Category Archives: 2009 USA

Planning a Trip to Orlando? Here are some Hints and Tips

We’ve been doing the Florida Disney trips for so long now that people have started asking us for advice on planning their own holidays. I have been sending this information out to people that wanted it via email but I thought that it might be useful to put this together in a blog post.

This should be of use to anyone that hasn’t been before and is looking for hints and tips on what to do before you go and where to go once you are there. It will also be of interest to those that have done a package trip before and now want to DIY.

So let’s get that question out of the way straight off…

Package or DIY?

You have two choices here: either go on a package holiday or do it yourself. The pros of a package holiday are that it is easy and (possibly) cheaper but your choices will be more limited. A DIY approach gives you much more flexibility in terms of flight times and villas to choose from.

We always did it ourselves as then we knew exactly what we were getting and had the ultimate control.


Ok so there’s no getting away from this, it is expensive. At least compared to a trip to Spain. You should be expecting to pay in the region of £1,500 per adult for flights, villa, car hire and park tickets. On top of that you have to consider, maybe, car parking at the airport and the US entry ESTA. Oh and spending money of course.

If that hasn’t put you off then read on…


Book early, go direct.

Easter is a very popular time for Brits to go so flights get booked up pretty quickly. The very first time we couldn’t get direct flights and therefore had to stop in Charlotte, NC. We ended up not arriving at the villa until the early hours of the morning. We were knackered but the boys still wanted to go in the pool!

We have flown mostly with BA but once (maybe twice) with Virgin. They are pretty much the same except that Virgin has a check-in at Disney Springs so on the last day you can drop your bags off there and get some Disney time in before having to go to the airport.

Flights leave mid-afternoon so we always spent the morning in the park, then went to Perkins for lunch and then on to the airport.


All the places we stayed in have been pretty similar and all of a good standard with bags of space and a pool. Latterly we also looked for places with games rooms (usually in the garage) for the boys.

For booking we have used “friends of friends” and the following websites:

It is quite easy to put in your requirements and get a list but as we have discovered you have to look at the availability fairly carefully. Also we know what area we like to stay at, Davenport, but we have been in a number of areas and all have been of a very similar standard and distance from Disney etc. Kissimmee is another popular area.

Pool heating is extra and worth paying for (the figures I have quoted above include that). We didn’t pay for it the first year and it was pretty chilly in the water. This was April/May so if you go in the height of summer it might not be necessary.

Davenport is on the US27 which runs between the US192 and the I4 and is about 20-30 from the parks with a Publix and a Walmart close by along with a Dominos!

Park Tickets

You can buy directly from Disney/Universal but we have used both of the following:

This is because they are UK based and issue “real” tickets. Others issue vouchers that you have to exchange on the first day which is a bit of a pain. Attraction Tickets Direct also have some good offers too. Last time we used them we got a $25 Disney gift card for each adult.

It is very much geared up to getting you to buy a two week, all park ticket, which we always do. These tickets are heavily discounted and give you access to all four Disney parks and the two water parks. If you are going to go into the parks a reasonable number of times (and if you are going to Orlando isn’t that the point?) then these are worth it.

Just so you don’t get a nasty shock when you get to your first park. Somewhat unbelievably parking isn’t included in your already expensive ticket and will cost $22+ a day but is valid at multiple parks on the same day.

The Universal tickets work the same and are valid for their two parks and the water park. And, yes, the parking is the same price here too. I’m not saying that it is a cartel but the price always matches. Just saying.

Fastpass+ (

Unsurprisingly the parks get very busy and the lines for the popular rides can be hours long. We tended to see this as a waste of time and so used the following plan of attack. Get to the parks as close to opening time as possible and head straight to a ride you are interested in and get straight on. Secondly use Fastpass+ this is a way of pre-booking your attendance at certain rides – there is an app that allows you to do it. It’s not as flexible as it used to be in that you can only book three rides per day but it is worth doing as you get to skip the main line – it is much quicker. Oh and it is free.

Universal has a similar system which, I think, was $99 per person. However, I really don’t think that it is worth it given that the lines were so slight compared to Disney.

Last time we went our Disney tickets also included Memory Maker. This allows you to have your photo taken by any official Disney photographer in the park and then you can download the images later on and also view them on the app. It was brilliant. The photos were always great and ensured that everyone was in the picture.

Other things to do

Unsurprisingly, there are a whole load of others things that have sprung up around the parks for you to do. Here are a few that we have enjoyed over the years and are worth doing:

Outa Control Magic Show (
– food (well pizza), magic and comedy. Kid friendly, great fun. Held in an upside down building.

Boggy Creek (
– airboat rides. See birds and crocs (or not depending on your luck).

Outlet shopping (
– loads of outlets. There are also the Premium Outlets that you see on the I4 but LBV is my personal favourite as it has a shop serving decent tea.

Old town car show (
– went a couple of times until Helen and the boys screamed enough! Lots of old and souped up cars that you can see drive through the old town and then walk through as they are parked up.

Kennedy Space Centre (
– check to see if you are going to be there during a launch and do that, otherwise it is a long drive and I wasn’t overly impressed.

Character dining (
– worth doing once if you think the kids will be wowed by having dinner with Mickey and Baloo et al.

Medieval Times (
– slickly done jousting etc. with meal in a castle.

Cirque de Soleil (
– this is currently shut while it is refurbished.

Downtown Springs (
– Really nice place to go for a Disney oriented shopping trip. Has a great Lego shop there and you have to have a strawberry shake in Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. There is a Planet Hollywood and a loads of other top name brand shops and restaurants there too.

Fireworks and shows at Disney parks (get there early). All are good but latterly we have been going to Epcot’s because they are more adult in theme.

Favourite Rides

There is so much to do in all the parks and plenty for kids of all ages but here is a list of my favourites:

  • Test track (Epcot)
  • Safari (Animal Kingdom)
  • Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom)
  • Midway Madness (Disney Hollywood Studios)
  • Star Tours (DisneyHollywood Studios)
  • Indiana Jones (Disney Hollywood Studios)
  • Simpsons (Universal)
  • MiB (Universal)
  • Transformers (Universal)
  • and, of course, … Harry Potter (universal)

Eating out

We loved the following:

  • Perkins – great breakfasts – check out my favourites the Tremendous Twelve and the Magnificent Seven.
  • The Cheesecake Factory – the enormous portions for the mains sadly prevent you from getting to the cheesecakes, which is a shame. Buy to take away and eat at home.
  • Cracker Barrel – a good value family restaurant serving traditional style food
  • Bahama Breeze – another good, more upmarket, restaurant, probably my favourite with a wonderful Shrimp Creole and Key Lime Pie
  • Red Lobster – great for fish, obviously!
  • Disney Springs – this has changed enormously since we were last there and there are many more options to suit all tastes and wallets. We particularly like House of Blues.
  • Olive Garden – a new one for us this year as it wasn’t built the last time we were here. It is “Italian”ish!
  • Ruth’s Chris Steak House – for a top end and tasty steak.

And Finally…

The following post has even more hints & tips about getting the best out of your US holiday:

If you are on Three you can use your phones in the US at no extra costs.

It’s a fantastic place, you’re going to have a great holiday!


Universal StudiosThis post is a round up of all we did while in Florida 2009. 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 2009 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:


The following are some photos that didn’t make it into the one of the daily posts but I still thought were worth putting up.

Odds and Sods The villa we stayed in is owned by a British couple who have kindly provided two clocks to show the time in the US and the UK, as seen above. Unfortunately when this picture was taken the time was actually 1 o’clock and the time difference is five hours. New batteries please!


Poor Herbie is feeling a little cut up about his part in Lights, Motors, Action! In a crowd pleasing turn Herbie comes on while the stage is being set for the next stunt sequence. As part of this Herbie drives around and then is told “don’t go down that tunnel”. Guess what! The cheeky little car goes down the tunnel and emerges split in two.

Odds and Sods

At home I may have to occasionally stop the car for a slow pigeon or possibly a cat (although I’m not that bothered about stopping for cats) but I have never had to stop to allow a turtle to cross the road before. Why did the turtle cross the road?

Odds and Sods

I don’t care what Grant thinks about the Gaucho Grill Restaurant that steak from Ruth’s Chris Steak House tasted fantastic.

Odds and Sods

Apparently Sean, SNP member for the Bahamas, received his knighthood from “Britian’s Elizabeth, Queen”. So reads the plaque in the Burger King on International Drive but then that is the same establishment that contains this tribute to Bill Haley that the boys found so amusing.

Odds and Sods


For our last full day we had saved a visit to our favourite park – Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We had decided to try and do all the things that there hadn’t been time to do on our last visit. This included the new Toy Story Midway Mania! which is a series of simple arcade style games that you are taken to on a two person car. The ride only opened last year and this showed in the queues which were enormous. The queue for the fast pass was longer than the standby queue on mist other rides. However, it was worth the wait and Alex has declared this to be the best ride in all the parks.

We then went to Drew Cary’s (who?) “Sounds Dangerous” and another ride on Star Tours before going on what I think is one of the best attractions in Disney – Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular. You get to see three scenes from the popular series of films. It’s fascinating to watch as the scenes are changed which is pretty amazing in itself. The video below shows the re-enactment of the famous “ball” scene.

Finally, to see the Muppets 3D show. We have seen this so many times that it’s hard to explain why it is still as funny as when we first saw it… but it is. I guess the Muppets are just funny.

So that was our last full day and I can’t believe that two weeks are up already. Our flight is late tomorrow afternoon so we will still get the morning to do things but it’s not the same knowing that the bags are already packed and there is a nine hour flight waiting for you.

image Click here to see more pictures from Disney’s Hollywood Studios


Disney EPCOTThe last day before we get the flight back home this afternoon. Keen to eek out the most of our holiday we pack up and leave the house early for a goodbye Perkins breakfast. The intension being that we won’t be needing to eat again until we get on the plane.

Breakfast out of the way we go to EPCOT for a final fling. I am feeling a little under the weather (in fact I have been feeling dodgy since our trip to Typhoon Lagoon earlier this week – probably too on board too much water). So we get a fast pass for Test Track and then the boys while away the time until we can use our passes by going on Test Track as single riders. Helen and I go shopping for a tee shirt Helen had here eye on and sit around waiting for the boys to emerge.

We all go on Test Track together for a final time before heading out and along International Drive looking for a Subway to get the boys some lunch and food for Alex for the journey as he can’t eat what is provided on the flight.

Finally we head to the airport to drop off the car and bags for the flight at 17:20. First problem is that the “fast bag drop” line is moving at a snails pace compared to the line for check in AND bag drop. Actually, that’s a lie our line isn’t moving. Second thing is that we are told that our flight has been delayed by two and a half hours as the incoming flight had to make an additional stop for a medical emergency. So we have five hours to kill at the airport. Great.

UPDATE: Flight now delayed to 20:30 so it’s a delay of six hours.


Bok Tower GardensBok Tower Gardens sounds like it should be another theme park but in this case it is as the name suggests – it is a garden with a tower. Actually, that’s doing it an injustice as it is a really relaxing place and the gardens are beautiful. Also, unusually for Florida, most of which is as flat as a Perkins pancake, the gardens are reasonably high up which gives some great views over the surrounding land including the orange groves.

We visited today without the boys, unsurprisingly, who stayed at home in bed. After the storms of yesterday the weather was good and the temperature very pleasant. It was also nice to visit somewhere where there weren’t any crowds and the only sounds were of birds rather than children.

You cannot go into the tower itself but it houses a carillon which, according to wikipedia, is a musical instrument consisting of at least 23 cast bronze cup-shaped bells or, in this case, 60 of them from Loughborough. You can hear what it sounds like on the video below:

After a gentle stroll round the gardens we returned home for a quite afternoon in before going out to one of our favourite restaurants – Ruth’s Chris Steak House. This is very much at the top end of dining here in Orlando but the food is excellent and since eating here a few years ago on a business trip I haven’t been able to find steak anywhere near as good in the UK.

Tomorrow is our last full day so, being Thompsons, we have meticulously planned it to get the most from it. Another early start is required!


Click here to see more pictures from Bok Tower Gardens


Disney Magic KingdomFor those that think that it’s sunshine 24/7 here in Florida today would have been a real wake up call. Being America the rain, like everything else here, was big (and wet!)

However, being plucky Brits and undeterred by a bit of rain we ploughed on regardless and went to Magic Kingdom. The advantage was, as you can see from the picture left, that few others bothered to make the trip.

Magic Kingdom is is definitely aimed at a younger visitor and probably best for the under 10’s. That said we still have a few rides that we like to do there. The Buzz Lightyear ride is great and Mat must have been on about five times today.

Helen and Alex go on Space Mountain which is usually a roller coaster in the dark. I say usually as today, half way round, all the lights came on and they could see exactly what they were in for as it came up. Also as you wouldn’t normally see the inner workings no effort had been made to make them look good so Helen felt that it was more daunting.

Finally a trip on Thunder Mountain – the only roller coaster I will go on, which shows how tame it is! The three of us went on while Mat went on the Buzz Lightyear ride again.

After that it was clear that the rain was set in for the day so we gave up and went home and change out of our clothes, which by this point were sodden. Forecast for tomorrow is sunny and 27 degrees.


Click here to see more pictures from Magic Kingdom


We went to Universal again today so instead of telling you about the Simpsons ride once more I thought I would post some miscellanea.

CouponsFirst up – coupons. Unless you like throwing money away, in which case skip this section, before going to pretty much any attraction other than the major theme parks don’t go without taking a money off coupon. They are available everywhere from the villas, restaurants, shops and outlets and offer significant savings. For example the dinner shows can be reduced by up to 50% and we got $4 per person off our trip to Boggy Creek yesterday.

You can also get coupons for the outlets. Craftily the coupon booklets for Lake Buena Vista are held at the shop furthest from the entrance but it is still worth making the trip as there are further discounts off the already cheap clothes and shoes on offer.

Next, parking in the parks. So you have taken a deep breath and bought your park tickets feeling glad that you have got that expense out of the way. Thinking that there is nothing else they can sting you for – wrong! Somewhat unbelievably both Disney and Universal also have the cheek to charge you for parking too. I have two objections to this: firstly it’s not that you can avoid it. The States is not geared up for walking, you have to drive into the parks and so you have to pay – it is not optional. Secondly it is $12, equivalent to £8 at today’s exchange rate. That makes parking at the Oracle a real bargain. Oh and Disney and Universal are clearly operating a cartel too as, surprise, surprise, it is the same at both places.

Typhoon LagoonWe did do something yesterday other than visit Universal again – we also went to one of the Disney water parks, Typhoon Lagoon. There are a couple of Disney water parks and if you have multi-park entry tickets then entry to the water parks is included too.

Both parks are themed and have the same layout. There is a lazy river running around the outside with a simulated beach complete with waves in the middle. At the back there are a number of water rides, including a family raft ride which you can see us on here.

The lazy river is great as it allows you to be, well, lazy as you float around the park on an individual rubber ring. It would be completely relaxing if it wasn’t for the jets of cold water at regular intervals. However, it is a great way to cool off and do something a bit different.

Oh, and another great thing about the water parks is that the parking is free!


Boggy CreekAnd now, as they say, for something completely different. This morning Helen and I left the boys in bed and went off for an air boat ride at Boggy Creek. This is as far removed from Disney as you can possibly get and the closest to the real Florida as you are likely to get. You board an air boat for an half an hour ride over a shallow reed lake – similar to the everglades themselves.

We did the same ride a couple of years ago and came away disappointed as we didn’t see anything of interest and it was freezing – possibly why we saw nothing. This time was completely different as it was teeming with wildlife including a number of alligators – the big feller on left was what we came across first.

There was also a wide variety of birds including cranes, ospreys and vultures. The boat allowed us to get up close and get a really good view of everything. Our guide was also very knowledgeable making it all the more interesting. A great trip and thoroughly recommended if you are coming to Florida and tire of the parks.

imageClick here to see all pictures from Boggy Creek


Disney EPCOTAnother day, another park. Today was the turn of EPCOT.

EPCOT is a little unusual compared to the other Disney parks in that while it has the traditional rides it also has what it calls its World Showcase. This contains distinctive buildings and themes from a dozen countries around the world. For example Italy has scenes from Venice, Canada the Rockies etc. For a lot of people it is probably the closest they will ever get – particularly Americans who have a only a small percentage holding passports.

The UK is represented by a building that could be a scaled down version of Hampton Court and a pub. It’s all very twee but it is the only place in Florida that we have been able to find Cadburys chocolate, even if it is at vastly inflated prices, and Cadburys beats Hersheys hands down. There is also a show in the streets which is high camp and panto which the boys find amusing – particularly as the cast is made up in part by poor unsuspecting tourists.

Elsewhere there are a couple of other good things to visit. The first is Spaceship Earth, a slow moving ride through the “golf ball” symbol of the park. This has been “reimagined” since the last time we were here and now the train you ride in has a touch screen from which you choose your language and county of origin. This led to us being guided round by Dame Judy Dench. Not sure who represented Scotland, Wales and Ireland. At the end you select from some options and a short film of you in the future is shown. You can see the one that was put together for Alex and me here:

Alex and Neil in a vision of the futureThe other great ride and probably the most popular attraction in EPCOT is Test Track, a simulation of a car being put through its paces over rough roads, brake testing and finally a speed test on the track. This last part is a banked track on which your “car” is driven up to 64mph. It’s great fun as you can see from the video below with Alex and Mats heads bobbing away in front of us.

A 64mph ride on the Test Track

imageClick here to view all pictures from EPCOT