Dig a little deeper and help your clients squeeze the most our of their holiday in the Sunshine State, says Joanna Booth.
With Mickey, Harry and Shamu on your side, you may well think you don’t need any more help selling Florida. The power of the parks is undeniable, and with exciting new rides and attractions opening regularly they’ll continue to draw hundreds of thousands of British visitors to the state every year.
But the truth is that just booking a basic flight and accommodation package won’t show clients how you can add value to their holiday or prevent them from turning to the internet and double-clicking their own way to Orlando.
Persuading them to book attraction tickets in advance through a tour operator, or with the likes of Attraction World or Do Something Different, is a no-brainer for both parties. Clients will get much better value for money than waiting until they reach the US, and you’ll get a cut of the loot as commission. Don’t forget, in addition to the multi-park tickets of different durations, there are ‘backstage’ tours and VIP options that allow clients to jump to the front of the ride queues.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. From exciting day trips to twin-centre options, take a look at the suggestions below for making your clients’ trips to Florida as memorable as possible.
There’s more to Orlando than Mickey. That’s not to say the theme parks aren’t extraordinary, and likely to play a large part in any Orlando holiday, but make sure clients are aware of everything the city offers, so they can really make the most of their time there.
Nature: For a real contrast to the man-made parks, Suzanne Harvey, Florida product manager for Hayes & Jarvis, recommends the Wekiwa Springs State Park. "It’s a hidden gem just north of Orlando. You can take a picnic, canoe in the river, see natural wildlife and swim in the springs." Alternatively, for a more commercial experience, book tickets for Gatorland. In addition to alligators and crocs, there’s a petting zoo, nature walk, reptile shows such as Gator Wrestling, and even a new zip-line.
Sports: Visitors can get a real slice of American life with some quintessentially US sports. Basketball fans can watch Orlando Magic slam-dunking from October through to April, and in March the Atlanta Braves play 18 games of Major League Baseball in Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Kissimmee’s Silver Spurs is the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi, and in February and June visitors can watch cowboys in Stetsons do their stuff. Petrolheads will love the Richard Petty Nascar driving experiences.
Music: Rock’n’rollers needn’t languish for lack of a beat in Orlando, with concerts at House of Blues in Downtown Disney, stage shows at Universal City Walk’s Hard Rock live and monthly Velvet Sessions at the Hard Rock Hotel – plus downtown Orlando’s nightclubs, including The Social. Record store Rock’n’Roll Heaven has made a name for vintage vinyl, and those who love the whole 50s feel will enjoy the Saturday Nite Cruise at Kissimmee Old Town, featuring more than 300 classic cars.
Cuisine: Just about every state in the south lays claim to the best barbecue joint in the nation, and Florida is no different. Bubbalou’s Bodacious Barbeque has outlets across Orlando, serving spare ribs, pulled pork, fried pickles and even gator bites. Florida’s other indigenous food presents a lower risk to your arteries. Showcase of Citrus offers eco tours of the orange groves, or you can hand-pick from 50 varieties and picnic under the trees.
Whether clients drive themselves or go on organised excursions, there are plenty of choices that allow them to get out of Orlando for a day.
Budding spacemen will love The Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, 40 miles or so from Orlando. It’s been the launch site for every manned US space mission since 1968, and there are a variety of exhibits and displays on space travel. Ticketing specialists offer packages with and without transport, and there are add-ons to the basic entry, with experiences including lunch with a real astronaut, and a half-day astronaut training programme with spaceflight simulators.
Between October and March hundreds of manatees (see pic above) flock to King’s Bay in Crystal River on Florida’s northwest Nature Coast. It’s the only place in the US where it’s legal to swim with these creatures in their natural habitat, and bookable day trips take in a boat trip, a swim and a visit to the Homosassa Springs State Wildife Park where they can spot otters, hippos, alligators and panthers.
The subtropical wetlands of the Everglades stretch from Kissimmee River right down to the southern tip of the state, and whizzing among the vegetation on an airboat is a quintessential Florida experience. Boggy Creek in Kissimmee is the closest spot to Orlando for airboat trips, with 30-minute rides running throughout the day. Tell clients to go early or late for the best chance of spotting alligators – or even at night. Longer full-day tours will transport clients to stretches of the Everglades farther south and on to do some sightseeing in Miami.
Other trip options include deep-sea fishing on the Gulf Coast and overnight trips to the Keys to swim with dolphins.
ADD THE BEACH
The ‘week in Orlando, week at the beach’ combo is a classic, but do you know how many beach options are actually on offer?
West coast: Clients may well want to head west to Busch Gardens in Tampa, so the Gulf Coast beaches can provide a sensible add-on, and there is a wide choice of options offering something to suit very different markets. St Petersburg/Clearwater are neighbouring resorts near Tampa, and are relatively built up with a wealth of hotels, restaurants and attractions. Anna Maria Island is more unspoilt, and is selling particularly well for Vacations to America. Managing director Richard Wimms says its low-rise developments, plus abundance of individual houses with pools within easy reach of the beach, make it a popular choice.
Farther south are the bright white sands of the Seashell Coast. Fort Myers beach has gained a reputation for being extremely family-friendly because of its shallow water and lack of undertow, and a high-speed catamaran means visitors can hop down to Key West for the day. Off the coast Sanibel Island is accessed via a causeway bridge and has a network of cycle paths. Nothing is built higher than the palm trees, and the west coast’s beaches are mirrored on the island’s leeward side by mangrove swamps, where families can traverse the boardwalks searching for dolphins and manatee.
Upmarket, manicured Naples is full of boutique shops, small art galleries and golf courses, with natural, untouched Marco Island off the coast. Sitting at the northern tip of the Everglades National Park, trips – which can include swamp-walking, kayaking, and eco tours – first pass through the beautiful Ten Thousand Islands.
East coast: To the north, there’s St Augustine, the oldest city in the US, which has a helping of history with its sun and sand. Farther south, Daytona will rev things up for motorsports enthusiasts as home of the Daytona Speedway. Then there’s buzzing Fort Lauderdale and Miami’s beaches.
Panhandle: This northwestern area isn’t well known with Brits, but is popular with US travellers. Martin Owen, regional marketing director of Resort Quest, which offers holiday rental properties across the US, says: "There’s a different culture and cuisine. We’re the Deep South – closer to New Orleans than to Orlando. There are pines, not palms, and clear green water." Panama City is a 40-minute flight from Orlando, and visitors can stay in the lively city location or in more secluded options, such as South Walton, a group of 15 picture-perfect beach towns along a 26-mile stretch of coastline. This whole area is more seasonal than southern Florida – perfect during summer but a little chilly for winter sun.