Last winter Molly and I decided to plan a long weekend to one of our favorite vacation destinations, Orlando, Florida. This wasn’t planned as a Disney World/Universal Studios/Beach/etc trip rather it was for a marriage and relationship seminar. We were to leave Des Moines on a Thursday evening and return the following Tuesday afternoon. Luckily we didn’t have any travel issues on the way to Orlando, other than our flight out of St Louis being delayed but that didn’t hurt anything. We got into Orlando a little after midnight, got our rental car, and drove to the hotel (this was our 3rd trip to Orlando since 2004 but the first time we didn’t stay on Disney property) and, after a quick stop at WalMart, we got to the hotel around 2:00 am.
Friday was the first day of the seminar, but it started in the evening so we had already planned to make a trip to Daytona Beach to spend some time at the ocean. Before going to Daytona we had to make a stop at the Florida Mall to visit a bakery that we’ve both been wanting to try.
After we picked up a couple of delicious cupcakes (click here for the recipe for their white cake (pdf)) it was off to Daytona Beach!
Being a life-long NASCAR fan the thought of taking the tour of Daytona International Speedway crossed my mind. I knew it has changed quite a bit since my only visit back in 1992 (when I was 10) and thought it may be fun to look around. But this day was for us to visit the beach, so I drove past, glancing quickly from the road to the grandstands to take mental pictures just in case I don’t make it back soon. Driving by gave me chills from all of the memories of the races I’ve watched over the years and thinking how much I want to go back some February for Daytona “Speedweeks” (Daytona 500 pole, Shootout, qualifying races, Daytona 500). We finally arrived at the beach, found a place to park, and hung out for a little bit before heading back to Orlando to get ready for the seminar that evening.
On the way back through Daytona I had a perfect view of Turn 4 of DIS. Sure enough we even got stopped at a stop light right outside of Turn 4 and Halifax Medical Center. Why are these so important? It brought back memories of February 18, 2001, the day my favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt, lost his life in what seemed to be a fairly harmless wreck (I had seen him and countless other walk away from much worse). Before I knew it the light turned green and we were rolling again, but I kept thinking about that spot and remembering how I felt that day. Soon enough we were past the speedway and on our way back to Orlando.
That evening we went to the seminar. It wasn’t what either one of us were expecting. We left a little early and both agreed it wasn’t what we expected and decided to skip the Saturday and Sunday sessions so that we could have fun (hey, we were on vacation after all!).
We got back to the hotel and decided to walk around the little amusement park across the street. While we were walking we started talking about what to do the next 2 days. Knowing we had plans on Saturday night (it was supposed to be a “date night” for the seminar so I had already booked something) we decided to hit a water park (one of our favorite things to do), but not just any water park, one of Disney’s water parks (because what else would 2 Disney fanatics choose?). Sunday was still up in the air as we wanted to enjoy Saturday first.
We woke up and started thinking about which water park, Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach, we wanted to hit. This was our first time visiting either water park and it was a tough decision, but we decided on Typhoon Lagoon (mainly because of their kick-ass wave pool).
We had a fantastic time at Typhoon Lagoon and remarked repeatedly how excited we are to take the girls the next time we go back.
After Typhoon Lagoon we had to get ready for our date night. Again being Disney lovers I wanted to do something Disney (keep in mind this was planned before we decided to skip the seminar). Our favorite place to eat is the Italian restaurant at EPCOT, but that was way out of my price range (at the time). I didn’t think it would be worth buying park tickets just to go eat. Instead I, again, wanted to try something new. I looked at ideas from different Disney resort restaurants to Disney dinner shows, to other places around Orlando and settled on Disney’s (surprised?) Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at the Fort Wilderness Campground!
The setting is an old-time dining hall where traveling performers put on a variety show while guests chow down on all-you-can eat fried chicken, ribs, salad, drinks (even beer!), cornbread, and a special strawberry shortcake dessert.
After our date we had to decide what we wanted to do on Sunday. The options were Disney World, Universal Studios (something neither one of us have done), Sea World, or something else. Since Molly was already going to spend Monday at Disney World, and we’ve done it before, we decided on Universal Studios.
Our hotel had a ticket sales desk the lobby so I went down Sunday morning and purchased our Universal tickets (since I found out I didn’t get a discount since I work for a subsidiary of Comcast) and I also picked up my 1-day Disney World ticket for Monday (I didn’t know if I was going to go there or somewhere else but made my decision). After breakfast it was off to a new adventure!
Since we didn’t have a plan I thought it would be best if we started at Islands of Adventure and work counter-clockwise (pro-tip: most amusement park crowds tend to work clockwise, going counter-clockwise could yield good results in finding short wait times). We didn’t know what to expect since neither one of us had been to Universal before, but we were hoping to have some fun.
The first thing I noticed was the amazing scenery. This did not surprise me one bit since Universal and Disney World constantly work to make guests feel like they are in magical worlds. The atmosphere was amazing as we started our walk through Islands of Adventure. One thing I noticed that I wasn’t very fond of was how cramped the paths felt. Sure they were wide at the entrance to the park but they seemed to narrow once you got into the areas with attractions. We made our way around the park and finally got to Hogsmeade to ride what I was looking forward to: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (by the way I’m not a Harry Potter fan but I was told how fun this ride is and it did not disappoint).
After the ride we took the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley. From there we walked a little more and then called it a day. While our time at Universal was short it gave us a glimpse of what we can expect when we’re ready for a full day and can plan it out a little better.
Monday was the highlight of the trip. 5 or 6 years ago Molly started a friendship with a few people from around the US and Canada thanks to a computer game she was playing (The Sims 3). A few years ago Molly was able to visit one of those friends in West Virginia and she was really wanting to visit her friend from Canada. As luck would have it he started working at Disney World and was still going to be there while we were in town. The plans were put in place for them to spend the day together at Magic Kingdom, leaving me to fend for myself. As you read earlier I had decided to also go to Disney World but I gave myself a challenge: hit at least 1 major ride in each of the 4 parks in one day. I’ve been able to do 3 parks in one day before (first weekend in December back in 1997 after the AAU National Cross Country meet) but this was going to be a little more of a challenge considering it was a Monday in June (the start of the busy summer season). I had thought about my plan for a couple of weeks leading up to the trip and I knew what rides I wanted to hit and the order of parks. Then the biggest unknown showed up, the arrival of Tropical Storm Colin. While it was supposed to make landfall early Monday morning, and pretty far north, it was still supposed to be storming and windy in Orlando. Luckily most of the rides are inside and won’t shut down during storms. I had also planned to hit the rides that would be affected by the storms in the morning since the rain wasn’t supposed to start until the afternoon.
After waiting at the Magic Kingdom gate with Molly (since her friend had her ticket) I started my journey.
First stop was the “oldest ride in the park”: Space Mountain. As you can see Main Street USA was kind of packed, and that was a perfect indicator for the rest of the park. Thankfully I only had a half hour wait for Space Mountain. After riding it I headed for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and waited for closer to 45 minutes (side note I didn’t use and FastPasses at Magic Kingdom, I had them saved for later in the day). My final ride at Magic Kingdom was the classic Pirates of the Caribbean. I know it’s not a rollercoaster or much of a thrill ride but it’s one I HAVE to ride every time.
Next up was the short ride on the monorail to EPCOT. I was hoping to get a couple of rides in: Soarin’ (too bad they weren’t starting the new video until later in the week) and Test Track, but after waiting for close to 2 hours for Soarin (again, no FastPass, they weren’t available) I knew it was time to hit Hollywood Studios as I’d be getting there just in time to use my FastPasses.
I thought it would be fun to take the boat from EPCOT to HS, which we had done on our visit in 2013, and it was a nice little ride. Had I taken the bus I would have gotten there sooner but it wasn’t a problem. I had 2 FastPasses: Toy Story Mania (almost have to have a FastPass for it) and Star Wars Star Tours. During the boat ride the rain started, and I got dumped on. I hurried through the gate and went into a store to get a poncho (I forgot to bring my rain jacket from home). After that I went right to Toy Story Mania and got on. After Toy Story I walked over to Star Tours (the rain had let up a lot) and walked right in, saving my FastPass. After grabbing something to eat (first thing since breakfast, and I think it was close to 5:00 pm) I hit one of my favorite rollercoasters: the Rock N Roller Coaster (featuring Aerosmith). Usually I love this ride but when you have sunburned shoulders an over-the-shoulder restraint isn’t the most comfortable thing, but I still loved it.
After the rollercoaster it was off the final park for the day, Animal Kingdom.
As I walked into the park it seemed like everyone else thought it was closing (it closed at 11:00 pm). It felt like I was one of maybe 500 people in the park (which is really empty). I was able to get on Dinosaur, Expedition Everest, and the Kilimanjaro Safaris with maybe 5 minutes of total wait time, which is absolutely absurd. By the time I was done Molly had let me know she was ready to meet up at EPCOT after her dinner so I made my way back over to EPCOT and met up with her and her friend. They told me all about their day and I could tell they were both very happy to have finally met in person. I wanted to keep going in the parks (since I hadn’t been able to hit everything on my list, but I did get almost everything) but we knew we had a very early flight and should get back to the hotel to get ready to head home.
Tuesday morning came before we knew it we were pulling back into our driveway at home. We enjoyed our trip, but it was also nice to get home. I know I’m ready to take the girls back to Orlando and have them enjoy some of the same experiences we had just experienced. Of course it’s never too early to start planning your next vacation, especially when Disney World and Universal Studios are involved.