Monday 13 January 2014

Orlando, Florida

In the fall we started planning a family vacation for the Christmas holidays. The initial plan was always a week in Florida and then perhaps a cruise. Originally we hoped there would be about 16 of us, but the number went done to 12. A few months prior to our departure the number decreased down again to 8 leaving our group consisting of my parents, grandparents, brother and his girlfriend as well as Brian and I. Arrival dates were all over the place, but from January 1st until January 11th we were all together. 

My parents, Brian and I arrived in Fort Lauderdale on December 29th. The first week was being spent in Orlando and the second on a cruise leaving from Fort Lauderdale. Rather then deal with multiple airports and multiple rental car locations we chose to fly in and out of Ft. Lauderdale and then drive to Orlando. So Sunday was a long day, leaving the house at 3:30am, arriving in Florida at 10:00am and then embarking on a 4 hour drive. The car we rented had to be big enough so it was an 11 seater Ford. I recently read a biography about the Von Trapp Family Singers and being all piled in this large van made me think of their recollections about riding a school bus around the USA. Doing it twice was enough! We arrived at Bonnet Creek in the afternoon, and spent the evening gathering supplies at the local Wal Mart, which was a HUGE mistake. The last thing you ever want to do is shop at the local Walmart (close to numerous timeshares) over Christmas break. It was much worse then our Black Friday experience a few weeks earlier. We got a few things but ended up at a Publix shortly after. 

After unloading all our stuff and stocking the fridges with enough food for breakfasts and dinners we were wiped and retired for the evening. The next morning Nanny and Pappy were arriving, so it was back to the airport to pick them up. They opted to fly directly into Orlando as to avoid a portion of the long drive. Monday was a pretty lazy day - Nanny and Pappy were tired from their travels and we were tired from ours the day before so everyone just sort of relaxed in their rooms until dinner. The benefit of the condo type timeshare is they have kitchens so meals can be cooked inside rather then having to eat out. We had dinner together, but Brian and I rushed off as soon as it was done to catch the last shuttle to Downtown Disney. 

Downtown Disney is this really cool area around the parks that has a bunch of stores, restaurants, shops, bars and entertainment venues. I first went back in 2001 a few years after it opened and instantly loved it. There is just this fun unexplainable vibe down there - with lots too see and do. I went back in 2008 with Aunt Honey, Uncle Beau, Connor and Paige and then again in 2009 with Brian but on that trip we didn't do much due to my sprained ankle. This time I found a few things different but everything mostly the same. The biggest difference occurred in the middle section. The area is built into three sections called Westside, Pleasure Island and the Marketplace. Each section wraps around the lake and has water taxis that go in between. 

I have always started on the Westside right near the House of Blues and the Cirque du Soleil venue. As you walk along you pass Disney Quest, a huge AMC theatre, a bunch of shops, restaurants and food trucks. There is a really cool looking bowling alley I have always wanted to check out, as well as some interesting looking restaurants. Problem is every time I have been the area has been packed and everything is expensive. I have come to learn that if the name Disney is anywhere in the title or description it's price is likely to be heavily marked up. 

The whole area was decorated for the holidays which was gorgeous. There were lighted Christmas trees, Christmas lights and people dressed up like angels and nutcrackers. Holidays down south always seem a bit strange to me because I am so used to holidays being associated with cold weather, cloudy days and snow. Down south it's typically bright and warm giving off a whole different Christmas atmosphere. 

We stopped at the Candy Cauldron a really awesome candy store that makes the best candy and caramel apples - these are a work of art! Such cool Disney designs are created and they look amazing. Brian took a number of photos of them making these so one day I am going to attempt to recreate it! I got my usual Minnie's Bakeshop Cookie - a white chocolate and raspberry cookie. I am not at all a fan of white chocolate or fruit in cookies but for some reason back in 2001 I tried one of these and loved it. So now every time when down there I have to get one. I also picked up some chocolate peanut butter fudge for Nanny. We walked past the hot air balloon ride (not something I would ever go!) and posed for a photo in front of the blue and silver tree. We then crossed over the bridge and into Pleasure Island  which was completely different then I remember. Years ago this was the adult/party area of Downtown Disney. A bunch of nightclubs and bars lined the streets but over time these started shutting down. 

According to Wikipedia "Pleasure Island was primarily a nighttime entertainment complex with two comedy clubs and four dance clubs. These clubs closed permanently on September 27, 2008. New shops and restaurants were planned to open to replace the closed clubs, but the economic recession of 2009 delayed plans. Only one new restaurant has opened to date. While the Village/Marketplace and West Side have always been free to enter, Pleasure Island required the purchase of admission and was closed during the day. Beginning in summer 2004, Pleasure Island became free to enter, and only those guests entering the nightclubs were charged admission. On November 18, 2010, Walt Disney World Resort announced a project named Hyperion Wharf, which was planned to replace the Pleasure Island complex. Pleasure Island would have undergone extensive renovations and re-theming to transform into the early twentieth century wharf-themed entertainment area. New shopping and dining locations would have also been added. In July 2011, it was announced that these plans have been delayed. These plans were later cancelled in favor of Disney Springs." (

I remember Pleasure Island the way it used to be - bars everywhere, the sound of loud music carrying outside and outdoor bars and patios all along the path. Now it was very quiet - only with one bar and the whole area mainly being used as a connection between the Marketplace and Westside. We crossed over to the Marketplace and of course had to stop at the Lego store. I made the mistake of splitting up with Brian here and "misplaced" him for about 30 minutes. I have since learned to never let my husband in the Lego store alone! We wandered in and out of a bunch of the shops and just enjoyed the overall atmosphere. We spent about an hour in the huge Disney store just being silly and trying on hats and sweaters. I did end up buying this super soft and comfortable pink sweater which I love. But I made the mistake of not buying a hat I found, however I am hoping my aunt and uncle can pick it up when they are there in March. 

We took the water taxi back across to the other side which was fun especially since I'd never done it before. Since the whole area was all lit up and pretty with Christmas decorations it that made it extra special in my mind. The only downfall was Santa had gone back to the North Pole, so we missed the opportunity for another Santa Photo (which I think Brian was secretly happy about!). Next time we visit Downtown Disney I want try Disney Quest, the bowling place and some of the bars and restaurants. It was just too crowded over the Christmas break to do any of that without encountering lines and crowds. So it's on the list for next time! 

Tuesday was New Years Eve and also my grandparents 58th anniversary! We started off the day with a huge breakfast compliments of Pappy. When my dad took Pappy, Adam, Uncle Remo and Uncle Beau to Vegas for Adam's 21st birthday Pappy would cook the guys breakfast everyday, so Pappy was designated the breakfast chef for the Orlando portion of the trip. Afterwards mom, nanny and I went shopping. We started at one plaza where we spent about 2 hours and then headed to the Orlando Mall where we spent another 2 hours. It was a very successful shopping day for all of us, as we each bought new clothes and other items. I know Canadian retailers often hate "cross border shoppers" but I am proud to be one. Until Canadian stores get the products and prices I find in the US, I will continue to head south of the border for most of my shopping needs. We had a quick stop at the M&M store which was super awesome!!! 

When we got back to the condo we had a bit of time to relax and have a late lunch. At 9:30 we all piled into the van to head out for dinner. Every year Nanny and Pappy spend NYE/Anniversary at a local dinner dance with friends. I tried finding one in Orlando but everything was mostly theme park oriented or $300.00 a ticket! So I suggested dinner at the Melting Pot - something Brian and I always do when we are in MD for NYE. The Melting Pot puts on a great NYE menu with champagne, photos and countdown. Mom isn't really a Melting Pot Fan (either is Brian) but they agreed once my grandparents expressed interest which was delightful to me as it's one of my favourite places! I had arranged for the table to be decorated for the occasion and it looked stunning with rose petals and balloons. The staff was excellent - making it extra special for their anniversary. My grandparents hadn't had fondue in ages so they particularly enjoyed it, and it was just a wonderful evening. It was a lot quieter then Nanny and Pappy are used to, and I know they missed their friends, but it was really enjoyable! 

On Wednesday we had another Pappy breakfast, but a later one due to the lateness of NYE. Then Pappy, Dad and I headed back to Downtown Disney to catch a movie at the AMC. We saw "American Hustle" and it was packed! I ended up sitting alone with them a few rows back. The movie was just okay in my opinion, but not really worth all the Oscar hype. Funny story, because Nanny didn't come with us she didn't really realize we had seen it. We mentioned what we thought and talked about it a little in passing, but 2 months later she had forgotten. So she took Pappy to see it. He didn't realize it was the same one until it started and when he told Nanny he had seen it she argued with him! She was all "you never saw it! You couldn't have seen it! You are mistaken!" It wasn't until the end when Pappy finally said "I saw it with Chantal!" Did Nanny realize her mistake. LOL, poor Pappy as it wasn't a movie I'd want to watch again. 

We had dinner in the early evening, and then Brian, Dad and I headed back to the airport to pick up Adam and Amanda. Adam had wanted to be home for NYE to spend it with friends, hence their later arrival. Adam was just delightful (sarcasm) when he arrived likely due to a late NYE and the day of traveling. But he got better later in the evening when Brian and I ran into them outside. The weather in Orlando was cold and rainy, so we only really used the pool and not tub once or twice at night. It was unfortunate as Bonnet Creek has the coolest pool/lazy river that I was excited to swim in. Instead we stuck to the pool closest to the building which was heated and the hot tub. But I ceased using the hot tub after a bunch of drunk twenty-something went up to the top floor and started throwing limes down at the hot tub when we were in it. Getting hit with limes wasn't my idea of a fun vacation. 

On Thursday morning we had to be up early as Adam, Amanda, Brian and I were going to Universal Studios. The tickets had been a Christmas gift to us from my parents and was something I was super excited for. I always loved Universal Studios and really wanted to see Harry Potter world. However January 2 was said to be a very busy day, and I was warned that Harry Potter world would get closed once it reached a certain amount of people. So I made everyone get up at 7:30 so we could be at the Islands of Adventure Park the second it opened. Adam was again a bit of a grump (mornings aren't his thing) but he did get better as the day went on, and that was the last we saw of grumpy Adam during the rest of the trip! We got to Harry Potter World early enough that we breezed through the rides. The main ride through the castle I opted not to due because I don't like most rides and it was very motion-oriented. Instead I did a castle tour which let me see most of the attraction. Afterwards the three of them did a smaller roller coaster, but I stayed behind and watched. 

We wandered through the Harry Potter village section and it looked just like the books and movies! The stores were awesome - I loved how they themed everything to be authentic to the franchise. I didn't go into the Wand store because the line was crazy and I had no desire to spend $100.00 on a piece of wood, but everything else was fun. I could have stayed there for hours! I did try Butterbeer which was delicious! It tasted like butterscotch sugar cookies and came in a souvenir mug. Our next stop was to Jurassic Park where Amanda and I decided to go on the water ride. Brian and Adam told us we were silly and that we would get soaked, but we ignored them. I don't like most rides, but I do love water ones and this one was fun. The drop at the end was a bit scary, but still enjoyable. We got wet, but not soaked so we laughed at the guys having missed out. We were really lucky to have the express pass on our tickets - the park got really busy but we were able to breeze through lines and wait no more then about 10-15 minutes. 

We had a really early lunch since we skipped breakfast, and then headed toward Toon Town. There was another water ride Amanda and I wanted to do - Popeyes Raging River so we figured we may as well do it while we were still damp from Jurassic Park. Again Brian and Adam told us we were crazy and would be wet and miserable for the rest of the day, and again we ignored them. As soon as we were seated I realized we made a mistake. The three other people in our "boat" had ponchos on and told us we would get soaked as they had done this ride before. It was too late to do anything about it, so we were stuck. And wow, did we ever get soaked. This ride is like going down a rapid river, so water was spraying up on us, it also had portions of falls we went through and water canons people could shoot at us (Which of course Adam did). The ride was really fun, but when we got out we were completely soaked. It was as if we had jumped into a pool or something. Naturally when we walked back to meet the guys they were laughing hysterically. I will admit it was a bad decision, a fun one, but not one I would make again. The weather was okay, but not sunny or hot enough that we would dry out especially since we were wearing denim so we were left having to buy clothes. Amanda found a dress, and I found a pair of sweatpants. I had brought an extra shirt, so I paired that with these kind of ugly orange/pink pants which amazingly enough matched the shirt. The pants were a size smaller then I would have preferred but my choices were limited, so I made them work. I also grabbed a pair of flip flips since my sandals were also soaked. I will be honest, it was a truly horrible outfit and not something I would ever choose to wear. It reinforced what a bad decision going on water rides without a poncho or a full change of clothes had been. 

We went on a few 3D/4D rides like the Superman one, as well as a X-Men themed knock off of the Disney tea-cups. We wandered through Who-Ville and the kids coaster. Since Paige wasn't there, I got out of going on the coaster. The last time we went to Universal, Paige was about 5 or 6 and asked me to go on that ride with her. As I said, I hate most rides - even some kids ones - and this one terrified me likely due to the high height of it. She picked up on my terror and has spent the last 5 years laughing at it! When we first talked about this trip she made me promise to go back on it with her to prove it wasn't scary. As much as I missed not having them with us, that was one experience I was fine with getting out of! 

We walked over to the second park and spent some time going on those rides. They are more along the lines of 3D experiences and interactive shows which was fine with me. The park is pretty outdated in terms of rides, and Adam even remembered some from the last time he was there which was in 1995! Around 3:00 a thunderstorm hit which again got us wet. At this point Adam and Amanda decided to head back to the hotel, and Brian and I opted to stick it out. We wandered into a few more areas and attractions but the rain kept worsening. Initially we planned to stay for awhile and have dinner down at Universal Walk (their version of Downtown Dinsey) at Bubba Gump, but I was again soaked and he was getting wet so we changed our plans. We decided to head back to hotel and order pizza. 

Despite the rain, it was a great day at Universal Studios. The four of us had a lot of fun, and it's a theme park I would definitely go back to (with a change of clothes!) Brian and I spent the evening watching TV, reading and enjoying our dinner of Papa Johns pizza. It's his favourite pizza place but there isn't one near us, so he was especially happy. It worked out to be warmer and cheaper then Bubba Gump which was a positive. 

Friday was another horrible weather day, so I opted to go shopping with Dad, Adam and Amanda. We spent a few hours at the outlet mall (an hour of that was spent trying to find a parking spot) and then a couple hours at a strip mall near Universal. I didn't really find anything, which was fine as I bought enough when I was shopping a few days before. I mainly went to keep them company. Afterwards, Pappy and I went to Downtown Disney to see Cirque La Nouba. 

Pappy had expressed interest in seeing it, but no one else was interested. I was semi interested so I said I would go. I am so glad I did! The show was fantastic! We started by having a drink at House of Blues where I nearly lost my moms phone. Mine had died and I didn't have time to charge it, so I borrowed hers so we would call when the show was over. Just before we we ready to leave, I left it on the table when I went to the washroom, and Pappy met me by the entranceway. It wasn't until I was sitting down at the Cirque show and went to check the time that I realized it was gone. I had about 10 minutes before the show, so I bolted across the street back to House of Blues where thankfully they had it. I also made it back just before the show started so it all worked out! 

The show was really impressive! An amazing mix of acrobatics, comedy, stunts and dance. There were people doing tricks on bikes, people flying through the air on silks and tightropes and these amazing young girls doing acrobatics. It was a great mix, and just a really fantastic experience. I'm so happy we went! 

The rest of the night was spent packing up our stuff for the next part of our trip!

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