Monday, April 25, 2011

A getaway all too short in Orlando, Florida

Andrew and I were supposed to go to Hawaii in December. There was a conference that Andrew was going to attend, it would have been good for him, lots of major people in his field, etc., but then he was invited to teach a course at the U of A. At first he was only going to teach the first half of the course until the surgery of the professor he was replacing got pushed back and Andrew was asked to teach the whole course. That put the final exam (which he had to administer) in the middle of the conference and an end to our Hawaii plans. That also stuck us with a plane ticket for United Airways, which had to be used up by a year from the purchase date. We hummed and hawed for some time about where we'd like to go (Hawaii, San Francisco, and Orlando were the front runners). Eventually we settled on Orlando--in the hopes of seeing a shuttle launch.

We discovered less than a month before our trip that the shuttle launch had been delayed a week and a half (due to a 'traffic jam at the ISS'), which got us rethinking our plans, again. The whole reason we chose Orlando was the shuttle and now we weren't going to get to see it. Should we still go? Should we try to rebook and hope the shuttle goes as planned on April 29th? The problem was of course, this was already the second booking of this trip. We would lose more money off our flight (for a cancellation fee) and there was still no guarantee that the shuttle would launch on April 29th. Ultimately we decided it was best to just go. We were both in need of a break anyway.

So, at 8:00 am last Sunday morning, Andrew and I boarded a flight bound for Orlando. As a note, don't fly United if you can help it. We arrived in Denver on time...we didn't leave it on time. The plane that was supposed to take us to Orlando was loaded and once everyone was on the captain made an announcement to say that there was a problem with a hydraulic pump and that they were currently trying to troubleshoot it--they'd kept us posted on the situation. Next update: the decision of whether or not to fly would be made by 1:30 (we were supposed to take off at 12:45), passengers could get off of the plane if they wanted, but they'd only be given one announcement to get back on the plane. Next update: we were told that the initial problem had been fixed, but they'd found a new one, the decision on whether or not to fly would be made at 2:00. We could get off if we wanted, but we had to take our stuff with us. Final update: around 2:00 we were told we would have to get off the plane, United would try to find a new one. Urk. At least they did find a different plane and we were on our way around 3:45. Of course there was no comps of any kind, just 'sorry, thanks for your patience.' At last we were in the air and on our way--we arrived in Orlando around 9:15.

On our first day in Orlando we went to Universal Studios. We planned to go to one theme park (having only 3 full days in the area) and since Universal was close/the home of Harry Potter World, we decided to go there. The day was beautiful. Warm (very warm, high 80s F, I think) and sunny. I slathered on the sunscreen (with a re-application around 1:00), wore a hat I purchased specially for the trip, and a pair of big sunglasses (hey, I'm super pale). We spent the first hour or so wandering around, figuring out where things were, how things work (HP World is so popular you have to pick up an extra ticket that gives you entrance at a specific time of the day) and deciding where in the park we wanted to go. I think it was almost noon before we hit a ride--a white water rapid-style ride--which was perfect since I was getting pretty hot and sticky. Afterward we hit up some of the smaller rides in Suess-land before our HP World entrance time.

The Suess carousel. It was just a carousel, but it was still fun to ride.
The red fish, blue fish ride. It squirted water at the riders, as you spun around.

When we first entered HP World an a capella quartet performance was underway, so we stopped to listen. They performed music from the HP movies (such as the main theme, the quiddich theme, etc) and were quite good. There was a student from each house, and there was definitely a little play rivalry going on between the Slytherin student and the others. When they wrapped up, we decided to try the 'Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey' ride. This was the only substantial line we waited in (around 90 minutes) and I'm pleased to say the wait was worth it. This ride was a combination of project screens, tilting/rotating the ride car, 'real-life' automatic scenes and was contained within the bowels of Hogwarts castle. We tried all of the rides in HP world including the Dragon Challenge and the Flight of the Hippogriff. For the heck of it we had dinner at the Three Broomsticks (we brought our lunch) and had frozen butter beer (basically a cream soda float). The dinner was reasonable (I had roast chicken) and surprisingly the prices weren't a complete gouge.

The entrance to Harry Potter World.
The a capella quartet. We both felt really bad for them stuck under all the clothing on such a hot day.
A full shot of the castle, the tricks of perspective it played were impressive.
We hung about the park until almost 10:00 (closing time) before returning to our hotel completely exhausted.

Tuesday morning was slightly traumatic. We pre-purchased tickets to the Kennedy Space Centre that included a tour at 10:20 (of course initially, that ticket included watching the launch from Cocoa Beach). The plan was to be in the car and off by 9:00. This was delayed first by the fact that upon reading the fine print of our e-ticket it said we were supposed to call ahead to ensure that our tour was still going as planned (Andrew had to run back to the room to grab his cell), then the GPS didn't want to locate KSC. We wasted several minutes trying different searches until we decided to just start driving and hope the GPS would pick up the directions en route (we knew which way we needed to start off in). By this time we were at least 15 minutes behind. Andrew eventually got through to the KSC tour line and was told we were going to miss our tour as we needed to be there by 10:00. This, of course, soured my mood, so when we reached the toll both things got worse. We don't have toll booths in Alberta (or really anywhere in Canada that I know of), so we had a bit of a curffle as to which line to get in, what exact change meant (change verses a one dollar bill), trying to back up and getting honked at, and me having to get out of the car to reach the bin. Yeah. So when we arrived at KSC at 10:15 I was not in the best of moods. Thankfully, it worked out.
The NASA emblem at the entrance of the Kennedy Space Center.
Turns out bus tours are constantly leaving KSC, so we were able to rebook for 2:10 giving us lots of time to check out the launch simulator, the shuttle mock up and the Hubble Telescope IMAX movie before getting on the coach bus in the afternoon. We got the guided tour package, which I would definitely recommend. We had a very knowledgeable fellow pointing out all the sites and overloading us with Space Program information as we drove around. Plus, on the guided tour you get to go closer to the shuttle than the regular bus tours that run out of KSC (they just take you over to one of the NASA visitor viewing spots, then drop you off at the Missile Museum). We got to go much closer, although still over a mile away, plus we got to stop right in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building. The VAB is an interesting building. Since there's no city scape around it, it's hard to judge how big it actually is, but it's the 4th largest building in the world. It stands over 160 metres tall and encloses over 3.6 million square meters. Astounding!
Andrew squishing the shuttle.
The shuttle, lined up and ready to go on launch pad 39A.
The Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA.
The tour concludes at the Missile Museum, which houses one of the 3 remaining Saturn rockets (the ones that took astronauts to the moon). The Museum has a number of different Space Program related artifacts on display as well, including the entire mission control room for the Apollo 7 mission. By this time it was close to 5:00 and after our long day on Monday I was getting pretty tired. Once we were reasonably sure we'd seen everything important we caught one of the regular tour buses back to KSC and finished checking out the sites we hadn't gotten to including the astronaut memorial and the rocket garden.
Mission Control for the Apollo 7 mission.
The enormous Saturn rocket.
At some point late in the afternoon Andrew sent a couple of texts to one his friends in Edmonton who'd lived in Orlando to ask where we should go for dinner. We figured we'd probably eat near KSC since it was an hour drive back to our hotel. We were given two suggestions, one in Cocoa Beach and one in Titusville. We ended up going for the one in Titusville (it was closer) called Dixie Crossroads. When we got there shortly after 7:00 a large crowd of people were milling around outside, which we figured meant two things: 1) they were busy, but also 2) they were good enough that people were willing to wait. We were right on both accounts. We wound up waiting almost 45 minutes (we didn't mind, we ordered margaritas from the bar, and sat outside on a bench), but it was totally worth it. When we were seated was we were brought a basket of hot corn fritters covered with icing sugar. Wow. They were incredibly good and were being sent out free to all tables, in what we assume was an apology for the wait (there were a number of empty tables in the back, but we guessed the were unused due to insufficient staff).

Since we'd looked at the menu ahead of time we ordered quickly. I had grilled mahi mahi and Andrew had shrimp (6 covered in coconut, 6 with bacon). I'm not a huge seafood fan (there were other, non-seafood choices), but I decided that since I was in Florida, I ought to sample the local fair--and ended up enjoying my dinner. It was delicious. I had sides of Cesar salad and roasted sweet potato (it came with cinnamon butter), while Andrew had fries and a nice steamed veggie mix. Our waiter was also fantastic (sadly I don't remember his name). Andrew was struck by the mixture of formal politeness and the outgoing friendliness of his personality. Overall, we had a great time at Dixie Crossroads, and would definitely recommend it to anyone in the area--although you might need to be prepared to wait.

Wednesday was our last full day in Orlando, and perhaps a little less exciting than the other two. Andrew slept in while I went to the hotel gym. Then after lunch we went shopping. We hit up one of the major Orlando outlet malls, the Premium Outlet mall. It took us a while to find it (not knowing the exact address combined with an attempt to walk there first), but once we did it was worth it. We got some good deals on brand-name stuff. For dinner on our last night we decided to return to Universal and check out the City Walk area. The City Walk is located before the park entrances, so you don't have to pay to get in and it's filled with restaurants and shops. We opted to sit out on the patio of Pastamore where we were entertained by a rather impressive announcer and a DJ. They started out with almost no one listening to them, and by the end of their set they had the crowd screaming for beaded necklaces (the Dollar Store-glittery-Mardi Graw-kind) like they were made of real diamonds. Dinner was good. Not outstanding, but perfectly serviceable--which was what I was expecting from a park restaurant.

Finally, Thursday; home day. Our flight wasn't until 12:45 so we had lots of time to go to the gym, have breakfast, etc, before checking out. We were delayed, again, on the second lag of our flight from Houston to Edmonton. It was only 45 minutes or so, but still it was a pain since we were all sitting, waiting on the plane. Overall, we had a great time and would like to go again sometime, although probably for a longer trip next time.



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