Let’s be honest, from here in the UK, Florida isn’t the first place you think of as a weekend destination, but then when Universal called and said ‘hey, fancy a long weekend at Universal Orlando Resort for Mardi Gras 2017?’, my response was ‘hell, yes! Let me grab my suitcase’.
Well let me tell you… As a HUGE fan of the styling and atmosphere at Universal Orlando’s Cabana Bay, I wasn’t sure that another Universal Orlando resort could steal my heart, but from the moment we were greeted with a smile at the main entrance of Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal, we were smitten. The resort has a Caribbean theme and is light, airy and very tropical. The main entrance is huge and beautifully styled too:
A while ago, I told you about the media event for Halloween Horror Nights, during which I was scared half to death by Michael Myers, if you remember. After much anticipation, last week it was finally time to visit the real thing at Universal Orlando Resort to experience the terror in person. I took my friend Erica (from the Edinburgh Food website, Foodinburgh) for moral support, and while we were there, we were lucky enough to experience the brand new Loews Sapphire Falls hotel as well as some great new dining (and some old favourites) at Universal CityWalk (more of this later), but for now, brace yourself, it’s show time…
This week, Mr E and I travelled to the lovely Soho Hotel in London (have you been there before? It’s SO funky! Plus we saw beautiful Kate Beckinsale chatting away with a couple of mates in the lobby and she gave me the most gorgeous smile). Anyway we were in London to find out more about Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando, Florida.
I am SO busy at the moment it’s ridiculous. I’ve taken on a huge project with a really short deadline, but I’m absolutely loving it, although everything else has completely gone out the window: the laundry pile is overflowing from the basket, and don’t get me started on the ironing. No Christmas cards have been written, very few pressies have been purchased, and to add insult to injury, Charlie is learning to drive, so I’m living in a permanent state of ‘OMG I’m so busy!’ mixed with ‘oh god, he wants to go driving again – my poor nerves’. My Dad is also in hospital having had a hip replacement. So… yes, I’m feeling lucky and stressy and busy busy busy! One thing I really must do, though, is tell you about Grinchmas and my AMAZING trip to Orlando last week to visit Universal Orlando Resort and experience their magical 2015 Holidays Celebration.
I’m off to Universal Studios in Orlando tomorrow to experience their incredible holiday celebrations, including Grinchmas, which I’m especially excited about (I’m going to interview the Grinch!). Unlike most regular travellers, I actually don’t really mind flying, especially when it’s Virgin Atlantic, and as a tireless plotter and planner, I adore packing and getting ready to fly. Read more
Ah, meetings. Inevitably I get invited to quite a few, but when an invitation pops into my inbox to come to a meeting AT A GORGEOUS HOTEL AND SPA? Well, naturally, I’m all over it. So this is how I came to be enjoying the gorgeous spa at Pennyhill Park in Surrey. The lovely chaps at Kissimmee, Florida, invited me and a few fellow travel folks to The Spa to hear more about the area and meet with some of the representatives from the area.
So last time I told you all about the exciting #UKdoesMacys project, and about our first visit to the store at the Mall at Millenia in Orlando.
Here are my top five things to do and places to stay in Orlando. And, well, I think you can guess the first one…
Having shopped until we dropped at Macy’s, we decided to grab a couple of hours at Universal Orlando (well, seeing as we were so close…). I was desperate to visit the new Diagon Alley section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so we headed straight to Universal’s Islands of Adventure on the complimentary shuttle bus from the Cabana Bay Beach Resort and headed straight to Hogsmeade Station to wait for the Hogwarts Express:
1 Meet Puck at Seaworld’s new Antarctica
Seaworld’s brand new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction is now open. Visit the frozen South Pole with Puck the baby Gentoo penguin, who is ready to tell you all about penguin life in this brand new area complete with icy winds, icebergs and hundreds of penguins in the largest artificial penguin habitat ever built. A new 8 seater trackless ride whooshes you through this frozen land.
2 Feed the giraffes on the Serengeti Safari at Busch Gardens
You might be in Florida, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a proper African adventure. Book the Serengeti Safari and you can travel in an open truck across the 65 acres of Serengeti Plain, spotting zebra, ostriches and all sorts of other wildlife. There’s also an opportunity to hand feed the giraffes – one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had.
3 Drink butter beer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
A visit to Florida isn’t complete without a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park, one of two areas that make up Universal Orlando Resort. Stop and grab a butter beer at the cart before charging off to choose your dragon on the Dragon Challenge coaster, or wander through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on the magical ‘Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’ ride.
4 Watch the fireworks at Epcot
One of my favourite parts of any Florida trip is watching the beautiful IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth show at Disney’s Epcot. The show is a 14-minute extravaganza of fireworks, lasers and water effects that melts even the hardest of hearts. The show takes place every night at the World Showcase area.
5 Spot gators at Myakka River State Park
Of course Florida is so much more than just theme parks. Sarasota boasts stylish shopping, fabulous white sandy beaches and the Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s oldest state parks, stretching across 57 square miles of woodland, wetland and prairie. The area is great for camping, fishing and cycling, but my top tip is to take one of the amazing boat trips where you can see alligators, eagles and all manner of wildlife. Entry to the park is just $6 a car.
6 Go circus crazy at the Ringling Museum
While you’re in Sarasota, don’t miss the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Don’t be fooled by the title, the Ringling is the most incredible place, with 20 acres of gorgeous Sarasota seafront, the most beautiful, breathtaking mansion, an interactive Circus Museum and a breathtaking model circus.
7 Segway around St Pete’s
St Petersburg is located on a peninsula curling out into the Gulf of Mexico and is attached to Tampa by a causeway. One of the best ways to see this beautiful area is to take a Segway tour. Tours are suitable for families (but children need to be minimum 75lb) and will take you both into the city and along the pier.
8 Visit historic John’s Pass Village
While you’re at St Pete’s take time to visit John’s Pass, a beautiful old fishing village where you can shop ‘til you drop, go on a boat tour or even hire jetskis. If you’re lucky enough to visit in October there’s a wonderful seafood festival (October 25/26/27, 2013), but at other times, get your seafood fix at the iconic Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.
9 Encounter Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center
Over on the Space Coast there are more incredible beaches, plus the Kennedy Space Center. Take a guided tour, indulge in some astronaut training, watch an entire launch countdown re-enacted in an actual mission control centre, and from later this month you can visit Space Shuttle Atlantis which is going to be permanently exhibited at Kennedy, jam packed with interactive encounters, simulators and exhibits. A once in a lifetime experience.
10 Surfs up at Cocoa Beach
While you’re on the space coast, take time to spend a day at beautiful Cocoa Beach, visit the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop to kit yourself out, then hit the surf! Later on, take a wander along historic Cocoa Beach Pier for dinner and drinks as the sun goes down. Heaven.
For more information, click on Visit Florida.
I have so much to tell you about our trip. This means that it’s probably best to break it into several sections to prevent you falling asleep at your laptop and waking up with little keyboard-shaped indentations in your forehead.
First stop, then, was the fabulous Virgin V Room at London Gatwick Airport. I met up with a couple of my fellow travellers, Kash from Budget Traveller and Victoria, otherwise known as Pommie Travels, plus Claire, our lovely and long-suffering PR. We started as we meant to go on with enormous plates of eggs benedict and a refreshing 9am cocktail (what? we were on holiday):
A very comfortable flight and a very sweaty queue through US immigration later and we were reunited with Laura, and met Lily from Visit Florida, our guide for the weeks’ adventures.
First stop was the Hilton Bonnet Creek. The place is enormous (1000 rooms!) and sits next to its twin, the equally fabulous Waldorf Astoria. Here’s my room, already becoming sullied by the contents of my somewhat overstuffed suitcase. The bathroom had a gorgeous double width/wetroom shower thingy (a thing of beauty) and possibly the biggest, most comfy bed ever:
We ate in the beautiful La Luce restaurant, created by the very famous Napa Valley chef, Donna Scala, where I nearly died and went to heaven sampling the crispest, most delicious frito misto with a crunchy, sweet, beet salad (sigh):
There was also a butterscotch dessert so gorgeous and so heavenly that there was total silence around the table apart from the odd contented sigh. The dessert is so amazing it even has its own Facebook page (I kid you not):
The next day, we were very excitedly heading out to Universal Studios. The studios are split into three main areas: the City Walk, which is an amazing strip of all sorts of bars, shops and restaurants before you get to the main entrances, then the Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Our absolute faves were:
The Incredible Hulk Coaster – just amazing (and a bit scary)
The Jurassic Park River Adventure – fab dinosaurs and whooshy raft action – be warned, you get wet!
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The Dragon Challenge – a feet-dangling-free terror ride upon a dualling dragon
Butter beer – taste it and immediately fall in love (oh, that frothy topping…)
Top tip: ask the guard of the Hogwart’s Express where he’s from!
If you’re a fan of Dr Seuss you’ll love this whole area – it’s like being dropped into the set of The Cat in the Hat
And at Universal Studios:
We spent far too long at the Islands of Adventure to properly check out everything at Universal, but don’t miss:
The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – my neck STILL hurts (this is my own fault – I didn’t want to take my hair clip out so rode the entire vertical-up and vertical-down section of this terrifying ride craning my neck away from my headrest. What a dunce.)
Universal’s Superstar Parade: check out the parade, if only for Spongebob and the dancing Minions from Despicable Me. Hilarious and gorgeous.
Next up is beautiful St Petersburg, the bonkers Dali Museum and some unseemly horsing about on segways. Stay tuned, viewers!
I travelled to Florida with Visit Florida and Virgin Holidays. If you’d like to recreate my trip, here’s some information about a very similar seven nights in Orlando from £949
Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick or Manchester direct to Orlando, two nights accommodation at the 5V Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, two nights accommodation at the 3V+ Sunset Vista Beachfront Suites, two nights at the 5V Longboat Key Club & Resort and one night at the 5V Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel, all on a room only basis with car hire included starts from £949. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are based on departures 12 – 14 Nov 2012.
Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport or Manchester Airport; Adults £20, Kids £12
Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected
To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk , 0844 557 3859 or visit one of our 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.
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