Turkey Day on a Ship

One year ago today, we were boarding a ship to enjoy our third straight Thanksgiving on a cruise. As I sit here and look back on that today, I realize just how much I’ll miss not spending Thanksgiving on board this year. Couldn’t be helped, though, with our daughter Bayley at college this year, we didn’t really figure her schedule would cooperate, and this isn’t grade school anymore, you can’t just pull a kid out of college classes for a few days and expect the professors to let her make that work up. The education comes first. Thankfully, we’ll still be spending the holiday with her, as we’re driving down Tuesday evening to spend a few days with her. More on that at a later date, for now let’s head back to last year.

Thanksgiving on a cruise ship is a blast, no cooking or cleaning to worry about, no stress of hosting family, just a week of relaxation and fun. On this trip, my mother and step-father were with us, as they wanted to take us all on one last family vacation before Bayley started college. Frankly, without them paying most of our fare, our string of Thanksgiving cruises would have been broken, as we simply weren’t in a position to do a cruise last year. So let’s look back on that week:

The Ship

The Breeze is the largest ship we’ve been on to date, and we were all interested to see how that played out. It also represented a departure from the normal decor that adorns most of the contemporary lines (gaudy chic? :)). The breeze’s decorum is definitely one of my favorites to date:

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The ship was very easy to navigate, and offered plenty of food choices. I enjoy a good burger, and definitely liked being on a ship with Guy’s Burger Joint. The Pig Patty was a winner for me. Additionally, BlueIguana offers a delicious steak burrito. Another yummy stop was Fat Jimmy’s C-Side BBQ, which is only open on sea days. We tried it on day one, and overall wasn’t bad. The line’s generally kinda long right when it opens, so if you go, wait until it’s been open an hour or so. Frankly, Guy’s and Blue Iguana are the same the first day or two. Regardless of th wait, it was nice to have more than just the buffet and pool grill to eat at. My only complaint was the pizza station, as it takes way too long to get a slice of pizza on a Carnival ship. We experienced that on our previous two Thanksgiving cruises (both on Carnival too). Minor annoyance most of the time, but after skipping dinner to spend extra time in Curacao, pizza was one of the only things open when we got back on board, and if I recall, I waited 45 min for two slices. Yikes. Eh, we were on a ship, so one little thing like that’s not going to ruin my day.

Activities on the Breeze were in abundance. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, we love to stay active on sea days, especially if there’s a trivia event, which there were plenty of on the Breeze. We attended several, and even managed to win a couple. It is amusing to watch the people who take trivia on board way too seriously, too. Arguing with the person running trivia over whether an answer is right or not (especially when you’re blindingly wrong) seems a bit ridiculous when you’re on vacation, but to each his own. It’s all in good fun, and it’s not like the prize is super valuable, although I admit we enjoy winning them, and have at least one from each of the four Carnival cruises we’ve been on.







The ship has several things to do outside of scheduled activities, and we took advantage of two of them. The water slides were an absolute blast, as was the ropes course. The course is situated up high and provides a great view of the ocean on a sea day. I’ve got GoPro footage of my trek around it, definitely a highlight of our time on board.

The Stops

We broke one of our rules on this one, as all four of our stops were back to back. Normally we like an itinerary that breaks it up, but for this trip it was a no-brainer. We went easy with activity scheduling to avoid getting all stressed about planning. I’ll lay out what we did stop by stop. Some of this is probably a repeat from my ‘Choosing Cruise Excursions‘ post, so I won’t go too deep, but we had a blast in every port!

Grand Turk: This was our planned beach day. It’s a tiny strip of sand with little to do, and served as an excellent choice for hanging out on the beach since you basically walk off the ship and right to the beach. We did walk through the shops, picked a couple of things up, etc, but overall just planned to lay on the beach or snorkel. While we were hanging out on the beach, someone came by selling helicopter tours. After he walked by, we discussed it and decided to spend a little money and have some fun. My wife stayed behind, concerned about her motion sickness, so it was just four of us. Since we had a group, they cut $10/pp off the price for the 8-ish minute ride, for a cost of $40/pp. We had an absolute blast, and had a great view of our ship and the beach where my wife was waiting for us. Well worth the money in our opinion, and frankly I think my wife would have been fine, it was a very smooth ride.













Dominican Republic: For our second stop, we’d booked a dune buggy tour ahead of time with Pro Excursions. While the port experience was one of the worst we’ve had (covered in that past post I mentioned above), the dune buggies were an absolute blast, one of my favorite excursions, and any stress getting the correct taxi was worth it. We were covered in mud when we were done, and smiling the whole time. I think the pictures say it all :)

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Curacao: We got off the ship with no plan whatsoever. We figured if there were tour guides offering island tours at a good price, we’d grab one, but if not, we’d just walk around and shop. As we got off, we found the tour operator stand, and grabbed a cheap tour. It was a little over two hours, if I recall, and half of that was probably spent in traffic :). Beautiful island, but they definitely share some of the traffic problems cities in the US have. Our time in port was 2pm -11pm local time, and by the time we got back from the tour, most of the shops were starting to close up. We were able to do a little shopping, and did walk around the area a bit.

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Aruba: We had a blast here. My wife had set up a private tour before we went, so it was just the 5 of us in a van with the guides. The tour took us all over the island, and included stops at Philip’s Animal Garden and a local donkey sanctuary (among regular scenic stops). Our guide had lived on the island most of his life, and obviously knew his stuff. This was a 5 hour tour, and we enjoyed every minute of it, as it basically took us from one end to the other. When we got back, we walked around the shops for a while, picked up a few things, and headed back to the ship not long before departure. Aruba is a very beautiful island, and is on my short list of ones I want to go back to.

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We also bought Faster to the Fun passes for trip, which I know some people don’t think Carnival should sell. For those who aren’t familiar, they sell a limited amount per cruise, and a single FTTF pass covers everyone in the cabin. Benefits of the pass include priority boarding, priority tendering (which we didn’t need on this trip), stateroom available as soon as you get on, priority line access at guest services, and priority debark. My main reasons for getting it were priority embarkation and debarkation, as being Gold level we wouldn’t otherwise get priority there. We treat boarding day as an extra sea day, and like getting on as soon as we can. For debarkation, Charlotte’s an 11 hour drive from Miami, so getting off as early as possible helps me get home in time to some sleep before I have to go back to work the next day. We bought a pass for my parents cabin, too, and we all found it worth the cost ($50 per cabin). For the first time in a long time, I had to use guest services for a couple of things, and not having to wait in the long regular line was a huge benefit.

Overall, this was one of our best cruises to date. A great crew, plenty of activities, and some great stops made for yet another awesome Thanksgiving on board a Carnival ship. I highly recommend cruising over turkey day at least once!

Our New Adventure!

As I’ve alluded to in my last couple of posts, our trip to Ft Lauderdale wasn’t really a vacation. Throughout my daughter’s final year of high school, my wife and I had talked about her going back to work after the kid left for college, she just had no idea what she wanted to do. After returning from our Bermuda cruise, I was looking for ways to get more involved in the travel industry, and happened to come across CruiseOne’s franchise program. I brought it up to my wife, and she was sold right away. Having not been a fan of the franchise model in the past (especially after watching my dad’s experience in owning a 7-11 franchise while I was growing up) I was skeptical, so I spent the next couple of months doing a bunch of research on the company and reading anything I could on their franchise program.

The end result was that I found very little in the way of negative info, and came away pretty excited about the possibilities. My wife signed up for a prospective franchisee webcast, and away things went. Fast forward to October, and we were headed down for our new franchisee training and starting this new journey. I admit that prior to doing this I felt travel agents were a thing of the past, but as we learned, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The way the service is delivered is definitely changing, but I’ve come to see that the need is very much alive. Many people don’t really enjoy all the research and planning that goes in to it the way we do, and there are still plenty of deals to be had that aren’t visible when just searching a given agent’s site.

Since we got back home last month, she’s been hard at work with the business. She’s even booked a couple of trips, and has a few more she’s researching for different people. It’s fun to watch, as I can tell she enjoys it. She’ll be upstairs in her office all day focused on travel planning and making her way through the sea of training we now have access to, and eventually come downstairs for dinner all nice and relaxed, a feeling I rarely have when I leave work :). There’s still plenty to be done, especially on the marketing front, but that will come in time. One of the nice things about this setup is that it isn’t our primary source of income, which has multiple benefits:

  • If things are slow with the business, it doesn’t add to our stress levels
  • We’re able to take the time off to visit some of the places and ships we’re selling to our customers, so we get a chance to ensure what we’re selling is up to snuff
  • The commission isn’t the priority, ensuring that her customers are booked with the right cruise line / land tour / resort that matches their taste.
  • We control the number of clients she’s juggling at any one time to ensure that she’s not overloaded and has plenty of time to properly focus on those clients she does choose to take on.

This doesn’t mean anything changes with my blog, I’m still going to call it as I see it in my trip reviews. Transparency and honesty are hard to find in reviews these days for various reasons, and I have no intention of letting up with my opinions.

That said, I will take this one opportunity to pitch the business :). If anyone’s looking to take a cruise, land tour, or book a resort, feel free to contact my wife, she’d love to help you!


Just some of the things we can help plan/book:
and a whole lot more!

Touring the Getaway

As mentioned, the Florida trip I’ve been writing about wasn’t for pleasure, we were down there in training for our CruiseOne franchise. I’ll cover that more in my next post, but back to the trip, the week ended with a tour of the Norwegian Getaway. We’d never done a ship tour like this before, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but I have to say that we really enjoyed it.

First, a ship tour gives you the high of getting on a cruise ship and the low of getting off all in the span of about 3 hours. It was surreal standing in the passenger boarding area waiting for our guide to come get us, and I admit to being jealous of all those who were about to get on and get out of town for a week. Here I was, standing there dressed in business casual, watching a whole bunch of people walking by in shorts and sandals. Made me want to book something right then and there.

Once our guide arrived and all of our people made it through security, we headed for the gangway. We were boarding shortly after the previous guests had disembarked, and right before new passengers started getting on board. With this in mind, they hustled us up pretty fast to The Haven, one of the areas I was interested in the most.  We needed to get through the show cabins and off those floors fast, as those guests board first, and they obviously don’t want us trapsing through guest rooms as those guests are arriving. Now, my interest in seeing this area is because I’m somewhat skeptical of the “ship within a ship” concept that The Haven presents, especially as more lines move to similar models. I can see the pluses (no chair hogs, a quieter pool area) but I’m also not really the kind of guest that this model fits. I like being out and active and participating in the on board activities, so I’m not really sure I’d spend much time in this area, outside of when we’re in our room. I could very well be making poor assumptions about The Haven, so maybe it’s something you have to experience first hand. In any case, I admit to being impressed with the rooms we saw. The one thing that really intrigued me were the forward balconies, which provide an awesome view. It would seem you’d potentially get a ton of wind out there on some days, making the balcony less useful, but that’s only based on my experience on the forward outside areas on some Carnival ships. If anyone’s stayed in one of NCLs forward balconies and can comment, feel free to add your input. Anyway, here are a few shots from the rooms we saw on the Haven floors:

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Moving on, after we finished in The Haven, we moved on to touring regular cabins. For the most part, they were pretty standard fare, with the exception of the spa cabins. Interesting location for the tub :)








Another set of cabins that stood out were the solo cabins, in an area aptly named the Studio. Solo cabins are somewhat rare on contemporary lines, so offering up a cabin where single cruisers only pay a single rate is a plus. Yes, the cabin’s noticeably smaller, but still, you’re not paying up to 200% of a single fare to cruise alone. The Studio also comes with access to a private lounge area, and frankly, the decor of the area is pretty well done, imo. I managed to get a shot of one of the rooms while we were in there:








After we finished our cabin tour, it was time for lunch. The Getaway has plenty of food options, and the one set up for our group that day was Taste. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but we’ve only been on NCL one other time, and were far from impressed with the MDR food. We were part of a large group on that sailing, and no one in the group liked it, especially the foodie. The specialty restaurants were good on that trip, but having to pay for decent food left a bad taste in our mouth (pun intended ;-) ). This was the other part of the tour I was really interested in, as I wanted to see first-hand just how much the food has changed. In short: I was pleasantly surprised. We had a full menu, 3 courses. I had the chicken nachos as my appetizer, meatball sub as my meal, and the peanut butter cup cheesecake for dessert. All delicious, except the fries. They were okay, but tasted like they’d been grabbed off the pool grill.


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After lunch, we had an hour left to tour the ship on our own, all while guests who had boarded were also walking around, which gave us a sense of how crowded a ship this size might be. Things we found:

  • The ship is very family friendly, which didn’t come as much of a surprise. We chatted with the staff in the kids clubs, who all seemed like they were very good at what they did.
  • The spa staff was just as friendly, and not just to us, but to all of the actual guests they were talking to. This was a big departure from the experience we had with the spa staff on our last cruise on Celebrity, who weren’t friendly at all.
  • The ship is lloooonnngggg. We walked one floor of cabins from end to end, and frankly, it felt like we’d never get to the end.
  • Outside of the previous bullet, the ship never felt “too big” like I was afraid a ship that can hold 4000 passengers would. We walked around the buffet after the vast majority of boarding had taken place, but people seemed to be flowing pretty well. This held true in most other areas as well.
  • The decor is well done compared to other ships in class. Didn’t come off as the normal, classic cruise ship gaudy.
  • The staff, including our guide, were all super friendly. Yes, I get that wearing our guest badges gave them indication that we were likely in the travel business, and they may have stepped up their game, but I’d like to think they were being genuine, and seeing the way they interacted with the regular guests, I’m leaning towards that.

Honestly, after touring the Getaway, we’d be interested in trying it on an actual cruise. I realize that 3 hours on-board really isn’t enough to pass true judgement, but it was enough time to get me interested in trying NCL again after swearing them off 8 years ago. It was also enough time to make me miss being on a cruise :)

Here are a few more pics from our tour. Sorry some of these are blurry, we were constantly on the move, and I was doing my best not to get in the way of any their actual guests.

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Another Trip to Florida, Part 3

I wanted to be sure to cover the food we had on the trip. Being that we were there for training, we only had to cover dinners for ourselves. Breakfast was covered by hotel vouchers, and lunch was catered at CruiseOne’s facility. One pitfall of travelling for me is that I take full advantage of being able to eat out. I love food, but that’s not to say I’m a foodie. Far from it. I’m very much a meat and potatoes kind of guy, and I don’t stray from that formula often. That combination, when travelling, often ends up in me consuming more calories than I should, which is never a good thing when I’m trying to keep off the 60+lbs I worked hard to drop a couple of years ago. You only live once, though, and I do like to try new places.

So what did we eat that was memorable? I’ll leave Tsunami off, since I covered it in part 1, and just move on to what we had in Ft Lauderdale:

1. Moonlite Diner. Interesting little place, with plenty of choices. This was within walking distance to our hotel, but we ended up driving since we had other errands to run. I had the Ultimate Grilled Cheese with hash browns, and that side lived up to my standards. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s soggy hash browns, and this place served them up crispy, as they should be. The sandwich was good as well. My wife had the veggie burger with hash browns, and she enjoyed her burger quite a bit. The service was fine, and while the guy who initially served us was nice, he seemed like he’d much rather be somewhere else. About half way through the dinner, a friendly waitress took over and took good care of us. It’s somewhere I’d eat again if we were in the area, but it wasn’t my favorite of all the places we went.

2. Carlucci’s Italian Ristorante. This is some of the best lasagna I’ve had in a while. Few places seem to use real ricotta these days, so tasting that in Carlucci’s was a nice change of pace. The garlic bread was pretty good too, but that garlic really had some kick to it. I accidentally dropped a chunk on my salad, and when I ate that bite, wow :). That reminds me, they have a really good  balsamic vinaigrette, which is a dressing I normally don’t enjoy. I decided to give it a shot at our waiter’s recommendation, and was glad I did. My wife had the baked ziti, a dish she freuently judges italian restaurants by, and loved it. A definite winner of a choice in our opinion.

3. Umberto’s. Later in the week (Friday) we were looking for some pizza, and one of the people in our class from Florida recommended this place. My daughter had driven over from St Pete to hang out with us, and joined us for dinner here. She got some alfredo dish, which she really liked, and my wife and I split a pizza. Delicious, and well worth straying from the hotel. Afterwards, we went across the street to Alice’s Ice Cream Emporium for some gelato. Really good stuff, highly recommend stopping if you’re in the mood for a tasty treat.

Our last dinner in Ft Lauderdale was at a place along the water taxi route. We’d been given free tickets to ride it, and held on to them until Saturday night. It was fun to hang out on the boat and ride around the area, seeing some nice houses and yachts along the way.

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When we finally got hungry, we got off at stop 4, 15th Street Fisheries. Having never been there, we weren’t sure what to expect, but looking over the menus, decided to eat upstairs overlooking the water. We ended up with an incredible sunset view to go along with the meal:


As far as the meal goes, it was spectacular. Staying true to my roots, I had meat and potatoes, or more specifically, the prime rib. I really wasn’t prepared for just how big that thing was. I wish I’d taken a picture, but it’s safe to say it was a very delicious monster that I wasn’t able to finish. My wife had the Ahi Tuna, and really enjoyed it and the mashed sweet potatoes that came with it. The service was stellar as well, and contributed to our decision to spend a little extra to share a couple of desserts. I chose the Ghirardelli chocolate brownie, which was spectacular. Cooked perfectly, and still gooey on the inside, we really enjoyed it. Highly recommended.

I think that about covers it. I did leave a couple of nights out, as one was a trade show night with catered snacks, and the other we just hit the local Longhorn, and I really didn’t feel it was necessary to talk about a national chain. My next post, covering our tour of the Norwegian Getaway, will include a review of the lunch we had on-board. Our one cruise on NCL, back in 2006, left a lot to be desired food-wise, so it was definitely nice to get a sampling of how their food quality has evolved.

Another Trip to Florida, Part 2

The bulk of last week’s trip to Florida was spent in Ft Lauderdale. This wasn’t a pleasure trip, however, as mentioned in my last post, since we were down there for training on the business my wife is starting. After years of travelling, we finally decided to jump in to the industry and do something we’re both passionate about, so we bought a new CruiseOne franchise. I’m not leaving my job, so it’ll mostly be my wife running things with the business, but more on that in a later post :).

We spent the week staying at the Sheraton Suites Fort Lauderdale at Cypress Creek, along with the rest of the new franchisees. Prior to going down, my wife had looked up reviews, and was surprised to find so many negative ones for an SPG property. Now that we’ve spent a week there, I can see why.

Let’s start with the positive:

  • Decent breakfast buffet: Some reviews on this place knock the buffet, but I found it to be perfectly in line with other hotel breakfasts. The food was kept pretty warm each day, and while I’d have preferred a bigger change in choices each day, everything I had was fine as far as taste goes. The wait staff was very friendly as well.
  • Good sized room: We had a two room suite up on the 5th floor in a quiet corner of the hotel, and it served us just fine. The sofa in the living room was a pullout, making it easy for us to set up a bed for our daughter when she drove over to see us on Friday.

Not sure I really have anything else positive to say, so let’s move on to the not-so-positive:

  • The WiFi: Wow. Worst WiFi I’ve had in any hotel I’ve ever stayed in. There were three options when connecting, and not wanting to pay extra, I stuck with the free “up to 1.5Mbps” option. Can’t say it was ever close to that speed. During peak hours, connectivity came and went, and when you were connected, speed was super slow, to the point that sites were timing out loading, making it impossible to do any work. I got fed up and tethered through my cell phone most of the time. Didn’t matter which device we used (iPad, Windows or Mac laptops, cell phones), the WiFi performance was horrible unless you were on in the middle of the night. The front desk basically shrugged that one off when I asked one morning. I’ve stayed in larger SPG properties where the free WiFi worked just fine, so this was obviously a case of not having enough capacity to cover the hotel. The signal itself was strong, there just wasn’t any bandwidth, and I’m not going to pay for a higher tier just because they’re trying to force me in to it by limiting the free connectivity.
  • Front desk staff: I only interacted with them a couple of times, but wasn’t really impressed either time, as they really didn’t seem to be happy with their jobs. The main issue we had is that we’d stopped down early in the week to ask about the pet policy, as our daughter wanted to bring her cat with her to come see us. The girl we talked to was very friendly, said it was a $25/day cleaning fee, and even chatted with us about the cat for a couple of minutes (we made it clear it was a cat we were asking for). On Friday morning before we headed to training, we stopped at the front desk to leave a key and let them know a pet would be joining us later in the day, and the lady we talked to this time (not friendly) said cats were not allowed. That would have been good information to have a couple of days earlier when we specifically asked, but at least our daughter hadn’t left St Pete yet, so we had time to stop her from bringing the cat.
  • General hotel issues:
    • One of the elevators near our room smelled like vomit all of Friday. The actual vomit was gone, but that smell hung around all day. Either close the elevator until the smell gone, or clean it right the first time.
    • Pillows were way to soft, and the mattress was way too hard. Both are subjective, but neither lived up to my past SPG experiences.
    • Weirdest balcony I’ve ever had in a hotel. I wish I’d taken a pic, but it was a shared balcony with two other rooms. Not all of them are set up like this, most are solo balconies, but with ours, we easily could have wakled over and peered in to rooms next to us, or vice-versa. Never had an issue with it, but still, not a setup we really liked. It also acted as a water collector, as any rain resulted in about an inch of standing water out there.
    • AC really struggled to keep up. We had it set to 62 the whole week, and it never got close (seemed to stay around 71ish), and never shut off.

I think that’s about it. I’ve stayed in a few SPG properties over the past decade for work, with the last one being the Sheraton Manhattan, and this one certainly didn’t live up to my expectations based on those past stays. Certainly wasn’t any better than some of the lower tier hotels I used to stay in regularly for work (Country Inn and Suites, for example) either. The Holiday Inn I mentioned in my last post beat this Sheraton without question.

My next post will cover the places we ate during the week. With breakfast and lunch provided for us, we got to explore the area for dinner, and had some great food along the way. Following that, I’ll get more in to our new venture, starting with the tour we got to do of the Norwegian Getaway this past Saturday in Miami!


Another Trip to Florida, Part 1

Even with our daughter away at college, the past couple of months have been incredibly busy. My wife and I are starting a new business, and the prep work (combined with my existing job) has kept me otherwise occupied. We’re actually down in Florida for the final training on it as I type, but I’ll hold off on posting any info on just what it is that we’re doing until after the week is over and we return home.

This trip requires us to be in Fort Lauderdale for 6 days of training that started on Monday. We decided to leave early Saturday morning and stop in St Pete for a day to see our daughter. With everything else going on, we didn’t get around to booking a hotel until a couple of days before we left, and thanks to Hotwire’s Hot Rates, ended up getting a pretty good deal on the Holiday Inn Harbourside in Indian Rocks Beach. For those afraid of booking a hotel you can’t see until you pay (Hotwire Hot Deals, Priceline, etc), there’s a good site you can use to narrow down the possibilities – betterbidding.com (no, I’m not affiliated in any way). Through the local information in the Hotwire forum, I was able to determine what hotel it was before we bought the deal.

Upon checking in, they upgraded us to a suite at no additional cost, which was a bit of a surprise considering I’ve never had that happen when using a Hotwire or Priceline fare. When we saw where the room was, I admit I was concerned. We were in 143, which was a first floor suite near the outdoor bar. We were on the waterfront side, so not right next to the music, but close enough. Fortunately it wasn’t an issue. The band shuts down by 10pm, so even on a Saturday night it was never a bother. It also gave us (well, me) a great spot to watch the sunrise the next morning:

St Pete Sunrise


Anyway, on Saturday night, we took her and a couple of her friends out to dinner, and let her pick the place. She absolutely loves a good Japanese steakhouse, and chose Tsunami in St Petersburg. We’d made reservations for the hibachi side, so when we got there were seated pretty quick. The meal was very good, definitely one of the better Japanese steakhouses we’ve been to, and we had a great chef. Can’t say the same for the group at the table next to us, as they had all kinds of issues (improperly cooked chicken, people not getting what they ordered, etc). We were glad we got the chef we did, as he got everything right from the start, and all items were cooked to perfection. I always get filet mignon at places like this, and was very happy with the quality of the meat. We’d definitely stop again.

Sunday was spent mostly at a local beach on Treasure Island. The weather was great, water was warm, and the beach wasn’t busy at all. We hung out in the water most of the time, until a whole lot of small fish started swimming past us trying to escape the ever-growing flock of birds trying to eat them. At that point it was almost time for us to go, so we hopped out and watched the birds dive-bombing the fish for a bit, then packed up our stuff and headed back to our daughter’s dorm. The plan at that point was to pick up her best friend (who she’s been in school with since 3rd grade) and grab some dinner before my wife and I headed across the state for our week of training.

For dinner, we’d decided on Tijuana Flats, which is sort of a guilty pleasure for us due to the cookie dough flautas. The food’s pretty good for a chain, too, but it’s really the desserts that make the place. Her friend had never been there before, and fell in love with the desserts, too. Probably a bad idea to take him there when we did, as he had a flag football game not long after, and frankly I can’t even imagine the sugar crash that must have hit him during that game. Sorry ;)

After dinner, we dropped the kids back at school, said our goodbyes, and headed out. I always hate leaving her, but she’s been busting her butt so far this semester, and shown that she was ready for the challenge and to live on her own. I couldn’t be more proud :).

As we get further along in the week, I’ll post more on the places we’ve eaten here, along with the hotel we’re in. After we get home, I’ll cover what exactly we were doing down here, as it directly pertains to the theme of my blog, and represents a new and exciting chapter in our lives.

More to come!


Four days in Florida

Mid last week, we headed down to Florida to drop our daughter off at Eckerd College to start her freshman year (if you’re interested, more on that here). Being that her best friend of 10 years is also going to Eckerd, we decided to caravan down there with their family a little early and spend a day at Universal Studios. Before we get to that, however, I’ll mention a little about where we stayed.

Thanks to my daughter’s competitive cheer schedule over the years, we’ve stayed in several hotels in Orlando over the years, usually ones associated with Disney. With this trip not including a Disney stop, we decided to go with a house my wife found on AirBnB. We’ve used AirBnB in the past, most notably last summer when we spend a couple of weeks in SoCal touring colleges, and have never had an issue. This trip was no different. The house is located in a gated community in Haines City, and fit the bill perfectly. We aimed for something outside of Orlando in the direction of St Petersburg on purpose, knowing we’d be making a couple of trips between the house and her college. In hindsight, we probably should have booked something a little closer to St Pete, but considering we paid $500 for 4 nights in a 4 bedroom house that had a pool and hot tub, and were splitting the cost with another family, we were pretty happy.

Back to the trip itself. We spent last Thursday at Universal, and it pretty much lived up to our last trip there. The last visit was right after the Harry Potter section first opened in Islands of Adventure, and suffice it to say the park was way too crowded that day. So much so that it took 20 minutes to walk from the Hogsmeade entrance back to the Forbidden Journey ride. For anyone who’s been there, you know that walk should take closer to 2 minutes, if that. On that day, I think we maybe got 3 rides in across the entire park due to the lines. This time around wasn’t much different.

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Universal, but we all had one day left on our passes from that previous visit, and had to use them before the end of the year. For the money, I’d rather spend the day at Disney. At $136/pp for one day, it’s a pretty steep ticket. Yes, that single day price gets you in to both parks, but even with that, I think we only managed to get in 5 rides this time around (total, in both parks) due to lines. We never did try out the new Gringotts rode, as the wait was 240 minutes. None of us were interested in waiting 4 hours for any ride (an employee told us the longest she’d seen so far was 7 hours. Yikes). We did jump in the single riders line, but in the 20 minutes we were in it we never moved, so we cut our losses and headed for the Hogwarts Express to have some fun over in Islands of Adventure.

The positives for us when it comes to Universal:

  • Butterbeer. Yum :)
  • The Harry Potter sections themselves are pretty cool. Very well done on Universal’s part:

Castle Diagon Diagon2 Dragon Hogsmeade

The negatives:

  • The lines. At Disney you can deal with this by utilizing the fast pass. At Universal, they do have an express pass, which brings me to the next negative:
  • The express pass: When we first got to the park, I asked about this, and was quoted $89/pp for a one-time pass, or $109/pp for an unlimited pass for the day we were there (apparently this price fluctuates). Uh, you have to be insane. Not a chance. I know certain hotel guests have that included, but I’m not going to pay more to stay at the Hard Rock just to get an express pass. I made my choice and voted with my wallet, and the likelihood of me going back to Universal is slim in part because of this.
  • The staff. We live close to Carowinds, and rarely go in large part because the employees just don’t seem to have their heads in the game. Universal seems to be approaching that same level of employee discontent. As an example, we ate lunch in the park at Mythos. The wait was about 40min right at lunch rush, no biggie, but as our waitress was walking us to our table, our waiter saw he was getting someone new seated in his area, and very vocally said “you’ve got to be kidding me!”. I get that you very easily could have been overloaded with customers, but as someone who’s in front of customers all day, there’s simply no excuse for complaining like that in front of them. Just one example of what seemed to be a huge difference between the staff at Disney and those at Universal.

All in all we spent around 12 hours at Universal that day, minus heading out to the City Walk area to meet up with a few other people for dinner. Wasn’t a bad way to spend our last day together as a family before dropping my daughter off at college, but as mentioned, I think we all would have preferred Disney :)