Florida has a special place in my heart. It’s a crazy yet brilliant state in the USA, and importantly is the home of Disney World which is the happiest place on earth.
I’ve been as a teenager and as an adult, so when my sister said she wanted to take her two little kids to Disney World – there was no way I was being left behind. In fact, my whole family came along – all eight of us.
We’re not a shy and retiring family. Frankly, we’re shouty big mouths from Wales – so was a little worried we’d argue. However, we actually didn’t. I think this is mainly because we talked a lot about our expectations before we went.
We were going to do what we all wanted to do (I find trying to keep everyone else happy is a recipe for disaster), and if we didn’t want to do it – we split up. There were a few times my boyfriend and I went for dinner on our own, or my parents stayed in the villa when we went to Disney Springs for example.
In this blog, I’m not going to go into how to go for cheap or how I booked it, because I’ve already covered that and this is more about what we did and any tips I have along the way.
First off, we flew with United the exact same time that poor guy got pulled of his flight by those aggressive security guards. Different plane, but similar issues happened with us.
We checked in online in advance and managed to get seats (if you’re flying with United, get seats ASAP rather than waiting till check in). It was all good until we got to Washington which was out layover and was told that the plane was overbooked by eight people and they were looking for people to get off.
I assumed that there were people there who hadn’t managed to get seats, but I now realise we all did. Now, it was Saturday, and they told us over the tannoy that the next flights would be Monday. There was no way in hell we were going to do that – we had so much planned in those days.
They offered $400, then $800, then $1000 but no-one was volunteering. It went up to $2,000 (not cash by the way, flight vouchers). Still no-one volunteered.
It was time to board, so we got on (with relief), buckled in and was ready to go. HOWEVER, there was an announcement that six people had to get off because of over-booking.
I couldn’t believe it. If we were all sat in our seats, how can we be overbooked? Surely the people who were not sitting in a seat were the unlucky ones?
We were delayed till finally people agreed to leave. It was horribly stressful and I don’t think I’d fly with United again. I’ve traveled to America about twice a year for the past six years and it was the worst experience yet – plus the food was unpalatable (and I love plane food!).
If there’s a group of you going, I 100% recommend you create a Google Sheet with the plans on, and all your bookings. That way everyone in your group can go into it from their computer and add/takeaway stuff.
You also need to make sure you book all your restaurants 180 days and fastpasses 30 days in advance (assuming you’re not staying on-site).
We picked just the two restaurants, Be Our Guest and Ohana. Be Our Guest was on our very first day in Magic Kingdom and we felt really lucky to have bagged a spot because the queue for hopefuls to get in without reservations was ridiculous.
I was worried (I panic a lot and over-plan) that because you aren’t allocated a seat, it maybe hard for all eight of us to sit together. However, this was no problem at all. Even though there was a big queue outside, it didn’t feel busy inside and we were asked which room we’d like to sit in.
Because of the research I had done, we said we wanted to go into the Beast’s chambers, which I think was a mistake. We were given a seat in front of the wilting red rose and left to get on with it. The room is really dark and there is thunder and lightening going off in the background. I felt cold because of it.
In fact, Rosie (5) was a bit scared of the room and asked why we couldn’t go out into the light. We ordered roast beef baguettes and the grey stuff cupcake (which was delicious – sorry!) which were really good actually. But you couldn’t see the food – it was very dark.
Now, I’m not saying you should do this – but I noticed the cups were by the drinks fountain, so people were going up and helping themselves. We felt a bit silly paying for drinks when getting them for free was so easy.
Ohana is a Hawaiian style restaurant in Disney’s Polynesian resort. It’s one of those restaurants where you get as much chicken, steak, prawns etc as you can eat.
If I were you, I’d book a table for around 8:30 which means you can be there to watch the fireworks at 9pm at Magic Kingdom across the lake. When you check in, make sure you ask for a window table. We were told they could not guarantee it, but we totally got one. Dinner was about $50 per person.
Do a bit of research on the food and snacks you’d like to try in advance using blogs and YouTube videos. I just don’t know how you’d know what’s available otherwise.
On my list, I knew I wanted to try a Mickey rice crispy treat with Wethers caramel (Epcot Germany), Ice-cream in a Brioche Bun (France Epcot), Frozen Beer (Japan Epcot), ice-cream from Beaches and Cream and a Dole Whip float at Magic Kingdom.
We went during the Easter holidays, so one of the busiest times of the year – but we had a plan and it worked. If possible, book your fast passes for around 10am, 11am and 12am. If you get to the parks at opening, until about 10am, you’ll either be able to walk straight onto a ride, or the queue will be really short. Use your fastpasses for the busy times and get out of there when crowds peak and the sun gets too hot.
Once you’ve used all your fastpasses by lunch, BOOK A NEW ONE for the evening.
The thing I love about Florida, is that its not all about Orlando. It’s an incredible state. In the past we’ve been down to the Everglades (do it!), Cocoa Beach, Miami, Pensicola (the best beach I’ve ever seen), and Clearwater.
This year, to break off from the whole family a bit, my boyfriend and I decided to spend the day at Anna Maria Island and then go with my parents to St Augustine.
Anna Maria island is about two hours drive away and is just nothing like Orlando. It’s a bit of a hippy town, with hardly any shops or restaurants – but the beach had the whitest sand and the bluest sea. It’s just stunning.
If you’re looking for a bit of peace and quiet (and want to ogle beautiful beach houses), I’d say this was better than Clearwater. It’s got a New England feel to it. If you want more to do, like the Sea Screamer, shops, bars etc – Clearwater is the better choice.
I’m going to write a post about St Augustine separately because I think it deserves it, but I can’t believe the amount of people who go to Florida loads and never spend a day up there. It SO worth it.
St. Augustine is the oldest town in America, and it’s about an hour and half/two hours away depending on traffic/where you are.
If you love history, there’s lot there for you. The oldest school in the USA, a fort, prison etc, but for me – it’s all about the shopping.
If you read my other blog post, you’ll know I love shopping in Orlando – but I think the best place to shop St Augustine.
There you won’t find outlets and big named stores, its all boutique shopping which is what I love. If you love little jewellery shops, crafts, home-wear, clothing etc at reasonable prices, there are hundreds of shops like that there. It’s just a bit different from the usual shopping experience in America.
I’m a money blogger, so as much as am happy to spend plenty of money at Disney World – I like to be thrifty (there are loads of freebies in Disney by the way!). Like, this is me being a bit of an idiot, but even though my cocktail cost $15, I picked the one with one of those flashing ice-cubes!
Its the same cost as the other drinks, but you get this little plastic ice-cube which you can turn off and on and keep as a souvenir. In fact, people sell them on eBay for quite a few quid too!
What I thought was brilliant, is that Disney is really happy to give you tap water. The first day, I embarrassingly asked for eight cups thinking it was going to be a bit of a nightmare – but no, not at all. They have ice cups of water waiting ready for people. Don’t be afraid to sit inside somewhere and drink the tap water to cool down. When its hot, its cold water you want anyway, and there was no way I was paying $3 for a bottle.
If you’re going to the water park, I recommend investing in one of those green reusable cups. They cost $10 initially then about $7 every day you use it. You can then get as much drink from the fountain as you want. Me and my boyfriend shared a cup quite happily – I really don’t think there’s any need to buy individual ones.
We were staying in a Villa in Windsor Hills which was about 1o minutes from Disney World. Now, this might seem rude, but when looking at pictures of villas online, I couldn’t help but think they all looked so ugly. American’s seem to like really dark furniture where for me, lighter the better.
However, I couldn’t get over just how nice our villa was. Sure – there was dark furniture, but it was massive. There was so much room for eight people which meant we didn’t get on top of each other. The pool at the back of the house didn’t go to waste either as my niece and nephew were either in a park, or in that pool.
What I will say, is that although Windsor Hills was perfect location-wise and the villa was amazing, because we were so busy – we hardly used its facilities. We went to the big pool once quickly and didn’t go to the parks/tennis courts at all.
I’m now thinking that we could have probably gone somewhere cheaper just as close – as we were paying for things we didn’t use. I’m not sure.
Oh gawd, I forgot to tell you about the worst bit about our holiday (expect a rant) – Budget car hire. I don’t know if this happens every time, but after the flight, we got to the car rental place and there was carnage. We were there about five hours in all and wasn’t given the car we paid for.
We wanted a 4×4, but were given a small car because they had none left. My sister booked some massive SUV thing as she had six people in their car – but they were told there were no more available and they could have two small cars instead.
That wouldn’t have worked (and its not what they paid for) so they said they wanted the car they booked. So after a load of phone calls and disappearing for 30 mins, they said they managed to find a car. It wasn’t as good as the one they paid for, but it was big enough.
Ok – fair enough, it was now four in the morning and we just wanted to get to the villa (with the inferior cars to what we ordered). The next day, we discovered on the driveway that the car had a puncture. We rang up Budget who told us they could either come to us to sort it which they’d charge us for, or we could come back in to swap it.
We sent the blokes (haha) to go to the airport and swap the cars around. They were there for another five hours trying to swap it.
Incredibly a few days later, we realised that Budget hadn’t put a lid on the oil tank so oil was spilling out everywhere. Honestly, don’t touch that company with a bargepole. Phew, I feel better letting that out.
As much as we loved the villa, I had looked at hundreds of YouTube videos about the Disney hotels – so wanted to nose about. First off, if you want to visit a hotel, the easiest way to do this is to book lunch or drinks in advance.
The issue is that Disney is obsessed with the idea of people parking in the hotels for free, then using the transportation to then get into the parks – meaning they miss out on the $20 car park fee.
We were meeting the rest of my family in Magic Kingdom at around 6ish, so had a couple of hours spare so thought we’d check out the Grand Floridan hotel and get some drinks.
We pulled up to the hotel and they were having none of it! Without a reservation, they were not letting us park. They said our option was to either go out and get the monorail to the hotel, or go to the hotel and get valet parking which would cost $25.
Because we were already there, and we didn’t have a lot of time – we thought we’d pay the extra $5 and get the valet. We wandered around the hotel, which is beautiful – then got a little boat over to the park (after all, we’d paid for the parking – otherwise we would not have done this!) which was an experience we wouldn’t have got otherwise.
Then on the way back home for the evening, instead of going to the main carpark and leaving the same time as everyone else, we got the monorail to the hotel, where our car was waiting for us at the lobby. Felt it worked out quite nicely actually.
Now, I’d heard about Beaches and Cream (best ice-cream on property apparently!) and the boardwalk thanks to the YouTube vids I had watched. So when I had a spare hour or so, took my mum and dad to check it out. Annoyingly, it was the same situation. We were not allowed to park at the boardwalk – so tried the Beach Club hotel and they let us in.
Controversial opinion here – the ice-cream was OK. I don’t think it was mind-blowing. In the take-away bit, there seemed to only be a choice of six flavours. However, we noticed people eating amazing looking sundaes outside too – so I’m thinking you could ask for an inside menu and get the takeaway version.
Evenings are tough in Orlando. If you’ve been pacing it since 7:30 in the morning, by 7pm – you want to fall asleep. However, we pushed ourselves to do sociable things at night.
The best thing we did was the Pirate Show which I’ll blog about separately. The food was OK, but it was all about the entertainment which was brilliant. If you have kids who are into pirates, its so worth going to.
We also went to Disney Springs a few times which we really enjoyed. We had ice-cream at Sprinkles which I think is actually the best ice-cream and ate at T-Rex. Its a really nice place to wander around in the evening.
I thought it would be like that for Universal’s City Walk too. NOPE. What a bad decision. We decided we were not going to go to Universal this time for a few reasons – but assumed it would be free to go to the shops and restaurants outside it. It isn’t.
We were on our way there to go to Margaritaville, when my sisters car took a wrong turn before going into the carpark – so we were split up. No big deal eh? We’ll meet them inside. However, when we got to the parking booth, they wanted to charge us $20. Well, I didn’t think anyone would want to pay that to have lunch, so we said we wanted to leave.
Annoyingly, we couldn’t hang around anywhere to let the other car know, so had to drive off and hope they noticed the text (they didn’t). So my sister paid for the parking and decided to go through, to find that at the CityWalk entrance you had to show Universal theme park tickets to get in which they didn’t have.
It was a total waste of money and time. I don’t get it, why wouldn’t Universal want people to shop and drink at the shops outside of the park like at Disney Springs?
We had an amazing time in Orlando, and it was more stress-free than I thought it would be. I suppose all the planning in advance pays off.
I liked how the kids are already talking about next year’s trip! ha. There goes the new kitchen my sister wants…
Have you been to Orlando? What did you do? Any tips?
Going to Disney World soon? What are your plans? Let me know in the comments.