This family vacation via my Associate Editor Aimee Heckel

When my daughter told me all she wanted for her fifth birthday was to visit Disney World, I started itching and twitching and sweating a little.

I know Disney World is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth, but all I could think of were lines, crowds, sore feet, busy days, fast food and utter and total exhaustion. I didn’t let on to her, but a Disney vacation sounded like the exact opposite of my kind of vacation: spaciousness, quiet, relaxation, luxury, pampering, health and wellness, slow days and utter and total peace.

Why couldn’t we both have our kind of vacation — at the same time?

I set off to put together the most luxury family Disney vacation ever — one that would leave my daughter thrilled and me relaxed.

The key is in the planning

As anyone who’s planned a Disney trip knows, the planning is half the battle. I reached out to one of the pre-eminent Disney experts, Kim Bush at Love The Mouse Travel. With a handful of great recommendations, advice on coordinating transportation and inside tips to save time and stress, my family of three set off confidently on our Florida adventure.

First, a buffer

Travel is exhausting, especially for kids, so instead of flying straight into Orlando and jumping head first into the Magic Kingdom, we buffered our trip with a full day and a half visit to St. Pete Beach, just a short hour drive from the Orlando airport.

We got in our vacation state of mind while walking down the sandy shores of the Gulf of Mexico and enjoyed fresh, locally caught seafood at one of the best restaurants we’ve ever experienced, Castile — run by Ted Dorsey, a one of the best chefs in the nation. (Try his scallops!) My daughter enjoyed our spacious booth and the mac and cheese, while my husband and I slurped down oysters in the swanky dining area.

We stayed at Hotel Zamora, the first new hotel to be build in St. Pete Beach in more than two decades. With an open and flexible floor plan (pull the curtain shut for a private, two-bedroom experience), a powerful rain shower head in the bathroom, upgraded everything and a view of the beach from our bedroom, we barely wanted to leave our luxurious room.

But the outdoor pool-slash-bar overlooking Zamora’s private marina was quite the temptation, and it lured us out to warm up in the whirlpool. The day we were in St. Pete’s was one of the coldest in a long time, so we missed out on the 360-degree rooftop bar, but between the spa water and cozy nooks throughout the interior of the hotel, we still couldn’t have been happier.

Before leaving St. Pete Beach, we visited “Dad’s Disney World:” The Dali Museum, with its unique Picasso exhibit. Even our daughter enjoyed putting on the headset and listening to the self-guided tour, with special options for kids. We let Dad have some extra time in the museum while we had a blast in the quirky gift shop, and we left St. Pete Beach with enough energy to take on the Disney monster.

An escape from the kingdom

The smartest thing we did in Orlando was not stay on site. Instead of staying in one of the theme hotels, we chose the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes in Orlando — a hotel intentionally (and brilliantly) designed for Orlando travelers who need a breather from the crowds and stimulation.

First, the hotel is situated on open space as far as you can see (including its own private garden, from which the on-site food is crafted), so you don’t feel like you’re in a big city. All you see from your balcony is the rich green grass of a golf course and fluffy tree tops. Below, the stunning pool and private lake provide the serenity of an ocean, while in Orlando.

The Ritz is perfect for a Disney vacation with the Magic Kingdom only 15 minutes away, so you don’t have to worry about or pay for parking. Kids are embraced at the Ritz, with its top-notch Ritz Kids program. They get activities and a coloring book when you check in. Did I mention the Ritz provides free childcare, so you and the hubby can go grab a cocktail, whiskey or cask wine in the mod downstairs restaurant and bar, Highball & Harvest, and squeeze in a little adult time?

Best. Idea. Ever.

The club level boasts fresh cookies daily and a literal candy bar — a bar of candy in various jars — as well as light fare throughout the day, in case you have one of those kids (like mine) who gets hungry whenever it’s not time to eat. If you have to work or want to check your email, plop your kiddo down in the club level game room and they can watch a movie and relax or play with toys or games while you pop onto your computer for a minute.

Make sure you set aside at least one evening to dine at Highball & Harvest, which had hand’s down some of the best food we experienced on our trip.

The bottom line: There are plenty of escapes even within this escape.

Come in. Grab a cup of fresh lemonade and an apple. Order snacks to be waiting for you in your room when you return from Disney World (like the tasty bar nuts from Highball & Harvest). The Ritz even left an artistic display of cupcakes in our room, wishing my daughter a happy birthday.

And one night when my daughter showed up in a Belle dress, the pastry chefs themselves paid her a personal visit (like a true-life princess) to hand her a Beauty & The Beast themed chocolate platter (complete with a chocolate tea cup) they had crafted on the spot just for her. It did not surprise us to learn the pastry chef won the 2014 Pastry Chef of the Year competition — America’s most prestigious pastry competition.

These are the kinds of incredible details you can expect at the Ritz-Carlton — a personalized touch that you simply won’t find anywhere else.

Searching for luxe on Disney grounds

Disney World itself doesn’t have to be all lines and crowds. There’s a way around the system — one that was worth every penny.

On my daughter’s actual birthday, we booked breakfast with the princesses at Citricos at the Grand Floridian resort. She was greeted by Cinderella and handed her own “magic wand.” The breakfast was surprisingly delicious — I had a meat and cheese platter — but it was hard to eat, amid the excitement of watching five princesses glide from table to table. No waiting in lines, no rushed greetings. Each princess spent a good amount of time with each child. We took pictures, signed autographs and best of all, when Ariel the mermaid saw my daughter later from the parade, she remembered her and pointed her out in the crowd. It was the highlight of my daughter’s trip.

We also booked a “kiddie spa day” at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Downtown Disney (where you can find alcohol, by the way, just saying). It was wonderful taking an hour to sit down and rest our blistered feet while a “fairy godmother” primped my daughter and covered her in glitter. She left with a beautiful hairstyle (with a pink curly hair piece), new dress, “makeup,” mani and pedi and a bag of products: two colors of nail polish, a comb, a makeup tray.  

Now, Mommy’s spa time

The best way to wrap up a Disney vacation: lying on a massage table with someone rubbing your body with hot stones. All of the tension and exhaustion melted away and was erased.

I booked a half spa day at the Ritz-Carlton’s on-site spa, while my husband and daughter splashed in the pool, played on the playground, visited the lazy river at the adjoining JW Marriott and visited a bird sanctuary.

In a separate building, the spa feels like miles away; it even has its own private, adult-only pool and healthy cafe.

I completely turned into mush underneath the expert hands of my therapist, as I enjoyed the oh-so-Florida Grande Citrus Escape: an orange whole-body exfoliation followed by a hydrating body mask. While wrapped up in a warm cocoon, my therapist gave me a scalp massage that wiped all thoughts and worries away. My experience finished with a hot stone massage that dropped me as far as possible into relaxation.

Treatments here are homegrown from herbs made at the Ritz’s organic garden and honey from its own bees.

After my treatment, I left the hair mask in and relaxed in the eucalyptus steam room, for an extra deep hair treatment. I rinsed off in the “hurricane shower” — that’s shower heads from every angle. I leisurely made my way through the relaxation room, munching on snacks and tea there, before making my way outside to the pristine garden. I walked past hammocks overlooking fountains and fantasized about my next visit here; I hope to try a poolside special or overnight spa package. 

Spa Travel Gal Ava looks forward to visiting this amazing spa herself one day! 

Gotta have some beach time

It seemed like a shame to visit Florida without visiting the beach, so we set aside the last few days of our family vacation to head to the closest beaches to Disney World: the stunning stretch of sand along the Space Coast.

We stayed at the Hilton Oceanfront Melbourne resort, where every room has a view of the beach. We spent plenty of time at the beachside bar and pool, and our daughter loved the on-site breakfast more than anywhere else we ate the whole trip. (Pancakes galore!)

My husband and I, however were partial to two special restaurants on the Space Coast: Seafood Atlantic, north in Port Canaveral, and the Fat Snook in Cocoa Beach.

Seafood Atlantic is as authentic as it gets. This hidden gem started out with one single fisherman who was so darn good at his job that the demand for his fish kept increasing. Per demand, he eventually opened a restaurant.

Now, you can sit outside on the patio and watch fish, lobster, crabs and oysters come in off the boats — the same fish that will be brought inside and served to your table. It’s rare to get that up close and personal with your food. You’ve heard of farm to table; this is ship to table.

The Fat Snook in Cocoa Beach also serves up local seafood, but with its own unique spin. Try the catch of the day or my favorite, the scallops. The menu here is ever changing, but the staff is so accommodating and the chef so expert that you can feel confident ordering anything on the menu here.

The Fat Snook is one of the most surprisingly elegant restaurants you’ll find on the laid back Space Coast, and it’s designed to feel that way. From the outside, you’d never guess that the inside is so romantic and the food so exquisite. Almost like a speakeasy; you know if you’re in the know. Lucky for you, now you know.

Our four days on the beach felt like a vacation inside our vacation, which everyone who’s traveled to Disney knows is needed.

By the time we had to leave our Hilton balcony and the sound of crashing waves in our hotel room, I felt relaxed, my husband felt content and my daughter felt excited to go home and show off her princess autograph book.

It was the happiest birthday — for all of us.