Holiday in Florida 2010

05Apr10

Getting there

It’s often argued amongst business travellers which of London Heathrow (LHR) or New York (JFK) qualifies as the worst airport in the world. In my opinion they’re both bad, but Orlando (MCO) is the winner of that dubious honour – subjecting travellers to another round of security screening after they’ve been through passport control and customs is just the worst sort of insanity, and exactly what you don’t want after flying for 10 hours with (by then) cranky kids. On my last trip to Florida we flew to Miami and eventually drove to the Orlando parks area, this worked out pretty well, but on return I figured out that Tampa might have been an even better choice so I gave it a go this time.

For what might be the last time I chose to fly BA, which operates a Gatwick to Tampa route (I have to go past Gatwick to get to Heathrow, so it’s a natural preference). This choice turned out to be fortuitous as we flew out on the first day of BA’s strike, but Gatwick routes weren’t affected (since BA cut the deal with Gatwick staff some time ago that it’s now trying to make work across the rest of its operations). BA is a troubled company these days, and not just by their staff/union issues. This trip gave me a fresh perspective on their problems, and it seems to me that their leisure customers have totally unrealistic expectations of their economy product – they’ve set themselves up to fail as people expect more than they’ll ever receive. I have a stack of BA points to burn through, not to mention an Amex card companion voucher, so I will do my best to put those to work, but otherwise BA is at the back of my preference list.

Tampa turned out to be a good choice, with one significant gotcha for the inexperienced – just after passport and customs (which was no worse than any other US airport I’ve encountered in the last decade, and better than many) you have to get over to another terminal area via a little shuttle tram. Don’t under any circumstances put your luggage onto the conveyor after the customs check – keep it with you on the tram – otherwise you’ll have a 30-40 minute wait at the other end – quite ridiculous.

On my last trip we used an airport hotel for the first night, and picked the hire car up in the morning. This allows the tired kids (and adults) to hit the hay without further queuing for a car and a drive to whatever the final destination might be (which can stack up to another 2-3 hours). This worked well for me once again, as the TownePlace Suites was convenient, friendly and inexpensive, and it turned out to be right across the road from the Alamo/National hire car depot where there was no wait whatsoever the following morning at 9am.

Car rental

On my last trip I’d got a convertible (a Ford Mustang), and this time around I booked another as it adds to the whole holiday experience. Alamo/National (at least at Tampa airport) operate a system where you pick your own car from the lot from whatever class you paid for. This gave me the choice of two Mustang’s and two Sebring’s. I picked out a Sebring as it had Aux in (for my iPod) and a bit more leg room for the kids.

The state of my Sebring (and its brother that we left in the lot) gave me cause to consider whether the whole car rental model has been forced to change during the financial crisis. I’ve grown used to new(ish) cars that the rental company buys at deep discount from the maker and then sells a few thousand miles later at a profit into the used market. A model where the rental cost is incidental, and pretty much there to cover insurance. That doesn’t seem to be how things are working any more (since the bottom fell out of the used market). My Sebring had almost 35,000 miles on it, and what seemed like a whole lifetime’s worth of wear and tear (e.g. almost all the paint had flaked off the door handles). It felt like a bit of a clunker.

Renting a GPS for a couple of weeks costs much the same as buying one, and I’ve already written about my decision to get TomTom for my iPod so that I could find my way on this trip. I saw PNDs in a local supermarket for $105 so I’m guessing that the most cost effective approach is to buy a GPS (or have one shipped to your arrival hotel) and then eBay it on return home (or keep it for future trips).

Destination

Having found it fitted our needs perfectly we chose to stay once again in Chris Rackstraw’s lovely villa near the parks (and if you like what you see there then please say I sent you so that I get a future discount – just don’t book Easter 2012 ;-). There are just two things I would change about this place – the Internet connection would probably be more convenient for most people if it had WiFi (I used my little travel router) and it would be great if the plasma had a VGA connection so that I could watch material from my netbook (though one day I might have something that could feed one of the unused [but inaccessible] HDMI’s).

Having a pool and hot tub was perfect for chilling out after a long day in the parks, and gave the kids some incentive to head home and splash around.

The attractions

Disneyworld

This was my 4th visit to the Mouse in his house, so I must be a sucker for Disney’s particular flavour of crass commercialism. They just do everything so well.

The kids didn’t seem to remember that much from their previous visit, so for them it was all pretty fresh. For me it was a chance to revisit old favourites like the ‘Circlevision’ show at the China piece of Epcot. We also hit the ‘coasters pretty hard as my youngest is an adrenaline junky and now tall enough to ride everything that Disney can throw at her.

Epcot, Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom worked out pretty much as expected. Hollywood Studios was horrendously busy on our first visit (and a salutary lesson that ‘Spring Break‘ isn’t so easily avoided in the US), and required another trip in order to do the Rockin’ Rollercoaster (twice) in addition to the Tower of Terror. The lesson from this trip is that hopper tickets probably aren’t worth the extra. They’re a good idea if you only have 3-4 days to hit 4 parks, but if you have a couple of weeks to fit in 6-7 visits then you can plan on a park a day and take things easy. Since extra days are inexpensive I’ll probably buy more days in the future in preference to hopper tickets.

My little princess was booked in (weeks in advance) for a makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in the Magic Kindom, which formed the kernel of a girls day out. Meanwhile the boys headed for…

Kennedy Space Center

My first trip to KSC was brilliant, but that was back in the days when it was still a slightly amateurish operation. Last time around I found the bus trip to be a nightmare of queues, and just a bit too prepacked and boring. This time I chose to stick to the visitor center itself and fully explore the place, which turned out to be a good call – there was plenty there to fill a day. The only part of the bus tour that I felt I missed out on was the Saturn V exhibit, but it just wasn’t worth the money and time to tack that on.

The hidden gem of KSC that we hit on the way home is the Astronaut Hall of Fame. There’s a lot more to this place than a bunch of plaques commemorating the men and the missions, and it’s included in the visitor center ticket price.

SeaWorld

I’ve driven past this place a lot, but this was the first time visiting the park. Perhaps because it was fresher than the Disney parks I came away thinking that SeaWorld was in fact the best of the bunch.

The kids loved the various shows, whilst I was impressed by the ‘coasters – Kraken was simply the best I’ve ever ridden, and I liked the gimmick on Manta of ‘flying’ face down.

I was impressed that ‘Shamu’s Happy Harbor’ wasn’t jam packed like similar play/amusement areas at Disney, and we used our second ‘free’ day to return there and let the kids play without any queuing or hassle.

Dinosaur World

This was a time killer between leaving the villa and getting the flight home, and turned out to be a lot better than I expected (though I did have pretty low expectations).

My budding palaeontologists enjoyed killing a couple of hours there, but it’s certainly not whole day out.

Eating out

The big disappointment of the trip was that I didn’t get to eat in Disney’s California Grill. It was booked solid, and the lesson was that I should have made a reservation months in advance (like I did for Bibbidi Bobbidi). To make up for things we returned to the Flying Fish Cafe on the Boardwalk, and the seafood there was once again outstanding – that place probably now scores two of the best ten meals I’ve had in my life.

Closer to home the restaurants on US192 felt a bit like cable TV – too much choice, but nothing that you really want to consume. One exception was the Longhorn Steakhouse. I’d read good reviews on the original location in Kissemmee, and the newer branch nearby is clearly living up to expectations. Looking at their site this seems to be quite a large chain, so I may have to try it out elsewhere when I’m in the states as the porterhouse was excellent.

We also went out for some Mexican food, trying out El Patron. I must confess some disappointment with the Mole, which I expected to be more exciting, but the Fajitas were good, and anywhere that can make decent guacamole and margaritas deserves another visit.

Lunch was mostly park food, which wasn’t too bad or too pricey if you pick wisely – just avoid the gallons of HFCS drenched soda if you want to preserve that waistline (as Cory Doctrow puts it ‘industrial waste disguised as food’). I mostly went for salady options, but the chilli cheese hotdog at SeaWorld was a guilty pleasure – deliciously dreadful. I got dragged into the T-Rex Cafe at Downtown Disney against my better judgement, and must say that it was (much) less awful and less of a rip off than I feared.

Shopping

I’ve picked up some real bargains in the past (when the exchange rate was $1.8-2/£). My favourite buy is my Timberland GoreTex boots, which I had resoled the year before last after they fell apart on a Helvellyn hike.

This year with the rate at $1.5/£ there were fewer bargains, but they were still there. I tend to prefer Orlando Premium Outlets over the bunch at the other end of International Drive, but the selection at both seems to have homogonised over the last few years. Go early if you don’t want to spend ages finding a parking space.

I almost missed the nearby Target (having used the Publix over the road for most groceries). It’s a cornucopia sort of place, and seemed to offer better brands than Walmart at similar prices.

Power and telephones

In addition to the usual geek travel kit I took along a couple of Swiss Travel Worldwide Adapters with USB and a US Griffin iPod adapter (which is really just a USB adapter with a USB-iPod cable). It really is so much easier to keep those mobiles, cameras, DS Lites and PSPs going with USB chords than it is to take the full ensemble of dedicated adaptors (which would be a bag of its own).

For mobiles I picked up a couple of AT&T Go SIMs on eBay and bought $25 credit for each, which along with my usual T-Mobile PAYG SIM proved ample for the entire two weeks for keeping in touch with each other and home. I didn’t switch my own mobile onto a US network at all. Back at home I forwarded it to my SkypeIn number, which I in turn forwarded to my US cell (using a worldwide subscription so that it wouldn’t eat into my Skype credit). For calling home I used Skype’s excellent ToGo service (which provides local points of presence so that you can bridge into the Skype network [and call rates] for a local call). All in all this gave us reasonably seamless functionality with very low cost (certainly a whole lot less than running 3 mobiles on international roaming for 2 weeks).

Next time around

We had a great couple of weeks, and I’d certainly fly to Tampa again, use the same hotel airport (maybe even hang around there for a few days and do Busch Gardens etc.), and stay in the same villa. I’ve not been back to Universal Studios since 1997, and I’d also like to try out Discovery Cove and maybe some of the water parks.

Any other suggestions?



2 Responses to “Holiday in Florida 2010”

  1. 1 Killian Murphy

    Hey Chris,

    Looks like you had a great trip.

    For serious roller coaster people the Six Flags parks are pretty fantastic. I haven’t been to the one in Florida, I’m sure it’s similar to the others. The American Coaster Enthusiasts (http://www.aceonline.org/) are the place to see reviews etc. I’m partial to the old wooden coasters, having worked on one in San Diego as a student..

    I just got back from a trip to Hawaii, I booked our accommodation on AirBnB.com. It’s a good way to get houses & condos to rent, in case you want to get the same type of accommodation elsewhere.

    Best,
    Killian.

  2. 2 Baz pash

    Evening Chris
    we also stayed at the rackstraw residence
    we took my partners netbook and my laptop,both are wifi enabled,
    when looking for a wifi point in the front room i managed to connect to 2 other nearby unsecured networks and got some great bandwidth.
    But i agree the place could do with a wireless network
    we went in easter 2011 and i was amazed it was so warm,we are now considering going again next year in november
    Baz


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