Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Central Florida is one of the few places where can you sip “butterbeer” among wizards and dragons, pilot the fastest ship in the galaxy on a smuggling mission and propel upside down at gamma radiation-fuelled speeds with the Incredible Hulk – all in one visit.
The fall season brought its fair share of events, but nothing compared to the thrills Experience Kissimmee shared with a group of lucky Canadian travel advisors in September on an exclusive tour of vacation homes, hotels and theme parks.
The fun-in-the-sun FAM, hosted in partnership with Air Canada and Air Canada Vacations, was held, in part, to highlight Kissimmee’s vacation home inventory, which has ballooned significantly over the past decade.
READ MORE: On Location - agents unlock vacation homes, theme parks with Experience Kissimmee, Air Canada & ACV
The city's 60,000 rentable homes are commissionable to travel advisors, exist in “purpose-built” communities – suburban-like, gated neighbourhoods – and come equipped with attractive amenities, such as private pools, barbecues and grocery delivery services.
Multi-generational families and corporate groups are big target markets, as PAX learned while spending the week with agents in an eight-bedroom home at Encore at Reunion – one of many communities in the region.
We published an overview of Kissimmee’s vacation homes (and hotels), which you can read here, but perhaps the biggest advantage of staying in the “Vacation Home Capital of the World,” besides value and affordability, is the city’s close proximity to major theme parks.
Located in Osceola County, Kissimmee is just south of Orlando. The car ride to Walt Disney World Resort is roughly 10 minutes or less (depending on traffic).
Meanwhile, Universal Orlando Resort, home to the spellbinding Wizarding World of Harry Potter and other eye-popping attractions, is roughly 20-25 minutes away.
PAX, exclusively, joined travel advisors on visits to both parks, equipped with VIP access, to see what magic and thrills await at Kissimmee’s doorstep.
“The World’s Most Magical Celebration”
It’s been a big year for Walt Disney World Resort as the iconic entertainment complex celebrates its 50th anniversary.
To mark this milestone, “The World’s Most Magical Celebration” has been taking place in Disney’s parks since October 2021, and the party will continue until March 2023.
Guests can expect new attractions and sparkling touches in all four theme parks – the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom – as well as two waterparks.
The centrepiece of the anniversary is Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park, which has been enhanced with golden embellishments and other artistic enhancements.
Here, there’s a new nighttime spectacular, produced for the anniversary, that delivers next-level enchantment.
“Disney Enchantment” features the dazzling fireworks, emotional music, lighting effects and pixie dust sparkle that guests have come to love.
But now, there’s projections that extend from Cinderella Castle down Main Street, U.S.A., and a new song, called “You Are the Magic.”
One noticeable element you’ll see in all parks, in honour of the 50th, are majestic golden sculptures featuring fifty much-loved characters.
As for what attractions to visit, where does one begin? Walt Disney World Resort has more than 170 rides to choose from.
On our tour, we hit up Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, a trackless dark ride that opened in March 2020 inside the Grauman's Chinese Theatre replica at Hollywood Studios.
The plot of this zany attraction begins with Mickey and Minnie taking a leisurely drive to a picnic in their roadster with Engineer Goofy’s train chugging along – until a series of twists, turns and slapstick gags leads to one wild adventure.
The family-friendly ride, (which is adorably cute), is based on recent Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts. And, surprisingly, it’s the first ride at any Disney park that stars Mickey Mouse and friends.
READ MORE: These Kissimmee vacation homes are on the doorstep of Florida’s top theme parks
Also new is Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at EPCOT, a coaster that starts in the “Galaxarium,” a planetarium-like exhibition
It’s one of the longest fully enclosed coasters in the world and each vehicle rotates 360 degrees.
Also new at EPCOT, in the France pavilion, is Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, which invites guests into the flavourful world of the delightful Academy Award-winning film “Ratatouille.”
PAX played big at Toy Story Land, an 11-acre park at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that opened in 2018, built to resemble Andy’s backyard, that’s full of life-sized toy blocks and green plastic soldiers.
Here, adorably-playful rides, such as Alien Swirling Saucers, Slinky Dog Dash and Toy Story Mania (a 4D shootin' game) await.
The towering Buzz Lightyear statue planted at the park’s entrance elevated our group pictures to infinity…and beyond.
A galaxy far, far away
Then there’s Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge – also in Hollywood Studios – that pivots from the sugary sweetness of classic Disney to an intense galaxy…far, far away.
This intergalactic land is literally on the edge of the park, next to Toy Story Land. It felt like we teleported into a rocky, terrestrial planet of space ship parts and out-of-this-world characters.
READ MORE: PAX plays big at Walt Disney World’s Toy Story Land in Orlando
It’s a world where you create your own Star Wars story: two interactive rides Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run (where guests sit in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon on a risky flight mission) and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (where you join The Resistance in a fierce battle against the First Order) offer realistic thrills in a way that only Disney can deliver.
That eerie army of Storm Troopers that greeted us at Rise of the Resistance…those Obi-Wan Cannot Be real. (Or were they? We’re still not sure).
Another highlight at Disney was seeing “Drawn To Life,” a new acrobatic show at Disney Springs produced by Cirque du Soleil, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering.
It tells the story of Julie, a girl who discovers an unexpected gift left by her Disney animator father – an unfinished animation.
As she explores a world of animation, guided by a surprising pencil, Julie embarks on a quest filled with childhood Disney memories.
With jugglers, acrobats, unicycle stunts and classic character animations (which appeared to spring alive on stage), the show is a true love letter to Disney’s storytelling and ability to make magic real.
Bring a Kleenex, or two, for this one because happy tears may flow.
As for planning out your Disney adventure, there’s a new tool called Disney Genie inside the Disney Parks app that gives visitors more control over their visits. See more details here.
Click here to see what Walt Disney World Resort has planned for the holidays.
A world for everyone
It takes a good night’s sleep to recover from the high that comes with visiting Walt Disney World. Thank god we had a Kissimmee vacation home to unwind in – just down the road!
But our adrenaline shot right back up when it was time to visit Universal Orlando Resort.
READ MORE: More tourists have “converted” into vacation home renters, says Experience Kissimmee CEO
This mega theme park, which opened in 1990, revolves around the movies and television shows that made us and that continue to shape pop culture today.
With high-voltage rides, character encounters and epic dining venues, like Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen, the energy inside Universal is electrifying.
Whether it’s Harry Potter, Springfield (The Simpsons), Men In Black, E.T., Marvel Comics, King Kong, Dr. Seuss or Jurassic Park (to name a few franchises), there’s a world for everyone.
In three exciting parks, no less: Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure (home to superheroes and magical creatures), and Volcano Bay water park.
It’s a very popular place. But leave it to Experience Kissimmee to pull some strings and get agents in on a “VIP Tour” experience.
This is a backstage pass where ticketholders are escorted by upbeat guides to the front of lines via backdoors and shortcuts that are off limits to other guests.
Think of it as a First Class ticket…for theme parks. It includes breakfast and lunch, and you learn fun tidbits about attractions along the way.
“Book early because they tend to sell out – especially during peak season,” advised Jennifer Julian, sales manager at Universal Orlando Resort.
The cost of a VIP Tour depends on the time of year, but there are private and non-private options, and it’s available for groups ranging from two to 12.
Live stunts & great escapes
As for what Universal Studios has in store these days, there are new experiences that opened during COVID that are only now being discovered by guests as the market resumes travelling.
“The Bourne Stuntacular,” which opened in summer of 2020, is a live-action stunt show with “fistfights, shootouts and danger at every turn” that has quickly become one of Universal’s top-rated shows, Julian told us.
Thrill-seekers are also feeling the rush on the new Jurassic World VelociCoaster, which opened in June 2021. It’s billed as the “apex predator of roller coasters,” promising a “high-speed dash through the park’s raptor paddock.”
September saw the debut of a new street show at Universal Studios, called “¡Vamos! – Báilalo,” which translates roughly to “Let’s Go and Dance.”
It’s a high-energy Latin dance experience, featuring a dozen dancers that take to the streets for a high-energy 12-minute performance. Think “In the Heights” with a dash of “West Side Story.”
Universal’s Great Movie Escape is also now officially open at Universal CityWalk – a cinematic escape room experience comprised of two adventures inspired by the Jurassic World and Back to the Future films.
Marvel Comics comes alive at Marvel Super Hero Island, which is home to four attractions, including The Incredible Hulk Coaster and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.
That Hulk-themed rollercoaster, by the way, warped our minds. The ride, with twists and turns, accelerates from zero to forty miles per hour – in under two seconds!
Universal is also the place to be for calendar holidays – Halloween Horror Nights, Holidays at Universal Orlando Resort and Mardi Gras are over-the-top celebrations.
One Wizarding World
But one of the biggest drivers to Universal Studios is, without a doubt, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
This was a game-changer for the park when snowcapped Hogsmeade Village first opened in 2010.
Here, fans can enter the mysterious castle grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where the soaring and realistic Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride is located.
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is a new attraction at Hogsmeade where guests can fly deep into the wilds of the Forbidden Forest.
The Wizarding World was extended in 2014 with the opening of Diagon Alley, which recreates locations in and around London with narrow streets and quirky venues, like Gringotts bank, the Leaky Cauldron restaurant and Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes store.
Here, we first sipped “butterbeer,” a sugary beverage that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling imagined to taste “a little bit like less-sickly butterscotch.”
Despite its name, butterbeer does not contain alcohol, so it’s a sweet treat for all ages.
And, oh, if you feel a brush of heat in Diagon Alley, that’s likely because you’re standing under the Gringotts Dragon, which, multiple times every hour, breathes (real!) fire from above.
The Hogwarts Express train connects both lands for guests who purchase park-to-park tickets, and whether you’re familiar with Harry Potter or not, you’ll leave the Wizarding World feeling enchanted and awestruck.
Which is kind of how organizers of the Kissimmee FAM felt about having Canadian travel advisors fly down to Florida to see it all for themselves.
“Canada is so important to us and the recovery of tourism,” Julian said. “Having this group here feels so good.”
Denise Graham, account director for Experience Kissimmee at VoX International, which represents the destination in Canada, echoed that sentiment.
“It was so great to bring our first FAM back to my second home in Kissimmee with a great group of hand-selected travel advisors,” Graham told PAX.
“The weather over-delivered with sunny days as we explored just a small portion of all that Kissimmee has to offer, from the world-famous theme parks, our exclusive hotels and vacation homes and local attractions.”
“It’s such a fun destination and I am so proud to represent Kissimmee for more than six years in the Canadian market with a great group of colleagues at our head office who helped make it all happen.”
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