Well, aren’t you lucky having your third blog this week?!! And, there’s even another one coming in the next few days that will take you from Orlando to the present day!!
So this blog starts with us boarding our twelve flight, so far, to Miami from Los Angeles. It might sound odd that we didn’t just start our 10 weeks drive from LA and finish in LA but there are 2 reasons why we decided to start in Miami. But we thought it would be best to get to Orlando before the schools break up as we were planning to go to Disneyworld and then drive around the USA from there.
We landed in Miami and after a massive hoo-ha renting a car, finally arrived in Miami Beach. Using the sat-nav we rented with the car we found a cheap motel to spend a couple of nights at, then ran out to get some food and went to bed. Although, just before we did, I read in our Lonely Planet guide that the area we were in was the most dangerous in all of Miami! Great!
Luckily nothing happened and the next morning we took a drive to South Beach, dumped the car and took a walk down Ocean Drive, famous for its bars, restaurants, gay residents and where Gianni Versace lived and then was shot. The beach was packed during the day as it was unbearably hot so we spent a couple of hours in an air conditioned internet café, had some lunch and walked around taking in the shops.
Like a lot of ‘famous’ places around the world, South Beach was incredibly tacky and touristy with shop after shop selling “I got drunk and boned in South Beach” T-shirts, tiny bikinis that cover practically nothing and thousands and thousands of different shot glasses and other tacky goods to remind you of your trip to ‘SoBe’ (that’s short for South Beach apparently). Every single restaurant you walk past tries to get you into their place with promises of half price meals, free drinks or ‘pay nothing if you sit here and smile’ offers. It’s like a slightly more up market version of Magaluf but without the hoards of puking Brits!
We, stupidly, took them up on an offer of ‘buy 1 get one free’ cocktails because every single place was serving these fishbowls of delicious looking cocktails and the offer sounded fab. After sitting down we were informed that the offer was for each person and that it would cost $20!! I.e. you couldn’t share the 2 cocktails between 2 people; each person had to order a cocktail to get another one free (so that they would still get the cost of 2 people drinking). Because I was driving I had a coke and therefore Sally had to down 2 fishbowls of frozen margarita on her own. The total bill came to $60, somehow, and we left quite disgruntled and ashamed of ourselves for falling for such a scam!
The next day we drove west to the Everglades National Park. To the uninitiated, the Everglades might appear to be nothing more than a big swamp full of alligators and the place where they occasionally find dead bodies on CSI: Miami. First of all, it’s not a swamp, it’s a wet prairie. Swamps have trees, whereas the Everglades only have tree islands. It is an incredibly unique ecosystem, a subtropical wilderness that supports creatures such as endangered American crocodiles, bottlenose dolphins, manatees, snowy egrets, bald eagles and ospreys.
When we read up on it in Lonely Planet they said that the iconic airboats (with the giant fans on the back) were now banned but when we were driving through the park we saw lots of companies offering rides on these boats through various lagoons. We stepped onto an airboat, were told to stuff toilet tissue in our ears (because of the noise they make) and off we went. Within the first few minutes we had seen lots of big and little alligators very close to the boat and lots of beautiful eagles were soaring in the sky above us. It’s very sad but because of the droughts that Florida had had earlier in the year, the water level was so low that most of the time the boat was actually gliding not on water but on slushy mud. The ranger told us that if they don’t get rain soon they will have to stop airboat trips all together until they have enough water to take the boats out. We did manage to get to slightly wetter parts and saw turtles and more alligators, as well as some lovely plant life and views of the park. When we returned back to the base we watched some captive alligators being fed and then headed north towards Tampa and Busch Gardens.
At this point I’m going to say that some of you will notice we missed a few important places on the way up through Florida. This is because we will do them on our way back down to Miami before we give the car back later on in July just to save time before we get to Vegas.
Busch Gardens is a famous theme park that has been around for years, although recently has really upped its game by adding 3 new thrill rides, added a lot of animals to the park and it’s themes and changed its name to Busch Gardens Africa. The rides here are fantastic and we started the day with the best ride there – SheiKra. To quote the parks description “SheiKra - America’s first dive coaster is 200 feet up and 90° straight down with zero floor.” Somehow we managed to find ourselves in the front row. There are 3 rows each with 8 people. The ride takes you slowly up to 200 feet, rolls across some flat track then tips you right over the edge and holds you there for 5 seconds, to really scare you, before releasing you down the 200 feet so fast that your face ripples because of the speed, just like if you’d jumped out of a plane. I think my stomach left me somewhere at the top, but it found me again just as we got to a second edge, 150 feet high, where again it tilted, held us then released us to enjoy the remainder of the ride. It was great and I loved every second of it!!
Unfortunately, when you start your day off on the best ride in the park, the rest don’t seem to compare but we did have lots of fun and their rides are some of the best we’ve ridden… so far!
That night we drove east across the state to what they call the Space Coast to visit NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the only spot in the US from which humans have been hurled into space. Your ticket to the visitor complex includes a two-hour guided bus tour of the working Kennedy Space Center, an amazing I-Max film and tons of exhibits. You can touch an actual moon rock, go inside a space shuttle, visit the memorial wall erected in memory of all astronauts lost on missions and there is even a new ride called the Launch Experience. Reaching a top ‘speed’ of 17,500mph - vertically – this spookily realistic simulator was designed by an astronaut to feel just like taking off in a space shuttle (but without the Michelin man suits and risk of death). It’s amazing how a simulator can really make you feel like you are taking off in a space shuttle. You feel like you are reaching high G’s and you can actually feel the force on your face and skin – It’s an experience I can tell you.
We even got to go closer than many other ‘civilians’ can to launch pads 39A and 39B. Normally you don’t get to see much but we actually saw the shuttle that was lifting off 3 days later from launch pad 39A to take astronauts and engineers up to the Hubble Telescope to do repairs, and the shuttle ready on pad 39B in case anything goes wrong with the first shuttle – pretty cool stuff!
That night we drove back west to Orlando in preparation for my first Disney experience. Sally takes this stuff very seriously (being a Disney fanatic) so she had every day, hour and minute carefully planned out. She had researched costs, times, places to stay, everything. We were staying at the Days Inn which she got a great deal on - £63 for 3 nights! She booked it through lastminute.com again and although there were mixed reviews we didn’t think it could be that bad. Motels in general, although not like hotels, are clean, well located and have all your basic needs.
After we checked into our room we went in search of somewhere to have some dinner. Still being fairly new to the cheap dining scene in the US we didn’t really know where to choose. We parked outside somewhere called Golden Corral which looked very popular and busy inside so we thought this would be a good bet. When we went inside there was a queue to what looked like a fast food counter. People were picking up trays, ordering drinks and paying at a till, but they didn’t have food on their trays. What we’d walked into was a giant all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. I’m sure most of you know me well enough now to know that my face just lit up like a Christmas tree! Sally on the other hand looked around, figured out the clientele and felt a shudder down her spine. She said she felt like we’d walked into Tracey and Darren’s wedding reception in Chelmsford (apologies to anyone from Essex!). But, we picked up a tray, ordered a diet Pepsi and went with the flow. When we walked through to the dining area there must have been about 300 people sat at tables with over-flowing plates and about 10 different serving stations with every kind of food you can imagine on offer. There were burgers, meatloaf, fried chicken, pastas, mashed, chipped and roasted potatoes, tacos, nachos, soups, salads, steaks and roast meats, fried fish, I could go on for 5 minutes! Both of us put a sensible amount of food on our plates and went and sat at our previously bagged table.
Sally was full after that, until she spied the dessert station – jackpot!! While I loaded my 2nd and 3rd plates with tacos, nachos, more meat and then more meat. After all the negativity at the beginning we actually had a great time, great food and for the great price of $11.99 each!! Bargain of the week!
The next morning we headed to Epcot after a very eventful morning (I’ll tell you this story when I get back – let’s just say we’re never using or staying at a Holiday Inn ever again). Without sounding too much like a school teacher, here are the main facts about Walt Disney World Resort. It’s believed by most that Disney World in Orlando is the original park. This is incorrect. Actually Disneyland in Anaheim, California was the original. At the time, Mr Walt Disney purchased land big enough to house Disneyland but not land around it in order to build on in the future to make a resort. When he decided to open a second park he looked all around the USA to find a site big enough to buy so that he could build and build on it through the years. The site he found was the swamp lands in Florida. He built the Magic Kingdom first, home of the iconic Cinderella’s Castle, Main Street USA and rides such as Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean which later inspired the creation of the movies, and It’s A Small World. Nowadays, at over 20,000 acres, Walt Disney World Resort is not just the Happiest Place on earth, but the largest theme park resort in the world. It includes four parks, two water parks, six golf courses, a couple dozen hotels, numerous restaurants and even a mega-Disney entertainment district – proving that it’s not such a small world after all!
Epcot is an acronym for ‘Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow’. Epcot was Disney’s vision of a high-tech city (back in the 70’s). It is divided into two halves: Future World which showcases cutting-edge technology mixed with fun and learning for kids and even adults, and the not-so-futuristic World Showcase which gives you a interesting toe-dip into the culture of 11 different countries – Japan, USA, England, Norway, Morocco, France, China, Mexico, Germany, Italy and Canada. We spent the morning doing the rides in Future World including a ride similar but better than the NASA ‘Launch Experience’ ride called Mission: SPACE, a newish ride called Soarin’ which isn’t actually a ride, more like an I-MAX theatre movie taking you from East to West across America on a para-gliding ride, on seats suspended from the ceiling, and a few other kiddie rides.
The afternoon we spent wandering round the World Showcase stopping off in England for a pint at the local pub, taking in various 15 minutes fully panoramic movies in countries such as Canada, Norway and China and booking dinner at a restaurant in Morocco.
While in ‘America’ we went to the animatronics show which is basically meant to tell the story of how America became and some of its history told by Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. Instead what we got was a hearty helping of ‘isn’t America the best land in all the world’ and ‘no we didn’t start as many wars as possible in order to get what we wanted’ at all!! Honestly, I’ve never watched something so self-indulgent in all my life. We were sniggering the whole way through. Even at the end Twain says something to Franklin about how young America is compared to other countries to which Franklin replies “Yes, but look at how much we achieved in such a small amount of time!”. Then is cuts to a video montage of greatest American moments and the great people it’s produced such as Martin Luther King, JFK, Lance Armstrong, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and of course no Pro-America video would be complete without good old Oprah Winfrey and Albert Einstein. Yeah, we wondered why too?!!
As if all that wasn’t enough, blaring out of the sound system was a horrendous ‘America the Great!!!!!” song that I’m sure would get every American’s hairs standing on end with pride but made us want to puke! It was laughable. Throughout I was thinking “all it needs now is for the whole audience to clap when it’s finished” and of course, they did! Followed by cheers such as “that was awesome” and “wasn’t that great?” to their kids. Totally and utterly, unbelievable! The experience will stay with us forever.
We needed a drink after all that dreadful patriotism so we headed to our Moroccan restaurant, complete with a belly dancer, and filled our stomachs before heading outside to the lake to watch the fireworks spectacular which was actually spectacular. A lit up globe floats across the water to some lovely music and eventually open ups and shoots fireworks out into the sky.
The next day we headed into the Magic Kingdom for a 9.30am start. After parking the car in the Pluto section we jumped onto the monorail that would take us through the resort to the park entrance. We picked up a map and decided to head straight to Space Mountain, but when we got there it was closed for refurbishment. So instead, we went to It’s A Small World where apparently everyone should really start their Magic Kingdom adventure as it’s a great introduction into what Disney is all about. For those of you who aren’t familiar, It’s A Small World is an indoor boat journey through different countries around the world, with dancing dolls dressed in traditional clothing and all singing the same song “It’s A Small World after all”. All I kept singing during the whole ride was “Duff Beer for me, Duff Beer for you” from the Simpsons episode that mimics it. Watch it and you’ll know what I’m talking about!!!
After that we headed to the Haunted Mansion, the Thunder Mountain Railroad (runaway train ride), Pirates of the Caribbean, which has been updated with animatronics versions of Johnny Deep and other movie characters, the Jungle Cruise (a silly fake safari boat tour), Mickey’s PhilharMagic (a fantastic 3D short movie incorporating lots of songs and characters from famous Disney movies – a highlight for us), Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor which is a very funny and live comedy show using the Mike Wazowski character to tell jokes and interact with the audience, the Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin where you use laser guns throughout the ride to shoot things and accumulate points (I won), and Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress We also sat in the blazing sun for 45 minutes to bag a great spot for the mid afternoon character parade which was actually kind of fun, and in the evening we watched the SpectroMagic parade where all the floats and characters are all lit up. After that there were spectacular fireworks at 10pm and then home time. It was a very long and hot 13 hour day!
As if all these parks weren’t enough, we decided to visit just one more on our last day in Orlando – Sea World. I was expecting a small park with a couple of shows with Shamu and some other aquatic creatures to see and that’s about it. Wow, was I wrong! It’s massive and an incredibly fun, interesting and varied park. We decided to do the most important Shamu show first and get good seats seeing as it was still early in the morning. The show was fantastic. The whales really are amazing in size, ability, showmanship and character. The audience are heavily involved throughout and you leave with a huge smile on your face and fantastic memories and photographs. After that we went to another show which featured dolphins and birds (not together) and some crazy divers and acrobats – all very odd but actually a brilliant show.
We did notice however that not only was the temperature a lot hotter than the day before (now in the very high 90’s) but the humidity was practically unbearable and we were feeling extremely uncomfortable, and wet! We pushed on though and found ourselves in the queue for the new ride that had opened only days before called the Manta. The ride is supposed to let you experience flying like how a manta ray swims – on your front!! If any of you have seen images or footage of the new Superman rides that are appearing all over of the US, it’s like that. As you board the rollercoaster you sit on one of the 4 seats in each row that are hanging from the rails. Your usual shoulder restraint comes down, but at the same time restraints go around your ankles to keep your legs in position. After that, each row is then tipped so that you are facing the floor and all your weight is now on the restraints that keep you in your seat. We left the boarding platform and gently climbed about 150 feet (remember we are facing down the whole time!!!) and then are let free to fly through the air on this amazing ride! At one point you do a 360° and it’s not like normal 360°’s, it really pulls on your face and stomach, but it’s great fun and we managed to ride it later on, but this time in the front row!
After all the rides we decided to have lunch. While eating we noticed outside that the sky had gone very dark and that a strong wind had picked up. Just as we walked outside the heavens opened and a terrible thunderstorm started. We sought refuge in a nearby shop thinking that it wouldn’t last long but found ourselves still waiting after nearly an hour! There was fork lightening all over the park and the wind blew down some small trees just around the corner from where we stood. It did die down just enough for us to make a run for it to a nearby attraction, but when we emerged 20 minutes later it had worsened again. Still very wet and cold from our run earlier we decided to buy a poncho each so that we could at least get to the car without being soaked to the skin. There was incredibly loud thunder all around, lightening every few minutes and the rain still managed to get us soaking wet even though we were covered in plastic! Not a great end to the day but we were glad that we did everything we had wanted to do earlier in the day.
Remember how I’d told you we were staying at the Days Inn, how it was quite cheap and I’d read mixed reviews? Well we got home that afternoon and were sat on our bed drying off and watching some TV when I suddenly spotted a huge cockroach and said “Oh my god” while looking at the floor. I told Sally I’d seen a huge spider and not to look, but it was ok because it had run under the TV cabinet. She didn’t believe me that it was a spider but settled back down to watching some TV. She kept asking how big it was and I said it was quite big but it was ok. A few minutes later I head a scream and as I turned my head Sally was standing on the bed! I jumped up and grabbed the ice bucket and caught it. This was no ordinary size of your thumb nail cockroach, this was the size of your thumb, bigger even – it was huge! We called reception who didn’t seem that surprised or disturbed, but sent someone anyway to deal with it for us. Five minutes later it was gone, but Sally was still a bit nervous walking around the room. Half an hour after that, as we had just finished dinner, I heard another scream and Sally was standing on the bed again. Yep, you guessed it, another cockroach on the wall next to our bed! This time I just caught it and threw it out the room. Luckily enough we were leaving the next day and we didn’t see anymore.
That’s it for now, I’m sure you have had enough of me for one day!
Will write the next update in a few days, so bye for now.