Disney from a Distance

The alarm broke into my conscience at precisely 4:45am. Unlike my usual reluctant morning wakeup that entails Pavlovian snooze-button hitting, this morning my feet were on the floor before Evan's alarm had a chance to chime in. "We've got to get to the airport" was the only thought going through my head. About 20 minutes later we found ourselves jogging down the sidewalk near the Ft. Snelling cemetery, trying to catch the light rail to take us to the main terminal while simultaneously recording a video on my trusty FlipVideo. Of course, we couldn't concern ourselves with questions about where our crazy airport run would land us later in the day. The adventures of non-rev travel are not for the weak of heart. And despite the fact that I am a planner by nature, there is something liberating about going through security with one shared piece of luggage, a stand-by ticket, and a world of possibility in front of you - quite literally.

We had initially been planning on making Chicago our first non-rev destination of choice. Since it's close and relatively exciting (we had never been there together) with lots of museums and food, we figured it was a safe option to "test our wings." But then we got some sense and realized we needed to go somewhere warm since Minnesota was not giving us the spring we were craving (snow in May, seriously?). So we added Las Vegas, San Antonio, and DC to our list. And then while packing Friday night and brainstorming other ideas, Orlando got thrown on the list without much thought. (Note: packing for multiple destinations in one bag is quite a challenge!)

Apparently everyone wants to go to Las Vegas over Memorial Day Weekend because the early morning flight was full. So we waved goodbye to hopes of gambling the weekend away (not really) and hiking in the desert, and turned our attention to our remaining options. Since Orlando was the next flight scheduled for takeoff, we headed to the gate to discover they were boarding now and there were just two seats available. Well, should we go to Orlando?

... naturally, we climbed aboard, amidst strollers, polka-dot luggage and lots of kid chatter - a stark contrast to the Vegas crowd.

Landing in a new city without a hotel reservation does get your blood pumping a little bit. But luckily, after a few sweaty moments where someone told me there were absolutely no more rooms in any Hilton hotels throughout the city, we found a modestly priced Hampton Inn by the airport. Sold.

But, we did learn a thing or two in the process, and are determined to use this knowledge from here on out. Our first three rules to the Pierson travel bible:

#1: If you call a hotel directly, they might say they are booked for the night. But if you check priceline.com, chances are you can find a room at that very hotel.

#2: When you plan on renting a car, do NOT rent it in person at the airport BEFORE checking with priceline. When we bought our priceline hotel room, a window popped up asking us if we wanted to rent a car as well for only $11 a day (more than half the price of what we got at the airport).

#3: Unless you absolutely have to be near the action, it's cheaper to stay closer to the airport and take day trips.

Of course it's exhilarating dropping in on a new city on a whim, but it is also quite tiring. Keep in mind that we got up before 5am and didn't get to our hotel until noon (time change) - and because we were frantically trying to find a room and car, we neglected to eat anything. Even mini vacations can get expensive, so there's the pressure of wanting to fill it with quality vacation time every second of the day, which is hard to do when you're pretty much unprepared. After a quick lunch at the only restaurant near our hotel, we decided to regroup, poolside, and do a little research on what we wanted to explore. 

OK, so I did a little light reading as well, while Evan napped

We've obviously got the spontaneity thing down, but lots of adventures do require a little bit of thought. Or you at least need to decide what you don't want to do. Some quick research answered that question for us: Disney (and all the others) are quite the substantial investment and would block out an entire day we could otherwise spend doing multiple things. So we crossed that off our list, along with many other tourist attractions, including swimming with dolphins, water parks, bungee jumping, outlet malls ... in the end, I think we had a well-rounded trip. Take a look!

Orlando in 1.5 days

Saturday late afternoon: Check out downtown Orlando and Lake Eola
I failed to remember my camera, so you'll just have to envision a big urban lake with swans, swan-themed paddle boats, a cool Asian fountain in the middle, and various shops and restaurants around the perimeter. We grabbed a snack at a little French Cafe and wandered the neighborhood streets (I loved the unique vegetation!)

Saturday night: Walk around Universal Studios "City Walk" - it's free after hours! 
(minus $5 parking)
This is where we got our "Disney fix" while maintaining our distance from the "place where all your dreams come true." Honestly, the traffic and general craziness getting to Universal was enough for us. But City Walk was pretty cool. There are lots of restaurants, live music, a HUGE Hard Rock Cafe (the biggest?), and of course you can take the token photo of the Universal globe.
Evan chatted it up with an old guy at the gates to the amusement park section who secretly wanted to let us in. But no dice. We parked at the top of this mammoth parking garage and the view from the top was quite stunning. Ferris Wheels, high rise hotels, the Harry Potter castle (which almost convinced me to buy a ticket), and when we left at 10pm we caught a glimpse of the fireworks from Disney. We sang "It's a Small World Afterall," I pretended I was on a Nimbus 2000, and then we skedaddled home again home again jiggity jig to our home sweet Hampton Inn.


Sunday morning: Alligator Airboat Ride
We got up early (7am!) to make the trek down south about an hour to an airboat ride tourist trap. Yea, yea, I know, it was a very touristy thing to do. But sometimes it's worth it to play the tourist for a bit. And we're glad we did, because it meant we got to see alligators! (and a snake on the road, to Evan's delight.)

The Airboat Ride is basically like a big pontoon, only designed to go fast, with this huge fan that propels you down the river ... err marsh? Someone was excited to see some gators!
 We saw two. One was submerged right at the start, but we could make out his spine, and later we found a baby swimming around.

 Ignore my straining face and neck ... it's hard to hold a big SLR camera aimed back at yourself! You can see our guide up there in the back and the fan behind him.

 Why hello there. Surprise! There were cows EVERYWHERE. Just munching on grass. I'm sure they are tired of these noisy airboats dragging tourists out to their "pasture."

This was the stretch I refer to as "The Circle of Life" because there were all sorts of animals (egrets, pelicans, calves, eagles, rabbits) all frolicking on the bank together. Quite possibly my favorite part of the ride. ("From the day we arrived on the planet ... and blinking stepped in to the sun ...")

 Pierson Travel Lesson #4: Summer sausage, cheese, and fruit from a local grocery store makes a great lunch while on the road. Just don't leave the cheese in the hot car all afternoon and expect it to be anything less than orange cheese water (gross)! 

Sunday afternoon: Kennedy Space Center
 Although definitely over-priced (our most expensive activity all weekend) it was worth the stop. We saw all sorts of artifacts, listened to a talk from a current NASA astronaut, watched a 3D movie on the international space station, and survived a "takeoff" simulation ride.

Sunday evening: Cocoa Beach
The Kennedy Space Center is right on the coast, so we had to stop by a nearby beach for an evening dip in the water. We were both surprised at how warm the water was, for May, and had fun taking photos of us running in (not to be posted to the blog).

Pierson Travel Lesson #5: When in a pinch, it's okay to borrow a few hotel towels for the beach

Sunday night: late night seafood on the pier
Atlantic Ocean Grille, Cocoa Beach Pier

Pierson Travel Lesson #6: Not every beach town has good seafood. Deal.

#7: Conserve your phone battery if you're using it as a GPS. We had quite a few tense moments in the car thanks to my phone that didn't like holding a charge. "We're down to 11%" is not a good thing to hear when it's only 6pm and you have a long drive back. 

#8: Rental car and tolls: If you're going to use the EZ pass system on the car, they will (likely) charge you that amount for every day of your rental, whether you used it every day or not. Make sure this is cost effective. (We doubled up on tolls since the first day we paid out of pocket and the next we flipped the lever).

Monday morning we arose bright and early - just like every day of our "relaxing" vacation - and headed back to the airport. Luckily we had no trouble on our return flight and were able to indulge in a good three-hour nap at home before Evan had to head back to the airport for his evening shift.

So there you have it. Our first non-rev travel adventure of 2013 officially in the books. Where are we off to next you ask? Our fingers are crossed right now that the stars align and we hop on a six hour flight to somewhere where the sun never sleeps ... toes crossed too!

Wondering how we're flying standby this summer? Read about Evan's job at the airport here.

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