Our first trip back to the USA since moving to Germany came with much anticipation. Due to some ridiculous rules, I had to fly back to the USA to sit some exams. It was going to turn out to be the most expensive failure if I didn’t pass, but I had waited too long. It was time! We decided to make a vacation out of it (to take the pressure off, a little) so Florida was the destination. Where else would have a mild climate in the USA in January?
Our journey to Orlando
We set off on a Saturday morning on a packed Delta Air flight out of Frankfurt. I had heard from a friend that Delta has recently upped their game in long haul travel and they didn’t disappoint. The plane was an older 767, but that suited us as it meant we could sit in a two-seat configuration. That is always nice for long flights! We still weren’t expecting much, after flying Singapore Air last, but we were really pleasantly surprised. The food was excellent – every meal had a vegetarian option, which I prefer to opt for when flying, without having a special meal request! I got chatting to one of the flight attendants while waiting for the bathroom for a long time. She said they do seven drink rounds over the course of the flight, and they now give out bottled water after people requested it. I thought that was awesome. Also, all alcohol is free, even in the cheap seats. I give Delta two thumbs up!
As for the inflight entertainment, it was pretty good but not the best. I had my study materials so I studied for about half the flight but Nick seemed pretty happy with the selection. We never have to go to the movies lately, we’re catching every movie on planes!
We had a very short layover in Atlanta. I thought it was going to be really stressful as our plane was a little delayed. However, Atlanta has their stuff sorted. It all went very smoothly, it felt like we were on a conveyer belt. Pass through border control, pick up bags, drop bags, back through security (which was weird), on a terminal train (something I still find weird), get to new gate, board plane and back in the air in a matter of an hour and a half. We had a short flight down to Orlando in a brand new plane and arrived on time. To a torrential downpour.
Our first stress of being back in the USA was trying to leave the airport in our rental car in the torrential downpour. There was no way of seeing the lines on the road because the rain was practically horizontal, and everyone was driving like… well… Americans in America (no offence but it’s true, it’s an adjustment). We did end up making it to the hotel safe and sound, it was almost overwhelming seeing all the bright lights. We were driving along and exclaiming things that we could see like little kids. “OH MY GOD – OLIVE GARDEN!” “Red Lobster!” “Starbucks DRIVE THROUGH” “Walgreens! Open 24 hours!” “711, oh my god I need a slurpee”. And yes, friends, I did get a slurpee that night. A cherry Fanta slurpee, to be exact.
Our hotel sucked. We got a priceline express deal and it’s the first time it didn’t go well on priceline. We didn’t have high expectations, I mean we only paid something like $50 a night, but the reviews on tripadvisor were right. Let’s just say, I was scared a couple of times because of our neighbours and I was begging Nick to see if we could just get another hotel for the night haha. He said we didn’t have clothes with us. I said, that’s ok we’ll just wear the same ones tomorrow. That’s how desperate I was. He refused. We survived, and it was all okay in the end, but I would never stay at Westgate Lakes in Orlando ever again.
Ever since I was a little girl I have been obsessed with the thought of manatees. They were so exotic, there’s no way I ever thought I’d actually be around one. I also think I probably thought they were more a mythical creature than real. It all started when I played this game on our old PC, I think it came with the Encarta package on most computers. You go down this hallway underwater and at one point you are faced with a manatee. It looked like a hippo crossed with a dolphin. So weird. I just had to see one in real life one day.
Florida is home to the winter getaway for manatees. They come into the warm rivers during the coolest months as their bodies need to regulate their temperature by living in warmer springs. It turns out you can swim with them. It’s frowned upon by many, it’s suggested that kayaking is a better idea from above the water, but we chose to swim with them.
Crystal River is about an hour and a half from Orlando, and after a quick stop at ihop for some pancakes, we were there. It was a pretty cool day, about 14 degrees Celsius, but we were given wetsuits that took the chill off. The water temperature is around 20 degrees, which helped, but after awhile I did end up shivering in the water. I think it is because we floated on top of the water.
Ok, let me say this. Manatees are the best marine creature on the planet, and pretty up there on the all time most awesome creatures in existence. Manatees are so friendly. I’m guessing this is what has lead to their demise, they’re truly interested in humans. They’re like dolphins. The manatees were swimming up to us and really curious. At one point I was surrounded. We were told not to touch the manatees unless they engage with you, which they did but I still didn’t feel comfortable touching them which I think actually upset a couple of them. One tried to eat my hair, which made for an epic part of our video. I couldn’t believe how huge some of them were! Some of their tails were as big as a boat.
According to our tour guide, manatees have been known to live up to 80 in captivity but they don’t actually know how old animals in the wild get to. There’s also never been a wild manatee birth captured on film – how interesting. I honestly cannot recommend the experience enough. Even just going out to Crystal River and viewing them from the viewing platform would be worth it. It’s incredible. I’m almost sad to have crossed off this experience from my life bucket list because it was so amazing. We still sit here and smile thinking about it.
The password is Manatee with a capital M.
After our swim we went to Olive Garden so Nick could have the salad and breadsticks he has been missing for so long and then did some shopping at TJ Maxx. I forgot how much I missed that place. It’s seriously the best. We got everything we needed there for our new puppy, Molly, who is arriving the end of February.
The next few days were a blur of studying, eating and shopping. Whenever I needed a break from study, we’d check off a place from the list of things we have been missing about the USA. Of course The Cheesecake Factory was visited twice! Florida has a whole lot of outlet malls too, so we did a bit of browsing (and a bit of buying hehe) as you do!
I had exams on the Wednesday and Friday we were there. Most people take one in a quarter, but since we were flying so far, I decided it was worth the risk to sit two. They were very stressful and I was sure I had failed. We consoled ourselves over lots of food. The test center was actually halfway between Orlando and Dayton, but it was kind of nice to have to drive so far to get there. It felt like it wasn’t ruining the vacation.
One interesting thing about sitting exams in the USA was how strict it was. I took in my own earplugs for the first exam and I had to squish them to show there was no metal. I had to empty my pockets and show all of my clothes to prove there were no hidden pockets. I had a metal detector scan. My pants and sleeves had to be rolled up. My fingerprints and photo were taken, and this was all before I was even allowed in the room. If I wanted to take a bathroom break, the clock would keep ticking and I’d have to go through that process all over again. I decided to dehydrate myself instead. My first exam I ran to the end of the clock, but I finished exam two an hour early, which helped the bladder situation.
I found out yesterday that I passed both exams comfortably. I am 50% complete towards being a Certified Public Accountant in the State of California. Wish me luck for the rest.
Hard Rock Café – Orlando
Back in September we had our first bad experience at a Hard Rock café in Munich. It was so bad that I complained to the restaurant manager and we ended up getting two vouchers in the mail for a complimentary meal each. We tried to use it in Singapore, but the Hard Rock there couldn’t accept it, so Orlando was our last chance before it ran out.
We tried to use it earlier in the trip, but parking at Universal Studios costs $20 a day, even if you are only going to the boardwalk! Which, of course, is where the Hard Rock is situated. The guy at the gate told us if you come after 6pm then it’s only $5. I decided it’d be best to just wait until my last exam was over with so that we could really enjoy the meal and get the most out of it and the parking fee.
You have to pass through security going into the boardwalk area of Universal Studios. This isn’t even the actual theme park. It made me kind of sad. Don’t you think it’s crazy that the world has become so ridiculous that you need to go through security to simply enjoy a theme park? It makes me so angry to think that future generations are never going to know what it is like to not have to go through metal detectors every second. Yes, I’m thankful for safety, but the fact is it shouldn’t be like this! I’m sounding like an old woman here but it is depressing. Anyway, I digress.
Florida is home to the Hard Rock café company, so it shouldn’t have surprised me, but this place was huge! And awesome. It had the coolest vibe of any Hard Rock we have ever been to. I loved it. It was intoxicating. It turns out our vouchers were actually the most epic things ever. They entitled us to an alcohol free beverage, appetizer, main and dessert. Each. It was time to go wild. We always try to scrimp when we visit one because it’s just so expensive, but this time we could have anything we ever wanted on the menu. And go wild we did.
We had a taster plate and nachos for appetizers. I had the cowboy rib-eye and Nick had the three meat barbecue plate for mains. Somehow we still had room for dessert and got the Oreo cheesecake and molten lava cake. I put on two kilos in the nine days we were in Orlando and I think a kilo of that was just in our Hard Rock meal. We also chose to pay for a celebratory drink each and they came with cool souvenir glasses. It was the best meal ever and they really redeemed themselves after our bad experience in Munich. Love it!
The next morning we headed off to Disneyworld. There’s something about Disney that brings out the big kid in everyone and we were pretty excited about it. We only had the day to spend there so we couldn’t visit all of the other parks that make up Disneyworld as a whole, so we just went with the Magic Kingdom.
We parked up and waited for the shuttle. Now, again, I was totally disappointed. They said on the shuttle that due to security concerns, adults are no longer allowed to wear full body costumes. I get it, safety again, which I’m thankful for. But Disneyworld is supposed to be the happiest place on earth and yet you still have to worry about your safety at a place like that? UGH! It makes me mad. What a sick world.
However, again, I digress. We got our tickets and headed on the monorail to the Magic Kingdom. It’s funny because the monorails are probably really old but they still look like they’re completely in place. How does Disney do that? I guess they must have always just been ahead of the times and the rest of the world is just catching up.
We grabbed a map and figured out what would be the plan of attack. What I didn’t realize is that Disneyworld and Disneyland are actually pretty much the same when it comes to the Magic Kingdom. The rides are all the same. I’m sure if I had done a little research I would have found that out, but to be honest I was so busy with my exams that I didn’t. Either way, it was still awesome and I was stoked to be able to ride all the rides again.
My first recommendation is that although Disney is always busy, it is a lot busier on Saturdays and on a three day weekend, of which it was both. Don’t do that. Go on a weekday and go early in the morning. We thought it would get quieter at night but it really didn’t. The shortest we waited without a fastpass was 60 minutes and the longest was 80 minutes. I never thought I’d stand in a line for so long in my life, but we’d paid for it so we may as well.
Space Mountain was probably my favourite ride again. I can’t believe that ride is 30 years old. There was a newer ride called The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train rollercoaster that was really awesome too, which I was happy about after we waited 80 minutes in line with the most annoying people surrounding us. You should always use the fastpass! We didn’t really know anything about it, but you can book in rides for time slots so you never have to wait in line. It’s a great idea and we’d utilize it if we were to ever go there again.
Oh, word of warning! We went to Splash Mountain and I was saying to Nick ugh I really don’t want the first seats. Of course, we ended up with the first seats. I knew we were going to get saturated. Nick was telling me some intense thing about how the first seats aerodynamically would miss the worst of it and that we had the best seats. Umm, no. We got absolutely saturated from head to toe and I was wearing a white top. Still, being Florida, and despite being January, we quickly dried out and had a good old laugh about it. It was fun.
Next time we go to Disneyworld I think we’ll visit one of the other parks for a few more hair-raising rides and we’ll probably go to Universal Studios too!
On the way home
Before long it was time to head back to Germany. We did the same route back but we were on a newer plane this time that had much more advanced screens. The plane was probably half empty this time around which made it a way more relaxing and comfortable flight. I felt like we were always battling for the toilet on the first flight! I would definitely recommend flying Delta if you don’t mind not flying direct as most of their flights stop at their hubs in either Detroit or Atlanta.
Until next time!