Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Orlando (Disney and Universal) and Sarasota (Siesta Key): A Fun Week For the Entire Family...

Hundreds of books have been written about visiting Disney World, Universal parks, and Florida beaches. There is obviously no way that we could possibly inform you about everything you need to know. However, this is the short, but sweet, version in its simplest form to hopefully give you a head start on your vacation planning.

Disney World…
Honestly, what can we say that most people don’t already know? This enchanting vacation spot is without doubt one of our favorite places in the world. Sure, the one-of-a-kind rides, exhibits, atmosphere, and fun around every turn are great. But it’s something more…something not easily explainable. When you’re inside a Disney theme park, you can’t help but feel happy. The Disney music that envelops each of their four parks just sparks something inside of you. It masks your worries and brings out your childhood innocence. You instantly morph from a 60-year-old to a 10-year-old in a matter of minutes. We have been going there for 30-plus years and we’re still not tired of it. Actually, we can’t wait to go each and every time. Old favorites remind us while new attractions excite us.

Between the four parks, Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, and Epcot Center, there’s plenty to keep you busy. Magic Kingdom is where it all started. We think of it as the mother ship. As you walk up and see the train station sitting high and mighty alongside the  “Magic Kingdom” sign, you will feel right at home. You can almost hear Mickey saying, “Come right in.” Under the train station’s tracks, the Mickey Mouse garden of flowers with the backdrop sign of “Let the Memories Begin” will be your first photo. You’ll go on lots of amazing rides, which are more like exhibits, and worth the wait in line. Our faves are: Dumbo the Flying elephant (yes, for the young and old), It’s A Small World, Little Mermaid Under the Sea, Peter Pan’s Flight, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Railroad, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Haunted Mansion, Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and Pirates of the Caribbean. That’s just a partial list.

Our favorite places to eat: Be Our Guest Restaurant (excellent food, awesome desserts), and Winnie the Pooh character meals at the Crystal Palace. For quick snacks, give the ginormous turkey leg a tasting. And don’t leave without trying a Mickey Ice Cream Bar. They’re the best!

During the day, you can’t miss the Disney’s Festival of Fantasy Parade. At night, The Main Street Electrical Parade has become a classic… half a million shimmering lights and a superb soundtrack are the backdrops enveloping all of your favorite characters, either walking or sitting on their ‘floats.’ Kids will love seeing Mickey, Minnie, and all of the friends (and boy do they have friends). Some of the lucky kids will even have the opportunity to high five them (get a close spot, which requires early seating). The last event of the night brings you to Cinderella’s Castle for an extravaganza. This is the place to be (check on times). Watch Tinker Bell fly by, sprinkling her pixie dust over the Magic Kingdom to create her magic. First, the castle changes colors. Then you simultaneously go through a visual and musical journey of Disney’s most memorable movies in a way that you could never imagine. The grand finale is a breathtaking display of fireworks, decorating and lighting up the sky.

Hollywood Studios brings us more rides and shows. These include: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (favorite of all), Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith, Toy Story Midway Mania (challenge each other as you shoot at targets), Indiana Jones Stunt Show, The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, Beauty and the Beast Stage Show (a mini Broadway show), and American Idol Experience (audition just like in the real show).

Restaurants we love: the Hollywood Brown Derby and Mama Melrose. For a quick bite, Pizza Planet has some great pizza. It’s also an arcade so if you need to take a break, the kids can have fun while you’re resting your feet. And, if you’re still longing for something delicious yet sweet, go to Hollywood Scoop for great ice cream, or pick up a mouth-watering chocolate-covered apple (mmmmm).

The not-to-be-missed (our favorite show at Disney) Fantasmic! show thrills us every time we visit. Actually, if you buy the Fantasmic! Dinner Package, you get a reserved VIP spot at the show. Definitely worth pre-ordering! Mickey’s imagination (as the Sorcerer) is the premise of the show, as he envisions Fantasmic! in a dream. Almost every one of the characters you know and love are part of the show and there are thrills, lights, and surprises around (literally) each corner. Fantasmic! is stunning. It's the best place to see your favorite Disney characters (again), paired with an unbelievable musical and light show, all staged on an ‘island.’ The Steamboat Willie River Boat finale is a blast.

At Animal Kingdom you won’t want to miss: Wildlife Express Chain, Tree of Life (the centerpiece of Animal Kingdom and a great places for photos), The Lion King (another extraordinary mini ‘Broadway’ show), Affection Station, Kilimanjaro Safaris, It’s Tough to Be a Bug, Kali River Rapids, DINOSAUR, and our favorite there, Expedition Everest. Tusker House Restaurant, Flame Tree BBQ (excellent sandwiches!), the Restaurantasaurus character buffet, and Rainforest Café are all choices you can’t go wrong with for a quick bite or sit-down meal.

The last of the theme parks, Epcot, has more thrills and fun. Rides/exhibits not to miss: Soarin’ (soar all over California), Test Track (what a thrill), Spaceship Earth, Captain EO, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, The Circle of Life, Journey into Imagination, MISSION: Space, and The Seas. Great food: LeCellier Steakhouse, Coral Reef Restaurant, San Angel Restaurant, Tutto Italia. All unique with an authentic experience. This is just the tip of the iceberg there but it’s a start. The evening show is called Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. It takes place at the World Showcase Lagoon, begins with flames and fireworks erupting from the lagoon, and just keeps getting better. Lights blaze on the shimmering waters, and then the show turns into an adventurous tale of the history of earth, ending with an explosion of lights and sounds.

If you need a break from the walking and the heat, visit one of Disney’s water parks. Our favorites are: Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach, both very different experiences. We like them both for different reasons so give them both a try if you have the time.

For more great restaurants and shops, there’s Downtown Disney. Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants, T-REX restaurant, and House of Blues are good meal choices. As far as the shops go, they are all adorable, with plenty of selections of gifts for yourselves or others! At night, there are plenty of clubs to keep the young adults entertained. Each club has a different theme and all provide a tremendous amount of fun.

If all that wasn’t enough, you have a huge decision regarding your hotel experience. We love: Yacht & Beach Club (the best pools for kids!), The Grand Floridian (in a class by itself), Animal Kingdom Lodge (sit on your balcony and you’re in Africa, watching giraffes and zebras), and The BoardWalk Inn (experience Atlantic City or Coney Island at the turn-of-the-century and get that old-time feel). There are dozens of choices, depending on your budget and location preference. Restaurants inside the hotels are fabulous. That will be your most difficult decision. Delicious choices include: Buffets from Chef Mickey’s, Boma – Flavors of Africa or 1900 Park Fare; meals from Il Mulino, Narcoossee’s, Yachtsman Steakhouse, Artist Point, Big River Grille and Brewing Works. For dessert, go to the Beaches & Cream Soda Shop or Seashore Sweets.

Universal Studios…
Their two theme parks are spectacular, and magical as well. They are much different from Disney, but just as wonderful. Share unforgettable experiences, actions and thrills with your family and friends. Start off with Universal Studios as you go behind the scenes and right in the middle of the action from your favorites movies and TV shows. This real, working film and TV production facility combines an array of state-of-the-art rides, entertaining shows, real movie sets and other top-drawer attractions. You’ll also enjoy themed dining and shopping, a variety of exciting special events throughout the year, and you might even catch a real film crew at work on the back lot. 

Be sure to explore these thrilling rides/shows: Shrek 4D, Terminator Show, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, E.T. Adventure, Disaster, Twister, Revenge of the Mummy, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Transformers The Ride 3D, Men in Black Alien Attack (play a real-life videogame against your family and friends), The Simpsons, Blues Brothers Show (lots of fun), and Animal Actors on Location. Restaurant choices we recommend: Mel’s Drive-In (for a quick bite) or Lombard’s Seafood Grill (for a good sit-down meal).

Islands of Adventure...
Islands of Adventure offers more thrill rides, great for the older kids. But there’s also fun for the youngins at Dr. Seuss land. Not to miss are: all of the rides in Dr. Seuss land, including the train ride (a gentle way to begin your journey) and Hat in the Cat Ride, everything at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, including the ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (make sure to try the Butter Beer which is nothing like you’ve ever tasted before in your life!), Jurassic Park River Adventure, Popeye & Bluto Bilge-Rat Barges Rapids ride, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride (fantastic!), The Incredible Hulk roller coaster, Dr. Doom’s Fearfall, Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, Dueling Dragons, and shows including Poseideon’s Fury and. There are some excellent selections for food: Mythos Restaurant is a great sit-down restaurant, and for a quick meal try Confisco Grille.

You can’t go wrong with any of their hotels, we love them all. Each has pools with different themes, and they’re a blast. Portofino Bay transports you right to Italy, without the pricy plane ticket and knowledge of the language. The surroundings and décor are authentic and it’s somewhat isolated, and very quiet, because it’s out of the way of the parks… very peaceful. Staying at the Royal Pacific Resort will transport you to Hawaii (well, that’s what you’ll feel like, anyway). Hawaiian music plays subtly in the background, couple with an islandy atmosphere. Hard Rock Hotel is fun for the younger crowd, with a huge focus on music, even when you’re underwater in their pools. Water taxis simply transport you back and forth to the parks right from CityWalk.

Restaurants in these hotels include: Mama Della’s Ristorante…one of our favorite Italian restaurants in Orlando, not just because of the food, but the whole experience is a blast. Mama comes right to your table, and violinists serenade you. Jake’s restaurant is another one of our favorites and one reason being their wings. They are the most delicious wings we have ever eaten… anywhere! The perfect blend of sweet and spicy leaves our mouths watering for them before they even enter our mouths. All of their food is excellent. The Kitchen has awesome burgers, and lots of other great selections as well.

Universal’s CityWalk is the place to be in the evening hours. Entertainment is around every bend. Delicious restaurant selections include: Emeril’s Restaurant, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Hard Rock Cafe, and NBA City. All are very different, each with great themes. After your palette has been satisfied, you will want to check out CityWalk’s lively action. Visit their delightful variety of shops, including Fossil, Fresh Produce, Element, and The Island Clothing Company, just a small sampling of what is there.

Sarasota and Siesta Key…
We always enjoy visiting Sarasota and Siesta Key after a week of thrills and excitement in Orlando at Universal and Disney. It’s a great place to kick back, relax, and enjoy the sunshine, food, and beaches that are up for grabs.

The Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota is exceptional. First class all the way. Meticulous grounds welcome you, and then introduce you to magnificent rooms that are spacious, elegant and immaculate. The bathroom was loaded with thick, fluffy towels, and lovely lotions and shampoos. Some appreciated extras include a coffeemaker and coffee, water bottles, and a small refrigerator. The staff is so helpful and friendly… the doorman, front desk, concierge and entire staff. The spa is wonderful, and offers many delicious treatments. One of the nicest things about this hotel is that if they know it’s your anniversary or birthday, they’ll adorn you with chocolate-covered strawberries, champagne, or other goodies. They really make you feel special.

Now, we have to talk about the Ritz-Carlton’s private Ritz Beach Club on Lido Key. In one word… phenomenal. This is worth the price of the room all by itself. A shuttle bus takes you from the hotel right to the Beach Club, passing through St. Armands Circle (which we’ll get to later). The staff at the clubhouse treats you like royalty, so attentive and polite. Your first stop will be the charming dressing rooms. Then you will walk down the elegant stairway (as you are admiring the Gulf of Mexico) to get to the pool area. There are two pools and a Jacuzzi with comfy seating for everyone, and exceptional poolside service. There’s an adorable Tiki Bar on the beach, turquoise blue water, silky, white sand, and a backdrop of picturesque blue skies and palm trees. All for you.

After reaching your daily quota for tanning and relaxing, you can head back upstairs to the dressing rooms and take showers (every amenity you could desire is there for you). When you’re all refreshed, hop back on the bus to the Ritz-Carlton, and get ready for a great evening out at St. Armands Circle.

St. Armands Circle...
As you head on over the bridge to St. Armands Circle (shopper’s heaven), you will salivate at the magnificent, waterfront homes. Take it all in on this scenic, breathtaking drive. The finale is St. Armand’s Circle... the perfect place to ‘shop your heart out’ and enjoy varied dining experiences. Stroll around, relax, and enjoy the atmosphere as you browse through dozens of reasonably-priced, adorable shops and some upscale, one-of-a-kind boutiques. Galleries, salons, gift and specialty shops, jewelers, clothing and shoe stores are splashed around the huge circle that is a centerpiece for this quaint town. There are plenty of excellent choices for lunch or dinner as well. Some of our favorites include: Blue Dolphin Café, Crab & Fin, Lynches Pub & Grub, Ristorante Le Colonne, Terrace on the Circle, and La Malinche Mexican Restaurant. Don’t forget to stop and Ben & Jerry’s or Kilwin’s Chocolates for some delightful desserts. Armands Circle is a great find and one you’ll be sure to have on your checklist for all future visits to Sarasota.

Siesta Key...
Siesta Key is one of our favorite beach towns. Coincidentally, Siesta Beach was voted (by coastal experts) the number one beach in the United States and was in the top 25 of the world’s best beaches. Siesta Beach is a barrier island on the southwestern coast of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. It has unimaginable fine, white, fluffy sand… the best you will ever set your feet on. You will become obsessed while walking on it. Coupling that with clean, clear and just beautiful turquoise blue water makes this paradise. The water is calm and serene most days with minimal waves (great for kids) and so inviting… you won’t waste one minute running into it. Beachcombers, sun worshippers, joggers, volleyball players, and Frisbee throwers are scattered about, all with smiles on their faces. You will find snacks bars right at the beach, or you can cross the street in to town for some great restaurants. There are showers and bathrooms, grills, and picnic tables. We love the fact that it’s a non-smoking beach! Kudos!  The weather is usually perfect and, to us, the experience here is just as wonderful as being in a place like Aruba, without the extra airfare and flying time. To be honest, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two places if you were dropped off with no knowledge of where you were. Palm trees, white sand, turquoise waters, right in the United States. Can’t ask for better than that.