Travelogue from Florida
Our vacation started on October 14th and ended on October 29th 2001. The travellers this time was as usual my love Nikki Mooki and Gard Karlsen. We flew from Stavanger (Norway) via Amsterdam to Miami in Florida. We rented a car there and we spent a few days in Miami before we drove of to Orlando, Tampa, Naples and then Miami again. On our trip we stopped by places like Kennedy Space center, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, Epcot, Busch Gardens and much, much more.
We always take a lot of time deciding when to go and where to go on vacation. After hearing and seeing a lot about Florida for many years, we decided to go to Florida and due to recommendations we decided to go in October. As we all know there were some tragic events in New York and Washington on September 11th 2001 but we decided to go anyway as it looked like the world and USA were getting back to “normal”. But we did think about cancelling the trip as we heard about the bombing of Afghanistan started and anthrax was being found in the USA.
The journey begins
But as I said, we decided to go ahead with the trip anyway and our journey started on Sunday October 14th 2001. When we first looked for tickets the prices was quite steep. But in the end of August we got the tickets for about 4500 Norwegian kroner (about 500 US dollars) . We flew Braathens/KLM/Northwest from Stavanger (Norway) via Amsterdam to Miami. We wanted to be a little prepared when we got there so we booked a car using expedia.com and we booked an Avis car for about 100 $ and a hotel for the first two nights in Miami. Due to the events on September 11th, the airport security was tight and we had to go through several checks and anyone that had a suspicious look got extra attention. When we looked out the window on our plane we could even see the airport workers being frisked when going into the aircraft. But we got on our way more or less on time and the flight to Miami took about 9 hours. We got to Miami at about 8 pm and it was pretty easy to find the Avis bus which took us to the Avis car rental place and soon we were driving of in a Chevrolet Cavalier. Before we left we bought a travel guide of Florida (Eyewitness Travel Guides) and it had a map of Miami. We combined this with the map and instructions that we got from Avis and we were able to get to South Beach without too many problems. We had rented a room at Dezerland Beach Resort & Spa that is located quite north on South Beach (8700 Collins Avenue). When I first booked it on Expedia it was quoted to be 45$ pr night but with taxes and fees of 5,63$ the cost was about 51$ pr night. And when we got to the hotel in turned out that there was an extra fee of 2$ pr night because there was a safe in the room and the parking was 5$ pr night. I can’t say that I’m happy about these “hidden” costs and the hotel itself wasn’t really that nice. But it was nice to finally check in and be able to go to bed after a long journey.
We started exploring Miami the next morning and we started by taking a trip down to Ocean drive to take a walk there and look at the Art Deco district. I guess we got up too early because the place looked very deserted when we got there. But it is a pretty interesting area and the contrasts are big. You have the people that roller blades and jog through Lummus Park and you have the homeless sleeping on benches in the park. We also saw a biking police that I wanted to take a picture of but I was afraid that he would book me for being sarcastic if I askes for permission. The reason that I wanted to take a picture of him was that he was nothing like the bike cops that you see on TV shows like "Pacific Blue". This guy was a bit fat and his outfit didn’t look like it was designed for the biking police. In the Art Deco district you will also fins quite a few shops, places to eat and the beach of course. Not far from this you will find places of interest like the Lincoln Road Mall and the Holocaust memorial. The memorial was a pretty stunning sight as you can see from the pictures. We just walk around in silence and looked at all the individual faces and bodies that form the base of the gigantic arm.
We like science so we wanted to check out Miami Science museum and Planetarium. We only stayed there for a couple of hours and the place was more or less empty. They had quite a lot for the kids there but of course one must be able to read and understand English to fully appreciate it. The show in the Planetarium was also OK and we were informed about black holes, pulsars and quarks. There is also a little “zoo” attached to the science museum and they have a few birds and turtles.
We had heard quite a lot about Little Havana and we stopped there on the way back into town. We thought the place would be pretty lively but again the place look almost deserted…the closest thing we came to action was seeing a few elder men sitting in a restaurant playing domino.
A trip to America must also include a trip to a mall. We decided to stop by Aventura mall, which is located North of Miami on the way to Fort Lauderdale. The mall is pretty big and it is a pretty standard mall where you have chains like Sears, JC Penny that surrounds lots of smaller shops inside the actual mall. But according to the guidebook there are many malls in the Miami area of course and some are more “upmarket” than others.
A word of advice when it comes to driving around in Miami: bring lots of quarters (25 cents) to put on the parking meters. In most places the price was 25 cents for 15 minutes and it is not always easy to find parking space at all
We also wanted to try out what some of the locals do for exercise: roller blades. We had brought our own roller blades but I don’t know if that was such a good idea. They were a bit heavy and they took up some quite a lot of space in our suitcases. And it was possible to rent skates in the Art Deco district. But we used our own and we skated in Lummus Park.
On the second day of our stay in Miami we checked out of the hotel and headed for a mansion called Vizcaya. This house was a fantastic mansion built by a Mr. John Deering in the period of 1914 to 1916. For 10 dollars we got entrance to the house and a tour of the ground floor was included. Once again we were almost alone in the house and our guide Marcia talked us through the rooms on the ground floor. She was very enthusiastic and it turned out to be a great and informative tour. We got to learn about Mr Deering love for Europe and how he bought antiques in Europe and later built the house around all these items. I certainly recommend a stop at this place because it was something really special. I had a feeling of being at Versailles or the palaces of Vienna when I strolled trough the rooms.
On the way out of Miami we decided to take what we thought would be the scenic route along the coast. It turned out that it wasn’t all that scenic and it went a lot slower than staying on the main highway. On the main highway the road quality was pretty good and the speed limit varied between 55 to 70 mph. After a while we got to Fort Lauderdale and we made a brief stop here to take a walk on the beach.
We didn’t really have a proper map of this area of Florida and we managed to get a bit lost as it became dark. We tried to find a place to stay around Jupiter but we got lost and we ended up in a small place called Port St. Lucie. But at least they had a Best Western hotel there were we could spend the night.
The drive next morning was not that long…after a couple of hours we arrived at Kennedy Space Center. After standing a line for a while (and listening to the same music over and over again) we got our tickets and went in. As most people I have a certain interest in space and it was a nice place to visit. The most impressing site was of course the building where the Saturn V rocket is kept. The rocket is so BIG that one must really see it to believe it. Maybe some of the photos will give a certain illustration of the size. I think it is quite amazing that these big things left ground at all. But hey, Kennedy said that they chose to go to the moon; not because it was easy but because it was hard. Due to the events on September 11th some of the facilities were closed of. On the bus ride there are normally several stops but on this day we only got to see the Saturn V center.
The drive to Orlando from the Kennedy Space Center is pretty short and after about one hour after leaving the center we were on International drive in Orlando. It seems like most of the tourist “attractions” have centered on this short road and we decided to get a room in this area since it is close to the amusement parks. We stopped at one of the tourist information centers to get some help to find a hotel but they seemed more interested in selling us Disney tickets. But we did manage to pick up some brochures and in most of the brochures there were info about hotels and also coupons. I don’t really like this coupon business but we managed to get a hotel room at Quality inn for about 32 dollars a night. The hotel is located on 7600 International Drive and it is pretty big.
We decided to get started with the fun stuff the next morning. The first thing on our list was a visit to Universal Studios. We got there at about 9 am and we didn’t have any problem finding it because it was only like 5 minutes away from International Drive. The parking houses at Universal are huge so when you park remember to note which floor and section you are in J. OK, I have to admit that we did have trouble finding our car again but the parking people were professional and they helped us locate the car. We bought a two day pass ticket to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. This allowed us to switch between the two parks during two days.
Before you read any further please note that there might be spoilers about some of the rides. As I mentioned we came to the park at about opening time and there were not that many people there. So we ran of to start with Back to the future. It was a pretty good ride but it is basically a simulator ride but the set-up around the whole ride makes it great. I like what the Americans do when it comes to lines. Instead of standing in line just waiting, they use the time to build up a story, to build a concept and that makes waiting in line almost a part of the ride itself. After this we ran over to the Men in black attraction and this is more interactive compared to Back to the future. In MIB you get to help the agents shooting at aliens and you get a score for this. One of the attractions that I was looking forward to was the Terminator 2: 3D. I have heard a lot about it and I have to say that my expectations were met. It is a unique mixture of onscreen action, live stage performance and 3D and that was really fun.
After this the lines started to grow a bit and we had to wait a while to get into the Twister attraction. Compared to the other stuff that we had been through this was not much of an attraction. But it was still kinda neat to see how they have been able to create this natural phenomenon inside a building.
Kongfrontation was unfortunaly closed due to maintenance so we never got to see that but we moved on to Earthquake – The big one. This was also a fun attraction and the climax comes when you ride in a subway tunnel and you reach a station and that is when the earthquake hits. Apart from that we got to do the Jaws attraction, go the Gory, Gruesome and Grotesque Horror make-up show and Beetlejuice’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Graveyard Revue. The park itself is not all that big but of course we didn’t cover all the stuff that are made for the small children. We even had time to get our caricature painted and go to Islands of Adventure towards the end of the day to try to Hulk but I’ll say more about that later.
I’d like to mention that there is a big 20-screen cinema located on CityWalk, which is sort of the entrance to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. We tried it out this cinema and it was pretty good.
It took quite a lot of walking to cover Universal Studios so we took the advice from the guidebook (and our feet) to put in resting days in between visiting the big parks. So the following day we played Adventure golf on International Drive (Pirate’s Cove) and we drove of to Gatorland. The golf was pretty good and they had two golf courses to choose from and we took the advanced one since we try to play adventure golf wherever we go J. Just for the record…I did beat Nikki J.
Then we drove of to Gatorland, which is listed as a good half-day experience. The place itself was not all that impressive but we got to see alligators up close, we got so see a guy “wrestle” a gator, we got to try gator nuggets and rib and we got to pet snakes and small alligators. The shows were worth catching because the gators are pretty calm when they lie in the water.
The park is open until 6 pm and we stay almost until closing time. On the way back we stopped by Florida mall, which is located on the way to Orlando. We also managed to make a few turns that we shouldn’t have when we came to International Drive. The result was that we ended up on the highway and the next exit was 5 minutes of. So it is advisable to get a good map over the Orlando area. We only had the bad maps that are presented in many of the tourist folders.
After resting for a day we were ready to try out the next amusement park: Islands of Adventure. Once again we got there at about opening time (9 am). We rushed over to the Spiderman attraction first but that was closed because of technical problems. So we moved on to the Duelling Dragons. As the name might indicate this is actually two individual roller coasters (Fire and Ice) and we started with Ice. It was a great ride and since it was so early there wasn’t much of a line when we got of so we went straight into Fire. And we tried each one twice before we moved on.
We went back to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man after this and it was operating again. We had to get in line for quite some time to ride it and when we finally got on it it turned out that there still were some technical problems. But we got to ride it again later that they and it was good. Again it was a mixture between a ride and 3D film and it was impressive. I mentioned earlier that the lines could almost be a part of the ride. Well, on this ride the line was too long but the creators are pretty clever and you never get to see the full line that is ahead of you. I guess they have made it this way to avoid stealing the hope from people J
We also had to try the Incredible Hulk coaster. We tried it twice and it is a good ride. The cool thing is that you get “launched” on top of the first hill and within two seconds you go from 0 to 40 mph and you’re hanging upside down. It was a great ride and I recommend it.
We also waited in line for quite some time to try out the Doctor Doom’s Fearfall. It is a ride where you get catapulted about 150 feet in the air. I have taken stuff like this before and the best version of this is located on top of the Stratosphere tower in Las Vegas but that is another story.
Apart from this we enjoyed The Eight Voyage of Sindbad, Poseidon’s Fury, Jurassic Park River Adventure, Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw falls and so on. We stay until closing time at about 7 pm.
My advice is to come early because the lines got pretty long in the middle of the day (60-75 minutes). There are some free lockers in connection with some of the rides where you can keep your bags and stuff for about 45 minutes. Having these free lockers is s pretty good system in my opinion.
The next day we decided to go for a resting day again. First of all we went to WonderWorks on International Drive. It is not possible to miss this place because it is a building that is upside down. The place contains lots of fun stuff for kids and adult and there are many interactive things that one can try out. We tried Virtual reality games, we tried creating a roller coaster and then we got to ride it in a simulator, we got to make giant soap bubbles and so on. After this we went over to Wet’n’Wild to try out the slides there. I don’t think that we picked the right day (or maybe we did) because we got lots of rain while we were in there. But we still got to try most of the slides that were open and once we got cold we went into the water to warm up. They had quite a lot of rides there and we had fun for a few hours. It costs about 30 $ per person but this is not the real cost. If you want to park there you have to cough up 5 $ and once you get in it costs 5 $ to get a small locker.
We also did some shopping this day. We went out to a place called Belz outlet center and we walked around for a while in stores with names like Nike, Adidas, Levi’s and so on.
Again it was time to do an amusement park and we decided that we wanted to try Epcot. The size of the Disney area is pretty amazing. When we got of the highway to get into the parks we more or less got on a new 6-lane highway. We got there are about 9 am and it turned out that they didn’t open until 10 am. They had done this to save money because there had not been that many visitors after the September 11th attack. But we got in eventually and the first thing I have to say is that it is a BIG park.
We started out by doing attractions like Honey, I shrunk the Audience, Body wars, Cranium Command, Spaceship Earth ride, Test track and so on. And when the world showcase opened at noon we went in there. First of all I wanted to visit the Norwegian area. We took the ride here (called Maelstrom and it was funny to listed to the narrator telling about Norway in English with a Norwegian accent J. The film about Norway after the ride is badly in need of an update by the way. Apart from that it was fun to walk into the “Norwegian” stores and buy Norwegian chocolates. So if you stop by this place be sure to buy some Melkesjokolade (Milk chocolate) because it is a "little piece if Norway"…at least according to the TV commercials back home in Norway.
My impression of Epcot is that it seems a bit “out of date” compared to the other new parks that we went to. Sure, some of the rides are good but, as we saw in Universal Studios, it can be done a lot better with today’s technology. And that is kinda ironic when a part of the Epcot center is called Future World.
And there is something else I don’t like about Epcot and that is the use of brand names on the different attractions. You have Universe of Energy presented by ExxonMobil, The land presented by Nestlé and so on. This is advertising and it is right in the face of young and adult. But maybe that is what it takes to get bigger companies to invest money into places like this.
Most of the stuff that you’ll find at the Epcot center is educational in one way or the other and that was great.
We stayed until 9 pm and in the darkness we got to see a great fire works. The place is as I say pretty big and we were on the move most of the day and we didn’t really get to look at all the countries in the World Showcase.
The next day we drove down towards the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. The highway is pretty good and it is not all that far (about 70 miles to Tampa) so it doesn’t take very long. We have heard that the beaches on the coast were good but we didn’t want to get to far away from Tampa because we wanted to check out Busch Gardens later on. So we ended up driving just past St. Petersburg and then we went on to Treasure Island. In a tourist brochure we found a coupon for a place called Buccaneer Beachfront Resort Motel and we went to the motel and they had a room. I think most of the places on the beach had a vacancy by the way because there were not many people on the beach.
The first thing we tried was of course to take a dip in the Mexican gulf. The water had a pretty good temperature compared to what I’m used to from back here in Norway (the water is normally freezing on the beaches outside Stavanger) but there was a certain fish stench that was not very appealing. So we went back to the hotel and took a nice swim in the heated pool J
Our main reason to stop in the Tampa area was really to visit Busch Gardens that is a combined zoo and amusement park. As usual we were up pretty early and we got there until opening time at 10 am. I have to admit that I was very disappointed when I saw a sign at the entrance that stated that the roller coaster Kumba was closed. This is one coaster that I had heard of and that I was looking forward too. But we were pretty lucky because the coaster did open later that they and I got to ride it and it was good. The other main coasters are pretty good to. Gwazi is a wooden roller coaster and they always have a different feeling compared to the steel coasters. And it was kinda rough on us, so rough that Nikki had to go to the first-aid station to get some aspirin for a headache. Montu is an inverted steel coaster that also gives a great thrill.
But as I said this is also a zoo and it was great combination. We started with the rides and then we moved on too the zoo part of the park. The Edge of Africa has zebras, Antelopes, Giraffes and so on on display and we also got to see lions, hyenas, elephants and monkeys up close. The Rhine Rally was a fun experience combining a drive through of the park and a thrill-ride.
The day we went there was a pretty hot day so we had to try out the water rides as well. We got absolutely soaking wet on the Congo River Rapids and we just continued with Stanly falls and Tidal Wave. Remember to bring some dry clothes if you plan to visit the place J
Our next destination was Naples but on the way there we had time to stop at Fort Myers to visit Thomas Alva Edison’s winter home. I have read books about the guy when I was younger but it was fun to hear stories about him again. The 16 $ that it costs to get in gives you access to the gardens, his house, his laboratory, a museum and a tour. The tour was more of a botanical tour to start with as the guide took us through his big garden with plants and flowers from all over the world.
The ride from Fort Myers to Naples is a short drive and the first stop in Naples was at the tourist information. Based on the info we got there we found a room at Sea Shell motel. Naples seems to be a very quiet place because we took a drive in the evening and there were hardly any people out at all. But we only stayed at this place for a night because next morning we were off to the Everglades.
The ride from Naples to Everglades City is also pretty short. Everglades City is a starting point for different rides in the Everglades area. A cold front was moving in at this time and the weather turned cooler and we got a few raindrops. But we wanted to go on a boat trip to check out the wild life. But we only went for a short 90-minute boat ride that took us out towards the gulf coast. The ranger that took us out there told us about the fish and the bird life in the area and pointed out the different birds for us. The highlight of the boat trip was when dolphins decided to swim along with the boat.
Back in Miami
The trip through the Everglades is a pretty short trip and before we knew it we were back in Miami. When we got to Miami we stayed at the Dezerland hotel but that was a bit out of town so we decided to try and get a place closer to the Art Deco district. The first place we tried was the Riviere hotel. They had a vacant room but there were no parking in the area so we turned it down. But then they said that they had studios or flats (called the Mediterranean) that we could rent not far away. And for about 39 $ we got a room at the corner of 15th and Pennsylvania which is pretty central. The place itself was not all that nice because people were coming and going from the flats so it was pretty noisy. The place had a few parking places outside but there was not enough space for all the cars of the tenants. So when I parked at night I just parked on the pavement closing the entrance for the 3 cars that were parked there. That was obviously a big mistake because next morning I had gotten two parking tickets: 1 for parking on the sidewalk and 1 for blocking the exit for the other cars. In total this added up to about 60$ so it was a pretty expensive parking. So the moral of the story is that the people that check these thing are always around (I got the tickets at 5.30 on a Saturday morning) and if you will get a ticket make sure you only get one not two tickets like I did J
The rest of the time on our vacation was spent looking around Miami. We went downtown to try out the Metromover and we also tried a drive in Coral Gables that the guide recommended. The drive itself was pretty boring but at least it too us to places like the Venetian pool that looks like a wonderful place.
And we stopped by Ventura mall, Miracle Mile and Bayside in downtown Miami.
On the 28th of October it was time for us to get back and we got to the airport about 4 hours before the flight left. Turning in the Avis car was quick and painless. But when we got to the counter to check in we were told we were too late. It turned out that Northwest had change the timetable during our vacation and all of a sudden the flight left 4 hours earlier than usual. Northwest was able to get us on a Martinair flight to Amsterdam later that night but we had to wait for about 8 hours. So I guess the lesson is that it can be smart to re-confirm tickets when you are travelling. The flight home to Europe was pretty quick as we had strong tailwinds. But I was not very impressed with the comfort and standard of the Martinair flight that we took. After a few hours in Amsterdam we got back to a rainful, windy and cold Stavanger.
A few tips and recommandations
As I mentioned earlier we rented a car from Avis and we used Expedia to book it. When I rented the car I got a price of 100$ per week and I knew of course that there would be extra cost because you need insurance and so on. I thought that I would have an option to choose different insurances but when we got to Avis in Miami we only got one question “Do you want collision insurance?” And I said yes because saying no would be irresponsible. And this insurance was about 22$ per day and the total cost for renting the car was in the end 600$. In my opinion it should have been clearer what the total cost for renting the car would be and I have also shared this point of view with Avis.
Driving in the States
Apart from that driving is pretty easy in the states but there are a few rules that are different than what I’m used to. You are allowed to turn to the right when the signal is red (unless there is a sign saying something else). Cars were pretty quick to remind us of this rule (by using the horn) if I stopped on a red light. We saw quite a lot of police cars around on the highways and people were pulled over all the time. So I guess the moral is that we should keep the speed limits J
The gas was pretty cheap (about 1.15$ in the Orlando area) and driving 1200 miles did not really dig into our wallets. When you fill gas remember that you have to pay in advance.
I guess I also have to mention the coupons that are everywhere. It is possible to save quite a lot if you use the coupons for all the different attractions in the Orlando area. But I can’t understand why it should be like this.
It was not always easy to communicate with people in Miami because many only speak Spanish. Or as Nikki put it: we heard more English spoken on our vacation to Mexico last year then in Miami.
As I have mentioned above we more or less only had maps from tourist folders when driving around. That was not very easy at times so I recommend that you bring along a good map of Orlando and Miami at least. I’m very pleased that I had Nikki as a map-reader by the way because there is quite a lot to focus on apart from the map. So I did the driving and she said left, right and so on.
The Americans seem to love their food and there is a great selection of fast-food restaurants. I don’t eat that much fast-food at home so it was great to try out Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonalds, KFC and so on. We also went out to have steaks a few times and the portions are BIG so we soon found out that there was no need for starters. In general the portions are big so Nikki and me often shared a meal at least for lunch. Apart from that I just have to say that I love Dairy Queen and especially the Blizzard. It is basically the same as the McFlurry from McDonalds but only better J And there is a great selection of stuff that you can get inserted into the ice…I fell for chocolate chip cookie dough grin. And smoothies were also sold on different locations and that is a really healthy and great way to cool down. My favourite is the boring banana, strawberry, orange juice and crushed ice mix.
I have spoken about the cost quite a lot already and I hope that I don’t nag too much about it. But it is important to know how much a trip will cost so you can plan a vacation and set-up a budget. Here are some of the costs for our trip:
Universal Studios/Islands of adventure
190 $ + 16$ parking
102 $ + 8$ parking
Kennedy Space center
60 $ + 5$ parking
102 $ + 7$ parking
Avis car rental
Edison’s winter home
Boat trip in Everglades
Museum of science and space transit planetarium
Dezerland beach resort & spa
8701 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach
2 nights about 120 $
Quality inn international
7600 International Drive, Orlando
6 nights, 223$
Sea Shell motel
82 9th Street South Naples
1 night 42,5$
7900 South U.S. 1, Port St. Lucie
1 night, 76$
Buccaneer Beachfront Resort Motel
10800 Gulf Boulevard, Treasure Island (near Tampa)
2 nights, about 70$
2 night, about 80$
As I said earlier, I was not very impressed with the Dezerland hotel. First of all I didn't like the location and second, I don't like these hidden expenses that came on top of the bill. The Quality inn that we stayed at in Orlando was located very central and it was pretty cheap. The Riviere hotel (or Mediterranean studios) were not all that great. The location was nice but the place was noisy and it seemed a bit worn down. The rest of the places were OK hotels and I don't really have much more to say about it.
When planning the trip we did use both books and the internet. First of all we bought Eyewitness Travel Guide to Florida by Dorling Kindersley. But most of the other information came from the net. Best Regards (http://home5.inet.tele.dk/hans-h-c/) includes a travelogue from a Danish guy who went to Florida a few years back and that was a nice reference. We booked the Avis car and the first hotel by using www.expedia.com and you can read a lot of general information about Florida on http://www.flausa.com/index.php.
I think that we had a great time in Florida and I guess Florida turned out to be what I expected it to be: a very entertaining place to spend a vacation :-) We got to see quite a lot in the two weeks that we were there and we could probably have spent a lot more time in the states because there were a lot more to see. We got to see more or less all the things that we had planned to see. The only thing we missed out on was a Jai Alai game in Miami. But maybe we will go back to the Sunshine State one time in the future.