The happiest place on Earth
Disney. Universal. Long lines. Overpriced food. It must be the tourist mecca that is Orlando. You’re probably thinking, “Kris, Orlando is for families and kids.” You’re right … mostly. We don’t have kids but still found some things to do, such as …
We arrived in Orlando at around 3:30 p.m. and took the public bus to our hotel, the Rosen Centre. I scored this International Drive hotel for about $60 a night through Hotwire. The good: Several on-site dining options (including a 24-hour deli and convenience store), a HUGE pool with multiple nearby hot tubs and super easy access to the tourist trolley and public bus. The bad: A toilet and sink that both drained slowly, average room and expensive on-site food (bowls of cereal were twice as much as those found at the neighboring 7-Eleven). It’s also not really near anything, except for the convention center. I would have given this hotel 3-3.5 stars, rather than 4 stars.
After settling in, we gussied up ourselves and hailed a taxi to get us to Downtown Disney, a shopping-dining-entertainment mecca open, free of charge, to all visitors. Upon entering Downtown Disney, it’s kitsch galore, with an open-air store that sells nothing but Disney-themed pins, another store that sells nothing but Disney-themed Christmas merch and yet another store called TrenD which, you guessed it, only sells Disney-themes clothing and accessories, mostly geared at tween girls.
Following window-shopping, we dined at T-Rex, an overpriced Rainforest café set in the prehistoric area, complete with moving animatronic dinosaurs, adorably named appetizers (Brachiosaurus Bruschetta) and an hour-long line to get in. Thankfully, we had reservations, so we walked right in and dined on some mozzarella cheese sticks. Caitlyn and I got fancy salads (mine had goat cheese, candied walnuts, strawberries and way too much balsamic vinaigrette). They tasted pretty good, but we’re expensive at 16 bucks a pop. I guess you’re paying for ambience. That same pricing philosophy extends to cocktails; I ordered a cocktail that cost $14, largely because it came (unbeknownst to me) with an official T-Rex glass that I will probably never use.
Later, we checked out La Noubla, Downtown Disney’s Cirque du Soleil show. Caitlyn described this as “What being on an acid trip must feel like.” She’s right. We both had no idea what was happening 90 percent of the time but the brightly colored costumes and performers, including an adorable group of children and another group of trampoline jumpers, made it in an entertaining night. You’ll see no photos from here, as I was put in my place before the show even started for trying to take some pics inside the theatre, which, at about 15 rows, assures no bad seat in the house.
For a nightcap, I recommend going to Ghirardelli. They’re open late and feature a menu full of decadent treats.
This day was meant to be our “lounging by the pool day,” but that lasted for all of only two hours before Caitlyn and I got bored and went back to the hotel room. Originally, we decided to go to the Premium Outlets on Vineland Avenue on our last day but, given we had some time, we thought we’d also investigate the other huge outlet mall in town on International Drive.
For my Michigan friends, it’s like Birch Run on steroids. For my Indiana friends, it’s like the Cincinnati outlet mall on steroids. Unfortunately, I’m not on steroids, which meant I didn’t have the strength to shop there all day – be forewarned: This outlet mall CAN be an all-day affair.
For dinner, vegetarian options are few and far in-between in Orlando but, thankfully, not too far from the outlet mall was a Sweet Tomatoes salad and pasta buffet. TIP: Sign up for their eClub and get a BOGO meal coupon. Caitlyn and I did it even though there are no Sweet Tomatoes in Indiana.
We did not dine at one of the MANY other chain restaurants that dot International Drive. Seriously, every large chain on Earth must be on this road, including Sizzler and it’s more jank neighbor up the street, Sizler (I kid you not). International Drive is sort of like the Vegas strip, lots of cheesy shows, discount buffet places and brightly colored signs that are likely to induce a seizure in some folks.
Ah, Day 3 – the main reason for our trip. No trip to Orlando is complete without a visit to a theme park, right? We chose Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, primarily because Caitlyn wanted to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We made a bee-line from the entrance to that part of the park but, really, traffic was all the same when we went back at the end of the day, too. Everyone says to ride “Forbidden Journey” inside Hogwarts castle first, so we did, but hindsight says we should have first lined up to see a wand demonstration inside Ollivanders. That line took 45 minutes to get through, whereas Forbidden Journey was less than 10 minutes. Spoiler alert: The Ollivanders demonstration lasts all of 5 minutes and isn’t all that worthwhile. Make sure you stop in Zonko’s and Honeydukes, two shops from the popular book and film series, and, if you’re a meat-eater, swing by the Three Broomsticks.
The one near-fatal mistake I made on our trip was convincing Caitlyn to ride Dudley-do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls. I told her she wouldn’t get drenched on this water flume ride. We even saw people coming out of the ride soaked, but I still told her we wouldn’t get drenched. We got drenched. Hardcore. After some profuse apologizing and drying off, we visited the rest of the theme park. Tips: Avoid Poseidon’s Fury (it’s a show that’s “meh” at best), ride the Cat in the Hat in Seuss Landing after a long day (no wait and who doesn’t like hearing a good story?) and bring water – it’s allowed at Universal.
We had dinner at Moe’s Southwest Grill in Universal’s answer to Downtown Disney, CityWalk, which has a bevy of restaurants catering to every dining palette.
As previously noted, the Premium Outlets at Vineland Avenue was on the docket for our final day in Orlando. This is the swanky outlet mall, with high-end designers – I could tell because I didn’t recognize half the names (Caitlyn did). The biggest problem you’ll have here is determining whether you want the Dooney & Bourke purse or a pair of gloves from Prada. I believe this qualifies as #firstworldproblems.
After a long day, it was back to the hotel and then Orlando airport. A word of caution on the Orlando airport: If you’re in one of the smaller terminals, you’ll need to take a tram from Terminal A. The tram runs frequently, but just account for that. Dining options are decent in the airport; we chose Au Bon Pain.
In summary, can you go to Orlando for a romantic trip? Sure, just avoid the water rides and, if you don’t, make it up with a trip to Dooney & Bourke.