5 of the best at Orlando and Walt Disney World Florida

We love Disney. It’s such a magical place, with awesome theme parks, sumptuous dining and great evening entertainment. As much as we love to experience exotic, far-flung places and cultures, we can’t go more than a couple of years without needing another hit. These are some of the things that have made the experience extra special for us.

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The best park

It would be easy to say everyone has their favourite, but I’m not sure that’s actually true, I can’t even get it down to my favourite two. So this is going to have to be the best 3 Parks in Orlando. And for the purists, yes I know Walt Disney World is technically in Kissimmee.

Animal Kingdom.

As well as having some pretty neat rides, and 2 of the best shows in the Disney Kingdom, Finding Nemo, and Festival of the Lion King, this is, in my opinion, the most pleasant park to amble around in. With lakes, mountains, and lush greenery, not to mention the abundance of wildlife it really is a beautiful place to take a stroll. Make sure you hit the Kilimanjaro Safari in the afternoon. Up until our last visit we have always hit this first to avoid the queues, this works but you also avoid all the animals. On our last visit we hit the safari about 3pm and our way was repeatedly blocked by Rhinos and other animals that we had been straining to glimpse on previous occasions. When the park opens head straight for Expedition Everest and try to grab a front seat, it’s an excellent example of Disney does it best.

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Epcot

There are some big ticket star attractions at Epcot, such as Soarin, Test Track presented by Chevrolet (which was much better when it was GM Test Track), and the excellent, if vomit inducing, Mission Space, but for us, hands down, the best thing about Epcot is the World Showcase.

Eleven individual countries are represented in separate lands that circle the World Showcase Lagoon. Authentic shops, restaurants, and attractions, immerse you in the sights, sounds, tastes and culture of each land, even the cast members are indigenous to the countries they represent. The attention to detail really is astounding. From Bratwurst in Bavaria, to crunchy crab snacks in Japan, the World Showcase at Epcot really has it all!

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Universal Islands of Adventure.

In a move sure to anger the Disnophiles I have included a non-Disney Park. (How dare he? I hear you cry). Well for a long time, I have to agree there really was no comparison. No one did it like Disney, the other parks were just parks, but Disney was, and still is a magical immersive experience. Then came a bespectacled little wizard from England and changed it all. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (TWWOHP) really did raise the bar, and it’s not like Islands of Adventure was a bad park before this. Hulk Roller coaster, The Jurassic Park River Adventure, Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls and Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-rat Barges, among several others are great rides, but somehow it was still a just a theme park, albeit an excellent one. So what do you do if you need some magic? Bring in a wizard!

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It’s impossible not to be taken aback by Hogsmeade, it feels like you have been transported into a Dickensian world, with cobbled pathways, tinker shops, and a rustic ale house. And these are not just store front facades either. Choose a wand, or rather be chosen by a wand at Olivanders, purchase a chocolate frog at Honeydukes, or quaff down a pint of Butter Beer in the Three Broomsticks Tavern, they are all exceptionally detailed and fully functioning outlets. TWWOHP is also complimented by 2 excellent attractions Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, an impressive simulator, and Dragon Challenge, a traditional roller coaster.

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The best overall attraction.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

I’ve avoided saying ride, as I don’t believe that in the majority of cases “ride” really encapsulates the experience. I have considered the queuing area and pre-ride in coming to my decision.

That said Twilight Zone Tower of Terror wins on all 3 counts.

As the rope drops, follow the hordes down Hollywood Boulevard to the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Pass through the cast iron gates and in to the beautifully detailed foyer. A secret passageway leads you to an impressive boiler room where you access the service elevator that takes you on a ride to the 13 floor then sends you plummeting back down to a chorus of shrieks from your fellow passengers. There are a few twists and turns along the way that add to the excitement, and it’s never the same ride twice so repeated riding is highly recommended.

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The best place to stay

There are four main “tourist” areas in the Orlando area. International Drive, Main Gate/192, Lake Buena Vista and the Park hotels inside Disney World. We haven’t actually stayed in the Main Gate/192 area, as this offers the least appeal unless your only consideration is price. Even then there is very little difference between this area, and International Drive, which offers a more central location, and better local facilities.

Having stayed at the other 3 locations several times, including the best “Disney” location, which is on the Boardwalk, for us there is a clear winner, Lake Buena Vista, more specifically one of the hotels that are within steps of Disney Springs (formally Downtown Disney). Our particular favourite is the Buena Vista Palace, as this not only shares the best location directly across the road from Disney Springs, it is also geared towards conference attendees, and so serves as a respite from the hordes of screaming children that can be enjoyed elsewhere.

As the best way to get around the parks is to drive, it makes sense to stay in the area that offers the best nightlife, so you can park the car and walk to the watering holes. Disney Springs has a number of very good restaurants, including the excellent Wolfgang Pucks Grand Café, and we are starting to see some good bars returning following the great Pleasure Island purge of 2008. Some of our favourites are the bar at The House of Blues the Lava Bar at Rainforest Café, and the bar at Raglan Road.

Disney Springs is also the best area to access the Disney transport system. If you stay in a Disney hotel, and want to us the system to go to a different hotel, you can only do this by changing at Disney Springs, or at the Transport  Hub at Magic Kingdom. There are direct links to all the Disney hotels from Disney Springs.

Oh yes, one other thing, did I mention the price? The Buena Vista Palace is comparable in quality to the Disney “luxury” hotels, but costs less than the Disney “Value” range.

The best event.

Epcot International Food and wine Festival

Ok, I admit it. I’ve only included a best event section so I can talk about my favourite thing in all of the parks, The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.

This annual event runs from late September to early November, each year, and sees the already excellent World Showcase at Epcot truly turned up to 11. (Dates Just announced for 2016 September 14th through November 14th)

The 11 countries that normally make up the world showcase are gate-crashed by food stalls from the world over, as Epcot becomes an epicurean epicentre, and the party capital of Disney World.

On our last visit in 2014 there were 26 food and drink stalls, each purveying a variety of tipples and nibbles to represent their countries individual taste and flair. The number of booths appear to grow each year, which is great unless you intend to partake in the ever popular “eat your way around the world”, or the intoxicating drink your way around the world challenge. In addition to some excellent comestibles there is plenty of entertainment, spanning from cooking shows, to live music.

You can pick up a passport from the Festival Welcome Centre, which lists each of the stall and their offerings. This is handy to help you plan your visit, and also to keep a record of how far you get if you try the drink challenge, trust me you won’t remember. Hic…….hic……

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The best restaurant

Victoria and Albert’s

The majority of our travels thus far have been taken pretty much with an open ended budget. This has afforded us the opportunity to eat in some of the best restaurants in the world, from Venice to New York and from Hong Kong to Las Vegas. It may therefore come as some surprise that not only is Victoria and Albert’s the best restaurant we have eaten at in Orlando. It’s the best restaurant we’ve eaten in anywhere – Take that Harry’s Bar!

Located inside the Grand Floridian Hotel, with a single seating each evening, and one-to-one service, the beautifully appointed dining room host just 14 Italian linen draped tables. But the sumptuous surroundings, and impeccable service are not the story here. Please enter the Master of Pasta, the God of Cod, his Holiness of Eton Mess, the Chef de let’s party Mr Scott Hunnel.

We’ve basked in the glory of Chef Hunnel’s brilliance on 3 separate occasions now, each time choosing the Grand Prix tasting menu, so it’s no fluke. The first time I had the Foie Gras it felt like my brain had been rewired to allow additional space to be allocated to the taste sensation. From the Amuse-Bouche, to the Steam-Punk delivered coffee, without exception everything we have eaten here (which between the 2 of us is about 50 different plates) has been exquisite. So when I finally decided to drop down to one knee, after 10 years with my now wife, this is where I did it.

 

 

Preparing for our late gap year

Einstein once said that time is a relative concept.

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I could almost feel the great man mocking me as I dragged my reluctant frame into another day of serfdom. It’s been 2 weeks now since the sold sign went up at our house, and let me tell you, it has been a long 2 weeks. We’re so close now that I can taste fragrant oils and exotic spices in the diesel plumes from the snaking traffic which delivers me to my place of toil.

I’m sure there’s a certain satisfaction in being content with the 9 to 5, but for me work has always been a necessary evil to be endured between vacations. There’s a chalk board on the wall in our kitchen, which ordinarily displays the number of days to our next holiday. But now things are different. Now there is a drawing of the world, but no countdown.

It’s an uncomfortable position we find ourselves in, we could be starting our adventure in as little as 4 weeks, but until contracts are exchanged; nothing is certain.

So how have we spent our first two weeks in limbo I hear you cry?

We’re anti-social.

Well that’s not entirely true. We had recently found Twitter, and I had a Facebook account, but Snapchat, Pintrest, and Instagram, were all new to us, as was, more importantly, blogging.

So the majority of the last two weeks has been spent getting us up to speed. Fortunately there’s a lot of good information out there. We used the free guide published by Mark Wiens at Migrationology.com but Nick and Dariece at goatsontheroad.com produce an equally excellent guide.

How to Start a Travel Blog: Follow These 5 Steps Now

How To Start a Travel Blog – A Guide for Beginners

Setting up, Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest and Snapchat, was a doddle; that said I’m not sure I quite get what Pintrest is all about as yet! We did struggle a bit with Facebook. Once you get your head around the fact that you need to set up a public “page” for your content which sits on top of your homepage, it kinda falls into place, but we did struggle to find the same quality of information for Facebook as was available for bloggers. Perhaps a post for the future once I’ve worked out how to use it properly myself.

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Should it stay or should I throw?

The things you own end up owning you. Tyler Durden says that in the movie “Fight Club” so it must be true.

We’ve been filling our home with assorted clutter for around 16 years now. Some of it should have been in the bin years ago, but some of it, furniture in particular, is actually quite nice. About 12 months before we decided to go travelling, we attempted to fill our void with new possessions, unfortunately consumerism is a fickle mistress and we were soon to return to our previous slump, albeit with nicer, if not necessarily more comfortable, furniture.

So the question is do we put the stuff in storage, or sell/give it away? Well firstly, back to the limbo. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 (unless I have to pay Joseph Heller a royalty for saying that, in which case it’s just a difficult question).

We can’t sell the furniture until we exchange contracts on the house, as any time up to then the sale could fall through. It’ll be devastating if that happens, and the situation won’t be improved if I have to curl up in a ball on the bare floor of an empty room to cry because I’ve sold my sofa, and my bed is in a skip!

To complicate matters further it transpires that long term storage is the last refuge of the sheepskin wearing dodgy geezers that trolled used car forecourts in the 70’s. Their prices are sacred knowledge, and a gauntlet of trails ye must pass to prove thyself worthy.

We did eventually crowbar prices from 5 of our nearest facilities. Storage King supplied us with the most competitive rates.

£35 per week for a 150 sq.ft unit,

£25 per week for a 100 sq.ft unit,

£20 per week for a 75 sq.ft unit.

I should however point out that these rates are only available on the 3rd Thursday of the month, when there is a south-westerly breeze, not exceeding 3kph, and Jupiter is descending in the 5th quadrant.

If you are considering putting your possessions into storage I would urge you measure each item you want to store, and calculate the footspace required. Using this method we cut our original estimate from 150 sq.ft to 100 sq.ft.

This also allowed us to work out the cost to store each item. 100 sq.ft at £25 gives us a cost per sq.ft of £2.50 per week. Therefore our divan bed, measuring 6′ x 3′ (stood on its end) would take up 18 sq.ft costing us £234 per annum to store. (Yikes!)

Carrying out this exercise actually made the decision not to store our possessions a no-brainer. If our travels extended beyond one year, which is certainly the intention, the cost of storage would soon outweigh the value of the goods.

So there we have it. With the exception of a handful of sentimental items, what we can’t sell we will give away, and the rest will go in a skip.

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The best things to do in Hong Kong

Many people visit Hong Kong as a stopover destination or as a short city break, making the mistake of thinking its size means there isn’t much to see or do…oh how they are mistaken! Despite the fact that Hong Kong (香港 Heūng Góng in Cantonese, meaning Fragrant Harbour) is a small Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, it has plenty to entertain visitors and keep people going back for more.

It is one of our favourite places and has so much to offer, we stayed for a period of around 12 days and still didn’t get anywhere near as much done as we’d have hoped. The list of things to see & do is endless and making the choice of what to experience in your trip can be overwhelming. We have picked some of our favourites, but this is by no means a complete list.

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Stretch your legs

The hustle & bustle of HK can be overwhelming to the first time visitor; if you’re not used to people not side stepping to get out of your way, or being asked if you want a suit every 30 seconds, it may take you a couple of days to adjust; people are going about their business and don’t need tourists getting under their feet; by day 2, you’ll be barging people out of the way along with the best of ‘em.

Markets are a must for any visitor to HK a couple we recommend are: Temple Street Night Market, & Ladies Market, but there are loads more to choose from all over.

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Harbour lights

Be sure to visit Victoria Harbour on an evening. The vista across the bay is beautiful during the day, but it’s on an evening when it really comes into its own, with city lights twinkling, and illuminated Junks bobbing on the water. Just don’t expect too much from the overrated “Symphony of Lights”, currently showing at 8pm each evening, it may be the ‘World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show’, but size isn’t everything!

Junk in Kowloon Bay

 

Don’t miss the Star attraction

If you have seen pictures of Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, you’ll have seen the iconic green & white Star Ferry. The Star Ferry transports passengers from Central, Tsim Sha Tsui & Wan Chai stations. You haven’t experienced Hong Kong if you haven’t jumped aboard one of these old boats, and sailed across the bay, with the ocean spray in your face, and just 20p lighter in the pocket!

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Sneak a Peak

The Peak on Hong Kong Island offers fantastic views of Kowloon across Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island itself, but you may have to hang around a while to enjoy the best of these, as it’s prone to cloud cover. Fortunately Bubba Gump’s was on hand to entertain us whilst we waited out the weather. To get to the Sky Terrace (at 428 metres above sea level), take the Funicular railway, the tram rises 396 metres above sea level; The Peak Tower is the free viewing observation desk and houses a number of shopping & retail outlets, there are also some trails to walk if you’re feeling energetic.

http://www.thepeak.com.hk/en/home.asp

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Central Park

Nan Lian Garden – 60 Fun Tak Road HK (Diamond Hill MTR Station) Kowloon, is a little oasis in the middle of the city, it is a traditional Chinese landscaped garden in the Tang Dynasty-style, which houses the Chi Lin nunnery. Adorned with water features, trees, rocks and traditional wooden structures right in the centre of the action; and surrounded by skyscrapers, the contrast is immense. It is a beautiful escape from the frenetic energy of the city.

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Don’t miss da vista

Take the 5.7KM cable car ride to Ngong Ping village where there are a variety of attractions to experience, you can climb the 268 steps to see the giant Tian Tan Buddha (which on a clear day is said to be visible from Macau) and visit the Po Lin monastery or take one of the many hiking trails to escape the crowds.

But to use an old travellers’ cliché “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”. The stunning aerial views of Lantau Island and the South China Sea are undoubtedly the star attraction here.

The cable car station is conveniently located next to Tung Chung Station (Exit B). Get there early and be prepared to queue as Ngong Ping 360 is understandably a popular attraction.

http://www.np360.com.hk/en/explore-np360/cable-car/

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Hills, thrills, and Panda bears.

Ocean Park is a theme/animal park nestled on the hillside on the south of Hong Kong Island where you can not only experience thrill rides, but you can also see a variety of animals (including cuddly Panda’s) up close. On the day we visited, we were literally the only people at the Panda enclosure; it was amazing watching them munch on their bamboo breakfast, we also at lunch in the Penguin enclosure restaurant. If you’re into thrill rides there are plenty to keep you enthralled; even the cable car to get to some of the rides was a thrill in itself. City bus Route 629 runs daily from Admiralty MTR Station or Central.

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A sprinkling of Disney magic

Let’s start by saying, we’ve met the mouse. Walt Disney World has been firmly at the top of our holiday list for the last 18 years. So how does the little brother stack up? There are numerous blogs, and lives, dedicated to arguing the virtues of one Disney Park over another. The consensus is pretty much the one you see first will be the best……..to you. In all honesty we never expected Hong Kong Disneyland to outshine its stateside counterparts, and were happy that the park was different enough to be enjoyed on its own merit.

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A Disney themed monorail builds the anticipation as it takes you from Sunny Bay MRT station direct to the park entrance on Lantau Island (use the Tung Chung MRT line to get to Sunny Bay Station). It was great to experience Grizzly Gulch, and Toy Story Land as we were unfamiliar with these, but equally we enjoyed the adaptations of old favorites like Splash Mountain, and Space Mountain.

Even if you have visited the larger Disney parks elsewhere you shouldn’t skip Hong Kong Disneyland, it’s still a great park, and does have a twinkle of the old Disney Magic.

Where to Macau?

If time permits we would highly recommend a short hop over to neighbouring Macau, but that’s another post………..

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Hawaii 4-0

There’s no doubt, it’s a bit of a trek from the UK to Hawaii, but you only turn 40 once and I wanted to do something I’d remember, and as it was my birthday and by better half was paying I thought, “hey, what the hell.”

For someone who’s travelled to America many times, Honolulu felt very familiar, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, we haven’t been to the states a dozen times because we hate the place, but rather naively I had expected to be greeted by Hula Girls and men sporting tribal tattoos.

Head to the Head

The vista down Waikiki beach with Diamond Head in the distance is the quintessential Hawaii postcard shot. It’s easily walkable from the centre of town, and the hike wasn’t to the top wasn’t too taxing. The view from the top will bring a tear to your eye, and if that doesn’t the gale force wind certainly will.

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Spamalot

The restaurants in Honolulu are a pretty even split between Japanese, and American chains. There are however places to sample the traditional cuisines. We tried tuna poke and butterfish in banana leaf which were excellent, and Loco Moco, which was not so good. Hawaii’s obsession with Spam is well foundered, it was everywhere. You can even get a Spam Burger at McDonalds.

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Do you think he saw us?

The highlight for the trip for us was Kualoa Ranch. The quad bikes were a lot of fun, and as you turn the corner and the plains opens out in front of you can almost hear the Jurassic Park Theme playing. It’s little wonder that this area features in so many Hollywood films, it really is breath-taking. Unfortunately the dinosaurs weren’t out on the day we visited, but we didn’t let that spoil our day.

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The Polynesian Cultural Centre

At last I’ve found it Hula Girls and tribal tattoos. To get a feel for the Polynesian culture the cultural centre is a must do. You can have a traditional Luau (traditional Hawaiian Feast), ride in a dug-out canoe, take dance lessons, or just wander around and enjoy the 7 different themed lands. The park is staffed primarily with natives from the individual islands so it’s really authentic. The guy who presents the show at Samoa was hilarious, if you visit Oahu whatever you do don’t miss this show.

Is the Mouse in the House?

We couldn’t leave Oahu without checking out Aulani, the Disney Hotel at Ko Olina. Disney magic and a glorious beach front location, what’s not to love? The price? Oh yes, but I wasn’t on a backpackers budget back then!!

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It’s happening!

Me & my husband met whilst working in Spain (Majorca) in 2000. We married in 2009 and in 2015 we decided we had had enough and wanted to get away.. ?
We have loved to holiday and have travelled to some great places including Mexico, Hong Kong, Hawaii, USA ( yes, I know Hawaii is in the USA ) and lots of Europe, but the depressing part is returning home and having to get back to the daily grind.
So, we’re selling up! Yes, Selling our house & car and jetting off. We don’t really know what will happen or where we will go…but the house is sold (subject to contract), so all we know is; it’s happening! ?
Join us on our adventure, on our Late Gap Year!

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