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).

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

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.

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

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?

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.

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?

We’re Going To Do The Pan Am Experience!

As you guys may have figured out, Joe and I like to travel. But we like to think our travel is different from that of most people. Oh sure, some people like to go to the Caribbean, or to Italy or to go hiking. And some of those are nice sometimes (well, except the hiking. I’m not a hiking sort of person). But for us, especially for me, the more unusual, the more different, the more of an adventure, the more off the beaten path, the better. And if you can add a little kitch to it, well, THEN my life is just complete. So when a friend posted an article on Facebook about the Pan Am Experience, my eyes perked up. I did some research and quickly realized we could potentially visit during our trip to Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Disneyland and Los Angeles this fall, so I learned as much as I could about it.

It sounded really cool! Here’s what their website says about the experience:

Relive the Magic of Flying Onboard a Luxurious Pan Am 747

Anthony Toth
Photo Courtesy of Danny Liao / Air Hollywood

“From its birth in 1927, Pan American World Airways was the pioneer airline whose routes spanned 6 continents and more than 80 countries. Almost a century later, the name Pan Am is still a very powerful brand, and inside this Southern California motion picture studio sits an exact replica of the airline’s Boeing 747 and everything that made it so special.

Your Pan Am Experience begins at our exclusive First & Clipper class check-in desk. where our Pan Am customer service agent provides each passenger with a 70’s style boarding pass, ticket jacket and first class carry-on tags.

Anthony Toth
Photo courtesy of Danny Liao / Air Hollywood

You’ll be invited into the Clipper Club where you’ll have an opportunity to peruse the vintage Pan Am memorabilia including authentic uniforms, airline seats, handbags, artwork, and more. You can mingle with other enthusiasts at the Clipper Club lounge, share stories, and make new friends.

Soon thereafter, you’ll board “Clipper Juan T. Trippe”, our dedication to Pan Am’s first Boeing 747, where you’ll be sprung back in time to the 1970s. As soon you set foot inside the aircraft, your Stewardesses adorned in original Pan Am uniforms will welcome you onboard with a fine cocktail of your choice as Frank Sinatra’s soothing voice will transport you back in time.

With libation in hand, we encourage you to explore the aircraft – from First Class on the main deck, to Clipper Class aft of the galley, and the Upper Deck dining room. The interiors of each cabin have all been uniquely restored to Pan Am’s original cabin décor and branding elements.

Photo courtesy of Mike Kelley / Air Hollywood
Photo courtesy of Mike Kelley / Air Hollywood
Photo courtesy of Mike Kelley / Air Hollywood

Before we “take off”, the crew will perform an in-flight safety demonstration followed by a brief welcoming message from the flight deck. Soon you will be asked to take your seat as a stewardess sets your table for a truly memorable dining event. Main Deck passengers will sit back in plush Sleeperette seats and relax in a quiet, intimate dining setting while Upper Deck passengers will climb the winding staircase and enjoy a dynamic social atmosphere. Everything from the china to the glassware is authentic with careful attention to the exquisite service delivery of the era and menu offerings of Pan Am.

In classic Pan Am style, you will be served a delightful, gourmet five-course meal, starting with bread selections and appetizer choices like shrimp cocktail or tomato and mozzarella drizzled with a pesto glaze. For the main course, we serve a traditional Chateaubriand carved from the trolley. Guests with dietary restrictions may request in advance a choice of Roasted Chicken with Peppercorn sauce or a vegetarian pasta entree that is sure to please. Each meal comes with garden fresh vegetables and roasted potatoes. Your fourth course is a fine selection of fruit, cheese & biscuits accompanied by port wine. And finally your fifth course is a dessert cart with a large selection of digestifs. Tea & coffee completes the meal.

Anthony Toth
Photo courtesy of Anthony Toth / Air Hollywood

At the end of your flight, we offer all passengers an optional tour of the various production sets at Air Hollywood, including the original cockpit from cult classic Airplane! as well as sets and props used in major motion pictures such as “Bridesmaids”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and the hit television show “Lost”.

For the first time since Pan Am ceased operations, you can now relive the magic of this golden era in travel. We cordially invite you to personally experience this unique “flying” opportunity in the tradition of Pan Am.”

DOES THAT SOUND COOL OR WHAT??? Since I got Joe to say we could try to go (it did’t take a whole lot of arm twisting at all), the last hurdle was getting a reservation…and apparently they are NOT easy to get. Like, as in “they generally only offer the event once every 2 weeks and have space for less than 50 guests per event” not easy to get. As it turned out, we lucked out and of the exactly 2 nights we could even possibly do this during the course of our vacation, one of them was one of the nights in October they were going to offer the Pan Am Experience. So reservations for the next few months went on sale last week and guess what? I GOT A RESERVATION! So yeah…we’re doing the Pan Am Experience in Los Angeles! I can hardly wait!

Stay tuned…trip report to follow this fall…


This is why you need to sign up for hotel programs before booking your room.

l’ve already posted about how you can sign up for hotel programs. Not surprisingly, I’ve certainly signed up for quite a few. When I look at AwardWallet, I see that I have accounts with these hotel programs:

  • Starwood Preferred Guest
  • Marriott Rewards
  • Hilton Honors
  • World of Hyatt
  • IHG Rewards Club
  • Le Club Accorhotels
  • Wyndham Rewards
  • Choice Privileges
  • La Quinta Rewards
  • M Life (MGM Resorts)
  • Kimpton Karma Rewards

I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t enrolled in the last two programs on this list until this week. I signed up for them because I was staying, or thinking about staying, in hotels belonging to these programs. You are going to get some benefit if you are a member of that hotel’s program when you stay at their hotels, even if it is as simple as free wifi or not getting the worst room in the hotel.

Kimpton Hotel Allegro – Chicago

Kimpton Karma Rewards

We are planning a stay in Chicago for a long weekend this summer, when we go to see “Hamilton” again. I’ve had my eye on a couple of hotels that would be good for our stay and finally got around to booking one. One of them was the Kimpton Hotel Allegro. The prices had gone up since the last time I looked and when I checked on TripAdvisor the the least expensive room now cost $279 a night, which is the rack rate. I did go to the hotel to search if there were any discounts and AAA prices showed a bit lower (this is one of the reasons I keep my AAA membership – lower hotel rates).

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AAA Rates for Hotel Allegro

Since this was a much better rate than any other website was offering, I signed up for a Kimpton Karma Rewards account and went to make a reservation. After signing up and logging into my account, this rate popped up.

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Kimpton Karma Exclusive rate

So not only was this rate $55 less than the rack rate, it is also $21 less than the AAA rate that I found. You know what it took me to get this lower rate? Less than five minutes to sign up for an account and now I also get free wifi and a “Raid the Mini Bar” credit upon check in. Not bad!

MGM Resorts – M Life

We are not gamblers and we really have no idea about Las Vegas. We depended on you to give us suggestions on what to do while were there, and you really delivered, with comment after comment on our Facebook page!  I also spent quite a bit of time deciding where to stay, finally choosing the Delano with the AMEX benefits I’ll get there. Since I was staying at an MGM Resort hotel, I decided to sign up for the M Life program.

I remembered a post I read a while ago on Heels First Travel about how having a M Life membership can save you on hotels. I signed up and was immediately granted Sapphire status, the lowest level in the program. Just for fun, I looked for rates at the Luxor, one of the hotels I was considering before.

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Regular Rate
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M Life Rate

Just for signing up for M Life, the rate I was offered is $16 a night less than before. And that’s with only having the entry level Sapphire status; if you are a higher level then you will get even better pricing than this! If you happen to have status with Hyatt, you can match that to M Life. Having the Hyatt Credit card grants you Discoverist level and you can match that to M Life Pearl which will get you free self parking. Mommy Points, one of the blogs I follow, gives a full description of how to match status (unfortunately, the best perks she mentions were eliminated in March 2017).

These lower rates at the Luxor will make me reconsider where we might stay in Las Vegas (I know Sharon is just thrilled about me having to go over all of these hotels again). (Edit from Sharon: just kill me now…)

These are just two examples of why you should always sign up for hotel loyalty programs even if you will never stay enough to earn status. The benefits of being a member far outweigh the costs (it’s free!) of signing up.

What’s the best thing you’ve every received for being a member of a hotel’s loyalty program? Share your experiences with us in the comments or write us on Facebook and Twitter.

#TBT: Japan, April 2005 – Kyoto & Nara (Shugakuin Imperial Villa, Nara Dreamland, Nara Station)

The first part of our day was stressful because of timing factors, the second part of our day was hysterically funny and the third part of our day was, well, hungry (grin).

Well, we THOUGHT we had it all figured out…how to get to the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. You have to get special permission to go and we had gotten that the day before. Joe, who had been obsessively planning this trip for the past 9 months, had every street, bus and subway map known to man, plus how to get from Point A to Point B throughout the country…but apparently only carried SOME of the written material we needed today…so today was the day of “miss the bus by ‘this’ much and have to wait 20 to 40 minutes for the next one.” We grabbed some pastries at a local bakery for breakfast (didn’t eat them yet because Japanese people don’t eat on the streets and we were traveling) and waited for the next bus.

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A shot of the pastry shop.

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This flamingo place was actually directly across the street from the bakery, so while we waited for the bus (the bus stop was directly in front of the bakery) I wound up taking a good half-dozen pictures of the flamingo. With a zoom. Without a zoom. Trying to not get a bus or car into the picture as they were passing by (grin). I have no idea of what this store was. In fact, it didn’t even look like it was open for business yet, but with how much I like flamingos, it gave me a good giggle.

Anyway, after the bus let us off (we also had no idea of where to get off the bus. I gave the deer-in-the-headlights look to the driver and said, “Shugakuin, kudasai?” [Shugakuin, please?], so he would tell us when our stop was), we had to figure out which direction to go. Joe’s books just said to look for the place when we go off the bus. Well, it certainly wasn’t anywhere in sight. And we didn’t see any signs. Not in English, anyway. So I, being a female, was more willing to stop and ask for directions. I went into the local liquor store (I think that’s what it was) and asked the proprietor (who had like, 4 teeth), my now-obviously-helpful, “Shugakuin, kudasai?” (hey, it got us off the bus inn the right place, didn’t it?). His response was to point, give me 2 fingers, and said, “Left. Up.” OK, so when we go out of the store, we have to walk down 2 blocks that way, make a left and walk up the hill, towards the mountains. Gotcha. And sonofagun, it worked. Pity it took almost a half-hour because the “hill” was a half mile of a residential neighborhood with winding streets and a canal through the center of it.

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The neighborhood on the way to Shugakuin Imperial Villa

We finally made it to the Villa, albeit 15 minutes late and they were gracious enough to lead us to the rest of our 10:00am tour…which, as it turned out, was spoken entirely in Japanese.

Oh, great.

Well, the views of the outside/hills/farms were pretty and I guess it was an interesting tour…something about land that had been owned by the Emperor but then the emperor moved to somewhere else so the farmers took back the land and when the officials found out, they decided to allow them to keep their land because it wouldn’t be right to take it away from them. And some of the land is still used for farming. As you may be able to tell from my description, except for the English handout they gave us, I had NO idea of what this place was (grin). Since I’ve gotten home though, I’ve found this website, (MODERN-DAY NOTE: the original website I linked to no longer exists. This is a new one) which gives a decent history of the place. Not to be outdone though, here are a few of our own pictures of our visit:

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Everything on the walls were painted by hand.

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Some more hand-painted wall decorations. And “not orbs.”

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A different style of wall decoration inside of one of the buildings.

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Our tour group looking at the outside of some of the buildings.

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Me walking away from one of the ancient buildings. Or maybe it was the ladies’ room? I forget.

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A view of the rest of the property, and beyond, from the highest hill in the complex.

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A view of Kyoto from above, as seen at the Shugakuin property.

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Steve’s newest friend, who he met on the tour. Yeah, Steve really WILL talk to anybody (grin). (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend who went on this trip with us)

After the 90-minute tour, we stayed at the front gate and ate our pastries, then decided to go to Dreamland, which was in Nara, a 40-minute express train away. Saturdays in Kyoto are HUGE tourists days so noon was not the best time to be taking a bus. An hour and a half later, we were back at Kyoto Station, finding our express train to Nara. No time for food…we had to find our train! We eventually got it, as well as our bus to Nara, and there it was…Dreamland!

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Now, for those of you who never heard me talk about it, Dreamland (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Nara Dreamland closed in 2006, so its official page, which I had originally linked to, no longer exists. But you can read all about it with a quick search of NARA DREAMLAND) is a small amusement park that was built in the early 1960’s. It’s a total ripoff of Disneyland, complete with knockoffs of the train station, castle, Matterhorn, Jungle Cruise, Teacups, Main Street, etc., except with a budget of a carnival, with horrible upkeep and few visitors. It sounded wonderfully awful…the kind of place that you go to and just make fun of. I heard about it right after I got back from Japan in 1994 and, after learning out it, kicked myself for not going. So this was a “must see.” And see it we did…we got there at 2:45pm and the park was scheduled to close at 5pm…more than enough time, right? Here’s a photo review of the place, including the good, the so-bad-that-it’s-funny, and the ugly:

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The kiosks where you pay to park, if you drive to Dreamland. Don’t know if you can read it, but it costs almost $20.00 to park there (parking is VERY expensive all over Japan) (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Remember, this was written in 2005, when $20 to park WAS expensive). The kiosks look so friendly, so inviting, so well-themed…well, maybe if you’re going to a jail.

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The front entrance actually looks pretty darn nice, huh?

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The back of the train station. If you look carefully, you can see me doing my impersonation of Evita Perón.

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A walkabout character in the “town square.” I don’t know who he is or if he even has a name…his image isn’t ANYWHERE else in the park (whose logo seems to be a soldier). He just stands there and for about $1.00, he plays a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” with kids, who win a trinket if they outsmart the oversized Frito Bandito. He took one look at us and started picking his nose. No, really!

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The Dreamland fire department, right where you would expect it to be, on the left side of the “town square”.

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And every fire department should come equiped with a pink Cadillac and a Jeep, right? You can’t tell the angle of this picture, but the Caddy was being held up by cinderblocks.

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A view of their version of “Main Street” and their castle, far off in the distant background (it’s hard to do the forced perspective thing when the buildings and trees are all the same size).

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A closer image of one side of the street.

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Ooooooo….now THAT’S pretty. Yeah, this place really IS a DIVE (grin).

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Good emulation there, because Disney “Main Streets” ALWAYS have a utility truck parked on them, right?


Note the name of this restaurant on “Main Street”…Woody Garden!?!?!?

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This HUGE fountain encompasses most of “the hub” area (this view is looking towards the train station). It looks like it would be pretty nice, if they turned on more than just the one center set of water jets.

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The castle doesn’t look half-bad if you’re not CLOSELY close-up, even though it doesn’t have a whole lot of detail.

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Of course, EVERY castle in Japan should have a statue of George Washington in its moat.

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And Abraham Lincoln too!

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And a Joe (wink).

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Their “Matterhorn” looks like it’s made out of cardboard, doesn’t it?

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Or maybe it’s papier mache. I like how the Skyway goes right through the center of the thing, like Disneyland’s used to. The Dreamland Skyway was closed, by the way. It was constantly moving (maybe they were afraid if they stopped it, they’d never be able to get it started again?), but no one was on it and no one was manning either entrance.

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Here’s the monorail, with the Matterhorn in the background. The monorail wasn’t running either…just sitting there, collecting dust and dripping grease.

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I love what they did with their landscaping.

The Swan Cycle ride. You go in a molded swan boat that has bicycle pedals in the bottom and PEDAL your way around the ride! No, REA

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European-made Carousel (American-made ones go counter-clockwise). The horses didn’t even go up and down.

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Sure, cuz EVERY Disney knockoff park should have an Octopus ride…

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….and swings…. (MODERN-DAY NOTE: This was before Disney’s California Adventure had  Flik’s Flyers, Golden Zephyr or Silly Symphony Wings…)

…and a Mirror Puzzle…

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…and Bumper Boats. Nice line of scum on the bottom of the boats, huh?

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We never figured out if this was the entrance to a haunted house or to the Matterhorn.

Grand Prix Raceway it ain’t!

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The Flashdance ride. What a feeling!

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Screw Coaster, huh? Well, I guess EVERYONE is screwed when they come to THIS park (grin).

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I dunno. I guess it’s the “ride that used to be there but isn’t there anymore” attraction. Joe suggested it was a UFO landing pad.

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The one GOOD ride they have there….a roller coaster called Aska. I don’t “do” coasters, but Joe and Steve said it was very, very good, with LOTS of airtime. Meanwhile, look at the throngs of people in this picture!

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They had a lot of baby rides at this park.

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I like the white fences that they put around some of the rides. Really high-tech.

Someone called this the “ride that goes nowhere” ride. Walk up the stairs, go across, go down the stairs. Fun, fun, fun!

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And we complain about poor maintenance at the Disney parks…..HA!

By 4pm or so, Steve was starting to get hungry, so we stopped off at what looked like an abandoned picnic ground with an overhang. One of the food places nearby was open…
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…and Steve saw they had some sort of meat dish for about $20.00. He picked that and the owner motioned for us to sit down at a picnic table. The guy brought over an ashtray…”Smoke? Smoke?” (EVERYONE in Japan smokes) “No thanks, we don’t smoke.” He went back to (we thought) preparing Steve’s meal. By this point, I left to go in search of Dreamland souvenirs. By the time I come back, the guys had this portable hibachi unit on their picnic bench, which is connected to a gas line coming out from under the table. And they were sitting there, grilling the food!
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They said the guy was wonderfully nice….gave each of them a plate, utensils and dipping sauce (and a set for me too, for when I came back) and there was LOTS of food. The guy came over several times, to “help” them cook…I guess he figured they didn’t know what they were doing. He even offered to take our picture…
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He started talking with us more and more, asking where we’re from and how long we’ll be in Japan, His English was just slightly better than our Japanese, but we were still able to converse, albeit in a simplified way. At one point he looked at Joe and then at Steve and said, “Your son?” We burst out laughing at that (well, Joe and I did [grin]) and I pointed to Joe and said, “No, my husband!” The guy said, “Oooohhhhh!” But then he got this really confused look on his face, looked at Steve, looked back at me and said, “Who three?” We laughed again and said, “He’s a friend.” “Ooooohhhh!” Then he pointed to the woman behind the counter and said, “My wife!” The guy must’ve been embarrassed that he referred to Joe as Steve’s son, so he gave me an ice cream cone. Hey, who am I to say no to free ice cream?

Before we left the nice, unwittingly hysterical man, Joe said, “This food was very, very good. Thank-you very much. I would like to know the name of it, so that I can ask for it again. What do you call this kind of food in Japan?” And the guy looked at him and said, “Ahhhh…in Japan, we call this barbeque!” We almost wet out pants!

We bid out goodbye to the guy and his wife and took their picture before we left:
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They were just another part of the reason that Nara Dreamland became such a strong, strangely pleasant memory for us.

The one ride that the 3 of us went on was the Jungle Cruise. I think this one had to have been the worst of all. Take a look at this:

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The entrance to the ride.

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One of the boats. It didn’t look particularly seaworthy, but we figured if worse came to worse and we sank, the water couldn’t have been more than a few feet deep and w we’d be able to walk to shore. Of course, we’d have to fumigate ourselves after being in the scuzzy water, but….

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The boat was not on a track (I guess when the Dreamland Founding Fathers came to Disneyland to steal their ideas, they couldn’t see through the murky water of the REAL Jungle Cruise ride to tell that the boats were on a track) and the driver (the guy with the red windbreaker that says STAFF) just pressed a button to start a pre-recorded shpiel so he could drive the boat uninterrupted. Note that all of the “jungle natives” are, um, “people of color.”

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Ooooo….scary tiger! Well, scary he’s in that bad condition, anyway.

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The snake is in 4 or 5 pieces. I guess it’s cheaper to buy it that way. But they sure did a lousy job of hiding where one piece ends and the next piece starts!

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Oh give me a home, where the flamingos roam, and the rhinos stand behind them all day…

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The picture doesn’t do this justice at all. You see, it’s an action shot. The cheetah is on wheels on a track. The wheels move up and down the side of the log at a snail’s pace, which therefore SSLLOOWWLLYY rolls the cheetah to and from the embankment! We almost wet our pants laughing at that one!

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Watch out for that stationary elephant with the garden hose coming out of its trunk!

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Someone must’ve used a real gun to shoot the hippo, cuz it was deader than a doornail. It just laid there, half-in, half-out, not moving.

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And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where we have a pheasant, an ostrich, 2 parrots and some toucans, all living in harmony in the same place. It doesn’t matter than in real life they’d be on different corners of the earth…in Dreamland, anything can happen!

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Oooo…the suspense is killing me more than the ride is…here comes the dark, scary, cave!

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What was in the cave? 3 sets of bats. That’s it. This picture is set #1. Only 2 of them still flapped their wings. I especially like how they hang rightside up from the stalactites.

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Another “action shot.” This alligator had a stick coming out of its tail and the stick was connected to a motor that made the whole thing spin in circles. So that, my friends was the Dreamland version of an alligator in a death spin. Us Floridians prefered to call it gator on a spit.

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Shot taken after we exited out boat (nope, it didn’t sink!). Native #1 looks like he had a stroke. Native #2 looks like he’s scared of the bamboo that’s growing in front of him. And native #3 just looks…um…very happy with his lot in life.

it really is an awful park. But we turned it into a REALLY fun afternoon. By the way, this is an article some other people wrote about their trip to Dreamland in 2004. Their website also have some nice video links of the place. MODERN-DAY NOTE: Joe is positive we have some videos of Nara Dreamland too, but we can’t find them. As soon as we do, we’ll put them up on YouTube so you can share in the so-awful-that-it’s-great -ness.

Made it back to Nara Station…a tiny train station, so no food there, but we figured we could get something at Kyoto Station when we got back there. Not. The restaurants were PACKED, with lines outside every restaurant. SO…we decided to catch our shuttle bus back to our hotel and eat something there. Shuttle arrived on time at 8:40pm and we got back to our hotel at 9:20pm…and EVERY restaurant AND room service closed at 9pm. By this time, with just a noon pastry and 2 bottles of soda (Fanta sweet grapefruit…mmmm!) in me, I was hungry and hypoglycemic. And the guys were hungry too. And so, with chowing down on the “Take Five” candy bar that I had bought during our stopover in Chicago 2 or 3 days ago, we went to bed at 11pm.

Between the walking and the steps and the lack of most snacks, I’m gonna lose a LOT of weight this trip.

Tomorrow is Hiroshima. And food. We will make sure to leave time for food .

#TBT: Japan April 2005: Kyoto: Kyoto Station, Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Seeing Beauty & The Beast

So after waking up at 4:20am (yes, 4:20 in the morning. Jetlag sucks!) and catching up on our internet/computer stuff, Joe, Steve (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend of ours) and I started our day by using the hotel’s shuttle to go to Kyoto Station. Lesson #1 is get to the shuttle at least 15 minutes before it has to leave because it fills up FAST:
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We made it onto the shuttle bus, but there were a LOT of people who didn’t. My favorite was when the driver had squeezed in every single body he could, there was no room to breathe, people had suitcases on their laps, and someone came up and said, “Do you have room for 4 more?”

Arrived at Kyoto Station around 10:00am. Re-built and expanded around a decade ago, that place is HUGE…besides being the main bus, train and Shinkansen (Bullet Train) center for Kyoto, it also encompasses a few shopping malls, a department store, a hotel, the theater where Disney’s Beauty & The Beast was playing, and I forget what else…I mean it’s HUGE.
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This picture of Kyoto station, which shows how cavernous is it, is only a tiny piece of the whole complex.

We wandered around for an hour, getting our bearings and looking for a place to eat. Found a noodle shop that opened at 11am and had a good breakfast/lunch of stuff that we mostly knew what it was (wink). The shop, which was within the confines of Kyoto Station, gets a lot of tourists (and non-tourists too), so one of the workers helped Joe and Steve with what they had to do with their food (“put these spices in this liquid, mix and dip your food into it”…that sort of stuff). I apparently “won” the “Stupid American” contest…the guy only helped me once…told me to pour the broth over my noodles and shrimp and then he left me alone (wink).

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Front of the noodle shop. Notice the display of plastic food on the left side of the store. Besides showing potential customers the type of foods they offer, those who don’t speak the language can go outside with the person who is taking your order and you can point to what you want.

So after several stops at several information booths, we found our train and made it to the Imperial Palace. It’s a group of very big, old buildings inside a park. Actually, it’s much more than that. The Japanese Imperial family lived in these buildings before they moved to their Imperial Palace in Tokyo in 1868. It was built and rebuilt (ten times due to fire) between 750 and 1855 A.D. The do have free guided tours, but you need to apply in person (not by mail or phone) to be able to go on one. That didn’t work for us logistically, since we had just arrived a day and a half before, plus the tours are only conducted in Japanese. We were only allowed to stand outside the buildings and, at best, peer inside.

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One of the more ornate buildings that is in the Imperial Palace complex.

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Looks like Epcot, doesn’t it?

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General description of what we’re seeing in this particular building.

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Close-up of what was described. And no, that’s not an orb.

Since we made it to one tourist spot without incident, we decided to take our chances and took another train to Nijo Castle. Another “big ol’ opulent house where someone important used to live.” This one began construction in 1601, as a residence for the Shoguns and, like many old Japanese buildings, was burned down and rebuilt many times over the centuries. We were allowed to go inside this one, albeit after taking our shoes off to protect the centuries-old floorboards. Nijo castle was built in such a way that the floorboards always squeak if someone stands or walks on them…it was done that way on purpose, so guards could hear intruders at nighttime. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the buildings but took shots of the outside and the gardens.

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Main building of the castle

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Main gate before the castle (taken from the castle courtyard, looking back, after you’ve already gone through the gate)

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Visitors are allowed to climb the (VERY STEEP!) stairs to just one of the guard gates. This is the view from there.

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A very photogenic building in the Nijo Castle complex [wink]).

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A view of the moat

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Nice shot of the Nijo Castle garden.

By this time it was about 4pm. Beauty & the Beast was scheduled to open their doors at 6:10pm so we trained it back to Kyoto Station and found a sit-down place to eat called Toh Sai. Joe and I both had the pork cutlet in curry with white rice (before we had gone on this vacation, someone told us that when in doubt, get the curry platter) and Steve had a beef dish. Decided to get dessert…Joe and I shared a chocolate parfait, which was chocolate soft-serve ice cream with whipped cream, chocolate syrup and frozen raspberries on top, and a layer of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks and more frozen raspberries on the bottom. I’ve never been a fan of chocolate and fruit, so all I’ll say is that the ice cream part was good (wink).

Made it to B&TB…the show is exactly like the Broadway and/or traveling version, though, of course, all in Japanese (“Ohayo Belle!” instead of “bon jour”). We were able to follow the storyline without a problem though…between the 3 of us, we’ve seen it 20 times between Broadway and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (grin).

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Posters advertising the show. Photo taken at Kyoto Station. Notice what show is coming next…Aida!

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Stairway that leads to the main entrace of the theater. The opening to the right leads towards a hotel that is also in Kyoto Station.

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A picture of the inside of the theater. Very plain, undecorated black walls and ceiling, with these BRIGHT pinkish-purple seats.

Japanese audiences are very different from American audiences…besides a few nuances that wouldn’t translate over (i.e. when Belle sings the line, “Madame Gaston, his little wife, UGH!!!”, the “Ugh” is MUCH less accentuated in Japan…because people generally just aren’t that mean to each other in Japan where they would say something that bad about someone else [grin]), their applause between songs is polite and short-lived, there was little-to-no laughing at the parts we Americans always laugh (i.e. when Gaston knocks LeFou to the ground), but they clapped for 5 minutes straight, non-stop, for TEN curtain calls at the end of the show! Now, this COULD be because the show was scheduled to close the next night, but even so, it is, by far, the LONGEST applause I’ve EVER seen!

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Joe and I and a lifesize cardboard cutout of Lumiere.

Overall, we had a very nice time and the only disappointment was that they didn’t have any Japan-specific, or Kyoto-specific B&TB merchandise…all of their shirts, mugs, etc., all had the generic “B&TB: A Broadway Musical” logo. Only thing they had was an ornament for a cell phone that had “Kyoto – Finale!,” to commemerate the closing the show, so we got one of those. I would have bought the CD but, of course, I got that YEARS ago (wink).

Took a city bus back towards our hotel and amazed ourselves at not getting lost between the bus station and the hotel. Was in bed by 11pm, with plans to meet Steve at 8:30 Saturday morning, to go on our next adventure.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Resort fees and parking fees and taxes, oh, my! Choosing a hotel in Las Vegas

I’m well into planning mode for our big trip to the Southwest, which means I have to start researching hotels. I love the planning of trips almost as much as I do going on them; it is part of the fun for me. There are times where the planning starts to drive me, and Sharon, a little crazy (edit by Sharon: a LITTLE?!?!?! hahahaha!!!).

Part of our trip will be a stay in Las Vegas. Due to the number of activities suggested to us when we asked for help with planning, we extended our stay there to 3 nights. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Vegas so I needed to brush up on my hotels. Many of the places I know aren’t there anymore (or have new names) and there are so many new hotels!

Standing by the Bellagio Fountain with Caesars Palace in the background, 2006.

I would say the MOST AGGRAVATING thing when comparing hotels was the number of added fees you needed to worry about. It was also VERY DIFFICULT to find out what these charges were without looking at multiple websites and having to go right up to confirming a room to see a list of all of the charges (one of our readers pointed out that the website Las Vegas Jaunt publishes an updated list of resort fees). I ended up breaking out the pencil and paper and making a spreadsheet to keep everything organized. This is an important lesson to learn: what appears to be the best price room, oftentimes is not.

After my initial research, I narrowed down my search to three properties:


The twenty-something year old me would have stayed here without a second of doubt. Staying in a pyramid, how cool is that? But I’m not that kid anymore and I read reviews before I consider staying anywhere. Fortunately, it does appear that the Luxor, whose rooms had been starting to show their age, is cleaning up its hotel as of late. Reviews seem to be mostly positive and they have recently renovated some of the rooms. I find it very honest of them that they offer separate prices for the renovated and non-renovated rooms. The pyramid rooms are listed at 420 square feet, that feels a bit smaller due to the slanted exterior wall.

  • Resort Fee – $34.01 per night (after tax)
  • Self Parking Fee – $10 per night
  • Room Charge (Cleo King Deluxe room) – $497.80
  • Total for room, fees and parking – $629.83
Luxor exterior taken in 2006

Tropicana Las Vegas – A Doubletree by Hilton

I always have something for staying at a hotel that has managed to survive when all of the other hotels have been demolished. The Tropicana does have a good location on the Las Vegas Strip and the entire hotel was renovated in 2011. They did change the theme to a Miami Beach style and that was a bit of a letdown as there would not be much of the “Old Vegas” left. The room size on the website says they are “Up to 450 sf.” The prices looked good so I dug a little deeper.

  • Resort Fee – $29 per night (before tax)
  • Self Parking – FREE
  • Room Charge (2 Queen Deluxe Paradise Tower) – $547.97
  • Total for room, fees and parking – $646.61

The free parking and lower resort fee made the Tropicana and Luxor prices almost identical, even with the Luxor originally looking like it would be $50 cheaper.

Since it looked like I’d be paying a decent amount for a room no matter what, I decided to see how much a higher end hotel would cost. I always have to remind myself not to fall into the trap of finding one hotel after another that cost “just a little more” and eventually end up paying double what I was originally planning. With that in mind, I looked at the next hotel.


The Delano, as in Franklin Roosevelt, is a non-casino hotel located in the Mandalay Bay complex on the south end of the strip. One difference with this hotel is that all rooms at Delano are 2 room suites measuring 725 square feet. I looked at this hotel because it was showing up on American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts website. The hotels in this program are available to people who have a Platinum American Express card (or above) and tend to be ultra-expensive places that we’d never stay at. I always look because, sometimes, you’ll find a moderate priced hotel and you still get all the perks. First, here’s the pricing breakdown:

  • Resort Fee – $39.68 per night (after tax)
  • Self Parking – $12 per night
  • Room Charge – $695.01 (King Suite Room)
  • Total for room, fees and parking – $850.00

Besides a two room suite with 300 more square feet of space, here are the American Express Fine Hotel & Resorts benefits for this hotel:

  • Noon Check-in, when available
  • Room Upgrade upon arrival, when available
  • Daily Breakfast for two people ($30 per person/day)
  • Guaranteed 4PM Late Check-Out
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi
  • $100 property credit to be used during stay

I reworked the math and here’s what I came up with

  • Total for room, fees and parking – $850.00
  • Property Credit – (-$100)
  • Breakfast for 3 days (max value $180, value to us -$60)
  • Wi-Fi Credit (-$15)
  • Adjusted Total – $675

The final breakdown of pricing for each hotel is as follows:

Luxor – $630
Tropicana – $646
Delano – $675

Guess which one we are staying at? I hope we get to use our $100 property credit here.

Skyfall Lounge outdoor patio, photo courtesy of Delano