Being a wedding photographer, we must take our families away out of season, and in February the Med isn't quite warm enough for water parks and sunbathing, and Sharm and the rest of the Middle East is pretty much a no-go zone right now! However despite the long flight, Florida weather and attractions are among the best in the world, and the lure of the theme parks for a pair of boys aged 7 and 9 is too much to resist! We went back in 2013 but found that the boys were too small for most of the major rides, and perhaps too old for the cutesy toddler-friendly Magic Kingdom. For this trip we booked through Holidays Please, and can't praise them highly enough. The personal service offered by Natalie was fantastic with prompt and detailed support and responses to questions right through the build up. They packaged the whole holiday together for us including flights, accom and car hire. So, having spent 2 weeks based in a villa in Orlando recently, I'd like to both share some tips and images from our wonderful trip, so in no particular order:
1. Consider a villa & car hire - While some people will opt for a Disney Resort hotel and use the free bus transport, a villa and car gives you real freedom. Our villa could have comfortably housed 2 families of four and was well equipped. If you do think you'll use the pool during the colder months, it will will need heating and this isn't cheap! We didn't bother as we didn't spend enough time in the villa to justify it. Our villa was located about 20 mins drive from the Disney parks and about 40mins from International Drive (Universal, Sea World, Wet & Wild etc). There was a Publix supermarket within walking distance and we were only 10mins drive from all the restaurants lining the 192 highway.
2. Plan your parks - Do some homework on rides and height restrictions before you order your passes. We didn't have too many problems, but hadn't realised that almost all rides at Busch Gardens require children to be at least 52 inches tall (our youngest was 49 which was enough for most Disney park rides), so we didn't go there despite having a pass for it (it's owned by Seaworld so comes with that package). Also - be aware that out of season (eg Feb) a lot of rides are closed for maintenance. Disney closes either Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach (waterparks) at this time, but the open waterpark will have everything open. It was interesting that while Seaworld and Universal were both building awesome looking new rollercoasters, there has been no development at the Disney parks since our 2013 visit, and nothing visible under construction. Make of that what you will, but Seaworld was very quiet (partly due to the bad press I suspect) and all Disney parks were rammed regardless of what day we went. In our 2 weeks there we hit the following parks twice: Blizzard Beach, Wet N Wild, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventures, Hollywood Studios & Seaworld. The following were visited once: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot & Aquatica.
3. Don't overdose on a Theme Park binge - Trecking around the large theme parks is physically draining, even in the pleasant Feb weather. By April/May it will be getting properly hot. Drink plenty of water (free water from fountains, that doesn't taste great) or take bottled water with you. We did and still felt dehydrated most days. You'll be on your feet A LOT, so wear comfortable footwear, and try and plan waterparks between theme park days and use them to recharge the batteries and relax a bit. We had a complete rest day (well Mel and the kids did), as I went off into the swamps with a fellow pro photographer to snap wildlife, while the family stayed at the villa and chilled.
4. Disney have screwed up their Fastpass system - Not as much a tip, as a warning. 3 years ago it worked seamlessly, but now they make you commit to booking 3 rides in advance and give you bizarre times too late in the day. If you arrive at a park mid morning or later, you will find that some rides have had their allotment filled already, or your times are late afternoon or evening. We used the Fastpass system once for one ride during the whole 2 weeks. People are forced to booking slots on rides they may not end up doing and wasting the slots. Idiots. Here's a tip though. On rides that offer Single Rider queues - do it. We did it for Expedition Everest and the Rock N Rollercoaster and saved hours, and still sat near each other.
5. Be prepared for chips. Lots of chips - It's not hard to see why America struggles with obesity. Even in 2016 it is painfully hard to get decent food within the parks, and you pay through the nose for a below average burger/hot dog when you do. We couldn't get the sweet spot down for eating unfortunately. Bowl of cereal and head to the parks early to beat the queues, and you are forced to eat there. Or go for a proper full on breakfast on the way, and you get there too late to beat the queues. Even outside of the parks, the family restaurants still only offer the same combination of fried rubbish for kids (Nuggets, burgers, hot dogs, pizza, mac n cheese - repeat), so by the second week we were stuffing broccoli from our own plates into the kids mouths. In terms of good food, the best places were Bonefish Grill (wonderful food but you need to book in advance as very popular, and not cheap), Tony Romas (great food but smallish portions) and Chuys (Mexican on the 192 which is great by limited options for kids). The Ponderosa chain offers great value, but only the steak is noteworthy and cooked to order. The buffet food is, well..... buffet food. We quite enjoyed the old skool Waffle House chain which was tourist-free and typically cheery American service at good prices. It was quirky, and very 'truck stop diner' but quick and easy to fill bellies cheaply. Oh and one more tip - don't ever order grits out of curiosity. Just don't.
6. Driving in America is very different so be careful out there - Whilst there is a lot less anger fuelled gesturing, flashing and honking in the States than the UK, the American approach to lane discipline, is generally to now acknowledge it at all. If anything, this teaches you to use all of your mirrors, all of the time. Which is fine, as you rarely need to use the steering wheel to turn a corner anyway. I didn't see any fixed speed cameras there, but occasionally saw the Po-Po hauling someone over (usually driving a $500 wreck) to look for paperwork they probably didn't have. Cars merging on to highways expect you to move over or brake, so they WILL drift across so sitting in the middle lane at the speed limit is generally the best approach as cars overtake both sides and weave without indicating around you. Here's a plus though. The average American car is a truck, so parking spaces are eeeeenormous. Oh and one more thing. Always have a supply of $1 bills and quarters in the car for tolls. Some are unmanned and you need the correct change. Unfortunately one of the main routes away from the airport has one of these, so try and prepare for it by having change on you at all times. Charges are typically between 50c and $2.25 and the automated machines take coins only!
7. Take a day out to do something different - Over a 2 week holiday, even the excitement of Disney and rollercoasters can get a bit samey, so give yourselves a break from the parks at least once. Drive to the Gulf Coast to a beach, have a bit of retail therapy at one of the malls on International Drive, go for an airboat ride on the swamps. As I spend my days earning money taking images of people, it's fun for me to try something different with the cameras, and I hired a seasoned natural history photographer (Jim Caldwell) from Outdoor Photo Workshops to take me to a nature reserve (Circle B near Lakeland) to capture the spectacular wildlife that you can get surprisingly close to. Jim even let me shoot with his monster Canon 500mm f4 lens, which was a beast, but tack sharp. We even found a family of nesting Great Horned Owls high up in a large tree that we managed to capture. It felt fantastic to get away from the crowds for a day, and I will blog this day separately soon.
8. So what did you do about money over there? - Well the exchange rates right now aren't great (approx 1.4 something buckaroos to the £), so every penny counts. We changed up a few hundred $ in cash for tolls, parking and ice creams, and put pretty much everything else on the Halifax One Credit Card that I took out especially for the trip. Reason being it doesn't change any foreign use fees, or currency conversion charges so you get the straight up exchange rate every time. Everywhere takes cards in the states, and they are gradually cottoning on to chip & pin technology now 10 years after the rest of the developed world, however sometimes a squiggle (signature) is enough to pass muster (so don't lose your card there!). I imagine by 2050 they may be using contactless as well ;-) Usefully you can tip your waiters without cash as well, as they swipe your card, and then leave your receipt for you to add the gratuity and then sign. So you can be a cheapskate and tip 10% and run if you have especially poor service, but it's unlikely as their tipping system works wonders, and is something Brits unfortunately seem to have a problem adapting to.
9. There's a good reason why Starbucks is all-conquering in the USA - It's because everyone else there is terrible at making coffee. If like me, you're a bit of a coffee snob, you'll need to locate your nearest Starbucks quick smart. Luckily this is easy enough because there is a Starbucks in the USA approximately for every 5 citizens. You'll wonder how they can charge you $5 for a drink when the nearby gas station offers the same for half the price, and then you'll try the cheaper option and see why. Starbucks can be found in all the major theme parks, but are often heavily disguised as period buildings, and can be easily missed, especially the one in Main Street, Magic Kingdom, which I walked past twice and ended up locating by nose. Blizzard Beach and Aquatica didn't have Starbucks so I took Class A drugs to stay wired instead. Joking.
10. Here's a few final quick tips that would have otherwise made this a 'Top 15 Tips' list which wouldn't have worked as well in search engines.
- Go visit Seaworld (if you can politically stomach them right now) at about 3pm onwards for two of the best rollercoasters in Florida (Manta and the bonkers Kraken), as there will be no queues and you can keep going on until your internal organs fail.
- Disney Springs is just a night spot for shopping/ drinking/ dining, but it does offer some great free music if you can resist your kids demands to spend money in the impressive Lego store there.
- Bask in the glory of half price fuel. £15 to fill up our Kia. I was so impressed with this fact, that I didn't shut up about it until we got back home. If I could have filled up my suitcase with Premium, I would have.
- Beers are much better there than before now that the microbreweries are pushing out some tasty ales. The days of having to stomach the gassy, tasteless bile that is Budweiser and Miller are gone now. Goose Island IPA is well worth searching out and even Sam Adams is pretty decent.
- If you arrive in the afternoon as we did, you'll be craving sleep so fight it as long as you can to try and adjust to the Eastern Time Zone (5hrs behind GMT). Use the early start the next morning to get to a busy Disney or Universal Park at opening time, and get on the busy rides quickly without queues!
Leave me a comment below if you got this far, and found this useful as it's nice to know if I 'made a difference' today. Here are some more images of our trip. Thanks for reading and have a great time if you're heading there. Be safe kids :-)