Category Archives: 2011 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!


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!


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:


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.


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…


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.


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”!


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!