Money Saving Tips for Universal Studios

family, Florida, food, Travel, United States

If you mention a trip to Orlando and the Theme Parks, people do the math in their heads to determine how much you are going to spend on the vacation you have described. Hotels, tickets, food, souvenirs, flights, and unexpected expenses can really break the bank. While you can’t make the airlines give you a cheaper discount and the hotel rates are the rates, and ticket costs go up every year, there are ways to keep some cash in your pocket.

Here are my tricks to saving extra cash at Universal Studios.

1. Look for Package Rates

Probably the biggest savings will come from a multi-day vacation package that includes flights, hotels, tickets, and maybe a meal plan. Universal offers packages on their website, but you may get better rates from a Travel Advisor (agent) that specializes and has connections to Universal Studios. Sign up for newsletters from Universal Studios and ask around to your friends. You can save hundreds or even thousands if you can bundle your trip. This isn’t always gospel truth if you want to save more by staying off property, or if you are only going one or two days to the parks, but it’s always worth checking. Due to the savings, you may be able to reasonably stay an extra day or two.

2. Pack Snacks

While it is discouraged to bring snacks in the park, it is possible, especially if you have food allergies (like me), to pack a few items. You may not get away with bringing a whole lunch into the parks, but you can bring items to your hotel room and make the most of your cash. My trick for traveling anywhere in the world is packaged oatmeal that can be made with hot water from the room and/or a microwave. If you have a mini-fridge in your room (many rooms offer this) get some sandwich supplies and hang onto them for evenings or mid-day breaks.

I think of those $1.00 granola bars or $.50 oatmeals as money in the bank, as it saves at least $6.00 a person on snacks, breakfast, drinks and more.

3. USE FREEBIES

There are few things in life that are free. At the parks, you will see a price point on everything, except a few little things that can stretch your money.

  • COFFEE in your hotel room is usually free, drink that in the morning to get going, and if you run out, ask the front desk for a refill.
  • WATER bring a water bottle that is refillable at the parks. Most restaurants will offer a canister with ice water and there are drinking fountains throughout the park. Refill that puppy and stay hydrated, it will make the day much better.
  • BUS services run from resort hotels to the parks. These will be a lifesaver for your legs, feet, and screaming child.
  • EMPLOYEES are there to make sure your time at the parks is going great. If something goes wrong, talk to someone and they will likely pull some strings to make the day better. They did for my stepdaughter and I!

4. Drink Less

Alcohol at theme parks is always at a premium, but they do have fun drinks that are worth trying. However, if you drink more you may need to eat more and you may lose some self control on other spending (oh wait…that’s just me). Regardless, if you cut down on alcohol you will undoubtedly have more cash in your pocket.

5. Drink More?

Universal has some great perks if you do want to drink more, especially at the resorts. My trick is to get one $14 drink in the plastic tumbler at the pool, you get to keep the tumbler and each drink afterwards is $10. If you are drinking, this will save you some money and you get to take home a souvenir. Save more, and bring the tumbler back on the next vacation.

6. Soda Pop

I am not a big soda drinker, but I know a lot of people are, and their Dr. Pepper is my morning coffee. My best tip and trick is to buy the reusable drink, that has a microchip, and is good for your time at the resort or theme park. Resort cups are around $20/$25 and are good ONLY in the resort while theme park cups are good at the parks and cost around $30 for your whole stay. It’s a lot of money upfront but what you will notice is that each individual soda or refill is going to run around $6.00 each and in four drinks you have one paid for.

7. Spread out Meals

I am not an advocate of NOT eating, I just know portions are large at Universal and you will not need your three squares while there. My suggestion is to go for breakfast at the hotel or resort, and eat a late lunch that’s large. Fill in the gaps with snacks and I promise you won’t go hungry.

8. Platter Meals

Restaurants sometimes offer large family-style meals that offer great savings and even better meals. The platter at the Three Broomsticks was a personal favorite and the six of us practically rolled out of the tavern not sure we would ever eat again.

9. Order Kids Meals

This is obvious for groups with kids, as it saves a lot of money, but sometimes if you are not very hungry or if something on the kids menu looks better, order it. At times you may get a surcharge, but often you will get savings, a better sized meal, and just as good of an experience. Also, at a quick serve, how do they know you don’t have a hoard of kids to feed?

10. Split the Goods

As above, portions can be crazy, and many times one ends up wasting a lot of food. If you know that you may not finish an entree it may be best to split with a buddy. I think this is particularly true for Toothsome’s fabulous milkshakes, they are so massive, I think splitting them is a logical choice, or bringing them along for breakfast.

Happy Travels!

Disney Springs – Raglan Road

Florida, Travel, United States

Perhaps one of the best surprises on my last trip to Orlando was finding the gem that is Raglan Road in Disney Springs. It started with finding out that they have Gluten-Free fish and chips (something I haven’t had since 2015 when I was in England) and it ended with knowing it was the perfect place to take my baby sister for her bachelorette party dinner.

Raglan Road is set up part Irish pub and part Irish dance show. What caught my eye is that it reminded me of my last visit to Dublin and a visit to the Celtic Nights dinner and dance show.

What is great about Raglan Road, and a little different, and a totally American fashion, is that the building is absolutely pristine, and the dancing matches that. Call it Disney magic, or an Americana fabrication, but the venue offers a level of escapism that is not always seen in a restaurant.

Orlando ultimately has a little bit of everything for everyone. One can escape into their favorite movies or cartoon and not worry about everything that exists on the outside world. Raglan Road offers its own version of Ireland encapsulated in a restaurant setting.

While I often am put off by “Irish” things or “Celtic” as they often have a tackiness to them, Raglan Road offered a happy blend of the things I love about folk culture in the British Isles.

The restaurant is well designed with touches of traditional architecture and creating a typical pub atmosphere. Even better, the restaurant is staffed by a fabulous group of people that make you feel welcomed and cared for the second you walk inside. Even when I called to adjust our reservation about three times, everyone was friendly and delighted to help. As a restaurant, the food was absolutely delicious, and my fish and chips were cooked to perfection, and the portion was massive, but reflective of a traditional chippy meal!

Raglan offers a great restaurant, but the main draw for people is the folk music, dance, singing, and overall fun that the restaurant is home to. Not only is the restaurant full of talented dancers, singers, and performers, they have taken the care to make the restaurant an immersive experience celebrating food and art!

My sister had a wonderful night, everyone gave her well wishes, we all enjoyed our food, and it was one of the best times out I have ever had. If you are in the neighborhood, stop by, and tap your foot to some great Irish tunes!

Universal Studios – Cabana Bay Resort

Florida, Travel, United States

A big reason why we headed to Orlando in October 2020 was for my baby sister’s wedding. As it goes when friends and family fly in for a wedding, a week of wedding-related adventures must ensue. It was vital that this included a Bachelorette Party and we could not think of a better place to celebrate than the Cabana Bay Beach Resort!

photo- Steven Miller

While Cabana is considered an economical option in the Universal Resort hotels, and it is rated as a 3-star hotel, I truly felt that the accommodations and service compared to 4-star if not 5-star locations. The resort offers a family-friendly atmosphere while not compromising on design and a touch of luxury. With a 1950s/60s theme it’s a fun and nostalgic vacation spot offering a lot for travelers.

Photo- Steven Miller

The resort is located right next to the parks, making it easy to walk from or bus from to the parks (including Volcano Bay). This makes accessing the parks an absolute delight and more comfortable than accommodations of the same caliber at Disney. Which I find a phenomenal perk to staying at Universal. For my group this meant we could go to the parks, have a meal at City Walk, change at the hotel, go back to City Walk, and back again as needed. Going out with a big group also meant that people could come and go as they pleased and a pool-side suite that comfortably slept six gave us ample space and comfort.

The suites offer two queen beds and a pull-out sofa bed. While the two queens share a space, the sofa bed is in a living area with a sliding door to close it off. This is especially nice for those needing more sleep (such as kids) and offering more privacy for a large group of people. The kitchenette, with a microwave and sink, also make time with kids a lot easier to manage and enjoy!

Photo- Steven Miller

In addition to comfortable rooms, the hotel offers a large pool area, with a section of sand for a “beach feel” and some great dining options. While you won’t get much originality in food options, there is a lot of care to make things allergy-friendly, and it was all tasty.

If you are staying more than one night skip inside bars and glasses and head for the pool bar. There you can get a fantastic cocktail for around $15.00 (common drink price) which comes with a souvenir tumbler. This tumbler can be reused for drinks the ENTIRE time you visit and they cost $10.00 each versus $15.00. If you plan on returning, bring your tumbler from before and the discount still applies. I’m not much of a drinker, but the tumbler has proven to be a nice drink mug at home and to show off at work.

Do plan on some additional costs at the resort. Parking is $17.00 per day, per car (versus $20.00 in the regular lot). None of your food or drinks are included with the rate (unless you get a meal plan) and you have to buy tickets separately for the parks.

Photo- Steven Miller

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Cabana and I REALLY enjoyed the whole experience and my time there. While I may return with a bigger budget in the future, I am pretty sold on staying at Cabana for my future adventures.

Happy Travels!

Universal Studios – With Tweens

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I think it’s easy to assume when a kid gets older that they will have it more together when you vacation later. I could not be more wrong.

12 is an odd age, somewhere between childhood and the teens, the 12 year old brain is a confusing landscape of hormones, angst, and forgetfulness. I was definitely more of the first two than the later, and when I am out and about with my step-daughter I find that FORGETFULNESS is the name of the game.

Lesson learned, when we were at Universal Studios, our second day of play, my stepdaughter had her wand (chosen at Olivander’s and a gift from my sister and brother-in-law)from the day before, we were having an AWESOME girls day before meeting my cousins, and then things went crazy. We could blame the Hogwarts Express, and the unassuming shelves and comfortable seats, and in which my stepdaughter left her wand. I blame not making her take a bigger backpack so she could fit her said wand in it. I also blame the own chaos of my day in which my credit card FELL OUT OF MY WALLET when we were at Universal, which lead to the day feeling disjointed and mad.

Tweens, in their hormonal state, tend to fall into tears. Which is exactly what happened when we discovered the wand was missing and no one had turned it into lost and found. While Lily freaked out, some magic was found in a way only dedicated Universal Studios staff can, by helping us replace the wand. An extremely kind “conductor” at the Hogwarts Express in Hogsmeade took us to the wand shop in Hogsmeade to replace Lily’s misplaced fun.

While the gesture was undoubtedly kind, it was that the company’s dedication to making sure that guests were taken care of and happy with all the elements of their vacation that really hit home. It left its influence on my stepdaughter too, as since she lost her wand, and went through the embarrassment of needing someone to save the day, she has been much more conscious of her existence.

It hasn’t made all of 12 better and we are still buckled in for the ride of the next few years (ok 6+), it made a positive influence on miss Lily. However, Lily is more aware of where her phone, and coat, and backpack are. She hasn’t lost valuable items, and her hoodies make it home. While homework is the next frontier, I see changes every week, for the better.

At the end of the day, the hiccups in life make us stronger, wiser, and better and travel often make us face it. Sometimes there are tears, and embarrassment, and hard lessons, but we ultimately learn some big lessons. For my stepdaughter, it has been that things work out, and kindness and manners go a long way (giving and receiving). It is also a lesson in responsibility and organization, and being able to let go of stresses and still have a fun vacation. All of which I am so happy she is learning while seeing the world.

Happy TRAVELS!

Universal Studios – Must Buy Souvenirs

Travel, United States, Florida

I generally find souvenirs a bit on the hokey, at times worthless, side. That being said, I do like getting little things to commemorate my adventures and I know it means even more to kiddos when they get to see the world.

Universal has no end to shopping and items one can pick from, if anything they have too many options to choose from. From Potterhead “musts” to Marvel treats, the entire theme park offers something for everyone. I am definitely in camp Potter, while my family loved the variety of Marvel, pride, and comic books offered in the park. However, while our decisions are based on preferences and fandoms, there are a few things that make great momentos and memories, and you should make sure you budget for with your family trip.

Here is my short list:

  1. A Wand – Harry Potter World offers the fantastic wand ceremony at Olivander’s and if you have young ones in your party, they will most likely hope to be chosen for the ceremony. If they are chosen for the ceremony, the wand that selects them is available for the low price of $55.00 each. While this does seem like a steep price for a fiber glass souvenir, do know that it interacts with the park and “unlocks” surprises throughout the Wizarding World. This means that trip one, or trip twenty is made all the most special. It also means, if your kiddo is chosen, a truly priceless memory is created with the Olivander’s experience AND you likely won’t have to do it again.
  2. A Lanyard – The park sells lanyards everywhere, and while the price may seem steep, it does make for an easier trip. The lanyards they sell allow for holding ones ticket, making going in and out of the parks much easier. As Universal does not offer a virtual or “Magic Band” equivalent, having something on your neck makes for an easier day with less wallets and worrying about losing your ticket. An added bonus, the lanyard works when you go home for whatever use you may need.
  3. Jurassic Park Shirt – This may be a personal preference, but I feel like everyone needs a Jurassic Park shirt. If you are a fan of the movie(s) then the shirt feels like a good purchase, however if you are going to ride the Jurassic Park River Adventure, you are likely to get sopping wet at the end, and a shirt just seems like a good rash purchase. My husband agrees this is a smart buy.
  4. A Hoodie – Living in Colorado we practically live in hoodies for like 80% of the year *short summers and cold summer nights* buying a hoodie on vacation is a common souvenir and they WILL get used.
  5. Sweets – While they mad get consumed in the park, sweets from different areas of the park bring a lot of fun to vacation. I adore the Harry Potter themed options in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and my husband and stepdaughter loved Toothsome and their glorious shakes. Oh – and don’t forget the butterbeer.
  6. Patches – Last, but not least, I buy patches everywhere that I travel to and I sew them onto a jacket. It’s a cheap and small item that I can have as a reminder of my adventures. At Universal they have some great items in the Harry Potter world that are perfect for your own travel jacket.

HAPPY TRAVELS & SHOPPING!

Universal Studios – Dining with Allergies

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It is so unbelievably hard traveling with food allergies. Living in the western United States with food allergies is Russian Roulette on where you go, with who, and how sick you might become. The biggest issue overall is that people don’t understand that allergies are serious, and that eating said food means hours, if not days, of discomfort and upset!

When I travel abroad I usually can find items without issue, it is taken pretty seriously in most establishments (if you can cross the language barrier). While in the United States, half the people you work with don’t care, or don’t understand. I am not picking on servers who are underpaid, overworked, and often undertrained, but rather a system that doesn’t always take it seriously. For instance, I have celiac, that means that if you make me a dish after someone else, you need to either use a CLEAN pan or CLEAN the pan to remove any residue from the last order. Sometimes the care is taken, sometimes it is not.

Therefore, when I went to Universal Studios this time around, I was really nervous about what I could eat and what would be offered. When I visited in 2015, I found it hard to find enough to eat that was worth the money and worth the sit-down meal time. Four years later I was worried I would be faced with similar issues. I even packed emergency food because I had no idea if I could eat all day.

My fears were actually overhyped. Completely overhyped. What I found on the food landscape at Universal in late 2019 was a complete overhaul of their menus, offering a vast and delicious variety of food for people like me. Not only am I celiac, but I don’t eat any meat but fish (pescatarian), and I try really hard to avoid dairy and soy. The true key to the success of their grab and go menus was the use of one magic little patty, the Beyond Burger. For those not in the know, the Beyond Burger is a protein packed veggie patty that is gluten, soy, and dairy free. It is also vegan, and the thing is really tasty when prepared right. Universal now offers this burger at most quick eat burger-type locations AND they offer a gluten-free bun.

This meant that I could go to Mel’s Drive-In with the rest of my group and eat a burger with everyone. To top it off they even had a gluten-free french fry fryer. This meant I could sit down in a burger joint and eat with my family. I almost cried with joy, I had not been able to do something like this EVER with my husband (we have been together 9 years) and stepdaughter. To top it off, it was soooooo tasty.

AND the better part is it wasn’t just Mel’s that worked hard to make our time great. We went to the Three Broomsticks for dinner that same night, and we ordered their Great Feast platter which is full of veggies, potatoes, and chicken. It feeds like four to six people. All of us but my husband and stepdaughter had allergies, so the chef came out and discussed our options. So wonderful was he that he made individual plates for my sister’s and I (the most common allergies) and made sure no one got sick. This was equally delicious, and we practically rolled everyone out of the pub after dinner we were all so full. This care and concern MADE the trip really magical.

Did I mention that Butterbeer is also GLUTEN FREE (not vegan/dairy free) and extremely tasty hot or frozen!

It didn’t stop there either, we ate at the cafeteria at Cabana Bay the nights we were there, and we had the same care and precision with our burgers there. We ate at Cowfish at City Walk and they were equally cautious and thorough. Then we ate at Toothsome, also at City Walk, and the gentleman there was so good that he had every menu item memorized and could tell us when we could and could not eat at the drop of a hat. He also did it without flinching, without checking with a chef, and without concerning anyone!

This meant many things, including that we all had a much easier and enjoyable time on vacation, and that we all left the restaurants without stomach aches, needing an Epi-pen, or days of discomfort. This precision made our vacation an elevated and magical experience, which I have only ever seen in the contained workings of a cruise ship kitchen.

This comes down to offering a variety of food at each location and well-trained EXPERT staff that do their job with love and dedication. Without the people that have the knowledge of ingredients, cooking, and allergies, none of this would work.

Therefore, I write this as a thank you to the fantastic employees of Universal Studios Orlando!

Happy EATS (and Travels)!

Universal Studios – Islands of Adventure

Florida, Travel, United States

While the original Universal Studios is a fabulous trek down memory lane, Islands of Adventure offers a blast through additional fun and journeys. The second park opened in 1999, and is a bright and bold blend of 90s fun with futuristic excitement, the park is equally, if not more enjoyable than the main park.

For the Potterheads take the Hogwarts Express from Diagon Alley to Hogsmead and begin exploring the rest of the park from there. Hogsmead is home to several great rides including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff and my absolute new favorite ride EVER Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventures!

A side note on Hagrid’s, this ride opened in 2019 and has been a runaway hit, clocking in wait times of 10+ hours on opening week. I was a little cautious about all the hype, but I have to say it was well worth our wait of 70 minutes or so! The build up to the ride was taken with immense care to create a well-crafted and detailed line ride that tells the stories of Hagrid and brings more of the Hogwarts grounds to life. Massive pumpkin, Hagrid’s hut, carved building ruins, paintings, and much more bring the story to life and build on the excitement. Harry Potter fans can’t miss this ride if even for the build up. Beyond that, the ride itself is a fantastic high speed roller coaster experience that stretches almost a mile long! The coaster seamlessly blends story and speed bursts, with some amazing surprises, to make a fabulous experience for all. I have never been on a ride I loved so very much and I can’t wait to return to Universal to ride again!

Beyond the rides, the area is home to fan favorite locations from the stories including the Three Broomsticks and Hogshead. Shops sell things like Pumpkin Juice, and a treat shop is sure to please any sugar rush. There is even a wand shop for those that missed Olivander’s or need to replace one they left on the train (I know this from personal experience….12 year olds).

As an additional charm they have ample outdoor seating and wonderful views of the castle made with a distorted perspective, allowing guests to REALLY feel engrossed in the Wizarding World.

My last tip is to check if they are doing any light shows or events for the season you are visiting. When we were there they had their Halloween Death Eaters Show and it was phenomenal to watch and enjoy. My stepdaughter even had a showdown with a Death Eater!

Death Eater Show Hogsmeade

Now, if you must venture out of Hogsmead and Harry Potter world, the Islands of Adventure offers something for everyone! Exit by the castle and you can’t miss the Jurassic Park education zone, an exact replica from the 1993 movie! This family-friendly area brings to life moments from the movie’s work with DNA and eggs to create new-age dinos and it’s a blast for kiddos to get involved with. Even if they haven’t seen the movies.

Image result for islands of adventure map

Follow along that same path and you will see a raptor encounter, recently updated with Blue from the Jurassic World trilogy. A little further along you will see the River Adventure Ride that offers so much fun for kids of all ages (my 5-year-old cousin lovingly calls them water coasters). This log flume ride offers some thrills and nostalgia as it reflects the first movies in the series, and some animatronics that could use some love. Regardless, it is a lot of fun!

For thrill seekers, don’t miss the Kong ride they opened in early 2016 which celebrates the stories and thrills over King Kong. The ride is a bus simulated ride through the jungle, in 3-D, offering bumps and falls and much excitement for riders.

After Kong there are several options for fun, including toon land, and a superhero land. The Spiderman Ride is worth a spin, and my husband loved the Hulk Coaster! If you are a fan of 90s superhero cartoons and classic comic books, make sure you visit this area of the park. Rumors are around that the rights to the area may run out soon. Since Disney now owns all the Marvel characters, there is a good chance they will want to create their own Superhero world and they will need to get rid of the competition.

If you are traveling with little ones, exit Hogsmead by the Hogwarts Express and head along that route for some delightful theming and “islands” that are less intense for little adventurers. The Lost Continent is like a mysterious land of shops, shows, and a touch of Arabian Nights. Past that you will land in Suess Landing which is ultimately a “little kid land”. This area is purely delightful for Dr. Suess fans, and it is full of all your favorite characters, such as the Lorax, and Cat in the Hat. If you are a fan, simply walk through and enjoy a piece of your childhood in real life.

The Lorax in Suess Landing

Both sides will loop you back to the front of the park, which exists onto Universal City Walk.

All around, if you are visiting the parks, visit both of them. If you have more than one day, go twice. You will want to ride certain things twice, buy things you forgot, and overall make sure you have time to take it all in.

Universal Studios (the 1990 classic)

Florida, Travel, United States

2019 has been my year of theme parks. I revisited a childhood favorite, added a new one, and revisited an adult favorite. Regardless of how many different ones I go to, or ones I remember from the past I still absolutely adore Universal Studios in Orlando.

While Universal is spread over three different parks at this point, the 1990 classic theme park still offers a phenomenal experience for visitors. The park is full of wonderful rides, character engagements, and theming that create a truly family-oriented adventure for children of all ages.

While the park has seen a few different manifestations, rides, and themes through the years, it still retains a healthy sense of 19th century movie nostalgia (Blues Brothers) and a new generations’ love (Diagon Alley). For geeks of all ages it is well worth a visit. Diagon Alley will always be my favorite, but I found some new delights this visit!

Blues Brothers – While only a show, this delightful show runs hourly in the late morning and afternoon and features some extremely talented acts that really embody the classic film. No it’s not Dan Ackroyd and resurrected Aretha Franklin and John Belushi, but it is people that make the skit truly a joy and worth watching.

Blues Brothers Block Party – Universal Studios, Florida

Minion Mayhem & Other Kid Rides offer a chance for littles to escape into their favorite movies and adventures. Even my 12-year-old stepdaughter enjoyed Minions for the enjoyable “little kid” elements. I was lucky enough to skip a lot of the more kid-engineered rides, I had plenty of family to take Lily to enjoy them!

Diagon Alley – The starting point for many a Potterhead, Diagon offers a jumping off point where one “enters into London”, greets the Knight Bus, and then “finds” Diagon (through a winding entry way). It is there that one can find the excitement of everything described in the Harry Potter books including shops, Knockturn Alley and other surprises one has to experience first hand. For the supreme experience, visit Olivander’s and watch the wand ceremony (or get selected) and make sure someone picks up an interactive wand. Finally, don’t miss the Escape from Gringott’s ride, a Butterbeer in the Leaky Cauldron, and nom some candy at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes.

Diagon Alley – Universal Studios, Florida

My other favorite, favorite, ride in the park is the Revenge of the Mummy, based on one of my favorite thriller/adventure movies from the 90s, the Mummy (circa 1999)! While the movie turned 20 this year, and the ride is 16 in 2020, it hold strong as one of the most popular in the park. It’s a frightening coaster-themed ride with fire, monsters, Egyptian lore, and hidden gems that make it a legendary ride. While some leave the ride in tears (my poor stepdaughter) my husband and I find it wonderfully thrilling.

Finally, for some nostalgia and Americana, don’t miss the “streets” that are portrayed throughout the park. A little bit of Chicago, some New York, and 1950s charm and sprinkled throughout the park. The entire park expresses a walk through memory lane, and if you are in the mood, stop at the 1950s themed diner, Mel’s Diner, for a milkshake or Gluten Free and Vegan eats.

Mel’s Drive-In

Most importantly, take time to be silly, take photos, be spontaneous, and celebrate being a 90s kid (or 80s kid or 70s kid or…you know).

Mount Dora, Florida

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A few years ago my baby sister took on the challenge of buying her first home with her fiancé. While staying in Orlando proper would have kept their commute down, they decided they needed a break from their lives in the tourism industry and they selected something further afield. Thus, they selected a cute little suburb of Orlando to create a home in.

Along with their three (yes three) cats they moved to the small and quaint town of Mount Dora, Florida. Known as the highest point in Florida, the township is affectionately understood as a “mountain”, in the closest form of “mountain” Florida can get. (Mind you I may have a slanted view being a Colorado girl, also my sister is a Colorado girl and we can’t understand why she ran away to live in the heat).

Their home was built in 1924 and is full of old-growth trees! The entire city blooms and is covered with a mist of Spanish Moss.

Anyway, mountain or hill, Mount Dora is well known as an artistic and charming community of retirees and hippies, offering up art festivals, weekly farmers markets, and some of the best antiquing in central Florida. It is also considered the most Christmas-filled town in America (I don’t get this because HEAT), and thousands flock to the city to celebrate the holidays, lights, and find some old town American charm.

While they purchased the home in 2017, I was not able to visit this beloved community, until this fall, where I had the pleasure to attend my sister’s wedding and find some fun. I was pleasantly surprised and revived visiting the little city! Here are some of my favorites in the town and why it is worth a stop on your journey through the area.

Where to Eat

WAVE (Sushi) – This was by far my favorite dinner place for the trip. The food was phenomenal, well-priced, and absolutely delicious (landlocked states lack in fresh seafood). The restaurant has gained a following for their Sushi Donuts, Sushi Burritos, and Sushi Burgers all which seem to defy physics. All of which are delicious and enjoyable, if hard to eat! They offered phenomenal options for Gluten Free food, and the staff was considerate, aware, and caring about our needs. I would recommend this place for any visitor to Mount Dora!

HIGHLAND STREET CAFE – This sweet little charmer is about a block away from my sister’s and while it is bordering on the “too cute” spectrum, they offer humble and satisfying eats for a fair price. The staff is super sweet and well versed in food needs. If you need a fast, homemade meal, this is a perfect breakfast and lunch spot.

FESTIVALS

The town is affectionately known as the “Festival City” with events and activities going on almost every week, or at least a couple times a month. While we were there in late October, the city was doing an art festival. At Halloween they had a downtown event for kids and families and soon after they were hosting holiday lightings and events. Check out events on your vacation here.

WALKS

The city is home to a small lighthouse, celebrating Florida’s nautical history. Photo by: Daniel Piraino

Unlike most American towns, Mount Dora is extremely walkable and offers a lot of opportunities for exploration and enjoyment. The downtown is full of small inns and bed and breakfasts which only need to be parked at. Then it’s extremely easy to walk to everything you might need including shopping, dining, nightlife, the main lake of the city, and some trails. If you are brave enough to exercise in the heat, the city is home to many nature trails that are ideal for hiking, biking, and exploring the Florida wilds, click here.

Overall Mount Dora is a great place to stop in Central Florida. If you have an extra day and want to get out of the chaos of Orlando, or if you need an escape to some charm, Mount Dora is sure to please!

Swimming with Manatees- Crystal River, Florida

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A few years ago a co-worker informed me that you can swim with wild MANATEES in Florida! As you know, if you follow this blog, I adore animal encounters. Learning manatees are an option meant they went to the top of my list for my Florida vacation 2019.

Photo Courtesy of River Ventures

Manatees are a native species to Florida, and are considered an important part of the ecosystem and culture of the state. Before Europeans arrived the animals were a valuable part to the winter diets of Native populations in the Southeast. Early European explorers to the Southern United States thought they were some type of mermaid, and myths and legends abounded about the “sea cows”. They also hunted some types into extinction.

By the 20th century the animals were threatened due to pollution, boats, and loss of habitat. In 2019 though, the numbers have greatly increased and they are now a vulnerable versus an endangered species. However, the biggest threat to these animals continues to be humans, and impending climate change.

You are so lucky because you live on the west coast of Florida, where there are lots and lots of manatees, … Most of the kids in the country don’t know about manatees and how wonderful they are.

John Lithgow

My intrigue with manatees began when I was a little kid, an animal lover, and I learned about the oddly majestic water mammals. I was extremely concerned for their well-being regarding the damage boats were doing to them, and I have followed their bounce back over the last 20 years or so. Thus, having the chance to get dirty and go visit some of the critters was simply something I could not pass up!

Researching the trip, I learned that some the best viewing areas for manatees is in Crystal River, Florida, about two hours west of Orlando. Located on the gulf coast, the area has the perfect blend of warm waters fed by underground aquifers that the manatees adore. The beasts like things to be 70°F +, and can die in temperatures below 68°F. When the gulf coast gets cold, especially in the winter months, the animals move inland to the naturally warm fresh water.

I ended up selecting the company, River Ventures, as they vocally expressed their concern and work to protect the gentle giants, and they came highly rated in Trip Advisor and other locations. We selected their group tour, flight and early at 7:15 a.m. and waited with anticipation for our adventure.

A youth manatee at Crystal River

At 4:00 a.m. on a Saturday in October my sister and I carb loaded, drank some tea and coffee and drove the pitch black highways of western Florida to Crystal River. We wore swimsuits under our clothes, and made sure we were well equipped with towels and equipment to make the most of a three hour adventure. As a severely nearsighted person I purchased snorkel goggles with adjusted lenses, and as a video nerd I bought a small 4k camera to film our adventure. These investments proved to be priceless!

The company started before our scheduled time and offered coffee, bathrooms, and friendly rescue dog snuggles (a total bonus). Everyone was enthusiastic to participate in the adventure and we chatted happily with other travelers. Before long we were sat in to watch an educational video, discuss wet suits, and change into said suits before a short bus ride took us to the canal boats we were to sail on.

(c) Photo courtesy of River Ventures

It took a while to find some manatees in the canals, we were early for the season, but several manatees had come inland sensing a storm and cooling period on the horizon. The added bonus of sailing the canals for 40 minutes was that we could take in dozens of birds and the sunrise over the canals, offering a charming glimpse into the ecosystem of the area.

While the canals lay on ancient foundations fed by springs the area has been built up with houses and boating enthusiasts. However, with as many people as there are living in the area there was an active group participation in preservation and safety for the animals. Every few docks posted signs about manatees, people named their boats after the animals, and the tour companies that regularly operate in the area work together to tell people about manatee spotting, patterns they have seen, and other important details. This community spirit is vital in the preservation of the region and unique animals that inhabit the area.

(C) Photo by River Ventures

Once we had found a good manatee for visiting, and by good manatee they mean one that is docile and experienced with people, we got our goggles and snorkels ready to go, climbed into the cool waters, and let the wet suits and pool noodles do their jobs to keep us afloat.

Slowly we approached the 40+ year old manatee that we were meant to visit. The big girl was affectionately known as “Red Hot Poker” due to the red algae she grows on her back during certain times of the year. “Red” was not only an elder member of the manatee community, but she was also very pregnant and due to give birth at any time.

I expected the manatees to be large, one can not truly understand their size until you come upon them in murky waters. My experience was one of slowly swimming to the rest of my group with “Red” and coming upon a massive grey beast lurking in the water. For scale, imagine how disconcerting it would be to swim upon a car hood in a small and shallow canal. Her tail fin was in fact the size of a car hood, and showed her decades of swimming, boat encounters, and life in the canals and gulf.

Swimming upon any animal besides a fish is a truly remarkable experience, to visit with such an ancient queen of Florida was truly breathtaking. The guides referred to these beasts as Buddhas due to their calm relationship with their surroundings. The animals simply float, eat, experience, and interact with their world in a second by second manner. They take in the movement and landscape with nerves on their body that sense people and object undetected by their small eyes and poor eyesight. So calm about their existence “Red” simply went about her business grazing on sea grass and coming up for air every few minutes, even with fifteen nosy tourists sticking their nose in her business. “Red” was so calm that she would rise up under myself and other swimmers to get a breath, here she would swim against my hands and was totally unmoved by them being there. Her sense knew I was there all along, but she didn’t care that I touched her in a friendly reminder or hello.

(C) Photo by River Ventures
(C) Photo by River Ventures

Our interaction with “Red” was nothing short of amazing, in the taking breath ones away and wanting to cry it’s so profound, way. I could not believe how peaceful she floated about her day, obviously aware we were curious, and aware that we meant her only peace and friendship. To be face to face with a wild animal that was so calm was a fascinating glimpse into a world beyond our own comprehension and reactions. No wonder early settlers and native cultures were equally intrigued by these majestic animals.

Our time with “Red” came to an end, but before heading back we stopped to view an aquifer, known as Jurassic Spring, that fed the canals with warm water. It was there that a youth manatee swam through our group on the run from a larger group of snorkelers. We called it a day, and followed the directions to return to our boat and back to the tour beginnings.

In support of the cause we bought our photos, some cute souvenirs, and with giant grins on our face we headed back to Orlando. Ending a truly magical morning in the fresh waters of Crystal River, Florida. With, as my husband calls them, sea potatoes.

Have you swam with manatees? What was your experience like?

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Happy Travels!