Saturday, August 29, 2015

Our Day at the Central Florida Kids and Family Expo

I was lucky enough to win 2 tickets to the Central Florida Kids and Family Expo happening at the Orange County Convention Center this weekend. I'd read a lot about the Expo but was hesitant to go due to the fact that it cost an admission fee plus an additional charge for parking and the bounce houses and attractions that could potentially be very crowded vs just spending $10 to take my daughter to unlimited bounce houses at Monkey Joe's so I was excited to have won the opportunity to check it out for free.
The Expo started at 10:00 and we got there just before 10:00. Parking at the Convention Center is discounted to $10 for the Expo or somebody had mentioned on the Expo page that parking at the nearby Rosen Center in some lots was free. The weather today was iffy and I didn't want to get stuck walking a long distance with my preschooler in a downpour do I opted to just pay the $10 and got an excellent spot in the Convention Center lot. Parking was very well marked & easy to find even though I'd never been there before.
Once we got indoors we had what was one of our longest waits of the day for the small (only fits 2-3 strollers) elevator. My little one is wary of escalators and I'd bought her bigger stroller since I figured we might need the basket so we just dealt with it (I discovered on the way out there are other elevators so it might be worth exploring a little if the line at the first elevator is really long.) 
After a bit of a walk and one more elevator ride (no line this time because there were multiple elevators) we made it to the expo.
The line to get in at 10 am was enormous & wrapped all the way around the corner but seemed to be moving fairly quickly. Fortunately for us the person representing the company we'd won tickets from met us and walked us in so we didn't have to wait in it. We were given a nice tote bag with some special offers for things like free children's tickets to dinner shows in it.
I do highly recommend either going to the Expo right when it opens or waiting until the afternoon to avoid the crowds and waiting in long lines at the booths. As soon as we got in we were greeted by another enormous line for the bounce houses & attractions. For $10 you could buy a wristband for the bounce houses or for $15 a wristband for the bounce houses and other attractions. I showed my daughter the long wristband line & told her we'd come back & do the bounce houses after we saw everything else if she was good.
The expo itself consisted of rows and rows of booths advertising kid friendly services and businesses. Everything from schools to birthday party businesses to kid friendly local play places and name it, it was there! It wasn't extremely crowded yet so it was still pretty easy to navigate with a stroller. We started out right at the first booth but after waiting in a bunch of short lines in that row of booths I made the decision to go to the back of the Expo and work our way forwards. This ended up being a great idea because the booths on the other side were empty!
All of the booths were very nicely set up and had brochures and/or business cards for their businesses. The majority had some type of giveaway of a small freebie as well such as a plastic cup or water bottle or drawstring bag advertising their business. (I started declining the bags after bag #4 so don't worry, you will definitely find something to put all your free stuff in!) Lots had wheels to spin to decide which little piece of swag you got, which my daughter really enjoyed. I was glad I'd brought the bigger stroller with the basket because with all the swag we got it was needed!
The majority of the booths just had information or small giveaways but a few had activities for the kids as well. We made a small stick puppet at one table, a Popsicle stick frame at another, and a foam heart with something we loved at a third. We also dug for treasure in styrofoam noodles at one booth, made slime at another, and got balloon creations at two more.
Face painting and temporary tattoos were being offered at a booth or two as well but my daughter is not a fan of those things. We also got to touch a small alligator and pet a sugar glider. One company had a backyard play structure set up and she enjoyed playing on that for a bit. We watched some kids breaking boards karate style but that booth had a long line to actually break a board so we didn't participate. With the exception of one or two booths and any tips you left for face painting and balloons everything was free.

Around the perimeter of the Expo they had entertainment set up like a small petting farm with bunnies and baby chicks you could hold, a character meet and greet, an ambulance kids could go in and explore, and two (free!) bounce houses for kids ages three and under only. None of those things had an additional fee. The character meet and greet had a long line so that is one thing we skipped since we see them at the theme parks all the time & we met plenty of other characters like Ronald McDonald, Snoopy, and a minion at different booths throughout the Expo.
They also had 3 stages that featured different performances throughout the day. We watched Medieval Times do a small show and later in the day watched a magic show with Ronald McDonald, which my daughter thought was really fun (shows rarely keep her attention but this one did). There were plenty of seats on folding chairs even though we showed up just before the performance.
In the far corner of the room Cradle to College had a kid's consignment sale set up. We walked through but didn't buy. I thought their selection was fairly limited for a preschooler and didn't see any really great stuff but it looked like they had tons and tons of great bargains for toddlers and babies!
As far as food, I had brought along snacks but there was plenty for sale in all different price ranges. It seemed like a very good variety too of both snacks and meals and there were tables set up in the food areas to sit and eat at. A LOT of the booths were giving out lollipops (I think we ended up with 15!) and other small candies & my daughter was perfectly happy to call that dessert. One booth was also giving out smoothies and she liked that so much she went back for a second one!
Supposedly the Expo had giveaways. I heard them calling names at one point but have no idea how you entered the contests for these bigger prizes. It could've been at the registration booth when you walked in but since we didn't have to wait in line we bypassed that. It would pay to ask when you enter the Expo how the raffles are done if you want your name entered in the giveaways. There were a few booths that had raffles for theme park tickets, vacations, and $100 Publix gift cards but I bypassed them because I felt like the forms you had to fill out were asking for too much info like you are asked by timeshare businesses (are you married?, your age?, your income?, etc).
We were at the Expo for 5 hours, spent a total of $13 ($10 parking plus a $3 tip for the balloon person), and got to do pretty much everything. When we worked our way back to the bounce house side the lines for the 3-4 bounce houses were MUCH shorter & the line for wristbands was nonexistent but because she'd already done the free bounce houses for kids 3 and under I somehow managed to convince my daughter those bounce houses were for older kids & got away with saving the $10. If you plan on doing them though I'd maybe suggest waiting until the afternoon if the line in the morning to buy the wristbands is huge.
Overall, my daughter had an awesome time. When her dad got home from work she told him she'd had "the most amazing day." I had a great time as well and definitely learned of some interesting new businesses but I am glad we got in for free. I think this event has a lot of potential & they did a pretty good job considering it was their first year but I think $10/entire family or something closer to that (or having at least the bounce houses for kids over 3 free and only charging for attractions) would've been a much more reasonable admission fee. (Admission is half price after 1:00 so that's something to consider too if your're interested in going.) It got crowded midday but not so much that it was too hard to navigate with a stroller and by then we had done plenty so we just skipped the really crowded booths(again, I'd recommend getting there before it opens at 10 am!). We came home with 3 big bags full of "stuff" but it is exactly that, clutter/"stuff" and not things I couldn't live without.
We did get 3 coupons for free bowling at a bowling alley I was going to take my daughter to anyways so had I paid the admission fee I guess I would've broke even. I would've liked to see a lot more coupons like that instead of the gazillion lollipops, pencils, water bottles, hand sanitizers, coloring books, and small toys we ended up with.  It is a lot of fun for the kiddos though and yes, it is definitely possible to have a great time without spending lots of $ beyond the parking and admission fees.
My Tips:
1. Get there early, preferably before it opens at 10 am. The line to get in at 10 am was huge! If you can't get there early, go in the afternoon.
2. Parking is $10 & right by the building. You can save money by parking elsewhere farther away but remember it may be storming when you get out!
3. If the line to get a wristband for the attactions & bounce houses is long, save it for last. There was no line at 2:00 in the afternoon & bounce house lines were short
4. There are 2 free bounce houses for kids 3 and under only 
5. Start at the back of the Expo & work your way forwards if you get there early 
6. Print out the show schedule at home. I didn't get a program at the expo & had to check my phone for show times
7. Bring a stroller with a basket and/or mommy hooks for all your swag. You will get A LOT of small stuff!
8. You can bring snacks & lunch from home. Expect your kid to get LOTS of free lollipops!
9. Hit the character meet and greet early if you want to do it but be aware the characters do change out. There are other characters at some booths within the expo (we met Snoopy & a minion)
10. It is possible to go and not spend $$$ and still have fun!