Our Favorite Central FL Restaurants Off Disney/Universal Property

We know that lots of theme park fans don’t like to go off theme park property when they vacation in Central Florida. We used to be like that, too. Eating at a theme park is usually faster than traveling off property to dine, it keeps you immersed in the theme park experience, etc. And we get it – there are indeed some really nice places “on property” that give you awesome food and/or theming, and you get to maximize your time in the parks. But if you limit yourself to just eating on property, you are denying yourself some incredibly good eats that usually cost a fraction of Disney’s and Universal’s prices and often taste even better than anything you can get in the parks or on property.

These are some of our most favorite “off property” restaurants. We’ve listed them in alphabetical order, since it would be almost impossible to put them in order of which is best, second best, etc., and they run the gamut in terms of price point, food type, dress requirements and distance from the parks. Many offer meals throughout the day (i.e. breakfast, lunch, brunch, high tea), although we’re specifying our experiences with them for dinner. Most are places you can’t find anywhere else (or at least have only limited locations), they’re all “not to be missed” and some, we admit, are really just for adults (we’ve included level of “kid friendliness,” based on our observations, in each of the narratives).

ARTISAN’S TABLE
22 E. Pine St.
Orlando, FL 32801
(407) 730-7499
Approx. distance from WDW: 17 miles (via I-4 East)
Approx. distance from Universal: 10 miles (via I-4 East)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat

Restaurant-ArtisansTable
Photo courtesy of Artisan’s Table

Located in Downtown Orlando, this modern, trendy restaurant opened in 2014 and has been growing their following ever since. The food is fresh and delicious, with a menu that changes frequently. They have a fully stocked bar and a wide variety of cocktails. We strongly recommend the ox tail dinner and the apricot sidecar (a fruity house-invented drink which is usually no longer on the menu but most of the bartenders can still make it). We have seen children at Artisan’s Table (albeit not regularly), and those that we have seen were very well-behaved.

BERN’S STEAK HOUSE
1208 S. Howard Ave.
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 251-2421
Approx. distance from WDW: 71 miles (via I-4 West)
Approx. distance from Universal: 79 miles (via I-4 West)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat, Wikipedia

BernsRed
Photo courtesy of bernssteakhouse.com

Yes, it’s far from the parks. It’s also, by far, the most fancy and expensive restaurant on our list. However Bern’s Steak House, 61 years old and going strong, is an experience you will never, ever forget as a special night out for the adults in your party. The decor of its various dining rooms screams 1960s and 1970s, but the service and food are old school and impeccable. The menu is huge (and the wine list even moreso! Bern’s has the largest wine list of any restaurant in the world!) and can be a bit overwhelming for first-timers but your waiter can walk you through it with ease. Anything you get at Bern’s will be incredible and cooked exactly as you request. Don’t forget to take the tour of the wine cellar and kitchen after your meal, and save room for dessert in the Henry Waugh Dessert Room, upstairs – because how often do you get to eat dessert in a wine barrel?

CHEF’S TABLE AT THE EDGEWATER
AND/OR!
TASTING ROOM AT THE CHEF’S TABLE
99 W. Plant St.
Winter Garden, FL 34787
(407) 230-4837
Approx. distance from WDW: 20 miles (via FL-429N)
Approx. distance from Universal: 15 miles (via Florida’s Tnpk N.)
YES! Two different (VERY different) awesome restaurants, with the same owners, at the same establishment! Chef’s Table became so popular that the owners opened The Tasting Room a few years later.
Read what other people say about Chef’s Table at the Edgewater on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat

Restaurant - Chefs Table at the Edgewater
Photo courtesy of Chef’s Table at the Edgewater

Housed in the historical Edgewater Hotel (which now is run as a B&B), Chef’s Table opened in 2008 and has been winning award after award ever since (as per owners and married couple Kevin and Laurie Tarter: “We just won the Orlando Sentinel Foodie Award for ‘Central Florida Gem’ from their food critic, the Dec 2016 Open Table dining award put us in the top 100 restaurants in the USA based on our diner feedback, Florida Trend gave us the golden spoon which only goes to the best restaurants in Florida, Orlando Magazine honored Kevin in 2015 with a Culinary Hall of Fame award, Orlando Magazine also awarded us in 2016 with Best Service, Best Chef’s Table, Most Romantic and Our Tasting Room won best appetizers and best cocktails.”) A small establishment with just a handful of tables, they offer a nightly three-course prix fixe menu, with options of a cheese course and wine pairing, that rotates regularly. Laurie is a skilled sommelier, Kevin has worked in the kitchen of WDW’s Victoria & Albert’s and New Orlean’s Arnaud’s, and both have worked front of house of WDW’s California Grille. If you visit Chef’s Table, expect a full evening of deliciousness for the adults in your party.

Read what other people say about Tasting Room at the Chef’s Table on Yelp, TripAdvisor

Restaurant - Tasting Room at the Chef's Table
Tasting Room at the Chef’s Table

Meanwhile, in 2011, Laurie and Kevin opened Tasting Room at the Chef’s Table just adjacent to Chef’s Table at the Edgewater. This is a much more casual restaurant, with a focus on tapas (small but shareable plates), much of which has a Creole influence, thanks to Kevin’s past work of living and working in New Orleans. Our personal favorites are the asian beef, lobster mac & cheese and the duck fat fries (oh, the duck fat fries!) – let us know what you and your kids like best!

COLUMBIA
649 Front St.
Celebration, FL 34747
Approx. distance from WDW: 8 miles (via World Dr.)
Approx. distance from Universal: 14 miles (via I-4 West)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor

Restaurant - Columbia (PC- The Columbia)
Photo courtesy of The Columbia

The original Columbia restaurant opened in Tampa’s Ybor City in 1905, making it the oldest restaurant in Florida. It’s also been owned by the same family for all that time. Now expanded to 5 restaurants through the state (Tampa, Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater and Celebration), the Celebration location opened in 1997 and is the closest to the theme park corridor and only about a 10-minute drive from the southern parts of WDW property. The menu features Spanish fare and I can never decide if I like their chicken, pork or shrimp dishes best, but I can tell you that their white sangria is to die for! Definitely a kid-friendly establishment!

4 RIVERS SMOKEHOUSE
874 W. Osceola Pkwy.
Kissimmee, FL 34741
Approx. distance from WDW: 8 miles (via W. Osceola Pkwy.)
Approx. distance from Universal: 13 miles (via I-4 West, FL-528 R & John Young Pkwy.)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat (Zagat review is for Winter park location – no reviews seen for Kissimmee location, sorry)
We know, we know – there are lots of places that offer good BBQ. And we realize that you may want to stand by your Texas, Louisville, North Carolina or Kansas City BBQ and that’s absolutely fine. But 4 Rivers is still darn good ‘Q. Established in a single location in Winter Park (about 20-25 miles from WDW) in 2009, hour-long lines were almost immediately out the door. Since then, 4 Rivers have expanded to 7 locations within Central Florida, 6 locations in further-out locations in Florida and, as of this writing, are expanding to Atlanta any day now. What can we say? It’s BBQ, it’s delicious, and we love it. So will you and your kids. Give it a try! Heads up that all 4 Rivers locations are closed on Sundays.

HANAMIZUKI
8255 International Dr., Suite 136
Orlando, FL 32819
Approx. distance from WDW: 8 miles (via I-4 East)
Approx. distance from Universal: 3 miles (via International Dr.)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, Trip Advisor, Zagat
We’ve been to Japan 4 times and love when we can find a stateside Japanese restaurant that is what we would call “absolutely authentic and traditional.” Hanamazuki is most definitely the epitome of that. Tucked into a strip mall shadowed by the Orlando Eye (it’s the same strip mall as Sleuth’s dinner show, which is also a good landmark in terms of the 8 million strip malls in the area), you will be greeted with “Irasshaimase!” as you enter, and a menu that is written in Japanese with English subtitles. We love the shabu shabu and ishiyaki, although you can’t lose with the udon or soba noodle meals, either. Children are welcome and heads up that Hanamizuki is seasonally closed on Mondays, so check the website first.

HEMINGWAY’S
On the ground of Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress
1 Grand Cypress Blvd.
Orlando, FL 32836
Approx. distance from WDW: 2 miles (via Hotel Plaza Blvd.)
Approx. distance from Universal: 8 miles (via I-4 West)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, TripAdvisor

Restaurant - Hemingway's
Photo courtesy of Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress

The 1,500 acre Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress resort opened in 1984 and unlike several Grand Cypress restaurants that have come and gone (including our beloved but dearly departed LaCoquina – it had the best Sunday brunch EVER!) Hemingway’s has stayed around since Day One. This steak and seafood restaurant is island-inspired and the decor is decidedly Key West. It offered great food and service for the entire family.

SEASONS 52
Plaza Venezia
7700 W. Sand Lake Rd.
Orlando, FL 32819
Approx. distance from WDW: 6 miles (via S. Apopka Vineland Rd.)
Approx. distance from Universal 3 miles (via Turkey Lake Rd.)
Read what other people say about it on Yelp, Trip Advisor, Zagat

Restaurant - Seasons 52
Photo courtesy of Seasons 52

Seasons 52 is the only restaurant on our list that has more than, at most, just a few locations (over 40 of them in nearly 20 states). However the Orlando/Sand Lake Rd./”Restaurant Row” location is, not only the closest to the theme parks, but also the original location, which opened in 2002. Oh, and those mini desserts there you see everywhere? Seasons 52 invented those – they call them “Mini Indulgences.” Focusing on American and generally “healthier” fare, the restaurant’s menu changes seasonally, although some items seem to remain year-round. It is, by far, our #1 “go to” restaurant and our personal favorites include the meyer lemonade (if any of you remember the Adventurers Club, it tastes like a Babylonia’s Brew, but with booze!), filet mignon, pork tenderloin and chocolate s’more or chocolate peanut butter torte desserts. Children are welcome but as the restaurant is frequently host to convention parties as well as couples on “date night,” we’d say that well-behaved children are appreciated.

These are just a few of our favorites and obviously, there are LOTS of other “off site” restaurants in the Orlando area – which are YOUR favorites?

FOR NEWBIES: When An Airline Breaks Something In Your Luggage

I went to New York with a friend not long ago, just for a couple of days, to see a bunch of Broadway shows. We were only going to be out of town from Tuesday to Friday morning, for about 70 hours total, so we were able to get away with just using carry-on luggage, thereby saving us the time of having to pick up our luggage from baggage claim, as well as the worry of them losing our bags or breaking something in them.

Since I grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, whenever I’m in Manhattan, the times when we’re not in shows are generally dedicated to food – either the yummy things, like pizza and bagels, that aren’t quite the same down here in Central Florida, or restaurants that were simply an important part of my life before I relocated from the Big Apple. Anyway, while we were at one of these restaurants (Serendipity 3, on E. 60th, between 2nd & 3rd), I bought a glass Christmas ornament, just because. It wasn’t very expensive, only $12.50, and I suspected it would give me warm fuzzies every year when I put it on the tree, so I got it.

On the Delta flight home, thanks to (A) the Delta gate people saying the flight was 100% full, (B) being in Zone 3 (of 3) and (C) 95% of the other Zone 3 people already standing on line while the pre-Zone 1 “people who need extra time” folks were being loaded, by the time my friend and I got up to the gate before loading onto the plane, anyone who had a carry on bag that, like mine, was around the size and shape of a regulation 22x14x9 was told they needed to gate check because there was no more room on the overhead. I told them I would prefer not to, but of course that got me nowhere. The Delta employee said the bag would be brought up with strollers at the gate, so no worries. Not wanting to rock the boat and risk not being allowed to go on the plane at all, I agreed and gate checked it.

As it turned out, there was indeed space for my carry-on suitcase above our seats, and I suspect even more space for it above the 2 empty seats directly in front of us AND above the 2 empty “exit row” seats that I saw several rows behind us when I went to use the lavatory. Cue the feeling of minor annoyance. Increase the annoyance to mid range when I was told, upon landing, that my luggage would not be brought up to me at the gate after all, but would go to regular baggage claim, thereby adding a good 20-30 minutes before I could get to my house. And then I got home, unpacked and discovered that my Christmas ornament, which was packed to be safe as carry-on, but not when it was undoubtedly thrown from place to place by Delta employees, was broken into a million little glass crumbs. ARGH!!!

Photo Mar 24, 3 19 54 PM
Part of my broken ornament. The rest was glass dust all over the bottom of my suitcase

Joe tweeted Delta, saying “Wife having to gate check bag on flight home = broken Xmas ornament. Vacuuming out luggage not how we wanted to spend today.” To their credit, they wrote back quickly and said we should call their customer service number. I had a couple of false starts because I didn’t realize I would need my SkyMiles and flight confirmation numbers in front of me (so I had to find those), plus I wasn’t sure if the contents of my baggage counted as “baggage” or not (NOTE TO NEWBIES: It does.) but I finally spoke to a sweet lady named Shay, who said I needed to fill out their online form. She did give me some helpful suggestions (ignore the “reference number” request, photo must be small or just say that you have a photo available upon request, etc.) and off I went to Delta.com to fill out my “Comment/Complaint” form. I got an auto reply the next day that said:

Dear Mrs. Heg,
Thank you for contacting Delta.
We look forward to working with you to resolve this matter. You will receive a response regarding the status of your claim within 2-4 weeks.

We appreciate your selection of Delta and will work to resolve this in a timely manner.
Thank you very much.
Sincerely,

Customer Care – Baggage

That was on March 25th.

On April 10th (16 days after I contacted them – on the lower end of 2-4 weeks), I got a phone call from a Delta representative but let it go to voice mail because I didn’t recognize the 800 number they used and nowadays, if I don’t recognize the number, I just don’t pick up the phone – sorry, I just don’t feel like listening to another robocall about adjusting a headset. They also sent me an email:

Dear Mrs. Heg:
Thank you for the additional information (NOTE: I didn’t send them any other additional information but OK), and we’re sorry to learn that you encountered a problem with your baggage while traveling with us recently.
Please be assured that every precaution is made to have a passenger’s luggage arrive in the same condition as when it was checked into our care (NOTE: yeah right). We succeed with few exceptions, and regret the mishandling on your trip (NOTE: if you had let me keep my luggage with me as intended, and especially since there was indeed room in the overhead, this wouldn’t have happened).
Our check for $13.61
(NOTE: $12.50 + 8.87% NYC tax) to reimburse you for the damaged property will be mailed under separate cover. You should receive it within the next ten business days.
We appreciate, and thank you for, your choice of Delta to provide your air transportation and look forward to being able to welcome and serve you, once again, on board one of our flights.
Sincerely,

Claims Manager
Customer Care-Baggage

And on April 22nd, which was indeed within (albeit JUST within) 10 business days, I received my check.

DeltaCheck2
So there you go – I’m reimbursed. Am I happy? Well, not being out the $13.61 is nice, especially since they were the ones who broke the thing in the first place. But honestly, I’d rather still have an intact ornament as a memory of my trip, and would have been a whole lot happier if I had been allowed to keep my carry-on in the first place, and then none of this would have happened.

With airline travel so uncomfortable and not-user-friendly nowadays, you would think the airlines could at least make “keeping the items they say customers can have with them, with them” would be more of a priority in terms of customer service. Oh, and speaking of customer service, I got a “Give Us Feedback of How We Handled This Situation?” email from Delta on April 11th, the day after they said they were going to send me the check. Only problem was that several of the survey questions had to do with whether or not I was happy with the situation once it was completed…which it wasn’t, because I hadn’t received the check yet. There was still a possibility something could have happened and the check wouldn’t be received, which would have affected my answers. So I held onto the email and waited. But when I tried to fill it out a few days after I finally did receive the check, the survey had expired. So yeah…customer service.

I know I’m not the only one who’s been through something like this. Did an airline ever break anything of yours? Did you have a happy ending with it?

The joy of being disloyal

When it comes to making travel reservations, I’m disloyal. There, I said it and truth be told I get a bit of a thrill in making that statement. You see, I am an Eagle Scout. Therefore, loyalty is part of the deal. Right here, second on the list behind being trustworthy. 

00000460 - Version 2A Scout is:

  • Trustworthy,
  • Loyal,
  • Helpful,
  • Friendly,
  • Courteous,
  • Kind,
  • Obedient,
  • Cheerful,
  • Thrifty,
  • Brave,
  • Clean,
  • and Reverent.

So why am I not loyal when it comes to my travel? Simply stated, I don’t travel enough to have anyone value my loyalty. Last year we stayed in hotels for 34 nights and flew 19,485 miles, which is a lot for us.
15726306_10210593853075706_5775195351584553238_n

Even if I had paid for all those hotel nights and flights (which I didn’t), I’d barely make it into the lowest level of loyalty with any major airline or hotel. It’s just not enough business for them to value my loyalty.

That’s not saying I don’t have status. I’m able to keep status with several hotel chains. I just didn’t earn it by staying in hotels. Instead, I have it by having credit cards.

  • Starwood Gold  – Provided by having the American Express Platinum Card
  • Access to Starwood club lounges – by having the SPG AMEX Business Card
  • Marriott Gold – Matched with Starwood post the merger of the two companies
  • IHG Platinum – Provided by having the IHG Credit Card
  • Hilton Silver – Downgraded from Diamond. I received that by a promotion that  matched my Starwood and IHG status.

We did actually earn Marriott Silver status last year based on stays, but we use our account with Gold status because of the increased benefits.

The problem is that while having this status is nice, I don’t have to do anything to keep it beyond keeping the credit cards that give me the status. I’ll take advantage of the status I have at those hotels when I stay there, which includes, possibly, a better room. I  just don’t have to go out of my way to stay with any specific brand.

piano
Not having hotel loyalty means that we are able to take advantage of a mistake offer at the Waldorf Astoria in New York before it closed for renovations.
The lack of loyalty to hotels and airlines is a very freeing experience. I have no hotel that I need to stay at to get enough stays to re-qualify next year, while I see people going through all this work for status just to get a free breakfast, a nicer room and possibly a upgrade to a suite (if the hotel feels like giving them one).

Let me look at my upcoming hotel stays:

  • Quality Inn – Dillon, SC (Close to South of the Border)
  • Hampton Inn – Charlotte, NC (getting 2X points by Hilton promotion  and saving $35 with an American Express offer.
  • Kimpton Hotel Allegro – Chicago, IL – saving $50 using American Express offer for HotelStorm 
  • Fitzpatrick Grand Central – New York, NY – booking through Travelocity earning 7% back through eBates and saving $47 with a 9% off coupon.
  • Candy Cane Inn – Anaheim, Ca – Saved $190 with Citi Prestige 4th night benefit.

I have stays with 3 different hotel chains (Choice, Hilton and Kimpton) and two independent hotels. I’m maximizing the offers that are available and I’m able to stay at a hotel that fits the need for each of my trips. I’m also able to stay at interesting locations that are not a part of any loyalty program, if I want.

IMGP1183
We had the entire attic level of the J. Palen House when we stayed in Cleveland. We couldn’t have booked this room if we were worried about gathering nights to qualify for status.
What about my flights? Since airlines award miles based on cost, I will never fly enough to earn status so I’m not compelled to work to give anyone my loyalty. I use my miles for flights when appropriate but will pay cash when necessary.

IMG_2622
Not needing to chase status with any airline has allowed us to enjoy JetBlue nonstop flights from Orlando to our vacation destinations like Austin and New York
If I want a nicer room at a hotel, I’ll pay the extra money for it. We fly different airlines to and from our destination more often than we fly the same airline (depending on price and schedule) because I can book the airline I want, flying the time that I want, and get the seat I’m willing to pay for. I never need to worry that I will not have enough stay credits or feel the need to book a room with points and cash instead of points. I will be able to stay at the independent hotel or the bed and breakfast if I want to.

I’m disloyal……… and I love it.

Do you feel compelled to stay loyal to a hotel or airline or are you a free agent?
Let us know how you feel in the comments or keep touch on Facebook or Twitter.

You Want Discount Tickets to Walt Disney World? Where To Look – And Where Not To!

fireworks
There was a time when I was a HUGE fan of Disney and be it the parks, the movies, you name it, I was a walking, talking Disney encyclopedia. For years before Joe and I took the leap and moved to Central Florida, if friends, family or co-workers had a question about going to Walt Disney World (WDW), be it during which part of the year they should go, what they should do or where they should eat, they’d ask me. My people from up north still ask me those kinds of questions, just via Facebook private messages rather than in person, and although I’m not “in the know” as much as I used to be, I still help them out as much as I can.

With one-day ticket prices to the parks now varying from $99 to $119 per day (based on season and theme park, because yes, Disney has now thrown those factors into the mix. Let’s just say I don’t recommend going to Magic Kingdom on a weekend in the summer. Oh, and don’t even THINK about park hopping because that will cost you even more), the often-asked question of, “How can I get discounted tickets to WDW?” has now turned into a HUGE question. Unfortunately, the answer I give is not very encouraging – short of buying multi-day passes (the more days, the better), there simply aren’t very many discounts and the ones that are available are not very substantial. Granted, 10% off a $100 ticket (I’m intentionally using a round number, just makes things easier) is $10 and for a family of 4 that’s potentially a $40 savings, but you’re also paying $360 for your family to go into a park for one day. It’s a very expensive proposition, but such is the case when you’re the vacation kingdom of the world and large masses of people have shown they’re willing to pay those kinds of prices.

As I said though, there are a few legitimate discounts out there. Some of those are seasonal or for people who work(ed) in specific jobs (i.e. teachers, military), some are only for Florida Residents or employees of certain large companies (such as Kellogg’s or ADT) who do business with Disney (check your company’s Human Resources department to see if you are eligible for anything), and some are for Annual Pass holders or Disney Vacation Club members. But there are discounts out there for people who don’t fit into those categories, as well. There are several websites that list many of these opportunities out but MouseSavers.com has been my favorite for years and years, simply because they keep it so up-to-date and it’s all-encompassing. A friend also recommends UndercoverTourist.com. Don’t forget to check out Disney.com to compare prices!

Besides the potential viable discounts mentioned above, there are also several options that I would suggest you NOT attempt to use:

Tickets from time shares
Some time shares offer to give you theme park passes (or a discount on passes) in exchange for sitting through a time share spiel. Assuming you’re at WDW for vacation, I don’t know how relaxing or fun a 2-hour hard sell of a time share would be. Your mileage may vary, but just for general principles, I don’t recommend it.

5-dayUSEUsing someone else’s partially unused ticket
There was a time, years and years ago, when WDW tickets never expired, so if you bought a multi-day pass and didn’t use all the days, you could hold the pass and still use the unused days the next time you visited, be it months or years later (in 2004 the “no expiration date” became an option [for a price, of course] instead of being automatic and they removed the “passes that never expire” concept entirely sometime around 2013. All U.S.-based multi-day park tickets now expire 14 days after first use). Instead of holding their tickets for next time, some people thought it better to give away their partially-used passes, either to friends or family, or to sell them to “ticket brokers” who bought and sold such things. Unfortunately, it’s illegal to do that. Whether you get the pass from someone you know or from one of those ticket brokers, it’s simply not allowed, because Disney passes are non-transferrable once used. When they used paper tickets, there was usually a spot to sign your name for each day of entry and in later years, your passes were linked to your fingerprint. Either way, if your signature or fingerprint don’t match up, there is the potential you won’t be able to get into the park. Plus, of course, if you’re getting a ticket from a broker, there’s nothing that says the ticket is legitimate to begin with – counterfeits can look amazingly like the real thing (NOTE: this is less of an issue since Magic Bands have come into use, since your ticket information is 100% electronic and linked to your name/ID). Why take the chance?

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 6.41.22 PMCraig’s List
There are some things you should just not buy from Craig’s list. Bed mattresses (yuck). Used motorcycle helmets (they’re made to protect your head but only one time. Once a helmet has been involved in an accident, the protectiveness is lost). Medical devices (would you really want to buy a CPAP machine or contact lenses from what is the electronic equivalent of some guy off the street?). And yep, theme park tickets. You don’t know if they’re counterfeit or if they have the number of days on them that they say until you’re at the parks, and it’s not as if you can get your money back if they’re not. Don’t take the chance.

eBay
Pretty much the same thoughts as Craig’s list. Simply put, you just don’t know what you’re getting when buying from a stranger. eBay has buyer’s protection in there, but I don’t know how protected you’ll be if you’ve bought a counterfeit item or something that legally shouldn’t have been transferred from one person to another in the first place.

Asking your friends who work at WDW
This is a biggie, especially for people who live/work in Central Florida. Since Joe and I live in the greater Orlando area and know lots of people who work at WDW, and know lots of people who know other people who work at WDW, we see and hear about a lot of messages on Facebook that sound something like these:

My word of advice? Don’t be that person. Here’s why…

With rare exception, WDW Cast Members (CM) (Disneyspeak for “employees”) and their spouses/domestic partners get very, VERY few park passes they can just freely give out to friends. Granted, full time (FT) hourly CMs can usually get 3 people in, up to 12 times per year, while working around blockout dates. FT salaried CMs can get 3 people in at any time (again, with blockout dates). But for nearly all of those instances, if the guests are not the following:

  • Sons and daughters (including step, adopted, foster or temporary custody)
  • Parents and legal guardians
  • Father-in-law and mother-in-law
  • Brothers, sisters
  • brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law
  • Grandparents and grandchildren
  • Aunts and uncles
  • Nieces and nephews
  • First cousins

then the CM MUST accompany all Guests(s) throughout their ENTIRE visit in the park. And you may say to him/her, “Oh, you really don’t have to stay with us” but according to the rules, yes (s)he does. And since Disney is super stringent about their rules, and because everything is electronic, and because they have security guards (in uniform and plainclothes) and security cameras everywhere, and because you never know when Disney may decide this particular rule is suddenly even more important than usual, well, I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to ask a CM to take the chance and leave my party while I’m still in the park, especially when (s)he could be fired for doing so, would you? It also could be just me, but if the shoe was on the other foot, I also don’t know if I want to be the CM, especially one who may be subjected to mandatory overtime week in and week out, who spends a precious day off accompanying you on your family vacation or reunion, especially if you’re not that close of a friend.

Please don’t get me wrong – I know there are CMs who would be happy to help people out if they can, especially for extenuating circumstances, but perhaps even for mere acquaintances, if they have the tickets available and the date(s) isn’t/aren’t blacked out. But when I see people post on Facebook that they’re looking for anyone, even someone they don’t know very well, to help them get into the parks – and I know, I know, maybe they aren’t aware of all the factors of “getting people into the parks”; maybe they think all their CM friends and acquaintances can get unlimited people into the parks for free all the time – well, I just cringe. It’s just so brazen and I know from most CM friends of mine that it’s usually not appreciated – not as a general “putting it out there” on Facebook and DEFINITELY not as a personal request. So really, unless a specific friend or acquaintance has already told you in the past that (s)he is willing to help people out, just don’t ask.

Now, I know my list is nowhere near all-inclusive. So help a sister out – what parts did I leave out? Are there any particularly good discounts I missed? Places that people should avoid for getting tickets? Details about CM passes that I don’t know? Let me know – every little bit of info will surely help someone along the way!

Help plan our trip to Las Vegas!!!!

Vegas, Baby! These are two words Sharon hates to hear. Well she would hate hearing them if I ever said them. Which I don’t. Let me explain.

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Every year, Sharon and I try to have at least one “epic” trip. The one we plan all year. Because we went on two epic trips to Cuba and then Europe last year, we decided that it might be best to take it easy this year. We first thought that a drive on Route 66 would be pretty cool. Then we started to do more research and decided that while some of the attractions are neat, that is a whole lot of time to spend in a car. So we narrowed our search and are going to spend time around the American Southwest. It’s an area we’ve been to before but never on a road trip like this.

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I know that in Phoenix we might go to “the house the man built all by himself that was in a Monkees episode” as Sharon calls it. (I think this is the Mystery Castle but I’m not sure). When we go to Sedona, I just want to go back to dinner at Dahl & Di Luca. We ate there during our Adventures by Disney trip in 2006, at our guides’ suggestion, and it was one of the best meals we’ve ever had. I’ve already locked in our rooms at the Thunderbird and Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon. We are also planning on going to the Grand Canyon Skywalk even though it is supposedly a tourist trap – but Sharon likes to show how much of a bad ass she is about not being scared of heights.

Now I’m up to planning the part of the trip I really know nothing about, Las Vegas. The last time we were there was 2005 and that was mainly to see Avenue Q and Toxic Audio.

Back then I booked us a luxurious room at The Orleans. As you can see, our biggest concern when booking the room that time was that it was inexpensive.

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Our room at The Orleans
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The not bad view from our room (once you look over the office parks)
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I’m amazed I found a picture of Sharon smiling in Las Vegas.

Sharon doesn’t hate Las Vegas. She’s just bored the minute she gets there. She doesn’t gamble. She watches what she eats. She doesn’t want to sit by the pool all day. She doesn’t like the classic Cirque du Soleil shows. Because of this, I’ve never even brought up the idea of us going back. It’s just not on the list of places we actively want to visit. It just turns out on this trip that it is the only place between the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles we could think about staying a few days. She was even the one who brought up the idea of us going there.

So here is where I need help. Let me know what do you like to do in Vegas? Places to stay, places to eat, shows to see. We’ll have at least 2 nights there in October over a weekend (I know it’s more expensive but we’d rather be in a crowded Vegas instead of a crowded Grand Canyon).

Drop us a note here on the blog or comment on Facebook or Twitter. I am looking forward to seeing what you all like to do when in Las Vegas. And remember, what happens in Vegas just might end up being a story on the blog.

 

 

Is it hot in here or is it just me?

I know I’m not the only one to ask if it feels warm in a hotel room after checking in.

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Here is a picture of me thinking I could change the temperature in the room.

You arrive after a day of traveling and get to your room. After you put your bags down, you notice there is a lack of air circulating in the room. First thought, find the thermostat. Turns out that pressing that temperature down arrow might not help your situation any.  Hotels are coming up with smarter and smarter ways to save on energy bills by putting you in less, or sometimes without any, control of the temperature of your room.

I remember our first encounter with an energy efficient room was on a trip to London. There was a slot near the door into which you had to insert your room key card so that the lights, television and air conditioner would turn on. This was fine if you were staying in the room but as soon as you left, everything went off. Our first solution, since we were a couple and had 2 room keys, was to leave one of our keys in the slot. Not the best solution but at least our room was cool when we returned. Then we sought other solutions. Were there other cards in our wallet that would work? Credit Card?  Those worked but we were not leaving one of those  in there while not in the room. An AAA card worked but we might need that for the places that gave discounts. How about our library card? Bingo!  It worked to keep on the lights and we didn’t need it during the day.We left a nice tip each day, kindly asking housekeeping not to remove the key from the slot after cleaning the room. Eventually we just kept a random hotel card key in our wallet at all times for rooms with such a system.

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Insert room key in order to get electricity and A/C

This experience was almost a decade ago and technology has improved a great deal since then. Hotels are now using motion detectors, infrared sensors, sound detectors and door monitors to tell if you are in the room and then change the temperature settings accordingly. The issues with the lack of control given to guests because of the new “smart” room technology seem to be increasing because I’ve read 4 articles on the subject recently.

I first remember reading an article on the subject back in 2010 showing you  how to “hack” your thermostat. I tried using tips from this post but was never in a room with the same type of thermostat.  More recently I’ve seen that mainstream publications like The Wall Street Journal  and the Los Angeles Times have written articles on the subject. The latter even gave some ways to trick the most complicated of sensor arrays.

Alas, those systems that rely only on motion sensors are not always guest-friendly. Unless they’re sleepwalking, guests who are abed aren’t moving in a way that a motion sensor can detect.

The solution for immediate relief is to buy a Mylar balloon (sturdier than a regular balloon) that trails strings or ribbons and let it move around your room, triggering the motion sensor.

Now I do admit, the idea of walking into every stay at a hotel carrying a Mylar balloon and then having it fly around my room all night are two of the most absurd images I can think of.  However, I do know one or two friends (and they know who they are) who, I have no doubt, might try this idea after reading this post.

The final thought on this issue is if hotels think we don’t care that the temperature in the room is out of our control, they will keep setting it to whatever they want. The solution is to complain to the hotel. Do so while you are there and the hotel may adjust the room temperature, thereby making  your stay more comfortable. If no relief is given, then a mention of this fact in an online review or survey will show them this is an issue that guests care about and can no longer be ignored.

For Newbies: Going Out of Town? What to Bring, What Not to Bring, & Tricks of the Trade

suitcaseHi everyone! While Joe is in NYC, I’m taking over the blog for the day. For those of you who may not know me yet, I’m Sharon, a.k.a. Mrs. Joe. Joe is definitely the points and miles person in our family. Me, I enjoy the benefits of his hobby but really don’t care about which plane is newer, bigger and better, how many cents a point is worth at any given moment, or what hotel gives you feather pillows and a personal concierge. As long as we get from Point A to Point B in a reasonable amount of time, and as long as our room is clean and relatively quiet, I’m good.

However if there’s one thing I’ve gotten really good at for all these trips to all these different places, it’s how and what to pack. For those of you who travel a lot, you probably already know all the ins and outs of this stuff. But for those of you who only go out of town here and there, here are some things to consider:

What Not To Bring With You

  • hairdryerHairdryer. I’ve been to 2-star hotels and I’ve been to fancy shmancy ones. I’ve been to places around the world. Nowadays just about every hotel has a hair dryer in the room (if you want to double check, you can always call or email the hotel before you go). Hair dryers can take up a lot of space and weight in your luggage – why bring one if you don’t have to?
  • Workout clothes. I’ll be perfectly honest…I’ve brought ‘em with me many times and I have yet to ever use ‘em on vacation. Now granted, your mileage may vary, but I bet you won’t use ‘em either, so just don’t bring ‘em ;-).

What To Bring In Your Carry On

  • All of your prescription medication (and if you’re going out of the country, all of your over-the-counter stuff, too, cuz they may not carry your Advil or Imodium where you’re going, or the box may be written in a language you don’t understand). This goes for any medical devices you use, as well. The last thing you want is to not have your meds or CPAP machine because they’re in your checked luggage that mistakenly got sent to the Congo (EWO) while you and your carry on arrived as scheduled at Newark (EWR).
  • A full day’s worth of clothing & supplies. Again, if your luggage gets lost, you want to have everything you’ll need for the next 24 hours. Your mileage may vary but for me that means PJs, a full set of clothes (including a coat or jacket if I’m going to  different climate), a bathing suit if I’m planning to go in the pool or to the beach the next day, my toiletries, chargers for my phone, iPad (with current converters if I’m going out of the country), etc. And yep, I’m saying this from personal experience.

Tricks of The Trade (things to consider bringing that you may not think of)

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My travel night light, which allows me to choose green or blue light, has an on/off switch so I don’t have to rely on available light.
  • Night light for the bathroom (I have a small LED one so I don’t have to worry about a glass lightbulb breaking).
  • Chip clip to keep the window curtains together so morning light doesn’t peek through.
  • Portable scale so you can ensure your suitcase weight doesn’t go over (and if you’re going overseas, make sure you know what the limitations are – it’s not always 50 pounds).
  • Use an electric toothbrush? Pack it well, so something doesn’t hit it in your suitcase and turn it on. Happened in my carry-on once; I was rearranging my bags at the hotel’s check in desk, when all of a sudden there was this BUZZZZZZZZ sound coming from one of my bags. You could tell what the guy thought it was just by looking at his face, so I actually TOOK IT OUT OF MY SUITCASE so he could see that it really was just an electric toothbrush and not…something else. True story!
  • Small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer (or as my friend’s 3-year-old calls it, “hanitizer”). When you get to the room, wipe off the telephone and the remote control for the TV. Housekeeping rarely does and they’re excellent places for germs to hang out.
  • powerqubePower strip (some hotels are awesome at giving you enough plugs. Some not so much. Bring a power strip and you should have as many outlets as you need from only 1 plug. Bonus points if you use one that has both plug and USB inputs). The one in the pic has 6 outlets and 3 USB inputs in a cube that’s about 4″ x 4″ x 1″. Wouldn’t hurt to bring a short extension cord, as well.
  • Stuff rolled socks into your packed shoes to save space and stop your shoes from getting squished
  • Tide pen or other portable stain fighter (it’s your first day and you got tomato sauce on your white shirt. It will set in BADLY by the time you get home. Pre-treat it and it might help get the stain out).
  • Small flashlight (you’re in a room that’s unfamiliar to you. If there is a power outage or any sort of emergency where you need to evacuate, a small flashlight on your nightstand can turn into your best friend).
  • Washcloth (if you use one). It could be that housekeeping ran out of them. Or maybe you’re in a place where social norms suggest they just don’t use them. But if you’re used to using a washcloth and suddenly don’t have access to one, well, better to bring you own because using a face towel as a washcloth is a pretty big substitute (and yep, I’ve done it). I bring a bright pink washcloth so housekeeping knows it’s not theirs and so I don’t forget it when I’m packing to leave. Bring its own quart-sized ziplock bag so it doesn’t get other stuff damp if it hasn’t dried yet when you’re ready to go back on the road.
  • Going somewhere where you may bring home a lot of souvenirs? Either intentionally leave room in your suitcase, bring a small, closable, collapsable bag as a piece of secondary luggage on your way home (stuff it with your dirty clothes so there’s more room for the souvenirs in your suitcase, which will be sturdier) or go to the nearest post office and ship stuff home (NOTE: Shipping can become expensive. Look at 4th class mail, UPS Ground, etc).
  • Laundry. If you’re just going away for a weekend, you won’t have to do laundry. But if you’re out of town for a week or more, consider either giving up half a day to do laundry (see if your hotel has a washer/dryer, or look up where/email ahead of time to see where there’s a self-service laundry place nearby – that’s the cheapest way to do it) or have it done for you (it costs more but it saves you time to have a laundromat just wash/dry everything for you. Or you can use the hotel’s service…expect to pay an arm and a leg for that one) so you can re-wear stuff during your trip and save room/weight in your suitcase.

Your turn. What did I miss? What works best for you? Reply here and let me know!