Mom, Dad! They can play where you stay

The zipline at Grande Lakes Adventure Course in Orlando. The zipline at Grande Lakes Adventure Course in Orlando. (Beth D’Addono for The Boston Globe)
By Beth D’Addono
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2010

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Lilly Byerly, 7, stood gazing up at what looked like the outline of a giant pirate ship made of ropes, pulleys, and ladders. After a safety briefing, Lilly and her mom, Shellie, climbed up 15 feet to the start of the junior Grande Lakes Adventure Course in Orlando. Attached to a continuous cable system by a sturdy harness, Lilly scrambled, balanced, and traversed a series of climbing elements designed for thrills and fun. She finished by sailing down a 120-foot zipline.

Was she scared? “No. It was awesome,’’ she said, coming back for another run.

The ropes course, which opened in November, is an example of the lengths - and heights - to which hotels are going, hoping to attract families to activities geared to entertain, jump-start physical activity, foster team building, and connect with nature.

Across from the junior course, a more advanced, three-level setup towers 55 feet in the air, ending in a 600-foot zipline. Guests are paired with a buddy and can either walk a single steel tightrope, navigate a swinging wooden ladder, or jump from a platform hooked to a stomach-lurching 40-foot swing.

“It’s set up to let you choose your own adventure,’’ said Joe Thompson, one of the three climbing coaches who work with guests of the Grande Lakes Orlando, a resort complex that includes a J.W. Marriott and a Ritz-Carlton. Guests less enamored of heights can stay on the first level of the apparatus, while others try the higher challenges. Prices for two hours of monkeying around are $45 for children and $60 for adults.

Another Grande Lakes program, two-hour ecotours of Shingle Creek by kayak, aims to expose grown-ups and children to the wilds of nature. The creek feeds into the headwaters of the Everglades, a pristine setting that ranges from fragrant cedar woods to wetlands that shelter birds such as belted kingfishers, limpkins, ibis, bald eagles, and snowy egrets - 120 species in all. Along the way, you may see a pair of playful otters, a lumbering armadillo foraging on the bank, and of course, resident gators. “You’d never know we were seven miles from downtown Orlando,’’ said guide Carlos Maldonado, who brings a vast knowledge of both flora and fauna to his job.

The ecotour is a refreshing break from all the theme park action located just minutes from the resort’s doors. For guests unfamiliar with paddling, a beginner’s course is offered beforehand, with guided trips running $80 for adults, $50 for children under 12.

For another kind of Zen experience, try your hand at stripping (quickly pulling line from your reel) with Mike Hawkins, who teaches fly-fishing for beginners and advanced casters. Hawkins starts newbies of all ages at the resort’s casting pond, then moves on to 40-acre Shingle Pond, stocked with largemouth bass. Private and group instruction and excursions are available from $50.

At the Ritz-Carlton Naples, nature and technology share top billing for teenagers and youngsters. Naturalist Randy Sarton oversees Nature’s Wonders, a program geared to would-be marine scientists ages 5 to 11. In a setting that is equal parts aquarium and interactive school, a recent group of seven children learned that yellow tangs love broccoli and they got the chance to feed red-eared slider turtles some “yucky stuff.’’ The resort’s beachfront setting becomes an extended classroom for watching dolphins, mucking in nearby mud flats, and detecting critter behavior in the wild.

“It’s not a baby-sitting program,’’ said Sarton. “It’s more of a marine academy that lets kids get up close and personal with the real thing.’’ While moms and dads are in meetings or at the spa, their children can explore for a full day ($110) or a half ($60).

For adventures of a more indoor sort, families at the Ritz can test drive the latest XBox and Nintendo Wii games or channel their inner rock star at the VUE (Virtual User Experience), a new high-tech gaming and computer lounge tricked out with flat screens galore. “Call of Duty is our most popular game,’’ said Dwayne Thompson, gamer in charge. “After Facebook and iChat.’’ Admission to the lounge is $10, under age 8 is free. “Parents have time to play with Wii with their kids - and they can try out a few different games and see what they might want to buy,’’ said Thompson.

At the Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort the emphasis is on getting physical with the new RU Ready program, an interactive children’s fitness experience led by Lorenzo Price, a coach and personal trainer. Designed by Scott Lancaster, a youth sports specialist who worked in youth sports for the National Football League for several years, RU Ready rolled out last February at Fairmont hotels in Miami, Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and Scotland.

“The idea is to use sports to get kids involved - they don’t even realize they’re working out,’’ said Price, whose coaching background includes boxing, basketball, and football. Participants ages 7 to 17 are trained in “tricks’’ that develop seven essential fitness skills: agility, balance, coordination, flexibility, speed, strength, and stamina. These skills are then related to sports like baseball, basketball, lacrosse, snowboarding, soccer, and more.

“Each child has a different ability. We nurture and encourage while helping them sharpen their existing skills,’’ said Price. Kids get a pack of sports challenge cards, each teaching them a “trick’’ that earns them maximum return on their efforts. After a two-hour morning session, participants come back in the afternoon to compete against others, based on what they’ve learned. “Running laps is boring,’’ said Price. “Running figure eights while you’re tossing a ball from hand to hand over your head is fun - but it’s still getting the kids moving around.’’

Up the road in tony Bal Harbour, a tiny village most known for its designer-laden mall and beachfront condos, a new idea is germinating at the Sea View Hotel. A retrofitted midcentury property that still has plenty of old school Florida vibe, the Sea View has partnered with the Miami Children’s Museum to create a children’s camp open to guests of the hotel as well as residents. Opening Feb. 1 and underwritten by Bal Harbour Village, the teacher-staffed camp plans to deliver innovative programming at a bargain $25 for three hours, four days a week to start.

Following the museum’s mantra to play, learn, imagine, and create, program creator Alyson Sherman designed themes including Eco-Explorers, Little Masters, Cultural Connections, and The Entire World’s a Stage. The museum, originator of the Wizard of Oz exhibit coming to Boston’s Children’s Museum next year, sees this partnership as a win/win proposition, according to executive director Deborah Spiegelman. “We see it as a way to give back to the community while exposing more people to what we do.’’ A ground level guest room has been transformed into a brightly colored classroom, so children can have fun indoors, poolside, and at the beach.

“Parents can’t spend every minute with their children while they’re away,’’ said Sarton. “Our job is to keep them learning while they’re having fun.’’

Beth D’Addono can be reached at

If You Go

Ritz-Carlton Naples


Grande Lakes Orlando

Fairmont Turnberry Isle


Sea View Hotel