An inn or a resort on a small Caribbean island may be the obvious choice for a fashionable warm-weather winter getaway. But if a good price is more important -- especially if the whole family is making the trip -- then Florida is an affordable and agreeable alternative for fun in the sun.
Once a playground primarily of the rich, Florida now caters mainly to middle Americans on a budget, many of whom have a youngster or two in tow. And although the state is a year-round vacation destination, a large percentage show up when the weather at home turns cold. Florida promises visitors "good value" for their money, and about 34 million a year accept the invitation, says Jose' Estorino, acting director of the state division of tourism.
Sure, there still are ritzy enclaves in Florida -- Palm Beach and Boca Raton among them -- but the state's big selling point these days for vacationers is its affordability. Along with the sun, and the beaches and Disney World, of course.
State tourism officials point out the quite obvious fact that Florida is much easier to get to (at least from the Washington area) than the Caribbean, Mexico or Hawaii, its major competitors for the winter vacation trade. As a result, visitors not only get convenience, but they save substantially on travel expenses. And if round-trip airline tickets for a family of five are too costly, then there's the cheaper option of going by car.
Florida also holds the advantage on the cost of accommodations and meals, two major expenses of any trip. Even popular resort areas such as Orlando, home of Disney World, offer a choice of good budget-priced hotels and motels, usually with family rates that mean children can share their parents' room at no extra cost. And should money really be tight, you seldom are far from one of the national fast-food chains. Hardly the romantic kind of dining that lingers in your memory, but certainly inexpensive.
Check the car rental ads and you will notice that rates in Florida tend to be lower than almost anywhere else in the country. "That's always true," says Liz Clark, a spokeswoman for Alamo, a major rental car firm in Florida. With all those visitors, the state is "the hottest, most competitive car market in the United States." Alamo currently is advertising a five- to seven-day rental in Florida beginning at $57.99 for a subcompact in some cities (Orlando and Fort Lauderdale included), compared to its beginning rate of $87.99 throughout California.
If you can get away before mid-December, hotel rates and air fares generally are cheaper than during the high season, which begins with the Christmas-New Year's holidays and continues through April. For example, the Ramada Resort Maingate 3 near Disney World in Orlando offers a double room beginning at $44 a night through Dec. 18. After Dec. 18, the rates begin at $65. Some hotels also reduce prices during the customary two- or three-week travel lull in January immediately after the holidays.
In any year, Florida draws a diverse group of vacationers -- young honeymooners, deep-sea fishing enthusiasts, snorkelers, polo players, families bound for Fantasyland, passengers embarking on a cruise, college students taking a break from their studies, seniors down for a relaxing winter. It's an indication of the state's wide variety of attractions.
The biggest lure, certainly, is the weather. Although days are not as consistently sunny as they are in the Caribbean, the temperatures normally are pleasant enough to get you outdoors with no more than a light jacket. Occasionally, a cold front from the North makes a brief and chilling thrust into the state in January and February, and for a few days perhaps only Key West, at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, will be warm enough for a swim in the surf.
On the other hand, midwinter with its mild temperatures actually is a more comfortable time to visit Disney World and Epcot Center. There's a lot of acreage to cover at the Disney complex, much of it on foot, and in the summer the heat and humidity can wilt you long before you've seen all you want to.
A Florida vacation comes in many forms. Visitors can head for a luxury resort, such as the Boca Raton Hotel and Club, and settle in for a week of golf, tennis or idle pampering; they can check into one of the more moderately priced beach motels that line the Atlantic from Miami Beach north to Fort Lauderdale and enjoy lazy days under the sun; they can park their camper at the Sunshine Key Camping Resort, one of the finest private campgrounds on the Florida Keys; they can treat themselves to a week at Disney World and Epcot Center; or they can explore the state on a driving tour.
From north to south, Florida offers a crazy array of sightseeing attractions -- some of them authentically awful but others well worth a visit, among them:
St. Augustine. Florida's Spanish heritage is evident in the small city of St. Augustine on the northeastern coast. Founded by the Spanish in 1565, it is considered America's oldest permanent settlement. Ongoing restoration has preserved much of the picturesque Spanish colonial look of the city. Dominating the view on Matanzas Bay is the Castillo de San Marcos, the huge gray fortress begun by Spain in 1672 to protect its interests in the region. It is now a national monument.
Kennedy Space Center. This historical attraction of modern vintage is midway down Florida's Atlantic Coast, just south of Titusville. As the launch site for America's manned space missions as well as a variety of unmanned spacecraft, it is an attraction unique to Florida. At Spaceport USA, visitors can watch films of the launches at a wide-screen IMAX theater, see the space capsules on display and take walking or guided bus tours of the space complex.
Central Florida is probably most famous for Disney World, but it isn't the only show in town. The Orlando and Tampa areas have become something of an amusement park capital. Venture out from Disney and you will find the venerable Cypress Gardens and its water-ski aquacades; Sea World of Florida, which advertises itself as the world's largest marine life park; Busch Gardens -- "The Dark Continent," an African theme park combining amusement rides and a natural habitat zoo; the Gatorland Zoo, an alligator farm; and Wet and Wild, a mammoth water playground for families (closed from Nov. 29 through Feb. 7). (For more information on Orlando and outlying areas, see Page E1.)
Ringling Museum. Once the winter headquarters for the Ringling circus, Sarasota -- midway down Florida's Gulf Coast -- is home to the Ringling Museum. The 400-acre estate of John Ringling includes his lavish mansion resembling the Doge's Palace in Venice and the Museum of the Circus, a large collection of circus wagons, posters, costumes and other colorful items from the early days of the Big Top.
The Everglades. On mainland Florida's southern tip is another of Florida's one-of-a-kind attractions, the 2,100-square-mile wilderness of Everglades National Park. Experienced outdoorsmen and women can plunge into the soggy prairie of saw grass and dwarf cypress to canoe and camp. Casual visitors can hike elevated boardwalks to view the country's largest mahogany trees, a mangrove forest or, perhaps, some of the park's abundant wildlife. Wildlife viewing is best in winter. It is the dry season, and days usually are clear and mild.
The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, to the south on Key Largo, is a 21-mile-long, six-mile-wide underwater park that attracts scuba divers and snorkelers as well as the less adventurous who are content to examine the brilliant coral life from the comfort of a glass-bottom boat. Tour boats depart throughout the day from park headquarters. Advance reservations are recommended.
The Overseas Highway. For gorgeous seascapes, few drives are as lovely as this 126-mile highway linking the Miami area with the historic and sophisticated city of Key West. The highway hops from island to island across 42 bridges, including one that is seven miles long. On the left are the inviting blue-green waters of the Atlantic Ocean; on the right, the Gulf of Mexico. The Keys are home to a number of charter fishing fleets, or fishing enthusiasts can try their luck from one of the abandoned bridges preserved just for them.
Key West, at trail's end, offers the languid charm of old Florida, some of the state's finest seafood and classiest resorts, and the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, a delightful place to tour on an overcast day. (For more information on Key West, see Page E3.)
An important consideration in any vacation plans is the cost. Here's a look at what you might expect to pay this winter in Florida:
Air fares: Many of the major U.S. airlines -- Eastern, Continental, Pan Am, Delta, American, USAir, Piedmont and United, among them -- serve one or more Florida airports from Washington, and the competition between them tends to keep a cap on ticket prices.
Normally, travelers might expect fares to increase during the peak winter season -- mid-December through April -- but according to Eastern Airlines spokeswoman Paula Musto, this may not necessarily be true. Some departure dates this winter might actually be sold at reduced rates, as has happened in previous years, if the airline sees that it is not filling all its flights.
Finding the lowest fare for the dates you want to go can mean time-consuming phone calls to individual airlines. You might be better off enlisting the help of a travel agent who has computer access to all the fares. And you should keep an eye on the travel ads for any bargains that suddenly may be offered for specified travel periods. You have to act quickly on these offers or run the risk of finding that no more tickets are left.
Currently, round-trip fares between Washington and Orlando or Fort Lauderdale vary dramatically, from about $160 (Continental) to $250 (Eastern). (These fares are good until mid-December with restrictions that include either no refund or a 50 percent penalty charge if you don't go once you have paid for the ticket.)
Fares generally are cheaper for midweek travel -- Monday through Thursday. Travelers who can plan their trips well in advance have the best chance of getting discounted rates. By now, it may already be difficult to book the cheapest seats available for the busy Christmas and New Year's holiday period. Airline representatives also recommend booking as early as possible if you plan to travel on a weekend, particularly during February and March.
A point to keep in mind is that if all discounted seats are sold for the day you want to go, they might be available if you are flexible and can fly a day earlier or a day later. Also, in Florida you sometimes have a choice of airports. If Orlando flights are booked, you might be able to catch a flight to Tampa/St. Petersburg, about 90 miles to the southwest, or Daytona Beach, about 55 miles to the northeast. The Miami area is served by airports both in Miami and in Fort Lauderdale, about 30 miles north. And West Palm Beach is just 50 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.
Some airlines offer packages that include air fare, hotel accommodations and a rental car. In theory, the packages should be priced cheaper than what travelers would pay if they tried to make the same arrangements on their own. But David Shipley, a spokesman for USAir, notes that because air fares can fluctuate during air-fare price wars, travelers might sometimes do better on their own. The value of a package in this case, then, is the convenience of one-stop shopping.
Auto Train: For a family, the cheapest way to get to Florida is by private car -- which means you don't have the expense of renting a car once you get there. The drive is about 1,000 miles and takes two or three days depending on your family's endurance. Figuring one-way costs at perhaps $60 for gas, $100 for lodging and $150 for meals, a family of four could get to Florida for about $310, or $620 round trip. Packing lunches and eating at fast-food outlets could cut the meal costs.
An option at a price somewhere between drive-it-yourself and round-trip air fare is the Auto Train, which makes the 16 1/2-hour, 900-mile trip daily from Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla., 20 miles north of Orlando. The train departs Lorton at 4:30 p.m. and arrives in Sanford the next day at 9 a.m. The departure and arrival time is the same for the return leg.
This winter, Amtrak is offering a special round-trip excursion fare for vacationers traveling to and from Florida within a 45-day period. The price for a coach seat is $155 per adult and $100 for each child ages 2 to 11. The cost of transporting the car is $260. For a family of two parents, two young children and one car, the total is $770 (plus the cost of dinner and breakfast).
For travelers who plan to spend more than 45 days in Florida, the one-way rates southbound from now through Feb. 14 are adults, $99; children, $79; and the car, $189. From Feb. 15 through June 19, the one-way rates southbound are adults, $69; children, $49; and the car, $99. Northbound, the lower rates are in effect from now through Feb. 14 and the higher rates from Feb. 15 through June 19.
Sleeping accommodations are available on the train, but they usually are booked far in advance and are an extra -- and expensive -- charge. In high season (southbound from now through Feb. 14 and northbound from Feb. 15 through June 19, a roomette sleeping one person is an additional $125 one way and a bedroom sleeping two people is $235 one way. In low season, the cost is $73 and $149 one way, respectively.
Only automobiles are carried by Auto Train. No vans or campers are permitted. For information and reservations: (800) USA-RAIL.
Car rentals: Like air fares, car rental prices can vary greatly depending on the dates you plan to be in Florida and whether or not the car companies are waging a price war.
Through mid-December, the cost of a week's rental of a subcompact (five, six or seven days) should begin at just under $60 at Alamo, Dollar Rent A Car and other budget firms. In Florida, weekly rates generally include unlimited mileage. Adding to the rental cost, however, are sales tax, gas and the optional collision damage waiver, which runs about $10 a day.
Rental costs tend to jump during the Christmas-New Year holidays and then drop again during the mid-January travel lull. Many firms offer their lowest rates only if you make an advance reservation. Some firms require seven days notice, others at least 24 hours.
Accommodations: The choice ranges from plush to modest to an inexpensive campsite with a sea view. Among the high-season possibilities:
At the upper end of the price range, the sumptuous Boca Beach Club, a golf and tennis resort in Boca Raton, is charging $365 a day for a beach-view room for two. The price includes dinner and breakfast. Additionally, there are a daily service charge of $21, daily valet parking charge of $6 and a 7 percent tax. For information: (800) 327-0101.
At the very stylish Pier House in Key West, a small hotel with the flavor of a Caribbean inn, the rates are $160 to $255 a night for two during the week and $180 to $285 on the weekend. For information: (800) 327-8340.
At Disney World, among the top rates are those at Disney's Contemporary Resort and Polynesian Resort, both linked to the Disney park and Epcot Center by monorail. Daily rates currently range from $120 to $180 a night for a room for two adults, which can be shared with three children ages 17 and under. These rates may increase by about $20 a night after the New Year. For information: (305) 824-1000.
Throughout the Orlando area, however, there are countless hotels and motels that charge substantially less. Some are served by shuttle bus to Disney World. From others, you will have to drive.
For example, Days Inn, a budget hotel and motel chain, lists 18 properties within a reasonable drive of Disney World, and many other national chains also are represented. At the Days Inn-Orlando Central West, about a 15-mile drive northwest of Disney World, the "supersaver" rate this winter is $39 a day for up to four people in a room. To get this price, you must book at least 29 days in advance and make a deposit of the first night's charge. For information: (800) 325-2525.
For low-budget travelers, the Sunshine Key Camping Resort at Mile Marker 39 on the Overseas Highway is an attractive beach resort that occupies most of the 75-acre key. Daily rates for one of the 400 campsites ranges from $26.95 (off beach) to $32.95 (beach front). Amenities include a swimming pool and a variety of water sports programs. The campground already is booked full for the month of February, but space is available in January and March. For information: (305) 872-2217.
Tour packages: Airlines, cruise lines, and hotels and motels offer no end of vacation packages to Florida for trips of a couple of days to a week or more. If you are interested in a specific resort, ask for any package deals available. Travel agents are a good source for what is currently being offered. Some examples:
At Vistana Resort, a large villa complex near Disney World, two couples can rent a two-bedroom, two-bath villa with living room, kitchen and laundry facilities at a seven-night rate of $420 per person. The villa will accommodate four children, at a rate of $85 each for ages 2 to 11. Children 12 and above are considered adults. Called the "Family Frolic," the package provides for a three-day admission per person to Disney World and Epcot Center; admission to one of several other amusement parks; and unlimited use of recreation facilities, which include three swimming pools and 14 lighted tennis courts. For information: (800) 327-9152.
Premier Cruise Lines has put together a week-long package for a single parent and one child under 18 that wraps together a four-day cruise from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas and three days at Disney World. The combination is priced from $960 to $1,275 and includes a three-day admission ticket to Disney World and Epcot Center and a visit to the Kennedy Space Center's Spaceport USA. Air fare is extra. For information, contact a travel agent.
Eastern Airlines calls its packages "Florida Escapes" and offers a choice of destinations throughout the state. Through Dec. 15, the rate at the Howard Johnson in Palm Beach (with a compact rental car) is $87 per person (double occupancy) for three nights and $189 for seven nights. At the Sonesta Beach Resort in Key Biscayne, the rate for three nights is $233 per person and for seven nights it's $501. Air fare is extra. For information: Contact an Eastern reservations clerk or a travel agent.
For more information: Florida Division of Tourism, 126 Van Buren St., Tallahassee, Fla. 32301, (904) 487-1462.