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After the long day in the Magic Kingdom on Thursday we were quite happy to have a much more relaxed start of the day at Epcot. The park only opens at 9 and there were no magic hours that day, so we had a bit of a lie in and then headed over to the park. We had intended to spend the morning going on the various rides and checking out the park, and then probably spending the afternoon back at the hotel enjoying the pool and weather, however that’s not quite how things worked out!
We started off by going to as many of the popular rides as we could get to before the queues grew ridiculously large. Unfortunately we missed out on Soarin’ (hang-glider simulator) but managed to get into most of the others. For those of you who are not familiar with it, Epcot is aimed at the more mature visitors as opposed to Magic Kingdom which is clearly focused on the younger children. Once we’d exhausted the rides and obtained our fast-pass tickets for those we were going to come back to later, we headed off to have a look at the World Showcase. The World Showcase is effectively a man-made lake surrounded by buildings grouped into individual countries. They have tried to pick famous landmarks and architectural styles for the buildings, and each area contains food and drink from the area it is supposed to represent.
As we both like to travel, it was great fun being able to walk between all the countries in no time at all, and of course sample all the local fares! We decided then and there that we would not be returning to the hotel, but would instead have little bits and pieces to eat and drink as we ‘wandered the world’. We decided to book ourselves into one of the Japanese restaurants (Teppan Edo) for dinner, having found out that the quality and variety of places to eat in Epcot was far superior to the Magic Kingdom. So for lunch we went for something a bit different and headed to Morocco.
After visiting Germany for a bit of Oktoberfest beer (that’s three countries I’ve been to Oktoberfest in now), alcoholic slushies from Morocco and some delicious margaritas from Mexico we headed back to the rides to check out those we’d missed earlier. Once finished there it was back to Japan for dinner which was done properly in teppanyaki style with the chef preparing and cooking the food on the hot plate in front of you (as well as putting on a little show). After the meal it was time to head back to hotel again – despite not having had such an early start we were both in need of bed so that we’d be ready for the Animal Kingdom the next day!
After leaving Miami on the afternoon of the 31st we headed up to Orlando on the Florida Turnpike. It was an uneventful (if somewhat boring) 3+ hour drive but it meant we got to our hotel (Coronado Springs) early evening so we could head out to Downtown Disney for dinner. We only had three days at Disney World and wanted to get as much done in that time as possible, so Downtown seemed a good place to start. Unfortunately, what with this being Easter weekend, everything was packed so we struggled to find places in the restaurants we wanted, so ended up in Bongos Cuban Cafe. Despite a warning that the kitchen was running a bit behind, the food and service were great (the food took no more than 10 minutes!) so it suited us very well. After dinner we had a bit more of a wander around Downtown Disney, not sure whether we were going to have time to return this trip or not.
We were up very early the next morning to head over to the Magic Kingdom. Since we were staying at a Disney resort we had the possibility to take advantage of the ‘magic hours’ which meant that we could get into the Magic Kingdom at 07:00 – an hour before any non-Disney guests could. The best thing about having this extra hour is that there are virtually no queues on the rides so we headed straight to the busiest rides first. By 10:00 we had been on pretty much everything we wanted to so had pretty much avoided all the crowds! We spent the next couple of hours wandering around the park enjoying the atmosphere and picking up some souvenirs.
After having seen the ‘Celebrate a Dream Come True’ parade we decided to leave the park and return later that evening for the ‘Spectro-Magic’ parade and the fireworks. We wanted to get some outlet shopping taken care of and didn’t really fancy spending the entire afternoon aimlessly wandering through the massive crowds if we didn’t have to. So off we headed to Orlando Premium Outlets to spend lots of money (although not as much as if we’d been at home). We had originally planned to eat dinner in the theme park but earlier on in the day had tried to find somewhere that took our fancy and failed. As nice as it would have been to eat in the castle, you apparently have to book a year or so in advance, so that was out. Instead we decided to stop at a proper steak house and experience some of the local cuisine.
After a good feed we headed back to the Magic Kingdom to get ourselves in a good spot for the parade and fireworks. The effects are impressive, and even though we were in the wrong spot to watch the fireworks (we ended up behind the castle) they were still very impressive considering they’re put on twice a night, every night! We’d been up very early that morning so both of us were shattered and ready to call it a day. We headed back to the hotel to get a bit of rest before heading to Epcot the next morning.
Sadly Wednesday was our last day in Miami, and the last day in the villa. Although we’d managed to fit quite a lot in with the time we had, we calculated that we’d probably also be able to squeeze in a trip to the Everglades. It would have been such a shame to have been so close and not to have visited, so having checked the details online we figured we’d be able to get to Shark Valley Visitor Center, have a bit of a wander around and still get back for early afternoon so that we could get up to Orlando for dinner time.
In order to get all of this done on time, we had quite an early start and left the villa by about half past eight. As soon as you leave Miami and start driving west along US41 you start to appreciate how vast the national park is. After a half hour or so we arrived at the visitor centre and hired some bikes. It’s possible to walk the trail, or even take a bus tour, but we had enough time to get the bikes and ride down the trail. We were lucky that we’d ended up coming so early since the sun had yet to really start beating down so it was extremely pleasant cycling along. We’d come to screeching halts every now and again as we passed alligators sunning themselves (another benefit to being there so early – the gators were all still a bit slow and lazy) and various other wildlife wandering around the trail. There were so many alligators, and quite often so close to you, that it almost started to lose its initial impact and we found ourselves slowing down only to carry on past because it wasn’t impressive enough (either in size, location, pose, etc).
After reaching the viewing platform where you have a tremendous view out over the ‘river of grass’ as the Everglades is known, we headed back to the visitor centre. It was a decent hour and a half bike ride which was just what we’d needed after the laziness of the holiday so far. We dropped the bikes off and jumped in the car to head back. Realising that we were doing very well on time, we decided it’d be worth taking a stop at one of the airboat stations on the route back so that we could experience another ‘traditional’ way of travelling around the Everglades. We ended up stopping at Coopertown Airboats which seemed to be the most authentic looking one around. We originally wanted to take a ‘private’ airboat tour, which would have been in a six-seater, but since there was over an hour wait for that, we opted for the slightly less traditional, but more easily available, larger airboat tour. The airboat harbour (airport?) also had quite an impressive collection of crocodiles and alligators who were thankfully behind fences since they were quite terrifying in comparison to the much smaller alligators we’d seen that morning.
The airboat tour was great fun and we were able to see a large number of alligators swimming around, despite everyone having told us that the sound of the airboats scares them off! It was quite an interesting sensation skimming along the top of the water, and then over the reeds while periodically stopping to point out wildlife. Another experience we were very happy to have been able to enjoy. After the tour we jumped straight back in the car to head back to the villa since by this point we were running a bit behind schedule. Just enough time to join the others for lunch, say our goodbyes and jump in the car to head north to Orlando and Disney!
Now that Becky had been able to join us in Miami and the WMC was all but over, we could start with the serious business of sight seeing and relaxation. We started off by all heading out for dinner on Sunday evening on Ocean Drive. After a bit of deliberation Glen reserved for all 13 of us at Cardozo where we proceeded to order vast quantities of seafood (well, while you’re virtually on the ocean you kind of have to don’t you?) which was exceedingly good. Unfortunately the weather was not perfect and most people were still tired from the excesses of the UMF the night before so we headed back for a relatively early night.
The next day we decided to get a bit more sight seeing done and so all headed down south to the Florida Keys. Since we were doing hen/stag stuff that evening, we didn’t have enough time to head all the way down to Key West so instead headed to Key Largo and the impressive mangrove swamps of the John Pennekamp National Park. The intention was to either go snorkelling or at least take the glass bottomed boat out to the coral reef that is part of the national park (apparently America’s first underwater national park) but there were severe weather warnings which meant that everyone was confined to the shore. There was however one available option which was to rent two person kayaks and head out to explore the mangroves as they are supposed to be explored – by boat! We spent about an hour and a half paddling around the mangroves trying our hardest (not) to get lost. Much to my disappointment (and the relief of many of the others) we didn’t come across much wildlife but it was nonetheless an enjoyable experience, one which the rain that accompanied us towards the end couldn’t tarnish. Unfortunately due to us not owning a water proof camera, there are no photos of this part of the trip!
Once we got back we had just enough time to change to head out for the separate hen and stag nights that were the pretext for this entire trip. For the stag Glen had organised tickets to an NHL game which was being played at the BankAtlantic Center north of Miami. It was the first time I had been to a live hockey game and it was good fun to watch. Unfortunately the local team (Florida Panthers) are apparently not particularly good, something they reinforced by losing to the Nashville Predators. After the game we headed back to change and jump in several cabs headed straight off to South Beach again. Unfortunately that’s where things took a bit of a turn for the worse as the stag somehow managed to trip over and break his collarbone while messing around on the beach. Apparently stag nights are not supposed to end with the stag being carted off to hospital in an ambulance! That pretty much called a halt to proceedings so we all headed back to the villa to regroup.
Tuesday dawned and the weather had finally got its act together and returned to clear blue skies (albeit not as warm as the locals are used to) so we decided to head down to South Beach to get a bit of feel for what it’s like during the day time. We had plans for a barbecue that evening so we only had a couple ofhours to look around. We started off by planting ourselves on the beach and going for a swim in the pleasantly refreshing ocean. Afterwards we headed back to Ocean Drive and zigzagged our way between Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive taking in the Art Deco hotels and famous bars, finally stopping off at Nikki Beach for a cocktail in the late afternoon sun. We then headed back to the villa to help the others who had stayed behind prep the barbecue. We then spent our last evening in the villa eating through as much of the left over food as we could, very contented with how the week had gone.
As those of you that read this blog may have noticed, everything’s gone a bit quiet recently! The reason for that isn’t that we haven’t been up to anything, in fact quite the contrary, we’ve been extremely busy. However all the stuff we’ve been up to hasn’t been particularly blog-worthy (moving house, building furniture, etc) so we haven’t been putting anything up. However at the end of March we headed over to Florida for a week and a bit, and that is definitely worth telling about!
Ben and Sue, friends of ours from University, are getting married later this year and had decided that what they really wanted to do for their hen and stag (or hag as it became christened) do was to head out to Miami for the Winter Music Conference. This would combine a love of sun, holiday and music and make a pretty good trip for all involved. After much deliberating and planning, it was decided that 13 of us would head over to Miami and rent a villa for the week. The villa was based in Miami Shores giving us relatively easy access to the airport, and more importantly Miami Beach.
The first couple of days were spent relaxing and exploring Miami Beach during the WMC where there are even more parties and events than usual going on around Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue. The WMC culminated in the Ultra Music Festival on Friday and Saturday which took place in Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami. The festival was great fun (once we managed to get in, it took over 2 hours to collect the tickets I had waiting for me there) and it was an interesting experience being at a festival in the middle of a city rather than out in the countryside somewhere. The line-up was impressive as was the design and sheer size of the main stage. It was also quite a nice experience being able to return to a normal house at the end of it, rather than returning to a tent and having to make use of festival facilities!
Unfortunately Becky had had to stay in Zurich to reach the end of term before being able to come out and join us, so she only arrived on the last day of the UMF. Once everyone had managed to recover from the festival it was on to explore Miami – this time with Becky as well!