Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville at City Walk - Universal Orlando

City Walk at Universal is an avenue of fun-filled restaurants, shops, and bars.  Totally cool place for the family, a date, or special event.  One of the restaurants is Margaritaville with great "Parrothead"  atmosphere.  The service is great and the prices are decent.  You can get sandwiches under $10.00 or go for the full meals from about $12.99 to $25.99 if you don't mind the price.  The place is full with a live stage, and concert footage playing all day or night.  The bars are awesome and there is usually a guitar man playing Buffett music on the outside deck.  Get your photo taken with a Macaw (I did and it's one of the best pictures I've ever taken).  We're a family of four so we usually go for the "Cheeseburger In Paradise"  which is one of the best (and biggest) burgers I've had.  There is a full kids menu and our kids love the place as it is very colorful and vibrant.  Not too loud but loud enough to give a party like atmosphere.  They take all credit cards and with annual passes they give priority seating and discounts so give it a try.  If you visit Florida and can't see a Jimmy Buffett concert visit Margaritaville, get a photo shoot by the float plane, and it will be the next best thing. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Buying From the Right Place

One should be careful when coming to Orlando looking for deals.  As the number one vacation destination in the world it has a lot to offer but just like anywhere that attracts tourists there are those who will take advantage of you.  Local law enforcement agencies routinely shut down illegal ticket agents and peddlers selling worthless deals either on the street or in kiosks that look vaguely official.  I'm sure many of them are genuine but how can you know? I suggest having tickets to any attraction in hand prior to arrival.  Buy them from trusted and reputable sites.  You can either go directly to the site of the attraction you want to visit or go to one of the sites that that book travel, transportation, and lodging.  Disney, Sea World, and Universal Studios all have their own unique deals but search for different offers from the clearing sites as well.  You can book your whole vacation and bundling can save you hundreds.  Print e-tickets and have your hard tickets issued at guest services in any of the parks.  The process is easy and much safer.  Don't buy from just anybody.  We want your business but we also want you back!  If you get swindled you'll have a bad taste in your mouth and that's not good for your family or Florida Tourism. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Busch Gardens Tampa

We live on the east coast of Florida so when we go to Busch Gardens we always drive.  It's about 2 hours from Brevard County and it's a good trip being all highway.  If you fly into Orlando follow the signs out of the airport to Tampa and get on the Greeneway, a toll road that goes around Orlando.  Then get on I-4 west Tampa.  It;s about 45 minutes from that point.  There is one rest area just outside Clermont and plenty of stops for food and gas.  There are a variety of hotels and restaurants surrounding Busch Gardens that are reasonable and family oriented.  They are all decent.  We like to stay at the Embassy Suites on Spectrum Blvd.  We found it by accident but it's a great family stay.  All suites for about $150.00/night with complimentary hot breakfast and free shuttle to Busch Gardens.  The staff is always pleasant and the rooms are in good shape. 

When you arrive at Busch Gardens the newest attraction is the one to hit first.  It's called Cheetah Hunt and it's a great ride.  There are a number of cool roller coasters some big, some smaller for the younger kids.  There is a kids play area with everything for 2-12 and an awesome stage show with all the muppet characters.  Make sure you see the animal shows and take the tour through the Serengeti Plain where you see all the African animals, lions, tigers, rhinos, hyenas, etc.  There is a guided safari you can take for an extra charge.  We've not done it yet but you can get closer to the animals if you want to.  There is a petting area for the kids where they can feed and pet kangaroos and wallabies.  They will love it!

While you're there visit the Myombe Reserve.  It's one of the best gorilla enclosures I've ever seen.  There are several open air observation places for photo shoots and 2 glass enclosures where the gorillas walk right up to you! 

Other that the gorillas my favorite area is the cheetah enclosure.  I've never seen a cheetah in real life and they're a breathtaking animal to look at.  Again, you're right there with them at arms length and they now have a cheetah cub in the pride.  It's the photo shoot of a lifetime!

Restaurants are plentiful (like gift shops)  but the quality of food is great.  We find the best places to eat are the grills where you eat cafeteria style.  God for families.  A good way to save money is to buy half size water bottles and refill them during the day,  If you don't you will spend $20.00 every time you buy water.  A beer is about $6.00 so it can get pricey.  Pack things like beef jerky or cookies in plastic baggies that you can carry in your purse or the cargo pocket of your shorts.  We do this to save money.  This is what we do when travelling with a family of four and you will save a lot. 

A day at Busch Gardens is a memorable family event.  I suggest you get your tickets on line before arriving.  It's just like concert tickets. If you buy at the gate you pay premium prices.  If you are with AAA or AARP there are good discounts on sites like Expedia.com, Hotwire.com, Priceline,com, or any of the others.  All these sites are good but shop and compare.  Some of the sites have good discounts for military families so check on that.  I know that Kayak.com will compare prices with competitors right on their site but I suggest you check the other sites yourself.  There are various ways to save by planning your whole trip on one site so play with it for a while before buying.  In this economy hotels, restaurants, and theme parks are offering discounts so shop vigorously before buying.

As a Floridian we want you to visit as we thrive on tourists but it doesn't mean you have to go broke.  Do your homework and you can save hundreds of dollars and enjoy your vacation.  Feel free to email me with any specific questions you may have.  If you do, tell me whether or not I have your permission to publish your question with answer.  If you want to know something there are thousands of people who may need to know as well.  Happy travelling!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Day at Sea World Orlando

We've gone to Sea World a number of times this year.  We bought Fun Passes for the whole family just before Christmas last year and we like going there.  If you live in Florida or Georgia passes are the way to go since they aren't too much more than one-day or multi-day passes.  If you are from far away like New York or Chicago or even Europe and South America then single day passes or multi-day passes are better for you.  It's not a bad deal to get Sea World/Busch Gardens passes as they are only about 45 minutes apart.  There are several levels of purchase you can get.  The more high-end pass gets you perks like free parking  and discounts at gift shops and food establishments. 
Sea World is a fun family park with four major rides, the most recent being the Manta, a roller coaster that prones you out so you ride like you're flying!  It's a totally new experience for those who haven't been on one of those.  Take off your hats, glasses, and flip flops because at then end you won't own them anymore!  Kracken another high speed coaster where your feet dangle and you get tossed around a lot.  Also, is the Journey to Atlantis, a water ride with a mean drop.  It's kind of a roller/water ride and is similar to Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World but themed very differently.  Also, check out Wild Arctic, a simulated helicopter ride through the arctic. After the ride you see whales, walruses, and polar bears inches from your face.  I used to live in Alaska, and the experience is so authentic it makes me miss the harsh, cold environment because it conjures up old memories as well.

Needless to say, my kids who are 12 and 14 years old love all the rides but I think they like Manta the best. 

Sea World is not just a carnival.  The whale and dolphin shows are superb and a once in a lifetime experience.  Imagine being splashed by a 12,500 lb killer whale.  You can sit right up close and get wet.  You may not want to be drenched in salt water but I guarantee your kids will!  There is a sea lion and otter show that is guaranteed to make you laugh and all the shows are interactive.  There are plenty of gift shops because in Florida it's the only thing we have more of other than condos and citrus.  What I like the most about Sea World is it's not some tacky midway.  They really are more focused on the preservation and proliferation of sea life.  They don't just have dancing wildlife, they educate the visitors as to the wonder and value of these remarkable creatures.  So you leave with a sense of having had fun but also a renewed interest of the animals we share the earth with.

Restaurants are good.  You can get sandwiches and salads at the cafeterias or eat in luxury at the Shark Encounter.  You sit right against the tank and see phenomenal sea creatures swimming beside you.  If this is a once in a lifetime trip you might want to eat there.  Just to remember to make reservations with the folks at the door early in the day or you'll wait forever to get seated at dinner time.  Another good trick is to eat at odd hours like between 2-5:00p when the crowd is light.  Keep in mind so many of our guests are South American or European and they tend to eat later in the evening unlike Americans.  

Hotels around Sea World are plentiful so accommodations are too.  One of our favorites is the Renaissance right across from the park.  Rates are reasonable and rooms are, well, roomy.  Hospitality is premium and the hotel staff treats us like millionaire's.  In the morning you can walk right across and leave your car so you don't have to pay the $14.00 to park. 

We also like the Hilton Grand Vacation Resort also across the street.  They have shuttle service to the park so no driving.  Accommodations are all suite and you can get great rates if you shop sites and compare such as Expedia, Kayak, or Orbitz.  They are all good so compare.  There are more reasonable rates at hotels along International Drive so if you don't mind driving up to 4 miles in the morning you can get good rooms at great rates.

Sea World also hosts concerts and seasonal shows such as ice skating,  They often have evening shows like fireworks on the 4th of July and New Year's.  Always something to do.

Al in all the experience is excellent and you won't regret it.  Just bring lots of sunblock and you and your family will have the experience of a lifetime. Enjoy

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Theme Parks in Central Florida

Having grown up in Orlando I was in the shadow of Walt Disney from the age of 10.  My family and I were at the opening of Walt Disney World and I've been to all the parks numerous times.  When we were little we had small parks like Six Gun Territory, Weeki Watchie Springs,   Cypress Gardens, and many more.  A lot has changed since the 60's as things tend to do and while the smaller parks have either gone under or faded to smaller crowds they still have their Florida charm. 

As an adult I've had some extensive Quality Assurance experience while working for the government and I apply what I learned to the number one past time from my childhood.  I don't work for the parks or endorse one over the other, they all have their qualities, but I'll narrate what I as a tourist and native see and place value on during my many excursions. 

My focus today is on Universal Studios which also includes the adjacent Islands of Adventure.  These are two superb venues for family entertainment and adult night life.  Universal Studios is a live action movie studio which has lots designed like the big studios in California but cater to rides and entertainment.  No expense has been spared in the design and sparkle of this spectacular park.  It is not as vast as other parks which is nice as you don't have to be an athlete or buy a new pair of running shoes to see it all.  The rides are all typical of the filmmakers expertise in creating whatever illusion they want you to enjoy, whether horror, comedy, or adventure, the rides are all awesome.  The on site restaurants are as good as it gets, and pricing is not the great sticker shock one might expect since you get a face full of fun for your buck.  Islands of Adventure has the world class Hogwart's and Harry Potter rides just opened in 2010, and for the European traveller especially, it makes the long trip extremely memorable.  Universal Studios boasts 3 world class hotels on the property.  Hard Rock, Portofino Bay, and the Royal Pacific, which, if booked with theme park tickets, also gives you express passes to all the rides.  This is a great complement, especially in the summer season when the lines can be long.  Pricing is a little more than to be expected outside the park but what you spend up front you will save in time travelling, gas, and aggravation from competing with our summertime traffic. 

All in all the experience is one in a lifetime for some and will leave you with lasting memories.