Holidays & Travel

Why Florida’s gateway city Kissimmee is a hair-raisingly fun family break

Ahead of Mother’s Day, Kirsty Masterman enjoys a bonding parent and child adventure in America.

Family fun is in abundance in Kissimmee, with thrilling rides and alligator experiences aplenty
Flying high at Universal (Kirsty Masterman/PA) Family fun is in abundance in Kissimmee, with thrilling rides and alligator experiences aplenty

“They won’t eat me, will they?” asks my nine-year-old daughter, Jessica, as she takes her place, ahead of me, on the Screamin’ Gator Zipline at Gatorland, Florida.

“Not as long as you hold on tight,” I say, encouragingly.

We are well into our mother-daughter trip at this point, so Jessica just rolls her eyes at me and takes a leap of faith. The joke ends up being on me, though, as I’m forced to follow her lead with my jelly legs.

It sets the scene for what turns out to be a truly amazing early Mother’s Day trip.

When you hear people talk about Florida, I’m pretty sure the first thing that springs to mind is Disney and its many theme parks. However, there is so much more to the Sunshine State.

The Everglades
The Everglades (Alamy/PA) The Everglades (Alamy Stock Photo)

Situated in Central Florida, Kissimmee is the perfect year-round destination for those seeking a fun family break. Theme parks, the Everglades, shopping, award-winning spas and championship golf courses are all within easy reach, and with average temperatures of 21C, it makes for an ideal base.

With more than 70,000 accommodation options ranging from budget to super-luxe, it’s no surprise to learn that Kissimmee is known as the vacation capital of the world.

We are fortunate enough to stay in one of Jeeves’ mega-mansions (, equipped with lazy rivers, home cinemas, laser tag rooms, a bowling alley and even an indoor treehouse.

Our mega-mansion
Our mega-mansion (Kirsty Masterman/PA) Our mega-mansion

No trip to Florida would be complete without a theme park visit, and our choice for this trip was Universal Studios, to experience the new Minions attraction. It’s almost 20 years since I was last at Universal, and a lot has changed, not least the fact I now have a nine-year-old daughter as my ride buddy.

The ‘thrill’ rides seem to have stepped it up a notch (or two) as well. The day starts off with a bit of ‘friendly’ competition at the new Illumination’s Villain-Con Minion Blast, where we get to ‘blast our way to supervillain stardom’ using a heavy X blaster. Needless to say, I fail miserably.

Finally tall enough to take on the ‘big’ coasters, Jessica is keen to try every hair-raising ride, including the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit which turns out to be one of our favourites. We get to choose our own soundtrack to ride (or scream) along to as we lay back, awaiting our fate. We choose Abba’s Waterloo.

Jessica at Universal World
Jessica at Universal World (Kirsty Masterman/PA) Jessica at Universal World

Our mid-February visit coincides with Mardi Gras, so we finish the day watching the nightly parade, while trying to see who can catch the most beads being thrown from the outrageously garish, yet brilliantly designed floats.

The next morning, feeling the after-effects of a day at a theme park, the promise of a mum’s only outing to the St. Somewhere Spa at Margaritaville Resort is extremely welcome. Leaving the youngsters in the capable hands of their babysitters, we make our escape to the island-inspired spa.

I opt for the full body massage followed by some relaxation time on the heated loungers and a glass of champagne. I could stay there all day… but alas, Cirque du Soleil’s Drawn to Life is calling. The Disney-inspired production tells the story of a young woman who finds a collection of incomplete sketches left by her late animator father and subsequently sets out on a quest to complete them, assisted by a magical pencil and a funny band of creative muses.

Kirsty Masterman relaxing at the spa
Kirsty Masterman relaxing at the spa (Kirsty Masterman/PA) Kirsty Masterman relaxing at the spa

Before the show starts, Jessica has the chance to join other children on stage for a pre-show ‘performance’. The attention-seeker in Jessica certainly laps this one up.

Another spine-tingling experience lies ahead at Gatorland: The Alligator Capital of the World, the only place where you can feed alligators up close. Spread over 110-acres, there are plenty of thrills to be had here, and not a rollercoaster in sight.

The resident alligators of Kissimmee
The resident alligators of Kissimmee (Kirsty Matserman/PA) The resident alligators of Kissimmee

From baby gators (grunts) and 14-foot monsters, to a Spanish-speaking parrot, free-flight aviary and petting zoo, there’s no shortage of wildlife to see. We were primarily here to take on the Screamin’ Gator – a 1200-foot, high-flying and quite frankly, terrifying zip line that takes you soaring over an alligator-infested breeding marsh. I couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated by these majestic creatures, creeping closer to us.

Aside from the obvious thrills and spills, our time in Kissimmee was so much more. Taking on such a varied itinerary enabled us as mother and daughter to share some amazing experiences, while facing our fears, making new friends and boosting our confidence. It gave us the opportunity to slow down, reset and embrace our time together.

As we pack our suitcases to return home, Jessica declares, “I love life.”

Mission accomplished, Kissimmee, you certainly delivered!

How to plan your trip

For further information on Kissimmee, visit