When her three grandchildren visit, Patsy Dorris says the great debates begin.
"At lunchtime, one likes peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, another wants chicken nuggets, and the third asks for pizza," notes Dorris, a retired homemaker in McKenzie, Tenn. "Afterward Logan wants to watch cartoons, Brianna listens to the radio, and Caleb tries to sneak the keys to my car."
She expects a similar challenge later this summer when she travels to Florida with her daughter and the three kids — ages 3, 10, and 15, respectively. "We're trying to decide where to go and what to see on which days, so that we can keep everybody happy," she sighs.
Since Disney opened its first Florida theme park in 1971, the state has evolved into one of the world's busiest family vacation spots. Keep these ideas in mind when you're matching theme parks with your grandkids' interests:
Smaller Grandkids: Infants to Elementary school
[photo photo2 align=right max-width=100] You can't go wrong with Florida's original theme-park experience: Disney's Magic Kingdom. Highlights for younger kids range from classic attractions — such as It's a Small World, with international dolls belting out the tune — to the recently-upgraded Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. This year Disney introduced the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, an interactive comedy club where your grandchildren can trade jokes with characters from the hit animated movie.
[photo photo25 align=left max-width=100] Disney's Animal Kingdom offers an appealing mix of theme park and zoo. After you spot giraffes, gazelles, and rhinoceros roaming freely during a ride on the Kilimanjaro Safaris, your grandkids can meet more wild animals along the park's various treks and trails. Don't forget a stop at the Affection Section petting zoo. Round out your day at the Finding Nemo: The Musical stage show or the It's Tough to Be a Bug 3-D film.
Middle schoolers: Grades 5-8
[photo photo3 align=right max-width=100] For grandchildren fascinated by science, the Kennedy Space Center is the perfect option to combine with other Orlando theme parks. Cape Canaveral is about 45 minutes east of the city. Astronaut wannabes can feel the vibrations and hear the roars during takeoff aboard the brand-new Shuttle Launch Experience. Guided tours will show them the Vehicle Assembly Building — the world's largest building; the 3.5-mile-long crushed-rock crawlerway; and, the two giant pads used to launch the real space shuttles. If possible, schedule your visit during an actual launch.
Inside Orlando's popular — but pricey — Discovery Cove, you can swim and play with dolphins, wade through a pool filled with rays, and wander through an aviary filled with more than 300 exotic birds. This 33-acre park caps daily attendance at 1,000 guests, so you and the grandkids won't ever feel crowded. The all-inclusive admission covers your swim and snorkel gear, towels, sunscreen, lockers, two meals, and a seven-day pass to SeaWorld Orlando or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Discovery Cove's sister parks.
Teenagers & Young Adults: Grades 9 to 12 & College
[photo photo4 align=right max-width=100] Universal's Islands of Adventure is your best option for older grandchildren craving excitement. This park offers Florida's best range of high-speed, high-thrills attractions — from the roving-motion, 3-D Spider-Man simulator ride, to the 150-foot drop aboard Doctor Doom's Fear Fall and the Dueling Dragons twin coasters. The Incredible Hulk Coaster rockets from 0 to 40 mph in the first two seconds and includes seven complete rollovers.
[photo photo5 align=left max-width=100] Another park rated highly by teens is SeaWorld Orlando, most famous for its stadium shows featuring Shamu, the killer whale. This attraction now offers pulse-pounding rides like the Kraken "floorless" roller-coaster featuring open-air seats with only shoulder harnesses holding you in, and the Journey to Atlantis water ride/roller coaster combination. SeaWorld's nearby new Aquatica Water Park opened in the spring of 2008.
The Entire Family
[photo photo6 align=right max-width=100] What if you can only spare a day or two on your Florida vacation for theme park visits? Try Universal Studios Florida, where younger children will enjoy live attractions like the "Animal Actors on Location" show, while their older siblings head to rides like the Revenge of the Mummy. The entire family can meet later in the day to enjoy the Shrek 4-D film or watch audience members try stunts during the Fear Factor Live shows. As the day winds down, stay in the park for the Universal 360 fireworks show, complete with lasers and movie scenes projected onto four 40-foot-tall globes in the park's lagoon.
If you're avoiding Orlando altogether, Florida's best theme park option for all ages is Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Younger grandkids can wander through the Land of the Dragons and look for animals during a ride on the Serengeti Railway. The older ones can test their nerves on SheiKra, the state's tallest roller coaster, with three minutes of adrenalin-pumping action at 70 mph along a half-mile of track.
Already, Patsy Dorris has discovered one secret to keeping grandkids happy during a Florida vacation: multiple-admission tickets that allow visitors to enter more than one theme park each day. "After a few hours in the morning at one park," she says. "I can take my younger grandson back to the hotel for a midday nap, while the rest of the family heads out in the heat to another park!"
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.