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.