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! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bongo's Cuban Cafe - Disney Village

When you visit Disney Village there's a restaurant down the road from Raglan Road that will give you a Caribbean experience called Bongo's Cuban Cafe.  We've visited there several times both with our children or as a couple.  Bongo's is considered to be a top-rated Cuban cuisine in the Orlando area.

Bongo's opened in 1997 at Disney Village and is owned by music legends Gloria and Emilio Estefan.  As you approach the restaurant you get an atmosphere of old world Havana with an outside cafe and balcony dining under a giant gold pineapple overlooking the water.

We went there yesterday for lunch while the kids were at school.  We were greeted and seated promptly in the middle of the main floor.  Then we were met by our waiter, Javier, who told us about the day's drink preferences and most popular entree choices.  My wife ordered the Mojito and we settled on burgers.  Doesn't sound too Cuban but the burgers were a mix of beef, pork, and Chorizo which gave it a spicy meat flavor.  Instead of standard chips or fries we had fired plantain chips that were awesome. 

The menu has a broad variety of traditional Cuban fare, steak, seafood, and sandwiches.  They have a full service bar and a full page of appetizers.  My son and daughter  have a favorite which is the stuffed potatoes.

Evenings and weekends they have Cuban music and dancing.  The atmosphere is engaging and the place is well-managed with wait staff in white collars and attentive.  Lunch prices are about $10.00-$12.00.  Dinner can range from $12.99 up to around $30.00 for steaks and some of the seafood.  Be careful with bar prices as my wife's one drink cost $9.00 but you can expect that around tourist areas. 

If you want a great lunch or dinner and love the idea of being in 1950's Havana, visit Bongo's if you have the chance.  Check out for photos and more information.  Also, if you're really interested check out the variety of Cuban music on Amazon.  We really liked and hope you do too.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Universal/Islands of Adventure

When you visit Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure there's a good chance you're going because of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  This segment of the park is located in Islands of Adventure and is almost like a little theme park of it's own.  Based on the writings of J.K. Rowling, the Wizarding World is like stepping into the movies.

As you enter this part of the park you encounter late 19th century England with some 20th century amenities.  Your first encounter is a street scene and at the entrance is the locomotive that took Harry and friends to Hogwarts School.  Up the cobbled avenue are  various shops and eateries.  Ollivander's is the most popular store where they sell all the magical wands from the books.  When you enter you encounter a charming shopkeeper who operates a magic shop and explains all the wands and what they do.  He selects one child from your group as an apprentice wizard.  Sort of a skit.  After he gives you his script you move onto the store and the kids can shop  for a wand they can attach themselves to. They are a rare and special souvenir.  It's not just shopping for the kids, it's an experience. 

A variety of other shops line the street but just one other I'll mention is Honeyduke's, a sweet shop you won't want to miss.  The confections are Hogwarts unique and it's like the sweet shop many of us grew up on. Small, cramped but filled with candies, cakes, and chocolates you'll only find at this experience.  The employees are all costumed and act like cast members.  It's totally cool. 

As you venture up the street you'll encounter the Dragon Challenge, a high speed dual roller coaster that'll rattle your cage.  It starts in a castle and shoots you up in the air.  Complete with loops, barrel rolls, and heart-wrenching turns it's a scream!  Younger children have a 48" height requirement as do many of the more mature rides but other than that you'll love it.  Don't feel left out, though, because around the corner you reach the Flight of the Hippogriff.  This is a smaller roller coaster.  It's fun and a nice substitute for the young ones who miss out on the Dragon Challenge. 

The "Boss" ride here is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  This is located in a life-size replica of Hogwarts School that towers over the entire park.  You get in line and wind your way through the classrooms and halls of Hogwarts School with talking paintings, dark rooms, and creatures you only find in Harry Potter.  The ride is a moving platform that uniquely seats all passengers facing to the side as the vehicle moves through the castle so everyone has front row seats.  It's not fast-moving like a roller coaster but the technology is definitely 21st century.  The ride comes at you and you actually feel what it's like to play in a game of Quidditch.  I'm not going to describe it too much because one needs the element of surprise.  I'll just say I've been on a lot of theme park rides in my life and this one leaves me breathing hard when I get off.  I've ridden it about ten times and every time I leave my first word is "Wow". 

The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter is the experience of a lifetime.  Presently there isn't a Harry Potter theme hotel but, if you stay at one of the on-site hotels (Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel, or Portofino Bay) you get "Fast-Pass" access and the park opens one hour early just for you. Also, don't miss the Harry Potter store at Universal.  Now, I've been asked about a Harry Potter Contest at Universal but can't find any evidence of one.  If you know of one please post it here so we can all know about it.

My next posting will be a restaurant in the Central Florida attraction zone.  Thanks and please keep reading.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Disney Animal Kingdom

www,dAnimal Kingdom is the Disney Park with real animals.  Disney does everything with an extra dose of "Wow" so be prepared for an awesome adventure.  This park is definitely more than a zoo and all ages will marvel not just at the animals but the beautiful habitats that give the wildlife a great environment and the tourists a maxed out view of them all. 

Upon entering the park you encounter the "Tree of Life", a full-size tree with the figures of several hundred animals carved into it's trunk.   You will stand there a long while trying to decide if the tree is real or not.  It's a fantastic photo shoot which is about 14 stories high  and probably 50-75 feet wide.  Absolutely breathtaking and a good setup for what else is in the park.

You know how you go to your local zoo and you get to the one exhibit you really want to see but all you see is a foot or a tail?  Yeah, we've all tried to get our five year old excited about the ear of a wolf and we feel a little let down when they don't.  Animal Kingdom created a park where the animals are out where you can see them.  It has an authentic tour of the Kilimanjaro Plains by open air bus.  Every species of African wildlife is there and in full view.  There are several types of safaris and walking treks there you can experience, so when you arrive, grab a program and have fun.

The animals aside, probably the greatest experience is Expedition Everest, a high-speed roller coaster through the Himalayas.  It towers over the park and you know you can't do Disney without a good rattling so grab everyone and go for a scream! 

The kids will enjoy all the dinosaur exhibits and there is an indoor thrill ride through  prehistoric forest complete with all the Jurassic creatures they love.  It's not high-speed but still amazing.  I know when I'm at theme parks if I get a chance to sit on a ride where it's dark, cool, and I'm sitting down it's a total win for me! If you get here when it's hot (which is March through October) you'll enjoy a ride down the rapids.  Another great way to cool off and you better want to because your family will not want to miss this one. 

There are lots of interactive places for the family from educational to animal petting.  Eating here is like other parks, if you're with your kids for the lunch rooms for less expensive meals but there are nice restaurants as well if there are only two of you.

Animal Kingdom Lodge is an upscale lodge right on the grounds where you can stay and see wildlife all day long.  The animal habitat is right outside your window and you can see animal feedings from your window so if you like to stay on property check out their availability.

One thing I always forget to mention is that if you go to  you can download or request a FREE vacation planning video.  It's very helpful for first time visitors to Central Florida but equally for return visitors who want to plan before arriving.  Visit the website and see for yourself as I believe there is a virtual tour you can take. 

My next post is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter so check in soon and thank you for reading.