Monday, December 26, 2011

Walt Disney World Hotels -Shades of Green

If you are active duty military/retired, civil service, prior service, or certain DOD contractors,  a great hotel to stay on Disney property is the Shades of Green.  I have never stayed there before so we tried it and liked it very much.  The hotel is run by a customer service oriented staff who are very friendly and helpful.  You can make reservations at and there you will find all the eligibility requirements including parking, room rates, etc.

Self parking is $5.00 but valet is only $10.00 so we'll go that route next time we visit.  The hotel is situated just west of the Polynesian Hotel and not on the monorail route.  Not to worry because they have bus schedules from the front door to the Disney main entrance and all the parks to include Blizzard Beach which is currently under renovation.  Our room was a standard room because there were no suites available but it was roomier than most Disney rooms with a sitting area a, a balcony, and a couch that pulls out like a futon.  The room amenities are refrigerator, hair dryer, cleaning service, coffee maker, and double sinks with separate toilet and shower.

Room service is available from 6:00am til 11:00pm.  If you want anything after that you have to settle for vending machines or go off site.  We didn't care for that very much because going out of the park is a bit of a drive.  What we did find is a Hess gas station on the way out of the park with a very good assortment of hot food, drinks, desserts, and snacks.  We bought some stuff there and returned to the hotel and it was right down the street so we were fine.

The hotel is sprawling and I don't know how many rooms but a good guess is about 500.  It consists of several wings of five floors and resembles a northern lodge with lots of wood, fireplaces, high ceilings, and outside chalet-style sitting areas.  There are two pools, and an outside bar but remember this is a family-oriented atmosphere so everything is quiet by 11:00pm.  The beds and pillows are of good quality and the sheets have a clean smell to them.

So what were the negatives?  Very few actually.  The room keys were very difficult to use and we had the keys issued twice but they failed more often than not.  They are the card type and,no, I didn't put them near my credit cards or car keys.  I kept them in a pocket by themselves.  The lack of food service after hours is not good but the front desk explained they used to have this service available but it failed to produce any revenue so they discontinued it.  Can't really blame them on that one.  The shower was so difficult to turn my kids couldn't do it so I had to pull the handle with both hands myself.

  Other than those things it was a very enjoyable stay and we will certainly return. It was a very nice stay.  I give the hotel an "A" rating and if you visit I believe you'll be pleased.  Thanks.

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom at Christmas

As far as I'm concerned Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is the place to be at Christmas time.  The only other place that has as much magic or charm at this time of year is New York's Rockefeller Center.  Disney rolls out the lights and light shows like nowhere else on earth and this year has been no exception.

We noticed the crowds are a little lighter than in past years but we know the economy has kept more folks closer to home.  The people were there, however, in droves but you could actually move around a little better and the longest we waited for any one ride was 45 minutes (Space Mountain) which is exceptional at this time of year.  Most ride waits were 15-20 minutes which is very good.

This is a view of Space Mountain from the entrance to the Grand Prix Raceway that your kids are going to love.  We went on all the big rides:  Space Mountain, Grand Prix Raceway, the Haunted mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean.  The wait was a little longer for Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Splash Mountain.  The day was great.

I never did it before but we posed for a photo in front of Cinderella's Castle.  The photographers are everywhere and they give you what looks like a credit card with a code on back.  You can stop in at any of the photo kiosks at any of the parks and view your shots.  There's no hurry to buy the pictures.  You can even return home and go to, create a log on, and view your shots from home.  Then you can order them from your PC if you like them.

There are tons of eateries and we always get the fast food stuff because kids aren't that interested in eating but we know they have to.  Disney has mastered the efficient fast food counter.  They serve hundreds of customers an hour in all their cafes and you don't wait too long.  The hard part is getting a seat.  Split your party up and have some secure a table while the others go to the food order line or you can end up walking around looking for a table while your food gets cold.

The weather in Orlando has been between 72-82 degrees this week with sunshine so for those from up north it's perfect for you.  It's usually in the 40's or 50's this time of year so you should love it while we in Florida wait for a cool down.

I took these pictures on December 23rd and you can see nobody's  wearing sweaters.  If you make it here you'll be pleased. My next post is about Disney hotels so stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Disney Hollywood Studios - Orlando

We went to Disney Hollywood Studios over the weekend and had a blast.  This year we went on the annual pass which gives you all four theme parks unlimited visits for the year.  The cost of the pass is $362/person for over 10 years old for Florida residents and a little higher for out of state visitors.  To offset the cost is the 12 month payment plan where you put down the cost of one pass and make 12 installments of the balance which helps for families.  There is the Premium Pass which is the Annual Pass plus the water parks.  There are also less expensive passes that are all inclusive but have blackout dates.  You may have access to some clubs that offer discounts such as AAA, military MWR, Kennedy Space Center employees, credit unions,car clubs, etc.  Check with your employer as well.  Many major corporations and companies get theme park group rates for their employees.

Hollywood Studios is similar to Universal Studios in that it is a real working movie studio.  They tape Disney shows there and there's a great concert stage where they put on some awesome shows at various dates throughout the year.  When you enter the park the streets are like Hollywood set in the golden age of films.  The store fronts are real and there are a wide variety of eateries.  Most of them are fast food, on-the-go style.  There is a Brown Derby like the one in Beverly Hills which is identical to the real one which has  more high-end fare.  The prices are comparable to any of the other theme parks but the food is all very good.

One of the main attractions is the Rock 'N' Roller Coaster, an indoors rock blast of Aerosmith music that accelerates from 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds!  You're not ready for this as it catapults you into the dark at high speed and continues to pound you with loops and rolls while you rock out to the band.  It's a unique ride much like a cross between Space Mountain and The Rip Rocket at Universal Studios.

I think the whole ride lasts about 60 seconds but when you get off you feel like you hit a new experience in roller coasters.  It's one of Disney's newer rides, built about 7 or 8 years ago so the technology is among the newer stuff.  I think you will really enjoy it. It's a real ride but not as rough as some coasters I've been on so don't worry if you don't like the real monster rides. It's fun but not too violent.

The other big ride is the Tower of Terror (pictured at the top) .  It towers menacingly over the entire park and is gloomy even on a sunny day.  You enter the tower at the base and wind your way through the old hotel when you get on the car and take a tour of the hotel to the top.  Once there, the doors open out into the park and you can see how high you really are.  I won't ruin it for you but when you take off you won't be able to hold back the screams.

The Toy Story Midway Mania is a great fun ride where you sit in cars and tour through a gallery of familiar characters from Toy Story.  It's a shooting gallery interactive game where you shoot at objects similar to old-fashioned state fair shooting galleries (plates, bowls, etc.)  The shooter keeps score and at the end everyone gets to see how they stack up against everyone else.  My kids love to see themselves beat me at these games!

The stage shows are superb.  They have really talented dancers and performers who put on as good a show as you see anywhere.  We saw the Beauty and Beast Show and loved it.  The professional choreography and costuming is very impressive.  Even though the kids get impatient they will enjoy the show. 
We were only there for the afternoon so we didn't get to see everything because we went at the spur of the moment but there are other things to see and do at Hollywood Studios.  We'll be going back over the Christmas Holidays so when I learn more I'll put out another post.  Hopefully there will be useful  information.  Email me with any questions and I will get the information while I'm there. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

T-Rex Restaurant Downtown Disney

When you visit Disney Village another cool place to eat is the T-Rex Restaurant.  It's design is similar to the Rain Forest Cafe which I wrote about in a previous post.  While the Rain Forest is about wildlife and Saving The Planet, the T-Rex is devoted to the Jurassic and paleolithic periods in earth's history and is based on dinosaurs. 

When you enter you are greeted by a life-sized T-Rex standing commandingly in the middle of the place.  He moves and makes noises.  The kids will love it and parents will find it fascinating as well.  The bar is to the left is colorful and full of atmosphere topped by a giant octopus.    We don't sit at the bar but go to the dining room which is filled with dinosaurs of all kinds.  My kids are getting into the teen years and still enjoy the atmosphere.  It's always a great show when we go there and I think I'll like it when I'm old.  The food is always good.  The prices are similar to the Rain Forest Cafe and the service is always topnotch.

You will sit in one of several dining room settings to include the bar area, the Ice Cave, or the Savannah Room.  I like the Ice Cave the best because it actually presents a cool atmosphere and the walls change color from blue to red to white. Nonetheless, all the seatings are good and there's not a bad seat in the house.  You and your young ones are encouraged to walk around the restaurant and see everything because the architecture and characters are worth seeing.  The staff is friendly and well-versed in customer service so you will be well taken care of while you are there.  Check out the Disney Dining Plan while you are there if you buy into these things.  It comes out to about a 10% savings after multiple trips.  Some folks like these deals but I usually don't get into them.

And don't forget the gift shop.  You can't walk into anywhere in Orlando without exiting through a gift shop!  It's more interesting for the tourists than the locals because you find gift ideas you don't find back home.

Dinner for four was about $100.00 out the door so not cheap but it's worthwhile to do it from time to time or if you know you won't be back til next year.  I can tell you with confidence that you will enjoy the experience.  Thank you till next posting!!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Cheesecake Factory

We go to the Cheesecake Factory as often as we can.  It's along the lines of a New York diner with sandwiches, entrees, fish, steaks, etc.  The place has a full service bar with all the trappings and 38 different types of cheesecakes. They also have desserts for those not in love with cheesecake.  My favorite, however, is the raspberry truffle and I don't as a rule eat cheesecake. 

My kids usually get burgers, pasta, or grilled cheese off the kids menu.  Sometimes we let them get the gourmet burgers from the adult menu which are always delicious.  My wife likes the triple cheese pasta with grilled chicken and I seem to have settled on the jambalaya.  It's excellent but, even though they call it spicy, it's rather mild for those who aren't afraid of cayenne pepper.

The service was perfect.  We had a waitress who was so warm and friendly it was a great pleasure to tip her.  You know how sometimes you feel really good about tipping?  This was how I felt with her.  She was great.

The Christmas Tree here has nothing to do with the place but it's right outside the door in the mall and I thought it was massive and beautiful so I would have to share it with you.

Cheesecake Factory is located in Orlando at the Millennia Mall on Conroy Road.  This is just off I-4 west of the Orlando City limits.  If you're familiar with Orlando this is just before you arrive at Kirkman Road (SR535) which is the exit to Universal Studios.  There are a number of locations for the Cheesecake Factory around the country.  We visited the one in Miami Beach when we vacationed there this past June and it was every bit as good.  We will definitely go there again.  The average we pay for dinner for four is $85-$100 including tip.  For those from up north that doesn't impress you but it's a little more high end for Florida so plan on a totally decent meal.  Thanks again.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Universal Studios - Jaws Ride Closing 2012

As you may have heard by now Universal Studios is shutting down the Jaws ride forever on January 2, 2012.  Universal spokespeople cite the ride has run it's course and it's time for an "out with the old -  in with the new" approach. 

The Jaws ride is one of the original attractions from when the park opened in 1990 and will be missed by many of the Spielberg fans.  I suppose it's a good move since there hasn't been a new Jaws movie since the late 80's and none of the sequels was nearly the blockbuster the original was.

Speculation on Twitter and among theme park goers is that the ride will be replaced by part of the Harry Potter expansion.  As soon as I learn more I'll post it.

12/6/11:  Okay, so I've checked with all the back channels I know and nobody knows what will replace the Jaws Ride but most of the park insider bloggers agree.  We think it will be something to do with the announcement made just today regarding the expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  When it first opened in 2010 the attendance at Universal Studios increased by 50% and that's for just one attraction!  Speculation by park watchers is that they are making room for some Harry Potter magic at Universal Studios as well to boost ticket sales there and it's probably a safe bet.  We could all be wrong but the theme park business in Florida is a multi-billion dollar enterprise.  If you follow the money as with any business it seems to fit.  So, we'll see what announcements they make in the next several months.

Update - January 3, 2012:  It's official, the Jaws ride has closed forever as of last night.  Apparently, Universal Studios is going to build in it's place another Harry Potter attraction with a train ride, predictably called "Hogwarts Express"  connecting the new attraction from Universal Studios to the Harry Potter area in Islands of Adventure.   Going to miss the amity Island theme but Harry Potter is what's in right now and Universal always does a superb job with new attractions so it should something worth looking forward to.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Boston Lobster Feast

If you come to Orlando and are looking for places to eat dinner, the Boston Lobster Feast is a very popular choice.  We ate there Sunday night and while we are usually very satisfied we were not so enthused this time.

The buffet-style dinner includes great samplings.  All the lobster you can eat with other items like shrimp, Oysters Rockefeller, gumbo, and seafood salad.  There are items like pasta with sauce, sausage and peppers, and you can special order steak if someone in your party doesn't want seafood.  There is also a good salad bar with raw oysters, craw fish, and other items.  The menu is good and the food quality is very good for a buffet.  Dinner prices are $39.95 for early bird, and $46.95 after 6:00pm.  This is not fast food and the prices are steep for Florida but you can really pig out if you're inclined.

Service and management were a little disappointing.  We have eaten there before but noticed a marked change in both of these areas.  We were seated and waited a while for somebody to notice us.  We were greeted by a waitress who was less than enthusiastic to be there at all.  You've been in restaurants where the wait staff acts like you're bothering them?  That's what we got.  She did all right but was just going through the motions. 

My son is not a lover of seafood so we asked the manager if he could just get a plate of fried clam strips which I know they carry.  He told us they "ran out" for the day and was sorry.  Then he asked me if there was anything else he could do for me (as if he had done anything at that point).  When I said no he told us to enjoy our meal.  So, for $46.95, my son settled for chicken strips and fries.  In a good restaurant the manager would have had the decency to prorate the bill so we wouldn't pay top dollar for a dinner we could have got at Kentucky Fried Chicken for $4.99.  If you are an experienced diner then you know there's no such thing as running out of anything.  It was about 9:00pm and he didn't want to crack open a fresh case of anything.  I expect better than this for a $200 dinner. 

Enough of a rant but we expect certain levels of service when we go out and I was given the feeling nobody was going to give us any more than what they absolutely had to. 

I enjoyed the food very much and so did the rest of the family but I know a lot of parents agree.  If one of your kids is unhappy you don't enjoy your dinner as much. 

While it is a great dinner feast I give them a C+ for customer service.  You will not be disappointed overall but it will be a long time before I go there again.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sea World Christmas

We spent the day Sunday at Sea World.  It's the second day of their Christmas Celebration and we loved it.  The first thing we always do is hit the big rides:  Manta, Journey to Atlantis, and Kraaken.  The we went to the whale and dolphin show.  This is always spectacular but it's hard to get photos of a fast-moving animal with a cell phone.   I took quite a few this time because you can't tell if you actually got it.  The show includes

dolphins, pilot whales, and  flying macaws.  There is also an acrobatic act over the water that's worth seeing.  We skipped the Shamu Theater because the show times didn't match up with where we were in the park but we did see the Winter Wonderland On Ice, a skating, singing, and character show.  I missed this one last year but it was worth seeing.  The show is in an outdoor amphitheater with a breathtaking view of the entire park. They have real ice and snow.  If you have been to or live near Rockefeller Center in New York it gives you the feel without the tall buildings in the background. 

Next, we visited the Polar Express which is the Arctic Adventure during the regular season.  Narrated and starred in by Tom Hanks there is a small film preview followed by a virtual train ride through a winding mountain range.  The entire adventure takes about ten minutes.  I took this shot of a quartet outside standing  in front of the locomotive from the movie.  When you step off the ride you walk through the arctic and see beluga whales, polar bears, and walruses.  you wind your way through an Alaskan type outpost which is cold inside.  I lived in Alaska for a number of years and the experience is very realistic.  I like it so much it makes me miss living there.    
We didn't eat there this trip.  Please see my previous posts for any dining information.  I posted this article more for the pictures this time.  I thought you'd enjoy them.

Check out Sea World's web site for ticket information and pay special attention to the passes and multi-day ticket prices.  Central Florida is a great place to visit year round but we do it up for Christmas so I hope if you plan to come down you enjoy yourselves and want to come back!  Thanks. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Downtown Disney - Orlando

Downtown Disney is a waterfront shopping, eating, and strolling place located on Lake Buena Vista Blvd just off I-4 on Disney property.  I first started going there when I was a kid and I've always enjoyed taking my family there.  It's a great stroll winter or summer and of the restaurants I've patronized I've enjoyed every one.  The area encompasses a lakefront that winds back toward the Disney Resort. There are several golf courses and hotels you can access via boat rentals or boat ferry if you like the water.  

At night there are always street musicians and stage shows on the edge of the lagoon.  You can browse the shops and visit Ghiradelli's for great desserts but watch the prices.  When we stop there the four of us get a dessert that averages $6 - $12 dollars so don't look for bargains but it's a great treat.

At one end of the complex you can start at the Rain Forest Cafe and work your way around the T-Rex Restaurant.  The kids love both of these.  Wolfgang Puck has a sandwich shop but at the far end there is another Wolfgang Puck Restaurant which is a little more involved dining.  I haven't eaten at either one of these so I can't comment.  If you really want fine dining there is Fulton's Crab House located in a four story full-size riverboat on the water.   Never dined there either because dinner can cost upwards of $35 or $40 dollars.  The reviews are always excellent about this place and it's been in business for many years.  I want to try it someday but either you have money or you go there for an occasion.   We've also dined at Bongo's Cuban Cafe numerous times and are always pleased.  See my article in September for more about it. The one place I don't recommend is Haagen-Daas ice cream parlor.  While the brand is excellent the place was filthy,  the service was hostile and unfriendly, and not enough places to sit.  We'll never go there again.

At the far end of the place is the famed Cirque De Soleil, a highly acclaimed circus showcase that is permanently located at Disney Village.  This show is primarily acrobatic and is supposed to be one of the best in the world.  No animals at this circus and the tickets are expensive so check it out on line before you decide if you really want to go.  Those I've spoken to say the show is great but would probably not go again.

At that end of the park is the highly acclaimed House of Blues.   The concert tour people will like this one as there is always good talent there but don't look for the Rolling Stones.  Look for Cinderella or Toad the Wet Sprocket.  Not the biggest names in the business but great talent just the same.  For the experienced concert-goer understand it's a standing room venue so wear your good boots!

Stores are mostly Disney stores like World of Disney or 25 Days of Christmas.  There is a Lego store which was recently renovated and that looks great.  The west end has a cigar store, clothing stores, a 24-plex theater, and in 2012 they are going to open up a bowling alley in the old Virgin Records.  There is a lot to do between visiting theme parks and it's a relaxing but fun-filled place to go in the evening.  Hope you like and thanks for reading.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Brevard Zoo

If you come to Florida and take a day or two between theme parks to enjoy the world's greatest beaches you might want to take a short ride east toward the Space Coast in Brevard County.  Right off I-95 in the Viera/Suntree Area you can visit the Brevard Zoo.  This is a beautiful animal conservation park with hundreds of animals, birds, and reptiles. 

Brevard Zoo is divided into geographic areas.  Above you see the giraffes in Expedition Africa. There is South America, Australia/Asia, and Wild Florida with our ever-popular alligators.  There is also a play area called "Paws-On" where kids up to 12 years can romp around, get wet, and burn off energy, especially in the hot summer months.  The animals are too many to mention but just to name a few there are kangaroos, baboons, dingo dogs, and a variety of monkeys.  There are a number of eagles, hawks, and owls in full display and several gray wolves.  You can also catch a closeup of a jaguar which is one of the most beautiful cats I've ever seen. 

The zoo is designed under a canopy of trees so, while there is plenty of light you aren't in the baking sun in the hot months.  It isn't a tremendous walk like Disney World so it's a nice visit without lines or huge crowds.  There are education programs for all ages and they offer education to anyone who wants to learn about the animals of the world. 

This year we took a kayak through the park.  There's an extra charge for this.  I think it was $3 or $4 each and they just added a "Zip Line" so you can take a swing through the trees over the animals if you like!  (We haven't done that one yet).  You can take a train ride and see the wildlife  from that angle.  It's very popular with younger children, and Dads.

Hours of operation are 9:30 am to 5:00pm daily.  They only close on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas so you can visit any time throughout the year.  Tickets are $13.75/Adult, $12.75/Senior,  $10.25/2 to 12 years, and under 2 is FREE. 

Brevard Zoo is a great time and worth it if you want to take a quieter, less stressful afternoon on your trip to Florida.  I hope you try it.  I think you will agree.  Thanks for reading. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Rainforest Cafe Downtown Disney Orlando Florida

Saturday night we went to Downtown Disney for the evening with our kids.  There are a wide variety of places to eat there and we decided on the Rainforest Cafe since we hadn't been there for a while.  Since it was  the weekend we knew it would be busy so when I reported to the booth for reservations I was pleasantly surprised when the employees told me it was about a 15 minute wait.  35 minutes later we asked about this and the same people told us it was an hour wait.  That didn't do much for my mood but nothing you can do about it.  Well, an hour it was but when we sat down everything else went very well. 

The first thing they offer you is the Disney diners card which you pay $25 for.  You can tack it on to your bill. This is like a standard diners card giving you preferred seating, discounts at gift shops, and the $25 is put back on your card  within 24 hours (if I understood the server's briefing).  They also add $25 on your birthday month for use on future visits.  If you calculate the savings you have to spend $250 to get every $25 back so it's a 10% savings.  If you dine at the participating restaurants on the card you may find it a good deal.  I didn't buy it but it would have been nice not to wait so long to sit down.

Our server was very fast and efficient.  She did a great job and the food was topnotch.  Like a lot of families we all settled on burgers and we finished with a Volcano which is a dessert for four.  This consists of 2 scoops of vanilla ice cream stacked with four chocolate brownies around it like a small mountain and topped with whipped cream drizzled with chocolate syrup.  They deliver it with a group of servers who shout "Volcano" as they walk toward your table with it.  They used to top it with a sparkler but years ago they changed it to a tinseled wand. Probably somebody burned their fingers and sued the place so they went with the safer gimmick.  It was much better with the sparkler but that's the world we live in!
The restaurant is so ornate that a first time visitor has a hard time concentrating on their food.  The place is a jungle with mechanical gorillas, birds, baboons, and elephants.  Every half hour there is a rainstorm.  The place gets dark, there is thunder, and the animals start making noises.  It's totally cool and you'll love it!  I've been eating there for about ten years and I never get tired of it.  There is so much to see and look at that you will enjoy it immensely.  The main point I want to make is that they don't sacrifice good dining for atmosphere.  The dinner is the main topic even though the atmosphere is amazing.  Our dinner came to $99 before the tip so it isn't a trip we make routinely but it's worth it  when we do.

After dinner a walk through Downtown Disney is always pleasurable.  Too many shops and bars to speak of and don't forget to visit Pleasure Island while you're  there. It's always a pleasant time!

Monday, November 7, 2011

What Do Visitors Want To Know About Vacationing in Florida? Part II

When you plan your trip to Florida consider several things.  First, the weather.  Central Florida is just above the tropic zone.  Summer here is hot and humid with very little breeze if you're not on the coast.  The temperatures range from 76 degrees at night to upwards of 100 degrees in the height of the day.  These temps may not seem extreme but 97 degrees in Florida is much more oppressive than in New York or Wisconsin.  The key is hydration.  To be outside in the Florida heat it's recommended to drink 8-12 ounces every hour.  That's for those who live here.  One tip I can give you is to drink consistently.  Many folks get up, go to breakfast, drink coffee or tea, and don't drink for another hour or two.  Heat stroke or heat exhaustion creeps up on you and by the time you take in anything you tend to drink like a camel.  Now you're sloshing around feeling way too full and still not feeling well.  So, drink moderately throughout the day, keep an eye on the little ones, and you should be alright. Also, stick to water or Gatorade,  not soda or pop.  The body doesn't absorb it as quickly and some of the ingredients can make you feel worse.

Then there's the sun itself.  You're considerably closer to the equator so the sun will actually appear larger, especially to those from northern Europe.  A good hat is recommended (try one with a good brim made of straw).  It keeps the sun from beating directly on your head.  You can buy them at  any local store for very little.  Just make sure you take it off before you get on the rides or you'll need a new hat when you get off it!

Sunblock is a must for anyone including the locals.  I don't recommend any particular brand because it's not important but get something with a minimum SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 35 or higher.  It'll say so right on the bottle. Again, buy them outside the theme parks where you can get them for as much as 50% less than inside.  My favorite is Wal-Mart brand called No-Ad.  You can get a huge bottle for about $8.00. That can keep the whole crowd going all week. 

If you have pets and are coming from not too far away, check with the hotels you reserve with and ask their pet policies.  I know for a fact that most of them do not have pet accomodations but can suggest boarding kennels.  If you're local then all the parks have day boarding usually about $15-20.00/day.  Better to leave the pets at home or with a caretaker.

Carry very little cash when you travel.  You're relatively safe in the parks but Orlando is a large city and has a fair amount of crime.  I hate to admit it but, like anywhere you have a lot of tourists, there are those who will prey on them. The local authorities concentrate heavily on this and they have police Officer details dedicated to just keeping the visitors safe.  You know they can't be everywhere so don't carry anything a thief can use.  Use traveler's checks, or credit cards.  I'll finish this tomorrow so check back and thanks.  I hope this is helpful.  

Sunday, November 6, 2011

What Do Visitors Want To Know About Vacationing in Florida? Part I

The Central Florida vacation scene is the number one vacation destination in the world.  Florida has the location, weather, and capacity to host millions of people from all over the world on a year round basis. 

When Walt Disney set his sights on the area in the early 1960's he chose it for those reasons and more.  Florida was relatively underdeveloped at the time.  Real estate was inexpensive, and being a pioneer, he understood he could lay the groundwork for an industry that would outgrow even his imagination.  Sadly, Walt Disney died in 1966 but his dreams were already in motion.  When the WDW Preview Center opened in 1968, my family and I visited it and were exhilarated by the image of castles and creatures that were presented to us.  At the time it was the only structure on Lake Buena Vista Blvd and it's still there.  It's a plain, unremarkable building that now hosts the Amateur Athletic Union but if you drive by it you'll see the first building the Disney Team occupied in Florida.

As years went by, Sea World, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and a myriad other smaller venues followed all of which have been very successful.  Busch Gardens in Tampa was here first, but it was a small park that has done a great job of expanding over the years and remaining a powerhouse attraction along with the newer ones. They blended in well with the Disney culture by adding their own uniqueness and giving visitors so many choices that they could either try to do it all or vow to return and experience everything else.

For families wanting to make the journey, whether from the United States, Europe, or South America,  I suggest first reading blogs like this one.  In them you'll get the "unpolished" opinions of people like yourself - families on budgets who want to give other families good ideas on the "do's and don'ts" of visiting a large metropolitan area.  Once you read a few articles and get a feel for the area then go to the reputable websites where you can book your entire vacation before leaving home.  Expedia, Kayak, Priceline, and Orbitz, are just a few but they compete heavily for your business. You can book, airlines, car rental, theme park tickets, and even your meal budget all in one.  My experience is that when you book everything on the same site you usually get a better deal.  One thing folks tend to not do is shop around.  Open an account on each site and create a travel itinerary without booking it.  Then print it out and compare that with at least four other sites.  This way you could save significant money rather than booking a la carte through different sites. Of course, if you can find something that way then do it but it's far more time consuming. 

I'm going to end this one on that note.  I'll do a follow up article taking up where I leave off so check back.  Thanks.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Horror Nights

When we went to Halloween Horror Nights we went to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner.  We had the nachos appetizer and burgers with fries.  That's all we usually get but we enjoy it every time.  I won't say much about Hard Rock because I've written about it in previous posts and I have nothing new to add.  The only thing I didn't like was the waiter who was not engaging at all and didn't offer any dialogue beyond basic service.  This is not the norm for Hard Rock so I won't gig them too hard but in an atmosphere like Hard Rock the personality of the server is almost as important as the quality of the meal.

As for Halloween Horror Nights, I wrote in my previous post everything I liked about it.  There were a few things that could be better.  For example, in and around the attractions the police officers seemed more engaging than some of the employees.  Many of the haunted houses were set up on back lots which is not where tourists ever go so it's all set up with ropes and stanchions.  While the details were good there were times that you don't know if you're going in or out and nobody there to tell you.  That or employees were standing there watching you decide what to do and not offer to help.  I'm sure they are told this but don't always do it.  Also, some of the rides were closed for the night, for example E.T the Extra-terrestrial, is still one of the most popular rides and it was closed.  Why?  People pay a lot of hard earned money so keep everything open. Right?

I included the photo of the menu for Finnegan's above but it's hard to read.  Another place to eat at Universal is Mel's Drive-In which is the replica of Mel's in American Graffiti.  It's fast food burgers in and out but good for families. There is also Louie's Italian Restaurant, the Monster Cafe and a fried chicken place (we haven't eaten there).  You can also hit Starbucks which is right next door to Ben and Jerry's so plenty of eateries and they're all good.

If you come next year buy your tickets early but plan for a night because, unlike regular theme park tickets, these are date specific.  Ticket prices are cheaper for weekdays, more for Friday, and Saturday is the most expensive.  Example for 2011:  Sunday-Thursday - $39.99, Friday - $49.99, and Saturday - $59.99.  You can also add Fast Pass for $39.99 extra so you can bypass all the lines (except Rip Rocket Roller Coaster).  I didn't buy them because I felt it was a waste of money and it was since none of the lines were longer than a 15 minute wait, however, if you chose to buy them, buy them right away as they only issue so many Fast Passes for the night you chose to go. Like I wrote in previous posts, if you stay at the Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay, or Loew's Royal Pacific Hotels your room key is your Fast Pass. Parking this year was $15.00 for general parking but they also have drop off areas, bus drop off, and valet parking if you want to go more.

Like anything, you can spend a lot of money but some people only do this once in a lifetime, or just with the kids because they know we'll pay almost anything for those memories that last a lifetime.  Just do your research before buying....and don't hesitate to talk to ordinary people like me.  We don't give you the glossy overview.  We tell you like relatives and parents the things you want to know.  Email me if you need anything.  Thanks again for reading. Take care till next time.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando

Last Friday night my kids and I went to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, Orlando.  This Halloween street party has been put on by Universal Studios for 21 years and I've never been, in part because the kids were always too young.  My son, now 14, really wanted to go, and my daughter, 12, was adventurous enough to go at a young age.  So, off we went and what a night it was.  It was a scream!  (I know, corny, but it seemed right). 

Universal closes to regular ticket holders at 6:00 pm and opens about 6:30 for Halloween Horror Night ticket holders.  The park was dark except for street lamps and the atmosphere was intoxicating.  We saw all kinds of creeps walking the streets, zombies, witches, bloody corpses, and Michael Myers types running around chasing people with chainsaws like the one in the picture above with Ryan.  There were eight haunted houses with various themes from ghostly graveyards, shipwrecks, haunted houses, a Spanish fort, and a WWI trench with a battle scene going on around you.  My favorite was called "Nevermore" which was an Edgar Allan Poe themed house.  He was one of my favorite authors so it was most intriguing for me.  I think the kids liked "The Thing", a frozen setting based on the upcoming movie from Universal.  It was freezing in there but it made it that much more authentic.

In all the attractions and on the streets of Universal they had hundreds of characters running around interacting with the visitors.  The makeup and acting was every bit what you expect from a major movie maker.  They chase all the kids around, pop around corners, pretend to grab you, and snarl.  They don't speak but the acting is incredible.  Hats off to all the cast members for a job well done.

If you got there early the crowd was light since there are a lot more adults that go on a late night but there were plenty of kids there, some younger than my daughter.  We went on all the rides starting with the Rip Rocket Roller coaster, a fast-moving express that starts with a trip to the top and about a 100 foot fall all the while listening to rock music that you get to chose.  We went on the Jaws ride as well.  Good in the day, superb at night!  Also visit the mummy ride.  Short wait times - excellent ride.

Finnegan's Restaurant & Bar


Finnegan's Pub
All the eateries at Universal are good but I always gravitate to the Irish
Pubs.  Finnegan's is a good one right in the heart of Universal.  It has typical pub fare -  sandwiches, appetizers, and hot dinners.  The food is good, the service excellent, and the pub is a clean, comfortable place with nice design and a cozy air about it.  If you like Cheers or Beef O'Brady's, this is the place to hang out and have a good glass of stout. 

The park closes at 2:00am and the rides and shows go on til then (except for Rip Rocket - it closes at 1:00) so a lot of the party goers start off at Universal City Walk and make it to the Halloween Horror Nights later, say, about 11:00pm.  This makes it a great place to go when it opens, especially if you have kids because the lines are light and you don't have to mix with the heavy drinkers who eventually make it inside. 

Along that line I noticed a heavy but discreet police presence along with active Universal Security Officers.  With all the beer and shots being consumed on the streets and in the bars I saw very few disturbances.  Police escorted a few guys to the parking lot and they were seen speaking with a couple of guys but otherwise it was a very well-behaved crowd.  This is good for parents who might be a little concerned with bringing their kids in contact with a grown up crowd for the first time.  They did a good job of maintaining a festive atmosphere.

The attractions were a maze of lines and ropes but it was very well organized.  I was impressed with the detail of attention paid to the place and one can see a lot of great planning went into preparing for the visitors.  There is only one more night of it so get your ticket and get over there!  I'm going to post another blog about it tomorrow so please check back.  Thanks.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Legoland Florida

Florida's newest attraction is Legoland, a 150 acre theme park located 45 minutes west of Orlando off I-4.  If you are from Florida or are familiar with the tourist corridor, it's about halfway between Orlando and Tampa in Winter Haven. 

Legoland opened on October 15th , 2011, on the grounds of the old Cypress Gardens Water Park.  It's a family themed park targeting the imaginations of children 2-12 years old but it's really a good experience for everyone.  As one of the smaller theme parks it's really nicely done with all the bells and whistles of the larger parks without having to walk till you drop.  There are a variety of rides and shows and a roller coaster that is really pretty cool.  Everywhere you go there are characters and structures built out of tens of thousands of Lego pieces.  You can take a tour of a real working Lego factory and visit Lego City that is a huge area of Lego stuff.  The 2-12 crowd will love it but I saw a lot of teenagers there having a great time.

One thing I really liked is that on the lake they brought back the ski show like in the old days of Cypress Gardens.  It's a masterful show put on by world class water skiers and what's great about it is that you can't find this type of show anywhere else.  The kids can enjoy an interactive play area and visit Pirate's Cove.

Park hours in October are 10:00am til 5:00pm.  It isn't posted anywhere but they will extend their hours during the peak seasons like all the parks do.  Ticket prices are $75.00/Adult and $65.00/child 2-12.  Under 2 is free.  They also have annual passes for those who live nearby and Senior Annual prices.

They have good food at decent prices (for an attraction).  There is a pizza and pasta buffet in Fun Town and Blackbeard's in the Pirate's Cove has burgers and sandwiches.  Again, all designed around kids. 

We enjoyed the day and will probably go again some time in the future.  Sorry, no photos this time but I'll get some when we return.  So long for now until my next post.  Don't forget to check out my other posts and ask me anything you may think of before planning your vacation.

One more thing before I go.  On October 28th my kids and I are going to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando.  It's supposed to be the best of horror shows and no wonder.  If the folks that make the movies puts it on it should be awesome!  Please remember to check in after the 28th so we can share the experience with you.  I'll make sure I take pictures so you can see what a great time it is. Thank you!