Hit the rides and the tides

It's the stuff that children's dreams are made of. Jo Kessel combines a Caribbean cruise with a Florida theme-park holiday

For my children, going to the US in order to immerse themselves in a world of theme parks and fantasy film characters is the definition of the American Dream. For parents, of course, that dream can quickly sour when costs start to spiral. Flights alone tend to consume most of the budget. Air fares to Florida for a family of four in peak season can consume £4,000. A three-night family stay in a themed hotel plus passes to Universal Studios' parks could potentially cost £1,000 – before you've accounted for a single meal.

And so my family's search to fulfil that American Dream slightly more affordably continued – until I uncovered a 10-day twin-centre package which included not only the Orlando experience, but a week's all-inclusive Caribbean cruise, too. The price tag was still steep, starting at £5,200 for a family of four, but more justifiable: two holidays for the price of one. Plus, it was perfect for parents not wanting to overdo it on theme parks.

That's how my twins Nathalie and Gabriel, nine, and Hannah, seven, found themselves charging towards the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, mesmerised by the vision of a snow-coated Hogsmeade in the middle of the Sunshine State. Magically, the room keys from our on-site Hawaiian-themed hotel, Loews Royal Pacific, granted us queue-jumping and early-admission rights. Which meant we were the first to arrive at the flagship Forbidden Journey ride, where Hannah was height-tested a nail-biting five times before being allowed to soar over Hogwarts dodging snitches, spider spit and dragon breath.

Racing round Universal's two vast theme parks – Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios – was hungry work, and eating proved expensive – $2 for an apple, $10 for a roast- turkey drumstick.

Food, however, was secondary. This is Universal Pictures' big year, celebrating a centenary of movie-making, with a special film honouring its iconic blockbusters being played on outdoor screens in the parks until the end of 2012 and two new 3D rides: Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.

The scarier the ride, the bigger our children's smiles. When Spider-Man leapt through the ether and landed smack on our carriage, their grins stretched from Florida to California.

The Revenge of the Mummy's rollercoaster, with real fireballs, was such a hit they insisted on repeating it until we (or at least I) turned green. At which point we (well, OK, me again) began preferring log flumes, ET's gentle ride through starry skies and the candy-coloured Seuss Landing area. Equally memorable was downtime swimming in our hotel's lagoon-style pool with some ducklings.

Three days in Orlando was enough, although the children might disagree. The contrast provided by a twin- centre holiday was immediately apparent as soon as we boarded our ship Freedom of the Seas in nearby Port Canaveral. She's gargantuan. Quite how gargantuan, we found out the hard way, walking from one end to another (which took five minutes) in the wrong direction, before we discovered navigational touch-screens designed to help guests. Using this we located our cabins – interconnecting bedrooms opening onto deep balconies decked with sunbeds. Instead of reclining here we relocated to Deck 11's swimming pools, where I lounged back as we set sail, closing my eyes to the sounds of Bob Marley.

I have friends who question the merits of cruising but, as a budget- conscious parent, the benefits quickly became clear. The all-inclusive tariff meant that everything, from seriously tasty food to unlimited ice cream, was ours to enjoy. And then there's the joy of sailing effortlessly to new destinations. Waking early the following morning I stepped onto the balcony and spied a palm-fringed sliver of land contoured by sugary-white sand and turquoise sea. My "wows" woke the family and we hurried to be the first to set foot on the uninhabited Bahamian island of Coco Cay: a private, pint-sized paradise.

Uninhabited, perhaps, but not without entertainment value: we snorkelled for a while, then emerged onto the beach, where a live band was playing reggae and lunch was served. Barbecued meats, tangy salads and tropical fruit punch. It didn't matter that the island was no longer our own.

Behemoths like Freedom of the Seas are packed with family-friendly diversions: a sports court, mini-golf, surf-simulator, children's clubs, a climbing wall… even a skating rink.

Two more ports of call remained. First, the US Virgin Island of St Thomas (the only American territory where cars drive on the left).

We joined an organised excursion, bumping along in an open-sided truck towards Cas Cay, where we kayaked between the small islands of a protected mangrove lagoon. Pelicans watched from the canopy as we dragged boats onto a remote shore, side-stepping hermit crabs. The underwater vegetation was thick with sea grapes and brain coral.

Next, the tiny island whose top half belongs to France (St Martin) and the bottom half to the Dutch (St Maarten). Driving towards the rainforest's highest point, 1,500ft above sea level, we passed bright lime, red and blue villas, their paint peeling under the sun's glare.

From there we trekked downhill for two hours, slipping over loose rocks, using bamboo sticks for balance. Shaking the fruit off a tamarind tree, our guide Mireille demonstrated how to remove husks to suck out the orangey-brown flesh, their sour-sweet flavour surprisingly refreshing.

So, if your family's American Dream is anything like mine, this holiday has it all.

Of course it's not cheap. But worth it? Absolutely.

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Getting there

Virgin Holidays Cruises (0844 573 4398; virginholidays cruises.co.uk) offers an 11-night Orlando stay and Caribbean Cruise from £1,399 per adult and £1,199 per child. The price includes Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick, car rental in Orlando, four nights at the Loews Royal Pacific, entrance to Universal's parks and a week's full-board cruise aboard Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, calling at Coco Cay, St Thomas and St Martin.