We flew World Traveller Plus (premium economy) with British Airways from London Gatwick to (MCO) Orlando international airport. We were flying on one of BA’s recently refurbished Boeing 777 aircraft. Their World Traveller Plus cabin has 48 seats in a 2-4-2 configuration which suited us, travelling as a couple. The service was excellent, we were offered a pre flight cava, an aperitif, then lunch including rainbow salad, a choice of steak fillet with porcini herb crumb, Riggwelter Yorkshire Ale jus and dauphinoise potato / Massaman chicken with jasmine rice and choi sum cabbage, followed by lemon and caramel cheesecake, plus cheese and biscuits. Wine, soft drinks, tea and coffee were served with lunch. Orange juice and water were offered at regular intervals, as well as a Magnum ice cream. Before landing afternoon tea with a choice of chicken / cheese sandwich, cake and a drink. The entertainment was good, we watched a couple of films including Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. I had a technical issue, my seat’s headphone socket was broken and unable to be fixed for the flight. We were offered alternative seats in the middle section, but decided to stay in our original seats, switching places with each other to alternate between watching the screen or reading to pass the time.  We landed 45 minutes early which was a pleasant bonus.

MCO Orlando Airport

Having arrived into a variety of USA airports, Orlando (MCO) has to be the worst experience to date! I would not choose to land here again if possible in the future. All visitors are told to turn right on arrival, where 3/4 of the hall is sectioned off and we spent almost 2 hours queueing to clear immigration. There were no toilet facilities in this area, parents were having to carry babies and children as pushchairs are collected in baggage reclaim. We spotted one mum who had travelled with a pram that folded down into hand luggage size, a godsend for this endurance event.  We were straight through immigration once we reached the desk, even on a new ESTA as we had visited the USA before. In other airports, they have a section for returning visitors with ESTAs so you don’t need to queue with the first time tourists. The airport is unimpressive, it’s tired and felt dirty. After the shuttle, the escalators weren’t working so it was a choice of queuing for 2 lifts or taking the stairs with your luggage. On the other hand, our car hire experience was excellent. We have Avis preferred, so our name was listed on an electronic board, giving our car bay. The keys were inside, we loaded up and after a brief pause at the exit to collect our paperwork, we were on our way.

A tip at this point is that if you haven’t rented a Sun Pass with your car hire, make sure you have some dollars in cash, particularly coins, before you leave the airport, so that you can pay the tolls on route to your accommodation. We went through 3 tolls from the airport to the villa management office, they are small charges at $1.75 and the first 2 were manned with staff to give you change if required, however the final one at $1 was exact change only with a basket for coins.

Calabay Parc Davenport

We were staying in a Disney Area Executive Villa which would be allocated on arrival. Our first stop was to collect the keys from 3204 Rolling Oaks Boulevard, this turned out to be the Ocean Holidays office situated in a shopping centre. Our villa paperwork was ready to go, we paid the deposit and set our GPS for Calabay Parc in Davenport. Our home for the next 3 weeks is spacious, we have 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a huge living space with lounge and kitchen combined. Our welcome pack had the ingredients for breakfast with juice, milk, tea, coffee, butter, jam, bread and cereal. The outside space is a covered pool area with jacuzzi, free shape pool and outdoor furniture. We were pleased with the property, it’s a bit old fashioned in terms of decoration but very homely and comfortable. Our WiFi is 5G which makes for speedy work updates when required and no issues with uploading our photos and video at the end of each day. The neighbourhood is cute, with strict community rules regarding parking and bin collections. The location is good, we have a Walmart superstore 5 miles from the property on US27 where we completed our first food shopping trip. There are dining options in either direction within a 5 minute drive. For the parks, Disney is a 15 minute drive and Universal 25 minutes.

SunPass Mini Orlando

Our other purchase on the first day was a SunPass from Walgreens, these can be bought at multiple outlets including Walmart, CVS Pharmacy, Publix etc. There are 2 options, the first is a disposable one time only SunPass Mini transponder at $4.99 or a multiple pass at $19.99. You have 20 minutes to complete the registration once activated. You need to enter the vehicle details, your accommodation and personal card details. The mini device is set up to work between 2 dates and is invalid once removed from the vehicle, so take care when fixing it to your windscreen. The minimum first credit is $10 and then you can top it up as required during your holiday.

The weather’s hotter than the average for this time of year, our first day reached 94°F / 34°C which was warm and humid, it hasn’t rained so far although rain and thunderstorms are on the forecast for early next week.

Davis Islands Tampa

We combined a visit to Busch Gardens with a drive around downtown Tampa. Davis Islands has a lovely eclectic collection of pastel coloured properties dating back to the 1920’s. Homes here have boat lifts in the garden and golf buggies for local transport. We stopped at the American Social on Harbour Island for happy hour, which included a craft beer at half price and a bucket of oysters for 6 bucks!

Cafe Tu Tu Tango

One of the best things about spending Sunday in America is brunch! We make no apology for enjoying our food and drink, it plays a big part in our travel planning. On our first Sunday we went to Cafe Tu Tu Tango on I-Drive, we were in the queue as it opened at 10am. Without a reservation there was a 1.5 hour wait or take stools at the bar, which we did. We went all out and opted for the Bottomless Brunch at $25 and Bottomless Mimosas for $15. The place was buzzing and the unlimited food & drink fabulous – highly recommended.

We’ve got the hang of shopping at the outlets in Orlando. The trick is not to buy everything you want in one go. There are a couple of reasons why:

The shops ask for you to enter your email at the till when making a purchase, we’d recommend doing this – as we’ve had emails offering us additional 10-20% discounts within 24-48 hours afterwards. Simply show that email (on your phone) at the till on your next visit to take advantage of the extra discount.

With most purchases we were given additional discount vouchers to spend more at that shop, or ones situated within that shopping centre, however these ones are only valid for the same day.

These were the shopping centres we visited during our stay in Orlando:
Orlando International Premium Outlets with 180 shops
Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets with 160 shops (of the two we preferred this one as it’s more contained and easier to navigate)
The Mall @ Millenia is a modern shopping centre including Macys, Nieman Marcus and Bloomingdales, the Christmas decorations were up, and Santa was in residence.
Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores with 45 shops

Our best bargain was Levi jeans at $39.99 a pair at Vineland, if you buy 3 in a single purchase (these can be mixed with his / hers and different styles).

We drove over to spend Sunday exploring St Pete Beach and Clearwater, it’s around 1.5 hour drive from Orlando via the I-4 depending on traffic. We found evidence of the dreaded Red Tide in one place, the rotting fish smelt strong and was attracting a variety of bird life, including what we thought were black vultures. The main beaches were clean and had plenty of people enjoying the sand and sea.The “Gulp Coast” of St Pete & Clearwater has an abundance of craft beer breweries, there’s 37 of them listed in a craft beer trail, all situated within 1 hour’s drive! We stopped at the Sea Dog Brewery in Treasure Island to sit at their waterfront bar.

Rather than give you a day by day account of what we got up to during our 3 weeks, we’ve highlighted the places we visited below and loaded photo albums with captions to Facebook.

Disney Springs: A great place to enjoy browsing a wide range of shops or dining at 1 of 50 restaurants. Take the balloon flight Aerophile, or a vintage amphicar tour or catch the water taxi. Go bowling, to the cinema, watch Cirque du Soleil or visit the House of Blues. There’s something for everyone at Disney Springs in Orlando. Free parking for visitors with hire cars, and bus links to other hotels. Disney Springs Photo Album

Busch Gardens: Is an hour’s drive from Orlando via the I-4 W (no tolls) or you can catch the free Mears bus. We enjoyed the combination of traditional roller coaster style rides and safari options through the Serengeti Plain. For adrenalin junkies SheiKra is a must! Our tip, sit on the left hand side of the train for the best views of the animals. Also, make sure you mention on arrival if you have a 14 day ticket, as parking is free! Busch Gardens Photo Album

International Drive: Generally shortened to I-Drive is a dual carriageway road that stretches for 14 miles. The hotels, restaurants and attractions can be easily accessed via the I-Ride trolley service. Icon Orlando has the 360 wheel and Starflyer swings with free car parking. Point Orlando has indoor sky diving and Wonderworks for attractions, as well as a good choice of bars and restaurants.

SeaWorld: We visited this park a couple of times. NB. Parking is free with 14 day tickets, just show your ticket on arrival. On our first day the craft beer festival was on, so we walked around the park and tasted 2 out of the 100 beers on offer. We also paid $5 to ride the SkyTower for a bird’s eye view of SeaWorld, built in the 1970’s and a height of 400 feet. We went to meet the Manatee keeper at the rehabilitation centre, which gave us a close encounter with these gentle giants at feeding time. On our second visit the waiting times were only 5-15 minutes on the rides, so we started with a thorough soaking on Infinity Falls. We tried the drying pods for a laugh, and then the heavens opened! Next up was Manta, which was amazing, my first experience of a face down roller coaster. The rain started bouncing down again, so we took shelter in the Wild Artic and Shark Encounter, before calling it a day. This is the beauty of 14 day tickets, there’s no stress about trying to do everything in one go. SeaWorld Orlando Photo Album

Universal CityWalk: The Universal hub connecting theme parks, hotels, entertainment, shops and restaurants. Described as the “Epicenter of Awesome” we enjoyed our first visit at sunset. Our tip arrive after 6pm to avoid $25 car park fee! Universal CityWalk Photo Album

Winter Park: We took a scenic boat tour from Lake Osceola in Winter Park, an hour long and $14 each it was a fun experience and Florida’s longest running excursion. The company been operating since 1938! We visited 3 lakes using canals created by timber companies to float logs out of the forests. It’s a fascinating insight into who lives in the $4 million dollar houses and the history of the area. The tour included Lake Osceola to Lake Virginia via the Fern Canal, followed by Lake Maitland via the Venetian Canal. Later we walked gastronomy row in Park Ave where we had lunch and watched the SunRail trains stop at the station (free car parking for 4 hours available next door). Winter Park Photo Album

Kennedy Space Center: A bucket list moment, we combined a visit to the Kennedy Space Center with a rocket launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 and it was awesome! Mike managed to capture the emotional event  when I was lost for words….

“We watched one of Space X’s Falcon 9s launch today at the Kennedy Space Centre, from the same pad that launched the first Saturn V that orbited the moon.

I remember watching some of those launches as a child, and it was amazing to be in the original VIP area, from where the TV cameras captured all the action. The old images are etched into my brain, and I was startled when I looked across the water to see Falcon 9 and the view was identical to the one I saw so many years ago.

The rockets hisses and steams as the liquid oxygen is topped off a few minutes before launch, and it looks almost like a living thing, in the way a steam train does. The PA system broadcasts the engineers at Space X’s HQ, they’re so calm, all clipped vowels and quiet voices: “We’re go for launch.” The thousands around us are far more excited, we woop and clap in anticipation.

The huge cloud of steam erupts outwards bang on schedule as the gantry falls away, and Falcon 9 clears the tower, already travelling at more than 100MPH. The huge, incredibly bright rooster tail appears, longer than the ship itself, and it looks unreal – like a poor attempt at CGI from an old Buck Rogers TV Show.

And then the sound arrives.

I wish I had the words to describe it for you. You feel it at first, in your chest, as though you have been shoved. Then you feel the ground moving and finally a deep boom envelopes you. Just as that eases, there’s the most incredible noise – I can only describe it as the air ripping and tearing. It’s frightening for its weirdness. And then before you know it, it has passed, leaving you shocked at the power, and for some reason, a little emotional.

What a fantastic day, and an experience I will never forget.” Kennedy Space Center Photo Album

Disney’s Magic Kingdom: We decided to book tickets for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party to visit Magic Kingdom. These gave us entry from 4PM so we could enjoy a couple of daylight hours before the event started at 6PM. The tickets were $99 each and parking at the transportation centre $25. A short monorail ride and we were at the theme park entrance. It was busy, however well organised, and before we knew it we were strolling down main street. During the evening Space Mountain and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train rides had a wait time 30-60 minutes. Thunder Mountain was 15 mins, Pirates of the Caribbean just 5 mins. We wondered at the technology behind the Monsters Inc Laugh Floor, it was great entertainment.

The firework display was awesome, Tinkerbell flew out from Cinderella’s castle and the illuminations on the castle changed constantly through the performance. We couldn’t find a front row space to watch the first parade at 8.30PM so we made sure we were first in line for the start of the late one at 11PM. MVMCP is a great festive event, it provides a good opportunity for a condensed visit to this theme park, the range of complimentary snacks are fun, our favourite was ginger molasses cookie and eggnog from Sleepy Hollow. Magic Kingdom – Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party Photo Album

Old Town: There’s a classic car show and cruise every Saturday at Old Town in Kissimmee. The classics start arriving from 1PM, we visited mid afternoon and there was a good selection of vehicles already parked up for us to browse. The Old Town has an eclectic mix of shops and dining venues situated in a recreation of a classic Florida town. The Saturday Nite Classic Car Cruise is at 8.30PM where the classic cruise down the brick streets. We also visited the Fun Spot next door, which has some classic fairground rides available. Old Town Classic Car Cruise Photo Album

Celebration: We combined a visit to the Old Town with Celebration as they are almost next door to each other (1.5 miles apart). This area was developed by the Disney corporation in the 1990’s and designed to look like an early 20th century Florida town. It’s a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours walking or cycling around, bikes are available for hire from the hotel.

Swimming with Manatees in Florida

Crystal River: The place to go swimming with manatees and another bucket list moment on this trip. We booked a 6:15am tour with River Ventures, which is a 2 hour drive from Orlando. Crystal River & Homosassa in Florida are the only places in the United States where it is legal to swim with manatees.

These marine mammals are a protected species, so there are strict rules about observing them and leaving any interaction with humans to be their decision. It’s the start of the manatee season in Florida (Nov-Mar) at the moment, they are just returning to spend the winter months resting in the warm spring waters found in this area, as well as feasting on the local sea grasses. When the Gulf ocean drops below 62°F the manatees take refuge in the thermal springs which provide a constant temperature of 73°F. Swim with manatees photo album

Miami: We drove down to Miami from Orlando, spending an overnight on our way to Key West. What a place – it’s been 20 years since our last visit. We met with old school friends for lunch in Fort Lauderdale, there’s some seriously large boats docked along the waterways. I also wanted to stop in Hollywood to see the beach boardwalk. We checked into our hotel and went straight out to explore as the sun was setting. I’d noted the names of a couple of places we could spend happy hour, the first one, at Sweet Liberty was a success with oysters at 95 cents a piece to enjoy whilst sipping a Tom Collins. Our bar tender gave us a tip for the next place, Doraku on Lincoln Road which was excellent. It was Black Friday, the shops were busy well into the evening and the pavement cafes full. In the morning we had time to cruise Ocean Drive, then onto Little Havana to buy some Cuban cigars and find a place for breakfast before our drive down to Key West. We loved the vibe in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood & Miami, we’ll definitely be back in the future to spend more time in this area of Florida. Miami Photo Album

Key West: I’d forgotten about the tedious drive through the Keys when we planned our mini road trip. It’s only 164 miles from Miami, however mostly single lane road and a speed limit of 35-55 MPH. If we visit Key West again, we’ll either take the express ferry service from Fort Myers / Marco Island, an internal flight or cruise ship! There’s a special atmosphere along the waterfront at Mallory Square for sunset, every evening is a party.  We watched the sunset cruise boats and drank our mojitos as the sun dipped into the sea, the finale raising a cheer from the crowd. We walked the length of Whitehead and Duval Streets stopping in between at the Southernmost point even though it was pitch black by then. We caught the last courtesy bus back to our hotel after an evening meal. In the morning we secured a table at Blue Heaven for Sunday brunch in their funky courtyard before making the journey back through the Florida Keys. Key West Photo Album

Naples: We enjoyed the drive along the Highway 41 through the Everglades,  it was very straight and scenic with a variety of airboat tour centres, plus we spotted crocs/gators on route. At the end of our 240 mile drive, it was a pleasure to pull up outside The Inn On Fifth and find free valet parking at our hotel. Again it was sunset when we set out to explore our surroundings on foot. We dined at the seafood restaurant Citrus and breakfasted at Jane’s Garden Cafe, both of which were very good. The last stop before we headed North was Tin City. We split our journey back to Orlando with a stop in Sarasota, we had to see the No1 beach in the USA at Siesta Key. Naples Photo Album

We spent the last full day of our holiday back in Orlando doing some last minute shopping at the outlets in the morning. Plus another wander around Winter Park, where we went to the epic sweet shop Rocket Fizz. After checking out of our villa, we parked the car at Universal, where we used the ferry boat service to visit some hotels. The temperature had dropped, it was the coldest day we’d seen during our trip at 54°F.  Volcano Bay waterpark was closed due to the weather, visitors were wearing hoodies, bobble hats and gloves, a stark contrast to the shorts and t-shirts from when we first arrived.

The journey home was uneventful, MCO airport was as unimpressive on departure as it had been on arrival. We both slept well on the flight back thanks to our seats in World Traveller Plus (premium economy), the evening meal was excellent (steak) for airplane food, however the breakfast was disappointing with a cold croissant and fruit bar.

As always the USA didn’t disappoint, we’re already planning our next trip for 2019.

We have posted general photos for this trip here: Florida Trip 2018