And no, an Eastern Bongo is not a drum; to get the beat on this critically endangered species, go to brevardzoo.org/animals/expedition-africa/eastern-bongo
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