7 Days in Orlando
Shortly before Christmas, I booked up for another week in Florida. As always, the primary purpose of the trip was to get my instrument and multi-engine ratings revalidated. Since they’re valid only for a year, it’s necessary to keep on top of them, even if doing so can be very costly. Getting the flying taken care of in Florida really is a no-brainer. Good weather is almost guaranteed year round, aircraft hire is very cheap and there’s plenty to keep you amused when not in the air.
Not keen to travel indirect to Florida – Orlando, in particular – flight choices were limited to British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. With British Airways, my preferred choice, charging an unjustifiable £640.00 per person for an economy ticket, it had to be ruled out. Virgin Atlantic wasn’t much less.
Whilst playing with travel dates didn’t alter the prices a great deal, changing the arrival airport did. Switching the destination to Tampa returned a price of around £484.00. It was flying with British Airways from London Gatwick. With Tampa around 50 miles west of Orlando, the journey time by car was around an hour.
I had originally planned to visit Florida on my own for only four days but my friend, Kelly, decided at the last minute to join me. We decided to extend the trip to a week and booked up; going for the British Airways Tampa flights, a rather nice villa in Davenport, a 4×4 hire car and some theme park tickets too. I’ve never been a fan of the Disney parks but but Universal Studios and the neighbouring Islands of Adventure were again must-visit places for me.
Flight Centre took care of the flight booking, even undercutting my cheapest price by around £2.00 per person. The operation was very swift, the service excellent and the communication before and after the trip faultless. I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially the staff in their Buckingham Gate, London office.
Unfortunately, British Airways were disappointing on our 10 January flight. The aircraft, a beat up old Boeing 777, was in massive need of refurbishment, the television screens were of poor quality offering a mediocre selection of films and television programmes, and the crew were the unfriendliest I have ever encountered on any flight with the airline. It seemed that we had staff from every corner of the globe on the flight, with the man ‘looking after’ us (I say it lightly) being from Portugal. For the duration of the flight, we all had to put up with his very sour face, his lack of enthusiasm and his really poor attitude. Only during the first drinks round could passengers request anything they liked. On subsequent rounds, we weren’t asked “what would you like to drink?” but rather “water or juice?” Any passenger daring to ask for something not on the trolley was told that they must get it themselves from the galley at the back of the aircraft. I was astounded and took to Twitter to have a moan at the airline when we landed.
Because the jet stream had picked up in speed, our scheduled 9 hour 45 minute flight ended up taking around 10 hours 15 minutes. In that time, we were served a hot meal (chicken tikka or sausage and mash – both very good) and later a Caesar chicken sandwich – also very good. The offering was sufficient given the duration of the flight.
We landed at around 7.00pm in Tampa and getting through the airport was a breeze. As one of very few international flights into the airport, and certainly the only international arrival at that time, immigration wasn’t as congested as Orlando. If you’ve ever flown into Orlando, you’ll know that with three Virgin Atlantic and one British Airways arrival at pretty much the same time, it’s an unpleasant experience, and not something you want to endure after such a long flight! Immigration takes forever.
Car hire in Tampa was courtesy of Alamo. As is often the case with car hire companies, the staff try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of you when you get to the desk. As attractive as upgrades are, they don’t come cheap and certainly not as cheap as pre-paying for a better class of car back at home. After much deliberating, I decided to stick with the mid-size SUV that I had paid for. It is common in Florida to be told which row of the car park to go to (to find your category of car) and then to jump in a car of your choice and drive away. With there always being a good selection available, a half decent car is almost guaranteed.
With just one car to choose from on this occasion – a Toyota Rav 4 – I went back into the airport and negotiated a good price on an upgrade. I had walked around the selection of available Alamo cars and quite liked the look of a BMW 3 Series, but after paying, a complimentary 5 Series upgrade was offered, and what a nice car it was. By the end of the trip, my holiday photo album seemed to contain more images of the car than either Kelly or I
Kelly and I set off on the hour long drive to Davenport, just west of Orlando. It took around an hour. Although Tampa is a good 50 miles from Orlando, the journey is painless and it’s the I-4 (interstate) for almost all of the journey. We left the I-4 and headed north on the US27, picking up some food at a Wendy’s just a stone’s throw from our accommodation. It was late by now, we were both very tired and definitely not in the mood for a sit-down meal in a restaurant. We ate our meals, quickly unpacked and then retired for the evening.
Our villa offered four bedrooms, three bathrooms, an enormous garage (turned into a games room), a large open plan kitchen and living area and a swimming pool and jacuzzi too. It was the very same villa that I stayed in back in November 2013 with my family. To view the accommodation and make a booking of your own click here or contact me and I can put you in touch with the owner. As a last minute booking, we managed to get 7 nights for just £300.00. As with many villas, pool heat is an optional extra and it is usually charged at a flat daily rate of around £10.00. For visits during the colder months, it is definitely recommended.
With us flying into Tampa on the west coast, staying in Orlando right in the heart of Florida and me doing my own flying out of Daytona Beach on the east coast, we were to cover the breadth of the state on this trip. We were up early the next morning for the 100 mile or so trip to Daytona Beach for my first of two flights – but the weather wasn’t the best. It wasn’t cold or wet but a layer of overcast sat at around 1,000ft making a flight almost impossible.
We decided to head to Universal Studios for the day instead, but not before exploring Kissimmee and showing Kelly where I had spent my 16 months from early January 2009 until May 2010. Stops on the tour included Kissimmee Gateway Airport (home of the now dead and buried Orlando Flight Training), Kissimmee Pines (where I lived for three months), Bella Vida (where I lived for more than a year) and Steak ‘n’ Shake (my favourite burger restaurant whilst in Florida). We stopped for a quick American breakfast and then set off to the parks.
For anybody visiting Universal Studios, be aware that you have to pay to park and it’s currently charged at $17 per day with a charge applying on every day that you visit – with it reducing to $5 only after 6.00pm. ‘Preferred parking’ is a few dollars more but I never quite understood why it was ‘preferred’. Who preferred it? Since most visitors stuck with the economy parking, I would have thought that it was preferred. As with all Orlando attractions, for which tickets are extortionate, this added cost makes Florida a very expensive choice of holiday destination.
Even on a Sunday, Universal Studios wasn’t busy. Of course, there were queues for rides, but rarely was the wait more than around 30 minutes. Queue times for the Hollywood Rip Ride Rock It were quite long, but as undoubtedly the best ride in the park, we weren’t surprised. Similarly, the Harry Potter themed rides required a bit longer in line.
New since my last visit to Universal was the Hogwart’s Express, a train ride linking the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure parks. Attention to detail in the queue system and on the ride itself was impressive, even for somebody with no interest in Harry Potter. On the Universal side, the Jaws ride was removed to make way for a London-style street along with a King’s Cross railway and Leicester Square underground station – both looking remarkably real. The Harry Potter experience now stretches into both of the parks.
We spent Sunday in Universal Studios, only riding the Hogwart’s Express into Island of Adventure towards the end of the day.
The following day, with flying not a possibility due to the instructor’s other commitments, we decided to brave the weather for a trip to Wet ‘n’ Wild. Despite spending so much time in Florida in 2009 and 2010, this was my first visit since 1998. Back then, this water park was rather special. In the height of the summer, it was packed with tourists enjoying the sunshine and the many water rides and slides on offer. Now out of season and with no shortage of other water parks available in the area – specifically Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon and Aquatica – Wet ‘n’ Wild was looking a bit sorry. The lack of music and guests resulted in a real lack of atmosphere. Many of the food stalls remained closed for our visit, no doubt because of the lack of visitors, and the large wave pool was completely closed to allow for maintenance works. Even though the park was far from fully operational, Wet ‘n’ Wild still charged a whopping $13.00 for parking, which, on top of the $11.00 or so for a locker (non-refundable) again made for an expensive day out. Absolutely everything here incurred a cost, which was disappointing given the frankly embarrassing state of the park.
It has to be said, the water rides here have improved greatly since my visit some 17 years ago! The Brain Wash and Disco H2O were especially good, allowing groups of up to four to ride at the same time. Disco H2O was one that we went on a few times, plunging down a steep drop, through a dark tunnel and then into an enormous dome, filled with neon and flashing lights and disco music. With little or no queues for any of the rides, we could enjoy the better attractions several times.
Later that afternoon, we visited the Orlando Premium Outlets located a little further down International Drive. The grey clouds that had been looming all morning started to look ominous and rainfall was imminent. Sure enough, it rained heavily, so we waited in the car, eating crisps and passing the time. When after an hour the rain still hadn’t stopped, we decided to run to the shops and accept that we might get wet. I ran through a big muddy puddle, wrecking my shoes, and then reached a shelter. We were both soaked through and in no mood for the shops!
On the Wednesday, with another flight cancelled, we returned to Universal Studios and started the day in Islands of Adventure. Being out of season and the middle of the week, queue times were expectedly short, and we waited almost no time for any rides. It was a mere 5 minutes in line for the Hulk, the Mummy and Jurassic Park.
The Jurassic Park River Adventure proved to be a bit of a disaster. The first couple of minutes of the ride went by smoothly, even if not everything was working quite as it should. The gates into Jurassic Park, which should open as the boat approaches, were already open, and the first dinosaur that we saw appeared to have a broken neck. As we were knocked off course (we weren’t really – it was supposed to happen), we climbed up a big slope and then ground to a halt. Within a few seconds, we started to move again, before once more coming to a stop. We sat on the ride for a good 15 minutes, with little in the way of information from the ride operators and all complaining of stiff necks because of our awkward climbing position. The ride eventually and thankfully came to an end and riders were given complimentary fast passes to make up for the inconvenience.
Earlier, I complained about the cost of parking. Sadly, eating here too is far from affordable. The once ‘eat as much as you like for $19.99’ deal was no more and had instead been replaced by a ‘one drink, one meal and one snack’ offer for the same price. And no matter what a restaurant looks like, it serves up the same mass produced rubbish – be it pizza, burgers or hot dogs.
Universal’s City Walk, just outside of both parks, comes alive at night, with various restaurants, bars and entertainment venues on offer. We decided to eat at the Hard Rock Café, which offered good value for money. My go-large pulled pork sandwich was around £12.00.
The portion size didn’t disappoint, and, as with the vast majority of American restaurants, a couple of dollars bought a refillable drink, which would be topped up again and again for all the time that we were eating.
The next day, Thursday, the weather still looked bad. It was very grey and the cloud was very low, but we decided to set off on the near 100 mile trip anyway to Daytona Beach anyway, believing that the weather would clear up sufficiently for some flying.
It didn’t, and so, our trip was a wasted one. We had lunch at Bahama Breeze right by the international airport and speedway – for me a prawn linguine and the most amazing slice of key lime pie. Afterwards, we set off in the direction of the beach, although this definitely wasn’t beach weather!
Losing all hope with the flying, it was a massive relief to wake up on Friday and to see blue sky and some sunshine. With the forecast looking good as well, we again set off to Daytona Beach, convinced that we were going to get airborne. Sure enough, we did!
Air America Flight Centre provided a very competitively priced Duchess this time around – just $195/hour including fuel – and we spent around three and a half hours in it, calling in first at Deland for a number of touch-and-goes and a quick stop on the ground before returning to Daytona Beach via Sanford.
My multi-engine and instrument ratings were signed off for another year and I was free to go.
With our trip almost at an end, we returned to Orlando and joined friends for dinner, and then, on our last day, did a spot of shopping and met some more friends for lunch. We packed all of our purchases into our cases, checked out of villa and spent the rest of the day as nomads, with nowhere to go!
The most enjoyable part of any trip to Florida is the food – the variety, the portions and the value for money. Kelly and I didn’t eat at the same restaurant more than once, simply because the sheer selection of eating establishments didn’t require us to. TGI Fridays, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Steak ‘n’ Shake, Denny’s, Applebee’s, the Ale House and others were all visited on this trip. All except for the Orlando Ale House on International Drive were excellent. My shrimp and scallop cannelloni was revolting. The smell emanating from the bowl was rancid and it didn’t taste much better either! Thankfully, I managed to fill up on nachos, so didn’t go hungry.
After saying our goodbyes and doing one last souvenir stop at Walmart, we hit the road and headed to Tampa, where we would catch a much more enjoyable flight home. The service was much better this time around but the meal service was extremely poor and not of a standard expected by British Airways.
All in all, it was another amazing trip, and again over too quickly. I can’t wait to return!
Want to see more pictures from Florida? Check out my Instagram!