Category Archives: 2011 USA

USA ‘11 – TIPS & TRICKS

This year was our sixth visit to Orlando doing the park with the kids (although they’re not really kids these days). Over the years we have learnt a thing or two about making the place tick for a great holiday and I thought that I would pass on.

Obviously these tips and tricks worked well for us but, as they say your milage may vary and all information was correct at April 2011, where that is relevant.

1. Travel when Easter is at the end of the school holidays. Occasionally, every few years, Easter comes as the final weekend of the school holidays rather than in the middle and this seems to make the first week much quieter and therefore more pleasant, in the parks.

2. Don’t use walkie talkies they’re useless get phones. Walkie talkies can only operate on a limited number of frequencies, something like 20 I think. 20 divided into all the visitors in Disney with walkie talkies means that you are sharing the frequency with a lot of people and this in turn means that they have a range of about 20 paces. Mobile phones are cheap and don’t suffer from this problem – see here for info.

3. Sales tax is not included in prices. Even after all these years I still get a shock when I get to the till and the price is higher than on the ticket. Sales tax is about 7.5% in Florida at the time of writing – don’t forget to allow for it. I found this particularly annoying and don’t understand why the taxable price isn’t displayed – unless it is to deliberately confuse tourists.

4. Things are more expensive in the parks. This may seem like stating the bleeding obvious but you get a Disney price hike and nowhere is this more obvious that in the places to eat. If you are on a budget take food in.

5. It is hot. Drink plenty of water and avoid collapsing with dehydration like one (un-named) member of our party did on our first trip.

6. Bring a second empty suitcase. If you like shopping then this is the place to be but it is easy to get carried away and you are left with three choices: throw stuff you have brought with you from the UK away to make more space, buy a new suitcase or bring one with you.

7. Parking at parks $14/$15. You spent several hundred pounds on your park entry tickets so you naturally assume that there is nothing else left to pay right? Wrong! You have to pay to drive and park at the place and (currently) this is an eye-watering $14 at Disney and $15 at Universal. Obviously this adds to the overall cost of the holiday.

8. Park photos are very expensive. At the entrance to pretty much every park and on many of the rides there is the opportunity for an official photo, often with a stunning view behind. To purchase these photos costs anywhere from $18 – $25. They can be a great momento but a wallet busting one too. However, the official photographers are willing to take the same shot with your camera, which is obviously free.

9. Got a hire car? You need to know how big your tank is. If you have hired a car then ask how big the tank is in gallons before you leave the rental desk otherwise you are going to be in trouble when you fill up the tank for the first time. At the petrol (gas) station you cannot pay after you have filled up as you can in the UK. You must either pre-pay on a credit card or at the desk. To pre-pay you must have the zip code of the credit card, which you don’t have so you must pay at the desk and the first question they will ask is how much you want. You don’t want to over pay so check before hand.

10. Tipping. This is a big thing in the US. Like the UK the US has a minimum wage (currently $7.31/£4.46 per hour) but, crucially, a “tipped employee” can be paid a lower rate (currently $4.29/£2.62 per hour) on the expectation of a tip. Dig deep!

11. Right turn on red. If you get to a junction and the lights are red and you are turning right, if the coast is clear you can go. This is great and such a time saver. It should be introduced in the UK (although in the interests of safety it should be left turn on red).

12. Sell your tickets! And finally, make some money back. If you have bought 14 day park tickets and you are strongly encouraged to do so, you will be hard pressed to use all the days on them as they expire 14 days after first use. Therefore, you will almost certainly have one or possibly two days remaining on the tickets – sell them. There are a number of places down the 192 that will buy them from you. We made $60 which paid for our lunch on the last day.

A trip to Orlando and the parks is a fabulous family holiday and great for all ages and while the prices seem good there are, as outlined above, so hidden gotchas. But forewarned is forearmed. Enjoy your holiday!

USA ‘11 – ROUND UP

This post is a round up of all we did while in Florida 2011. Included are the day by day posts along with the general posts written while we were out in Orlando. I have put these into categories and have also provided links to the websites of the attractions, shops and restaurants we visited and would recommend.

The holiday itself was based around the needs to two teenaged boys and two adults acting like teenagers! Even if you don’t fit into either category you are bound to find something here that appeals to you given how much there is to do in Florida.

Finally, this was all correct in April 2011 but is subject to change – check the links to the official sites provided to see if it holds true now. And enjoy!

Things to do

Places to Eat

There are plenty of chain restaurants in Florida that you will recognise from the UK but there are also a vast number of US only places that serve great food. The following are some of the places we have tried and return to on a regular basis:

Places to Shop

So the dollar rate isn’t as good as it once was but there are still bargains to be had, particularly clothes:

  • Shopping
  • Lake Buena Vista – mainly clothes but also a good character outlet selling cheap Disney stuff
  • Premium Outlets – Higher end clothes retailers
  • Barnes & Noble – Book store. There is one opposite Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse on West Sand Lake Road. Pay a visit before getting a great steak!
  • Coupons – don’t leave home without them!

Americana & Trivia

Various topics mentioned in the posts that capture the essence of both America and the holiday:

By Day

This is a list of all posts in the order that they were posted:

USA ‘11 – ODDS & SODS

This post is some pictures that didn’t make it to the daily blog for one reason or another but I still thought were worth pointing out.

Alonso and Massa’s Ferraris

The above picture is of two Ford F150s and the caption will mean nothing to you unless you follow Formula 1 very closely. Earlier this year Ferrari announced that they were going to call their cars this year F150s to celebrate 150 years of the unification of Italy. Unfortunately Ford had other ideas and sued Ferrari stating that it was their brand name and customers might get confused…

No guns thanks!

I was somewhat surprised to see the above notice on the doors to Wonderworks. It was the only time I saw such a message anywhere in Florida and was interested to note that they felt it was necessary to make that point. That said, of course, the implication could be that guns were welcome everwhere else and Micky Mouse in Disney was packing a weapon under his costume.

Please look after your children, or else

This is how the coffee shop at the Lake Buena Vista outlet deals with children of inattentive parents and having see the owners I am sure that they would carry out the threat.

Val Doonican’s idea of a wet dream

Cracker Barrel is a chain of family restaurants with a remarkable side line in rocking chairs. Outside each restaurant, or at least outside the three I have been to, is a veranda stocked with rocking chairs of differing shapes and sizes. I think that this is supposed to be in keeping with the “home style” cooking that they offer.

Bistro Gourmet McDonalds

And finally, Bistro Gourmet McDonalds. Yes such a place really does exist. It’s interior is in the style of a French cafe but this is the Disney, dreamy, stylised view of a French cafe rather than the dark, smoke filled places I have been to.

In addition to the regular McDonalds fare it also offers “Exceptional chef prepared recipes”. I have to admit that I couldn’t really tell any great difference.

So that’s it for my slice of Americana this time.

USA ‘11 – DAY 15 – AND BACK HOME

So it’s our last day and we were determined to make the most of it and pack as much in before the flight as possible.

We had chosen to go back to Universal Studios and it turned out to be an inspired move as nobody else seemed to have thought of going there.

I know I have gone on about how quieter it has been this holiday but this was just ridiculous – we got onto every ride that we wanted to within five minutes with no lines. Check out the picture, see? No lines! Unless you are the CEO of Universal Studios it was perfect.

So we did the Simpsons Ride a couple of times, Jaws and Men in Black again. The boys did Shrek 3D again while Helen and I risked the Starbucks ride! We also went into the BeetleJuice show for the first time which was a good laugh. We have avoided it in the past but given that we had all seen the film just a week ago it was more relevant.

On the way to the airport we stopped off at Perkins for what I suspect will be my last Tremendous Twelve for a while (my stomach and heart both breath a sigh of relief!)

I am glad to say that the delay this year was a much more manageable 15 minutes rather than the six plus hours two years ago and the flight itself went pretty quickly. I even managed to snatch a few hours sleep.

So that’s it for our Floridian adventures. We have said that this is our last time and we won’t be going back but then we have said that before…

USA ‘11 – DAY 14 – DISNEY HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS (AGAIN)

Another action packed day as we attempted squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of the holiday.

Today we returned back to Disney Hollywood Studios, what must be the family’s favourite park. This time we went on the things we hadn’t had time for last time: Indiana Jones, Lights, Motors, Action and, in Alex’s case, Rock and Roller Coaster. The latter both Helen and I went on but I refused. I might have done it if it was Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Val Doonican rather than Aerosmith. Mind you that rocking chair could get some motion going!

Following that we returned to Downtown Disney for a final trip to Ghirardelli and some waist busting ice creams and shakes.

In the evening we had booked to go to the Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show. After having spent the day on our feet at the parks and then having to stand in the line waiting to go in for over 30 minutes people started to get tired and tetchy (not me this time I should add). However, once we had entered, sat down and the show had started everyone was settled.

The show itself is a one man affair. Tony Brent does a number of magic tricks and comedy skits while the audience wolfs down “unlimited” pizza. He was very good and had the Thompsons in hysterics – I particularly like the part where he go a member of the audience to tie his had together and then, behind a curtain, put his hands in and out of the rope at ease, very cool. If you are ever passing Orlando I would certainly recommend the show.

So the packing is done and all that remains now is to make our way home… almost.

USA ‘11 – DAY 13 – REST DAY

Today actually turned out to be more of a rest day than we had at first envisaged. Helen woke up early with a dodgy stomach and needed to spend much of the day nearby some porcelain which wiped out the plans we had.

This was not the glittering end to the holiday that we had planned. All we could hope for was a quick recovery so that we could get back on track tomorrow.

After the three men had gone out for dinner without Helen and got back home Mat started to complain of stomach pains too. This now leaves Alex as the only member of our party to have not suffered something similar. Hopefully he will avoid it.

So as I write this, with a day and a half to go, it is very much up in the air what we will be able to do. It will be a great shame if the last few days of our last trip to Orlando (until the grandchildren arrive!) are spoilt by a spate of dodgy tummies.

USA ‘11 – DAY 12 – MAGIC KINGDOM & BLIZZARD BEACH

Having done all the Disney and Universal parks last week, this week was always going to be about going back to visit favourites.

The Thompsons being a democracy means that there has been plenty of debate over the last couple of days about what we would be exactly doing in the second week. Helen and I are project managers by trade and while we didn’t produce a Gantt chart we did get pretty close!

More of a surprise was a suggestion put forward by an 18 year old who normally, given the option, wouldn’t surface from bed until the sun was setting. In order to reach the parks while it was quiet it was suggested that we get to Magic Kingdom at opening time – 8 am. In order to do that we would have to get up at 7 am. Let me just repeat that: An eighteen year old boy was suggesting that we get up at 7am in order to reach the park by 8am. And do you know what? He even managed it!

For some reason the magic that runs Disney seemed to be in short supply today when it came to transportation. When we arrived at Magic Kingdom the monorail wasn’t working and so we had to be bused in and on the way out the boat wasn’t running. To be honest I cannot remember a time in the previous five visits that this has been the case so to have both out on the same day was very bad luck.

Arriving early did enable us to pack loads in: 2x Space Mountain, 2x Thunder Mountain, 1x Buzz Lightyear and 1x People mover. However, the highlight of the day, at least for Alex, was trouncing the rest of us on the Buzz Lightyear ride. His score of 702,000 was the highest I can ever remember any of us ever getting.

After Magic Kingdom we paid our first visit this year to a Disney water park. It was decided by the organising committee that we would grace Blizzard Beach with our presence, a fact that must have got out as there we plenty of people there to greet us…

We took a lot of photos but they were taken with a waterproof film camera (remember them?) and so I cannot post them until I have them developed. Does anyone still do that? It must be a dying art surely?

By this point it was the hottest part of the day so we didn’t spend too long for fear of being burnt to a crisp but it was good fun and if I’m honest I think the boys would have stayed longer.

After such a packed day, tomorrow is a “rest day”!

USA ‘11 – DAY 11 – BOGGY CREEK & CRAZY GOLF

The boys, being lightweights, decided to have another morning in bed while Helen and I went for an airboat ride on Lake Tohopekaliga with Boggy Creek. We have been a couple of times before and, in our experience, you either get to see loads of wildlife or none. Today, regrettably, was a “none” day unless you consider a cow to be wildlife. Actually, that’s a bit unfair as we did see an aligator scampering away from our boat and a bald headed eagle sitting in a tree – although that was a bit like playing Where’s Wally.

Back with the boys we decided to do some crazy golf , although this being the US it was nothing like the crazy golf set up in one of the tennis courts in Knaresborough, this was ADVENTURE golf. We are talking mountains, waterfalls, boats and planes and all on a massive scale. And, unlike Knaresborough, it was hot, very hot. Great fun too even if the men were beaten the lone female!

USA ‘11 – DAY 10 – DISNEY’S EPCOT

We spent over five hours in Disney’s EPCOT park today, the longest that we have spent in any park this holiday. As predicted the number of people seemed to be more than last week but still not as crowded as it has been in the past – I wonder if the global recession has hit Disney? Nevertheless the fast-passes went quickly enough and by lunchtime they were booking for six hours ahead on the Soarin’ ride!

EPCOT is another wonderful example of the amazing set dressing at the parks. The boys aren’t that keen on it but I love the World Showcase where there are twelve countries represented in a very stylised way. The UK, for example, has what looks to be a cut down version of Hampton Court Palace and some very twee cottages along side a pub and a fish and chip shop! It also sells British chocolate at extortionate prices, i.e. about £2.25 for a bar that would cost well under a pound at home. Every other country has similarly themed buildings and overpriced regional items. I don’t care I still love it!

In the main part of the park is also one of my favorite rides, Test Track, which you can relive in its entirety by watching the first video below if you have the time or the inclination. Alex had decided that when the official photo was taken we would all point towards the camera. What was great about this was that we also managed to convince the other two occupants of the car that they should do the same – which is great feat when you are negotiating this at speed!

In the afternoon we went to Downtown Disney again and dumped the boys in the cinema while Helen and I walked round the shops before hitting Ghirardelli’s for an ice cream and a drink.