Mike’s 50th Trip to Siesta Key, Disney’s Boardwalk, Universal and New York, June 2014 Cast: Mike 49, Amanda 42. Pre-trip notes and Day 0 Standard disclaimer: My trippies tend to be somewhat lengthy: this occasionally irritates me as much as it may annoy you (after all, I have to type the things!), but Sun readers can always flick through and just look at the pretty pictures. As my primary reason for writing them is to relive the holiday months or years later, I prefer more detail rather than less. I hope, however, that like-minded folk will also enjoy them. If you don’t, then feel free to stop after the first session, but if you do, cash or cheques payable to M. Jones are gratefully received! (Or just post a reply – the feedback is very welcome!) Well, it’s been a while! Due to the recession, our US holidays have taken a bit of a battering in the last few years, and although we managed to do 5 nights New York for Amanda’s 40th almost exactly 2 years ago, we haven’t been to Florida since a family holiday in 2008. Long term followers and readers of previous trippies may recall that I celebrated my 40th a decade ago with a flying 5 day visit to the parks and the Gulf accompanied by my best mate, Scott. Ten years on, and now happily married to the lovely Amanda, we decided to mark my first half-century with an extended version of the 40th Tour, spending longer in each area and finishing off with a few days in New York. When we told close friends Hayley and Dave (regular NYC visitors) of our plans, they surprised us by arranging to meet us in New York for the last 3 days. We started planning the trip properly in early January this year. Following our previous experiences, we used comparison sites to find the best deals we could, and then threw it to online travel agents to see if they could price match, to get ABTA and ATOL cover on as much of the itinerary as possible. DialAFlight ended up very competitive and we used them for the flights, Universal and New York hotels (The Hudson on W58th) and the car. We independently arranged our Siesta Key accommodation, (this lovely place http://www.vrbo.com/428740 ) and rented DVC points from a Facebook friend to allow an affordable and luxurious 6 night stay at the Boardwalk Villas where we stayed in 2006. Park tickets were sourced and ordered from Mapleleaftickets.com in Florida, as we found they were both competitive and flexible regarding number of days. After several years away there have been many changes, not least of which was the recent introduction of Magic Bands and the My Disney Experience app/website, which allowed all kinds of interactive planning and play before the trip. We don’t ‘do’ hold luggage, and, impressed by reviews, we purchased two lightweight (800g) carry-on cases from CabinZero – they are £35 or less, have a lifetime guarantee and, being frame and wheel-less, have much more space than the roll along cabin cases most people use. Our main flights are with Virgin Atlantic. We have booked extra legroom seats for the way home (£30 each) but are saving our $$ for spending by sticking with basic economy only for the way out. I have pre-booked them as close to the exit door as possible. However, on checking the flight details online in the run up to the day itself, it looks like the 3rd seat in our row is still available, and I am tempted to try and buy the ‘Seat Plus’ option until I find that it may mean we are moved deeper into the plane. Quick summary of our itinerary: Virgin flights to MCO Orlando, hire car (convertible, hopefully a Mustang), drive straight to Siesta Key for 4 nights (with a state park visit, Busch Gardens and kayak tour planned), drive back to WDW and check into the Boardwalk for 6 nights (including meeting up with friends, La Nouba, lots of Celebration coffee trips, Illuminations and Jellyrolls) one night at Universal’s Royal Pacific Resort so we can hit both Universal parks hard in one day using the complimentary Universal Express access, then an early flight on day 11 up to New York to meet close friends there for 3 nights/4 days. So, the countdown finally wound its way from 160 days down to single figures. I took the day before off work to do online check-in, prepare the house for 2 weeks under the supervision of my 20 year old son (many a sleepless night over that, I can tell you!), deposit our dog Ruby at a friend’s house in Sale, and pack. When Amanda got home from work at 5:30 she did her packing and we followed our normal ritual of heading to the pub for a couple of drinks, returning home by about 9:00pm. In addition to this, standard Trippie, we also created a group on Facebook dedicated to the trip, so anyone not wanting to be drowned by our constant uploads can easily avoid it without unfriending us! A friend lent us a US mobile router for affordable wifi on the go, but as it turned out we had wifi virtually everywhere and didn't use it. We did get a bit hooked on the live updates, but the reaction and feedback from FB friends was mostly positive! I hope you enjoy this version. Day 1 – Saturday 7th June 2014 I rarely sleep much the night before a holiday, and am reasonably gratified to last until 3:45am! I actually rise at 4:15, but leave the still sleeping Amanda in bed until 5:00am. I use the time to catch up on Facebook and forums with a coffee in the garden. The local weather forecast today is grim, but it hasn’t arrived yet and it’s mild and still outside. Storms are due to hit the North West at some point though, and we have an obvious concern that our flight isn’t affected. Amanda rises at 5:00 and we eat a small pre-breakfast snack – we have booked into the Escape Lounge at Manchester Airport, and I want to get my 17 quid’s worth of bacon and sausage butties! After showers and gathering our final bits together we wake Adam to say ta-ra (and “don’t burn the house down, no parties, no visitors, empty the bins, wash your clothes, get up for work on time” etc!) and head off at about 6:30. We only live a few miles north of the city, and on the virtually empty, weekend roads we arrive at Jetparks 3 on Styal Road just after 7:00am. This secure but outside lot is vast, and seems to have been extended since we last used it 2 years ago. It takes us about 10 minutes to find a space, but the courtesy coach arrives at 7:15 and drops us at Terminal 2 before 7:30 (after doing the rounds of T1 and T3 first, of course!) Being (almost) a man of a certain age, and at the same time, an excitable kid, the first job is to find the loos for a pee! We head up to security, where our £3.50 FastPasses look to have been a great investment, as the normal queue is significant. We head down the priority line and are through by 7:45, even allowing for Amanda’s body search after her shoes set off the alarms. Miraculously I make it through unscathed! We wander through the duty free areas, where Amanda buys a lipstick, before heading to the Lounge just after 8:00am. It’s our first time in one of these retreats. I find it pleasant, and certainly quiet, but a wee bit worn around the edges if I’m totally honest. However the service (mostly ‘self’, even for wines and spirits etc, although you have to order hot food dishes) is good and the sitting areas comfortable. We plug our various tablets and phones in to charge and enjoy bacon (and in my case bacon and sausage) rolls with fresh coffee and juice. As it’s officially holiday time now we also partake of a small libation – Sauv Blanc for Amanda and brandy for me. Hey, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere! (That would make a great song!) The next couple of hours pass pleasantly and peacefully. We both have Kobo eReaders – Amanda is ploughing through Stephen King’s back catalogue and I’m halfway through Lord Of The Rings for the hundredth time! Flight information screens are visible from all the sitting areas and our plane looks to be on time. In truth, having hand luggage only, and already checked in online, we could have arrived much, much later, but, like my father before me, I would rather be very, very early, and relaxed, enjoying the pre-flight period, than sat in traffic behind an accident on the motorway! (An acquaintance of mine once missed TWO flights in the same day by being too laid-back and underestimating traffic!) The flight is called at 10:00 and we head to the gate for 10:15, and are boarded by 10:40. The flight seems virtually full, but, wonder of wonders, our 3rd seat has remained unsold and we enjoy Seat Plus for free! Please excuse my obsessive compulsive tendencies for a moment or two while I record that the plane is pushed back at 11:01 and we take off at 11:14. I browse the movie selection. This is my first time with Virgin since 2004, and I have to admit that I am impressed with the entertainment system. There’s even a usb socket to keep smartphones etc. charged. I decide to watch The Lego Movie and possibly Frozen and Class of 92 later, but for now I just sit back and enjoy the novelty of being up in the sky. We get fed at 12:15 – Amanda has a chicken thingy and I have a chilli thingy. We don’t get excited or grumpy about inflight food, it is what it is, on any carrier and in any class. Both are edible, if a bit ‘meh’ but the tiny Gu passion fruit mousse pudding (”that’s English for dessert” guys!) is lovely! Coffee (‘meh!’) follows. I settle down with TLM (Everything is truly awesome today!) and Amanda reads. At 1:30pm we change our watches to Florida time – it’s a little depressing to consider that it is only 8:30am and I’ve already been up roughly 10 hours with at least another 14 to go today! I really enjoyed The Lego Movie. After that I stretch out across the 3 seats, head in Amanda’s lap and actually doze for an hour or so, highly unusual for me! At 10:25 the cabin crew distribute tiny ice lollies and I start to watch Class of 92. The next 90 minutes fly by, and after a restroom visit it starts to feel like we are getting somewhere, with less than 3 hours to go. I’m all movied-out now, and spend the rest of the flight watching the journey progression on Virgin’s Skymap. Tea/coffee is served at about 1:30 and I dip into the entertainment system again to watch an episode of the Big Bang Theory. Amanda has spent virtually the whole flight reading her book. We start our descent and are delighted to learn that the flight is roughly 30 minutes ahead of schedule. It occurs to me that we have not completed a customs form and I ask a crew member for one – they were given out at the check-in desks apparently but as we checked in online we didn’t receive one. Form duly completed, I sit and watch as Florida grows closer and clearer below. The plane lands at 2:12pm, in clear blue skies and (we are told) temperatures of 90 Celsius! It’s 2:30 as we enter the immigration hall. There is a moderately long line and it takes us about 40 minutes to be processed. We are initially directed to the automated machines for visitors who have been to US in the last 3 years, but the system seems to fail in about half the cases (including ours!) and we are then processed manually. The officer we get is very charming and smiley, not our usual experience! After noticing our DOBs on the passports he wishes us both a happy birthday (mine being a week today and Amanda's a few days ago.) We descend to the rental hall and join the next line at the Alamo desk. I have already done a version of online check-in, so we don't have to do much more than produce my licence (Amanda isn't mad about driving in Florida and we don't think it's worth an extra $11 a day to add her to the insurance.) There are quite a few whingy kids around, tired and hot after their journeys. When we get to the front of the line, about 20 minutes, the rep tries the usual sales/upgrade pitch, offering us a jet propelled Corvette (no!) and extra insurance, return empty etc. (Again, no, ta!) After convincing him we are satisfied with our original selection, we walk across the (delightfully hot!) road to the Alamo garage to collect our shiny, bright red Mustang convertible. Forgot to take a photo at the time, so here it is parked up at the cottage later: After a few minutes familiarising ourselves with the car, and sorting maps, baseball caps etc for the journey, we drop the roof (naturally!) and strike out for the coast just after 4pm. Once the thermometer gauge settles down we are delighted at the reported 96 C reading! This is more like it! We are soon on the I4 West and enjoying the ride. However, as on earlier trips, we succumb to the relentless heat and sun within an hour, stopping at a Publix near the I75 exit to buy water, a sandwich each and to put the roof back on! The cottage owner has asked us to call him when we are about an hour away, so he can meet us at the property, which Amanda does, allowing for an extra stop close to the island for essential grocery shopping (beer, wine, coffee, a folding umbrella, sunscreen and more water - we didn't get this earlier as we reckoned the liquids would be steaming by the time we landed at the house!) Accordingly it is about 7:10pm by the time we approach Siesta Key via the southern, Stickney Point access and bridge. The last couple of miles up to the northern end, village area is quite delightful, passing an eclectic mix of old and new build dwellings and condos spread along the palm lined road. It is instantly familiar to me, as this is my third visit to SK, and Amanda's first impressions are very positive. We picked Siesta Key now as previously because it is a lot wider (at the northern end) than most of the other, arguably prettier barrier islands like Anna Maria and Longboat Key, allowing for a proper focal point hub, called Siesta Key Village, with a great selection of restaurants, bars and shops, in addition to the main, 3 mile beach. Our cottage is on Calle Miramar, at the southern edge of the Village, only about 200 yards from the nearest bars and 300 from the closest beach access. By an absolute coincidence, which we didn't realise until after booking it, as the address wasn't obvious on the website, it is precisely adjacent to the last house I stayed in on my last SK trip in 2005, a few months before Amanda and I met. At that time all I can recall was that the adjoining lot was overgrown and probably derelict. It appears that the owners bought it in 2007, as a project and created 2 semi detached bungalow cottages from the original building. We pull onto the crushed seashell driveway to be greeted by our landlords, Bill and Molly. They are very welcoming and take obvious pride in showing us round our home for the next 4 nights, although in his enthusiasm Bill keeps forgetting things like how the air con works, where the lights are etc., and Molly repeatedly butts in to correct him! It is a truly delightful home, having a generous, open-plan living room and well-equipped kitchen, including washer-dryer, huge fridge and loads of things we'll never use! There is a large bedroom, with a HUGE bed, a full bathroom and the whole place is attractively decorated and furnished. It comes with wifi and full cable tv, although we don't expect to do much viewing! However, the icing on the cake is the wonderful outside area, effectively two further living areas: a front garden with screened and decked patio, and a 20' x 14' covered 'lounge' to the side, with curtained walls and a full suite of chairs and sofas. Additionally there is a great supply of beach chairs, toys and equipment provided, and inside Bill and Molly have left us sunscreen, bug repellant and relief creams, umbrellas, beach towels, books, maps, guides, coffee filters, washing powder and literally everything else we will need for our comfort over the stay. They are very aware that their guests normally just want to dump their bags and leg it to the beach, so after giving us their contact info in case of any problems, they leave us alone after 10 minutes or so. We unpack, quickly, and head off through the village, having a very quick browse before walking onto the beach for our first Siesta sunset at 8:20pm. Beautiful. We return through the village, looking for somewhere to sit and have a drink. There are quite a few lively bar-restaurants along the main 'strip', including the Daiquiri Deck, where I celebrated my 40th with. Scott 10 years ago, but they are a bit TOO lively for us after the long day travelling. Instead we return to the end of our street where a single storey place called the Blasé Cafe is set back behind a car park. it is L-shaped, with a large veranda wrapping around the front, opening onto a patio deck. A pair of guys are playing guitar and singing to the modest crowd, and there are a couple of tables free. It is 8:45 as we park our weary but happy bones and enjoy the music. I order a Margarita and Amanda asks for a Cosmo. They are delicious, and strong, and in the case of the Margarita, about twice the size of normal ones! Do you like the servers’ shirts? The Liver Is Evil And Must Be Punished! Feeling peckish now, we also order some food - Tuna Ceviche for Amanda and a burger for me. They are lovely. A few more drinks follow, accompanied by great cover songs from the guitar duo, and we are very content. Reluctantly we finish our first night somewhere around 10:30, settle up ($90) and we walk the short distance home. The act of being vertical again and actually moving our legs revives us somewhat, so we sit out on the front patio for a nightcap to review the day. As 11:30 nears, we start to fade, terminally this time, and head to bed, roughly 25 hours since I woke this morning/yesterday! A great start. Goodnight, constant readers. Mike & Amanda x TOMORROW - Myakka River State Park, sunrises and sunsets and more food and drink!