When we went to America in 2011 to go around theme parks, people naturally thought we were going to Florida. Haven’t you already done that, they’d ask. Will you be going to Disney? Will you be seeing the new Harry Potter stuff and enjoying Orlando? It took me a few attempts once or twice to actually tell people we were off to the northern parts of the USA to do all the parks 99% of people hadn’t heard of, and the main thing they asked was simply this:
Why do this? Why go on a huge trip that would cost a lot, take a lot of time to sort out and go to these out-of-the-way places? I mean, everyone’s heard of Magic Kingdom, but nobody’s heard of Cedar Point, at least of the general co-workers and friends who I talk to. So these parks must be rubbish and Universal Studios and the like must be the best parks ever because they’re so popular.
Of course, this is a pretty narrow-minded way of looking at things. Cedar Point and the Six Flags parks were all fantastic, and Busch Gardens Williamsburg – well, it was different. But the trip itself was fantastic. There would be a few things we’d change of course, and those of you interested can see what we did elsewhere on this blog.
But this isn’t about that trip. As I mentioned, tell anyone you’re off to America to go to theme parks and, naturally, they think Florida. I guess it’s like people in other countries saying they’re coming to the UK – their friends will automatically assume London. There are four places in America which people automatically assume – places that are quintessentially America – New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Florida.
Florida is a great location with several excellent theme parks, though they are a lot more family-oriented than the likes of Six Flags and Cedar Point, which are more adrenalin-junkie-based. Islands Of Adventure and Busch Gardens Tampa mainly hold their own compared to the Six Flags parks, but Islands Of Adventure lacks the larger roller coasters. It’s everything you need for a good theme park trip, all in one place, though there doesn’t seem to be that much to do. But nevertheless, we vowed to ourselves we would try – and try we did.
First, a quick point. We’ve done Florida before. In fact, we’ve done Florida three times prior to this trip, which I’ll quickly talk about here.
The first was back in 2004, after my wife and I had finished university. We rented a villa with a few friends, one of whom agreed to drive whilst we were out there, and went to Universal, Islands Of Adventure, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and Wet n Wild. There was a hurricane. We got addicted to the Hulk at Islands Of Adventure. It was the first time my wife had been to America, and the addiction started there.
The second was in 2006, just my wife and I, for a week. We stopped in a hotel. Big mistake. The free shuttles provided to get to the parks were very prohibitive regarding times, meaning that we spent only a measly four hours at Animal Kingdom, and we were actually getting bored part way through the holiday. We said that, if we were to go back to Florida, it would be a few years later, and with other people.
In 2009 we did just that. My wife, her two teenage nephews and myself rented a villa and drove. Universal Studios, Islands Of Adventure, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Wet n Wild and Aquatica. Lots and lots of fun, for two weeks (in fact, it may have been a bit more). There was only one day when we didn’t do a theme park.
I judge everything by holidays. In 2010 we went to Australia to see my parents. In 2011 we did the big road trip. Meaning that there had to be a holiday in 2012 too. Florida was decided on as we fancied going to theme parks, but also fancied a rest with some beach trips, and also something that was relatively easy to organise. Call us creatures of habit if you like.
And Florida was relatively easy to organise. We found websites with villas on, which the owners themselves managed the listings for and allowed us to get one for cheaper than normal. We found decent flights. We found a few car deals and decided which one. The only other things were travel insurance, ESTA and theme park tickets. It took us about a week of looking on-and-off to find the best deals, then we booked everything in the space of an hour.
I guess I’d best do a quick run down.
The flights we booked with Thomson. We initially looked at the deals where you could get a flight, car hire and hotel included, but we REALLY wanted a villa, so we said just to go for the flight only. That and we realised the car was a false saving, as you still had to pay for the car to be insured. If we booked the car separately, it included insurance, and actually cost less than the car insurance Thomson said you HAD to get. Cunning.
The villa, as mentioned, we found through a site dealing directly with the villa owners. It was bigger than what we needed, but if you want anything smaller than a 3 bedroom you’re going into condo or apartment territory, which generally don’t have their own pools (again, something that we really wanted) and are further out of the way than what we’d like.
The car took a bit of tracking down, and we’re always a bit uncertain about what size to get. We’ve got the two of us, two large suitcases and hand luggage. We searched through all the major rental companies, found which ones operated out of Sanford (an important point to remember) and then stumbled across a special offer on Skyscanner, I think it was. We plumped for the smallest car and found it exactly the right size for us, even if it was a 4-door.
ESTA and travel insurance are boring, but necessary. ESTA is required to enter the country, and ensure you get it with a fair bit of time beforehand. You do have to pay about $14 USD, and ensure you get it from the actual ESTA people themselves – there are a lot of people out there trying to scam you. It lasts about two years. Travel insurance – well, it’s not ABSOLUTELY necessary, but you’re best getting it just in case you have a slip – otherwise, you’ll have to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars just for a doctor to have a look at you.
Theme park tickets though are always good fun. We knew beforehand that we’d do Universal Studios, Islands Of Adventure, Aquatica, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. Didn’t need to do Wet n Wild this time, as Aquatica has replaced that. Fortunately, we found the exact ticket for us! Access to these five parks for the two week period, for a decent price. Check around various websites, but ensure you are actually getting official tickets. Again, several places are scams which try to sell fake or used tickets. You cannot use a used ticket as it’s coded to your fingerprint, and in Florida you’ll probably come across several places trying to sell used tickets or buy your tickets off you. Also, as obvious as this sounds, ensure you’re getting a TICKET. Not a voucher. Not something where you’ve got to sit through a 3 hour high-pressure buy-a-timeshare seminar. A ticket. And that they’ll send it to you. Ensure you get it as soon as possible. When we went in 2006, we organised everything the week before and the tickets actually arrived two days before we were due to leave. Alas, we weren’t in, but a trip to the post depot the next day (the day before flying) got them in the nick of time.
I haven’t mentioned holiday money! This is always a contentious issue. Check around for the best prices. We normally find M&S, Ramsdens or, just recently, Asda have had the best rates. This time we used Asda, went into our local store and got them there and then (whilst annoying some really impatient guy in the queue behind us, who said angrily as I started to get mine “how long are you gonna be?”. When I told him just a few minutes he stormed off. A few minutes later I was done and he came back to find a nice, healthy queue behind us to wait in for even longer. I secretly smiled to myself).
Now, we normally get half our money in cash and half in travellers cheques. Travellers cheques are basically cheques for a specified amount, which shops accept. You do have to sign them, make it out to the store and date it (and don’t do what I did in New York once and use the British date format, DDMMYYYY, use the US one, MMDDYYYY). The store will accept it, and give you the change in cash. When going out we’ll take some cash, and normally a travellers cheque to change.
The main thing about TCs is that, if they are stolen, you only lose that cheque. If I lose a $50 TC, I’ve lost $50. However, they’re all numbered and you hang on to the receipt, which lists them all. As you use them you’re supposed to cross off which ones you’ve used. That way, if one is stolen, you can call the company that issued it and they’ll send you a replacement, normally in 24 hours. Which does sound a bit ripe for abuse, but I’m sure there’s some way to stop that.
Lots of companies are offering prepaid cards now, saying TCs aren’t being accepted any more. That simply isn’t true, from what I’ve seen. Yes, there are apparently a tiny minority (and that’s being generous) of stores that don’t accept them any more, simply because of the fuss of filling them out. But we like the security. If you take a prepaid card and it gets stolen, that’s all your money gone. Not to mention ATMs aren’t as widespread in America as here, and they charge more often.
So, I guess, it’s on to the next part – day 1, the trip over!