Good morning guys. I’ve spoken so many times about Orlando, and my trips to Florida and how much I love the city. And, because of that, today I wanted to share my first full in-depth guide/diary for my time in the city and what I love so much about it. This will be my last post from my trip there last month with Scott, and (although I’ve posted so many times about it) I’m actually sad to be closing a book on this trip because it was so much fun! As you’re all aware, Florida is one of my favourite go-to places, with Orlando in particular being a beautiful city that I love to explore.
I fall in love with the location more and more every time that I visit, and since we’ve vowed to be more adventurous over our last few trips (taking a trip out to Crystal River and then Anna Maria Island) we’re going to the West Coast for our next time in the States this September and road tripping from California to Nevada (if you have any recommendations for places/eateries/activities to see, please don’t hold back I’d love to hear them!).
But, before we go any further with that – let’s cast our minds back to landing in the beautiful city of Orlando, Florida and what I love so much about this magical place.
The Journey to Orlando
Traditionally, Scott and I always fly into Sanford Airport. Sanford is about 45/50 minutes outside of Orlando, and Thomson (who we usually fly with) only fly into here when you’re departing from Manchester.
This time, when we were booking flights, we came across a great deal from Virgin Atlantic with seats in a double decker plane for £350 return. Virgin flies into Orlando International as opposed to Sanford, which is 15/20 minutes from Orlando and much easier to reach for your first trip to the city!
This was also my first time flying in a double decker plane, and I was so excited! The thought of climbing a staircase inside a jet was absolutely mystifying to me, and in Virgin planes all upstairs seating gets a cupboard compartment for those sitting in the window seat instead of storing your luggage in the overhead lockers!
On the flight plan, we chose seats that had nobody sat behind us so that we could recline (I would never recline if somebody was behind me, I just feel too bad! Ha ha!). We could also tailor our in-flight meals to Vegetarian instead of traditional meat, which although I knew I could inquire about on Thomson, I had just never gotten round to!
It was a really pleasant flight, and one of the best I’ve ever had. Not only for the comfort, but being on the top deck had me feeling like a child at Christmas ha ha!
The first thing that struck me about landing in Orlando Internal was how large it is! If you’ve ever flown into Sanford, you’ll know that it’s a much smaller airport and in terms of stores has a lot less to offer. Whereas Orlando International is practically a mall, and once you’re through security you’ll get on a shuttle to the main building which is full of the stores!
Because we’re from England, we both had our ESTA Visas and were eligible from automatic immigration. I don’t know if it was because it was my first time (or not), but Scott – who had visited the airport last May, cleared automatic immigration seamlessly, while I was rejected and had to go through manual!
I always feel quite intimidated going through immigration. I mean, I completely understand and respect that whoever’s dealing with me is just doing their job, but I always feel guilty (although I have no reason to be) when I’m getting interviewed! Ha! Does anybody else feel like that, too?
Once through the other side, Scott and I got on the shuttle to the main building to hire our car! I always love hiring cars in the States, and when you go to choose your vehicle there’s much and they’re all huge! We usually opt for an estate-style car, and then we’re on our way!
My First Night Traditions
I don’t know about you guys, but I always have a bit of a ritual that I do whenever I land in Orlando. Once we’re out the airport and in the car we make our way over to the hotel and get checked in.
Then, once we’re checked in we freshen up and head over to Disney Springs! When Scott, Clare and I first visited Orlando in 2013, Disney Springs (Downtown Disney) was under refurbishment to become the Springs, so we didn’t manage to head over there. Also, we didn’t have a car so the journey itself would have been quite laborious for our first night!
Ever since though, we make it a point to head on over and see what’s going on! As I mentioned, we always stay in the Rosen Inn International hotel (which is at the Sand Lake/International Drive crossing) which is only a 10 minutes drive both from Disney World and Universal Studios. It’s such a great location!
When we headed to Disney Springs this trip, our first port of call was for dinner so we headed for Blaze Pizza. I don’t stick to a particular pizza while I’m there, so this time I tried the Art Lover and loved it! I also got a S’mores Pie because I wanted to see what it was like. I was really surprised they use McVities Digestive biscuits, as I figured they’d just go for Graham Crackers instead! It felt like a little piece of home in America – ha ha!
Following Blaze Pizza, we love to wander around in the evening heat and visited Sprinkles Cupcakes for a three pack of minis, and Ghirardelli Ice Cream Store for the sea salt caramel sundae (omg, so good! Also, Scott and I shared all of these before I sound too greedy! Ha ha!)
It’s such a fun place to visit and great to get yourself in the holiday mood. I love Disney’s homeware stores like Mickey’s Pantry, the stock is always so cute and seasonal!
Shopping in the Orlando Area
If you caught this post, you’ll know that the shopping in Orlando is one of my absolute favourites. The amount of stores, malls and options that you have are basically unlimited, and if I could live there for the stores alone I 100% would.
I published an entire guide to shopping in Orlando, which you can check out here. But, for this post, I’ll run over the basics too. Of all the malls in the area, my favourite always is Mall of Millennia. I love The Cheesecake Factory, Abercrombie and Fitch, the Nordstrom Rack around the corner and the Super Target that’s only 3 minutes down the road. There’s also a Container Store that I’ve wanted to go in but been too nervous to due to the fact that I 100% would not be able to stop myself from filling my luggage with storage containers.
Another great mall is the Orlando Outlets that you find on either side of International Drive. Both have a great variety of stores and all of the stores include some fantastic discounts on stock!
If you’re visiting Orlando for Disney World, I can’t recommend enough that you check out the Disney Character Warehouse at both of the Orlando Outlets. All the stock is 100% genuinely from Disney World, and is discounted up to 90%! They both include different pieces of stock too, so you can check out both locations and see which you prefer.
If you’re in the International Drive area also, there’s a great outdoor mall in the middle of the Drive called Orlando Outlet Marketplace. Instead of outlets, this mall has clearance stores: which are so much cheaper than outlets. This particular marketplace houses a Nike clearance store (a lot of the same stock as O.O. but with a traditional 30% off on top!) and an American Eagle clearance store.
There’s also an incredible Tommy Hilfiger clearance store at Pointe Orlando that I rave about in this post. I always pick up some amazing deals at that store and the stock rotates almost every other day. It’s such a great deal.
Eating in the Orlando Area
Oh my, the food. Literally my favourite thing wherever I visit. There are so many great places to eat in the Orlando area, and so many of them are places that I actually come back to because of how good certain dishes are.
In the immediate International Drive area, Scott and I love visiting Chilis (so good!) and we both always get the Cajun Chicken pasta. Since becoming veggie, I obviously substitute the chicken, which they usually load up with broccoli instead, and it’s so delicious. It’s a cajun-cheese sauce, and the dish comes with garlic toast. If we’re craving Indian food, we visit Aashirwad, which is just off I-Drive, and I love love love their tomato-okra dish. They also do really delicious onion bhajis that I can never turn down.
There’s also a really great Thai restaurant on the Drive called Coco’s. Their tofu curries are all delicious, and Scott really enjoyed their chicken dishes too. Another great location is Bahama Breeze, which is a Caribbean-themed restaurant. They do delicious cocktails and have a really nice Island vibe to the entire place. When I was a meat-eater, I’d get the Cuban Sandwich – but now I get the Jerk Chicken Pasta (again, with the meat substituted for veggies!)
We love stopping by The International House of Pancakes (does anyone actually call it this? Or should we just say IHOP instead?) for breakfast every now and again, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlour at Pointe Orlando for a pick-me-up. They do so many great flavours (especially if you’re visiting from outside America, because they have such a wider range of scoops – my favourite in The States is Chocolate Therapy, whereas I’m a complete Chunky Monkey guy here at home).
Some more breakfast places in the local area that Scott and I tried in March (and loved) were First Watch (at Plaza Venezia) and Keke’s Breakfast Cafe *A FAVE! Especially the turtle-stuffed french toast!* at Mall of Millennia, Conroy Road.
My final International Drive recommendation has to be McDonalds – and before you scoff or judge me for it, the location on the International and Sand Lake junction is the only one (in the world, I think) that does pasta and pizza (and also the most delicious peanut butter cake ever!). You can customise and design the pizzas and pastas to your own tastes, and since it practically sits on the same property as the Rosen Inn International, we frequent it more than I should be admitting during our time there.
Away from International Drive, Scott and I love visiting Mall of Millennia (as I mentioned) for The Cheesecake Factory. This is my favourite restaurant to go to whenever we’re in the USA. I always get the DaVinci pasta (again, with the meat substituted) and my favourite cheesecakes are between the Peanut Butter Fudge Ripple (my mouth is literally salivating at the thought) and the S’mores flavour. We usually go here multiple times throughout our trip and no matter how full I get, I always make sure to take a slice home with me!
In terms of restaurants I think we’re quite cliche with our choices, as we usually find ourselves visiting the classic American sites that we can’t get here in England. The Olive Garden is another great place to try, and we gave Señor Frogs a go during our trip October 2017 but walked away disappointed with the food. Okay, now that I’ve dedicated perhaps the biggest section of this post to food, let’s move on…
What Theme Parks We Visited
Visiting Orlando, you’re of course going to run into more than one theme park. Scott and I are huge fans of theme parks and rides, and although we love Disney (so, so much) whenever we visit Orlando for a week we usually give Disney World as miss as the expense of the tickets and the amount of time it takes to do things are both so long that it would either take the entire trip, or we would miss doing other things that we’re visiting Orlando to do. I’m also one of the rare people who prefer Disneyland Paris to Disney World, but you can read about my undying love for there right here.
In terms of the Universal parks, we both adore them. My favourite is Islands of Adventure, and specifically Jurassic World. The Jurassic river ride is my favourite – whereas Scott’s favourite is The Mummy over in the main Universal park! I love the theming throughout both parks, and can’t wait to hear about this secret 4th park that Universal allegedly have up their sleeve (ooh). If you’re visiting the parks, you HAVE to try the Butterbeer at Harry Potter World. You can either get it regular or frozen – we both prefer it frozen so the drink is more like a frappuccino, whereas regular is milky but also fizzy which I don’t like the mix of at all. The drink reminds me a lot of Worthers Original sweets, and you can also grab Butterbeer ice cream in Diagon Alley in the Main Universal park which is a really great dish to share!
In terms of visiting the parks, I’d recommend dedicating a day of the trip to each park. That way you can soak the atmosphere in, enjoy the theming and probably get on each and every ride available! You can pay an extra amount (I think in the region of $80 each) for a fast pass to jump on the rides a lot quicker, but to my knowledge the Harry Potter attractions aren’t included in that (if I’m wrong please correct me below!) and they’re where your biggest queues will be found.
Volcano Bay is Universal’s water park that we visit too, and it’s so much fun. My favourite water park is the area is still Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon (I can’t resist the tidal wave pool!) but Volcano Bay is also really fun, and doesn’t cost much more at all if you’re already buying Universal tickets. They’ve integrated the ‘digital queue’ system into VB meaning that you tap your device at the queue area for any rides you want to go on, then it will buzz you when it’s your time to go and ride! This meant that Scott and I had a lot of time to just chill out, and lounge in the sun. We also were able to frequent the food places (I love the boat pizza and refillable Coke machines!) which made a world of difference when you’re sat in the boiling sun. Keeping hydrated is so important, so not standing in queue after endless queue makes a huge difference. Especially if you’re a fan of sunbathing as there is always availability in the chair loungers or on the beach.
Our Time at Anna Maria Island
If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I love Anna Maria Island. Every time I go I write a diary on my time there, which you can read this one from my latest trip in March, and this one from my trip before in October. AMI is about 2 hours outside of Orlando, which makes it a really fun place to have a mini-road trip to if you’re visiting with a car. You drive down the i4, then merge onto the i75 until you hit Bradenton. Once you’re through the city, you’ll go over a beautiful bridge (have your passengers get the camera ready haha!) and onto the Island.
AMI is the epitome of relaxed, with the beachy culture and dirt streets. When Scott and I most recently visited, we ditched the car once we got to the city pier and rented bikes to get us around instead. This was such a success that we’ll definitely be doing this in the future! While on the island we went from food place to food place (because duh) and my favourites were Poppo’s Tacqueria and then The Donut Experiment (which is conveniently next door!) I have heard great recommendations about other places on the island too, such as The Sandbar (a great place to go to enjoy sunset overlooking the ocean), Sign of the Mermaid, Ginny and Jane E’s Cafe, Skinny’s Place Old Style Burger Shack, Two Scoops Ice Cream Parlour and The Doctor’s Office Cocktail Bar. As you can see there’s a bunch of great places to go for food so you could easily turn your time there into a mini-holiday and rent a beach house for a few days!
While exploring Pine Avenue (the main retail stretch on the island), there are so many beautiful boutiques that you can check out for a momento of your time there – I grabbed a really nice sweatshirt from Emerson’s Studio Store which I’d definitely recommend checking out! In terms of other places to go, you should definitely check out Rod and Reel Pier, Bayfront Park, Bean Point Beach and Anna Maria City Pier (although it’s currently closed due to Hurricane Irma damage, it’s still super pretty!). From the shoreline you can see manatees and dolphins in the ocean, and the beaches are famous for their crisp white appearance and crystal blue waters.
You can rent all sorts of things from Beach Bums, which is where we got our bikes from – including golf carts, paddle boards and kayaks. You see a bunch of people get around the island by golf cart, and there’s a free trolley you can jump on and off that goes the length of AMI, too!
We usually head out there first thing in the morning and then drive back late afternoon, singing to music a (little) too loud, laughing and indulging in whatever snacks we stocked up on for the road trip! This always turns into one of my favourite days of any trip, because it’s so much fun!
Have you ever visited Orlando, Florida?
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