Category Archives: 2014 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.


Costs

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…

Flights

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.

Accommodation

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:

http://www.orlandovillas.com/
http://www.holidaylettings.co.uk/

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:

https://www.floridatix.co.uk/
https://www.attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk/

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+ (https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/fastpass-plus/)

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 (http://www.wonderworksonline.com/orlando/the-experience/the-outta-control-magic-comedy-dinner-show/)
– food (well pizza), magic and comedy. Kid friendly, great fun. Held in an upside down building.

Boggy Creek (http://bcairboats.com/)
– airboat rides. See birds and crocs (or not depending on your luck).

Outlet shopping (http://www.lbvfs.com/)
– 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 (https://myoldtownusa.com/category/events/car-cruises/)
– 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 (https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/)
– 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 (https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/)
– worth doing once if you think the kids will be wowed by having dinner with Mickey and Baloo et al.

Medieval Times (http://www.medievaltimes.com/)
– slickly done jousting etc. with meal in a castle.

Cirque de Soleil (https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/fr/la-nouba)
– this is currently shut while it is refurbished.

Downtown Springs (https://www.disneysprings.com/)
– 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:

http://www.neilthompson.co.uk/2011/05/08/usa-11-tips-tricks/

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!

USA '14 – Round Up

It has become something of a tradition to do a round up post at the end of our Florida holidays and so this is it.

Here I group together all the posts to allow you to quickly find the post most relevant to what you are interested in. If you want to do a comparison you can find the round ups for 2009 and 2011 also.

Finally, this was all correct in April 2014 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

You’d be hard pressed not to find somewhere that you want to eat out in Orlando as the place is packed with a wide range of restaurants to suit all tastes and pockets.

From the list below Cracker Barrel was the cheapest (helped by it being ‘dry’) and The Cheesecake Factory was the costliest based on bill size for our party of four. Don’t forget to tip which will add 15% minimum to your bill.

Here are some of our favourites:

  • 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!
  • Downtown Disney (official site) – plenty of choice from McDonalds to themed restaurants to relaxed dining.

Places to Shop

Plenty of bargains to be had in the US, particularly in clothing if you like their styles and fit. Here are some places we like to shop:

  • Shopping – blog post on where we went
  • Lake Buena Vista – mainly clothes but also a good character outlet selling cheap Disney stuff
  • Dollar Tree – America’s answer to Poundland but remember that by the time you add tax  it is actually Dollar oh Seven Tree!
  • Wallmart – Asda’s owner and you will notice some similarities, such as the George clothing brand, and some differences – they are huge places
  • 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!

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 '14 – Day 15 – The long way home

Given that the flight back to the UK is late afternoon this gives us plenty of time for one last hurrah.

Even though we had only been there yesterday it was decided to go back to Hollywood Studios today. I have to admit that this was done on a majority vote basis and like the Olympics I suspect that some bribery took place to get the required result!

The overwhelming reason for sticking with Disney was the Fastpass+ system that I had written negatively of earlier in the holiday would actually work in our favour here. We could pre book the rides we wanted to go on and guarantee it where as at Universal we would have had to take pot luck as to what was available.

So after clearing the villa and packing up the car with groaning suitcases and an extra bag we made our way to WDW for the last time. *

We got to do a series of favourites including the Star Tours ride twice, Indiana Jones, which Alex sat out electing to be in a coffee shop writing, and then the boys went on the Rock n Roller coaster twice. A fitting end to a holiday.

We left the park and made our way to Perkins for lunch having the Hearty Mans which is a variant on the Tremendous Twelve. I’ll miss the Perkins pancakes smothered with maple syrup but my heart probably won’t.

So I am typing this from my seat on the plane. We’re only thirty minutes into an eight hour flight and already I am fed up of being kicked in the back by the child behind me. Also I know that when we land we have a full day to deal with which could be interesting and then it is back to the reality of work.

Now, however, I can reflect on a holiday with highs and lows. Florida has always been a great family holiday, no fuss and bother, no arguments, just great family fun. Of course this trip also included a trip to A&E which we could all have done without but we had good care and everything is fine now.

So back to reality.

*Disclaimer. When I say “last time” I mean “last time this holiday” as opposed to “last time ever”. I have learnt that it’s best not to say that we’ll never be back!

USA '14 – Day 14 – And that's a wrap

I don’t do roller coasters so coming to Orlando might seem a strange holiday choice but there is so much to do that is on the ground that it really hasn’t been an issue. However, I did make a promise to Alex that I would go on a slightly more adventurous coaster this time and that this would be the Rock n Roller Coaster.

Both Helen and Alex had been on this ride before and had come off saying how great it was but that was three years ago. When asked to describe it I was told that it was very similar to Space Mountain after the initial bit which was very straight and fast. I was also assured that it stayed level and certainly didn’t go upside down so reassured by this I found myself being pinned into my chair ready for takeoff.

The initial bit was as described where you are propelled like a rocket along the tack at great speed. However, after this it came as a great surprise to find myself being twisted and turned upside down, not something I had expected to experience. The saving grace was that it was short and over quickly!

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Helen, Mat and I then went to Lights, Motors, Action! the car stunt show while Alex chilled out in a coffee shop. As you can see from the image above this is a high speed and visually stunning show that is repeated three or four times a day. Given the speeds and the closeness of the cars the potential for an accident seems high to me but we have seen it numerous times now and it has always gone smoothly, like watching a ballet.

20140413-213421.jpgOur final meal out was to Bahama Breeze and there they serve the one food item that I will miss when I get back to the UK – Key Lime Pie. This is very similar to Lemon Meringue Pie but, obviously, made with limes.

While it has been good to not bother about cooking and the washing up I will actually be glad to get back to normal food portion sizes and give my stomach a rest.

USA '14 – Day 13 – Dial one, get one free

Today was down to be a quiet day but didn’t end up that way. The plan had been to have a late breakfast at Perkins followed by shopping in the afternoon and then in to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner. We managed the first part successfully and a bit of the shopping too after which it all went a bit downhill. 

We hadn’t been at the outlet long before we wanted to stop for a drink. At Buena Vista Outlets there is a coffee shop that sells tea and British goods, such as chocolate, so we went there. Alex chose an Aero bar, something that he has had many times before, but it wasn’t long before he started to feel ill and could feel he was having problems with his breathing. We have known since he was two that he has an allergy to nuts and are always careful with what he eats but sometimes no matter what precautions you take things go awry. This was one of those times.

The first thing to do was to give alex a shot of adrenalin from the epipen that he always carries with him. The second part was not so easy and that was to quickly get him to hospital. We initially tried the mall office but it was shut and then made our way to the nearest shop where we persuaded them to allow us to dial 911 and call an ambulance. We could probably have done it from our mobile but we didn’t know the address.

A couple of minutes later an ambulance was with us… along with a fire truck. Apparently this is standard procedure over here for when an ambulance is called. Then it was off to the local hospital.

Alex spent the next two hours been given various medicines and kept under observation at the A&E dept of Celebration hospital. In this respect it was very similar to the care and procedure that you would receive at any NHS hospital at home. Difference here was, of course, that it had to be paid for. The bill for the ride in the ambulance and the treatment came to $850, which we are hoping the insurance will cover.

We then had to go and find a 24 hour pharmacist that could provide the medicines that Alex needed, including a new epipen. This all came to another $350. Suddenly the £8.20 prescription charge seems like something of a bargain.

Some in the UK complain about the NHS but we have never had anything but fantastic service on all occasions that we have had cause to use them. Today showed that the care here was equally as good but also showed just how easy it is to forget what it costs for a quick trip to A&E.

So all in all a pretty stressful day and not how we would have wanted to spend our penultimate day but Alex is fine and that is the important thing.

USA '14 – Day 12 – Two park blow out

As we get ever closer to the end of the holiday the realisation starts to dawn that you only have so many trips to the parks left and so there is much debate about what we should do when. We are also haunted by the thought that this will be the last time that we are coming this way, although that will make family and friends laugh given we have said that every time we come here! Anyway, all this leads to us packing in two parks into a single day – today it was Universal and Animal Kingdom.

At Universal we set out to do some of the rides that we hadn’t been able to previously, in particular the Despicable Me themed ride. The Fastpass system at Universal is an additional cost that we didn’t want to add so we lined up. This ride is the most popular in the park and meant a wait of over an hour for something that only lasted less than five minutes and was, in my opinion, not that great – good for small kids who love the film I guess.

Our other “target” was to go back onto the Transformers ride as we had all enjoyed it so much the first time we were in the park. Our last visit it was shut and that also proved to be the case today so it is clearly not the most reliable of rides. So it was off to do the Simpsons once again.

There is a very clear difference between the Universal and Disney parks and that is in the “cast members” that man the attractions, shops and restaurants. Disney feels magical because the people that work there are engaged, well trained and knowledgable. You get the sense that Universal is staffed by those that couldn’t make the grade to get a job as a Disney cast member. It’s not that they are bad it’s just that they are noticeably not as good. You find groups of them standing around chatting – something that you never see at Disney. Also, and this is going to seem a really trivial point, but in order to load people onto rides there are inevitably queues and the management of these as you get to the very front is done by putting parties into very short lines, typically six people. At Disney they do this seamlessly while at Universal the use of a clipboard and pencil is required.

Does any of this matter? No, not really, it doesn’t affect our enjoyment of the ride itself but it does show the lengths that Disney goes to ensure that everyone has a great time. It works.

20140412-100149.jpgLate afternoon we went off to Animal Kingdom and this is where the Fastpass+ system really does work well. As previously explained you can now book your Fasspasses in advance, up to two months in fact, on the web or mobile app. Knowing that we were coming here tonight we pre-booked our passes for the rides we wanted. Previously, under the old system, that would have been impossible as all the Fastpasses would have gone much earlier in the day. This meant that we were able to get a late afternoon slot for the safari and it being much later we saw many more animals than we had previously. We did Dinosaur and Primeval Whirl one more time and Mat won a couple of soft toys on the fair.

Having done all that we went on to Downtown Disney where we had a reservation at Planet Hollywood. I must be getting old as boy was it noisy, certainly not the place for a quiet conversation. Still the food was ok and it was a good end to a busy day.

USA '14 – Day 11 – The Thompsons – dolphin hunters

I am not sure why we haven’t done this before but today we took a trip to the coast to get a boat out of St. Pete Beach to find some dolphins. This is relatively a long way away and so requires me to do something before we that I hate – filling the car with “gas”.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that I dislike the most but I suspect that it is the fact that the system here, unlike the UK, is based on a system of mistrust. Before you can fill your car you must pay and for some reason my UK credit card isn’t accepted in the pumps so I have to go in and prepay with cash. All this is fine but the difficulty is that I’m driving around in a car that is new to me and I have no history with but now I am being asked to guess how much fuel to put into it. This involves looking in the manual to find out the capacity of the tank and then working out how much you need to fill up by and the multiplying by the ludicrously cheap price per gallon. It’s a stress I can do without on holiday. However, with that done we were off down the I4 towards Tampa.

The company that we had chosen to go out with said that there was a 99% chance of seeing dolphins, which seemed like pretty good odds to me. It was a beautiful day to be out on the water but after 20 minutes we were wondering if we were going to be in that unlucky 1%. There are a few firms that provide boat trips out and they keep in touch telling each other where the dolphins are. So shortly we were sailing across the bay to our first sighting.

For some reason I had thought that dolphins travelled in large pods so it was a surprise to see such small groups. I think that the largest number we saw together was six. They were beautiful to watch and came very close to the boat. Taking pictures was a bit of a challenge as they spent so little time on the surface and you couldn’t really predict where they were going to come back up. However, as you can see below with a zoom and a bit of patience I got some shots.

In the end we were out on the water for a couple of hours but say dolphins for only half that time. All in all it was well worth making the trip.

USA '14 – Day 10 – A trip to Seahaven

Today was (mostly) a boy free day as Helen and I decided to do something slightly more cultural while Alex sat in misery in front of the Man United game!

We went to visit Winter Park, somewhere we hadn’t been previously and has been recommended in the guide books. Helen noted that it had a passing resemblance to Seahaven, the town that is constructed to house Jim Carey in the Truman Show. Scarily it did look like that but fortunately we were able to leave without having to take boat out onto rough seas.

There was a series of lakes in the town and we took a boat trip around them. The houses that lined the edges were just magnificent and when I win the Euromillons I have decided that this is the place to have a holiday home!

We saw another unusual sight in the town – a train. If you want to get around in Florida the way most choose is the car but this service ran from Winter Park to Orlando at least. It was obviously very pleased with itself as it sounded its horn right through the outskirts of the town announcing its arrival. It was a disappointment to find that it only had two carriages when it arrived.

The town’s Main Street is lined with an eclectic set of shops that you won’t find in other places (apart from the obligator Starbucks of course) and we spent a fun hour or so wandering up and down looking at them.

We were back in time to see the disaster that was Man U vs Bayern Munich before going off to EPCOT for the evening with Mat.

The world showcase is one of my most enjoyable places in the whole of Disney. Yes it is a bit cheesy to see so many countries reduced to a caracture of themselves but it is fun and the light last night was just right. We stayed on for the fireworks which we hadn’t been too for a few years and they too were as great as ever.

USA '14 – Day 9 – Rain and Shazam

It’s unusual for it to rain while we are in Florida, in fact I can only remember it doing so on three previous occasions. Today was the fourth time. The good thing about rain here is that it is warm and clears quickly and when it does the temperature drops back down to something more manageable for us. Armed with the this knowledge and knowing that it was going to rain today we set off for Universal and a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

20140409-155212.jpgNothing has changed there since last time we visited three years ago, including the crowds. I had wondered if now that the books and films had finished that the enthusiasm for all things Potter would have died down but on the evidence of today it is just as strong.

Like everyone else we dashed to the main ride which was already busy. As you are taken upside down on this ride you are asked to put all loose items into (free) lockers. This is the one area of the park that is poorly designed in that they have tried to give it a Hogwarts theme by making it constricted and poorly lit. Into this hundreds of tourists are placed – it’s not a pretty sight. The ride, however, was great.

We then went from Islands of Adventure (where Harry Potter is) to Universal Studios only to find that the queues were long and the Transformers ride was closed so we snuck onto the Simpsons, had some lunch and went back to the villa.

Orlando is home to numerous dinner shows and we have done a few but the Outta Control Dinner Show is just great for late teens and it would seems the newly married from Sheffield who had turned up at the show we were at last night. This is a one man show performed by Tony Brent who is very funny and a great magician. The price includes all you can eat pizza which Alex tested the limits of!

USA '14 – Day 8 – A visit to The (I've eaten too much to have any) Cheesecake Factory

Today was another “rest” day starting with a breakfast at Perkins. I have downgraded from a Tremendous Twelve to a Magnificent Seven – I still feel full once I reach the end of the seventh item. I wonder if they have a Dieters Double?

There was no theme park scheduled for today and instead we set off for Blizzard Beach, one of Disney’s water parks. Designed to look like a ski resort it is a difficult one to pull off when the temperature is nudging 30 degrees! This scene includes a chair list that takes you to the top of the rides, or would if it was working properly. We walked to the top and took the family raft ride back to the bottom. This is a giant rubber ring round the inner of which the Thompson’s were stationed. You then ride down what looks very much like a bob sleigh track. Good fun if you are not facing backwards as I was.

The majority of our time in there was spent on the lazy river which is a shallow river that runs around the perimeter of the park which you navigate on a rubber ring. It’s very relaxing to be sat back in one of these rings and watch the world go by, at least until you pass under a steam of cold water that brings you back to reality.

20140408-171334.jpgWhen planning for this trip we asked others that had been before what we should do that we hadn’t before and the overwhelming consensus of opinion was that we should go to the Cheesecake Factory. The nearest to us is at The Mall at Millenia and conveniently also meant that I could visit the Apple store too.

The first issue was finding the restaurant, Millenia, is so large with so many outlying buildings that we drove round in circles for ages until we asked Google Maps to get us there!

The menu at The Cheesecake Factory is huge, although every other page has an advert, containing food for everybody. We had been warned that the portions were massive but that didn’t stop the boys ordering a starter too. I wasn’t overly impressed with my meal, a Teriyaki chicken, but everyone else was waxing lyrical about theres so I must have chosen badly.

Here’s the thing about large portions – it means you either leave some which is a waste, or you have it boxed up and take it home to throw away, which is a waste or you eat it all and pile on the pounds, which is the waist! The other issue is that having eaten so much on the main you haven’t any room for the cheesecake, which is supposed to be their speciality. We had some slices boxed up to take home and they were great.

So all in all I wasn’t as impressed as I expected to be still rating Bahama Breeze higher (and it was cheaper too!) but the others in the party may well disagree.