St Pete Beach is a little slice of paradise. It’s a 1.5 hour drive from Orlando – by no means close, but entirely worth it. A Brooklyn local first told me about St Pete Beach whilst we were waiting to catch a flight. She said it was a huge deal for the community, as St Pete was voted the best beach in America, one of the best in the world and is the sunset capital of the States. Coming from Plett and living in Cape Town, my beach standards are skyscraper high and whilst she raved about the beach, I politely smiled, nodded and refrained from getting my hopes up.
St Pete Beach is nothing short of incredible. White sand, warm water and cotton wool clouds – it’s a place that lives up to the postcards. Life is better when you’re floating along the Gulf coast in a giant, blue, inflatable doughnut. Shells litter the shoreline, fish, rays and crabs swim around your toes and there’s a beach bar serving up $5 margaritas. See? Something for everyone.
There are no lifeguards because the waves are miniscule, to be fair they’re ambitious ripples. Don’t forget to take your lilo, flippers and goggles because you’ll be spending the day in a giant swimming pool. The beach is kitted out with chair and umbrella rentals, water sports, dolphin cruises and parasailing. The public access parking lot is pay-as-you-go, so remember to take small change. In case you forget your lilo, there’s a Publix opposite the main entrance and they’ll even pump it up for you.
Disclaimer: This list is not for the banting brigade, the carb-conscious or the anti-chocolate mafia.
Look, I had all the best intentions of eating healthily in the States, but after 1 week, it kind of went out the window. In saying that, it’s frankly impossible to avoid sugar there, even the air is laced with high fructose corn syrup. However, if you’re in Orlando, your saving grace is that you’re walking a lot (that Proclaimers song will become your mantra). On average, a visitor walks 10-15 miles each day at Disney and in just 3 days I clocked up 36 kilometres. Thank God, because I ate everything on this list (plus other stuff that didn’t even make this final list).
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, here are some of the best desserts to try in Orlando and where to find them.
-Salted Caramel Cheesecake*-
I accidentally ended up at the Cheesecake Factory on National Cheesecake day. This meant that 1. you could get two slices for the price of one and 2. you had to wait 2 hours and 45 minutes for the privilege to do so. If you’re a cheesecake fan, this is where you meet your maker and with over 33 options, you’re going to struggle to choose. For me, the Salted Caramel Cheesecake was a bit of a no-brainer, because the combination is to die for. The taste is sensational with caramel cheesecake and caramel mousse on a blonde brownie all topped with salted caramel.
The state dessert of Florida is simply a cheesecake with a little splash of key lime but tastes ten times better. I had my first taste at 27 and it was 27 years too late! If you’re a fan of lemon cheesecake, you’ll most likely adore Key Lime Pies. The Boathouse is right on the shores of the Disney Springs lake and serves their Key Lime Pie in a glass jar with a bit of vanilla. If you don’t make it to Disney Springs, don’t worry you’ll find one, they’re as ubiquitous as crème brûléesin Paris.
This is a chocolate raspberry layer (6 if you please) cake and on seeing it, it’s easy to see how they came up with the name. The waiter warned us that it wouldn’t last long and it didn’t. It was inhaled off the table, I missed the chance to snap a picture and had to borrow one from FoodSpotting. It’s divine, but if do order it, make sure you take an army with you, as the slice is huge, even by American standards. You won’t be disappointed, the cake is melt-in-your-mouth, died-and-gone-to-heaven, oh-yay-heaven-is-made-of-chocolate delicious!
Anyone who has been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios will tell you to have a butterbeer! I wasn’t a fan of the original and found the frozen butterbeer much tastier. But drinks aside, the real, undiscovered gem here is the butterbeer ice cream. This delicious dessert is an extremely dense and perfectly sweet soft serve. You’ll find it in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade at the very busy Florean Fortescue Ice Cream Parlours, and at the much quieter Hopping Pot in Diagon Alley.
Where: The Hopping Pot, Diagon Alley, Universal Studios Orlando
Half the fun of eating here is watching Cold Stone prepare your little cup of wonder. I kindly searched Youtube and you can click here to see the magic. There are a lot of mixes to try, but you can’t truly say you’ve visited America until you’ve tried their much-loved, Cake Batter ice cream. The mix comes with brownies, chocolate fudge and rainbow sprinkles. Honestly, the small (read gigantic) cup is more than big enough, so don’t be tempted to go another size up.
You’ll know you’re near a Ghiradelli because you’ll smell it. Trust me, it’s as if they stand by the door with fans trained on giant vats of dark chocolate fudge sauce. On my first visit, I naively ordered their speciality sundae, complete with a waffle boat (big enough to row to China in). Unless there are 10 people with you, and perhaps a dog, do not order this. In my defence I was still in the dark about American portion sizes. Their Mint Obsession is much smaller and far more manageable. It’s a scoop of mint chip ice cream, a scoop of chocolate ice cream, topped with dark chocolate hot fudge, whipped cream and a square of Mint Bliss Intense chocolate.
If you’re not about to go to Walt Disney World, then move along Dear Reader, as this post will be of absolutely no value to you.
The new Disney FastPass+ system has been met with mixed opinion. It’s new, it’s digital and it seems confusing. I’ve visited Orlando and the parks twice in the last three months and used Disney’s FastPass+ system for both visits. At times it was great and other times, combined with the crowds and 100 degree temps, it made me want to dig my eyeballs out with a rusty spoon. Severely unDisney-like behaviour! This is by no means a comprehensive guide or touring plan, it’s just a few tips and tricks I wish someone had told me:
What is FastPass+
FastPass+ is Disney’s digital Ride, Show and Character Greeting reservation system. Access to the system is included in the price of your ticket and you’re allowed several FastPass reservations per day. In order to take full advantage of it, I strongly recommend downloading the My Disney Experience app.
Keep in mind
You’re allowed several FastPass+ reservations per day
Your additional passes can only be reserved using the in-park, FastPass kiosks
Get yourself a Disney Magic Band, it makes life easier. Trust me.
Should I reserve FastPass in advance?
YES! As soon as you buy your Disney tickets, you can begin reserving your FastPass selections through the My Disney Experience app. Reserve them as far ahead as possible. Rides like 7 Dwarves Mine Train (MK), Toy Story Mania (DHS) and Tower of Terror (DHS) are near impossible to get passes for.
Should I book Early slots?
NO! If you’re arriving at the parks as soon as they open, then using your Fastpass straight away is a bit of a waste. Why? Well the queues are all pretty short, so you’ll find yourself using up a valuable FastPass on rides with a 5 minute queue time. Booking for the mid afternoon seems to work better, as then the parks have started to fill up and you’re using them on rides with queue times over 45 minutes.
Should I book Late Slots?
NO! You can only make your additional FastPass reservations, once you have used up your initial 3. This means that if your last FastPass is only at 10pm, then you have to wait until 10PM before you can reserve more.
How do I reserve an Additional FastPass?
As mentioned, you’re entitled to extra FastPass reservations that can only be reserved once you have used up your original three. These can only be reserved one at a time (ie you need to use one, before you can get the next one. These can only be reserved via the kiosks and NOT via the app. This is my biggest gripe with the entire system as the kiosks are crowded, busy and require a tiny learning curve which is not conducive to quick queues.
What are the In-Park FastPass Kiosks?
The FastPass kiosks are located around the parks and are marked out clearly on the map. There are not as many as I would like, as I often found myself trailing around trying to find a kiosk (looking at you Hollywood studios). The queue for the kiosks is relatively long, but the good news is that there are a lot of Disney staff waiting to help you. The quietest one in the Magic Kingdom is next to the Monsters Inc Laugh floor. The busiest are next to Stitch’s Great Escape and Mickey’s Philharmagic. After queuing for rides, queueing for FastPass reservations was last on my list of fun things to do.
If I can’t make my FastPass slot, should I cancel it?
YES! If you can’t get to your FastPass on time, sign into the app and change either your time-slot or the attraction. One of the Disney guys mentioned that you get penalised if you don’t use up your FastPass.
What if I’m running a little late?
Disney realises we’re not machines and open the FastPass slot a few minutes early (unless it’s very busy) and leave it open up to 15 minutes at the end of your slot. So if you’re running a little late, you have 15 minutes to make it!
Will a ride that I want become available?
I wanted to end off my trip with a ride on Peter Pans Flight and tried to get an evening slot before 9pm. Unfortunately the kiosk told me that there were none left. I half-heartedly tried to reserve them at another Kiosk (across the park) and miraculously they had become available. People change and adjust up their FastPass reservations all the time, so there’s always a chance one will free up.
Should I FastPass rides, shows or characters?
It depends. Rides, show and character greetings are all options on the FastPass system. I’d recommend skipping the shows, as I was always able to walk straight in (even in July, their busiest period). If you have younger children, character greetings are worth it. If your daughters want to meet Princess Anna and Elsa at the Magic Kingdom’s Princess Hall, you should use a FastPass as these queues climb over 120 minutes and it’s inhumane to expect tiny humans to wait that long. If you’re sans kids, then you want to FastPass the big, thrill attractions like the Tower of Terror. Not all rides are worth using a FastPass and you can see a recommended list below, along with actual wait times when I used mine.
Which rides are worth a FastPass?
Splash Mountain (60 min), 7 Dwarves Mine Train (120 min), Peter Pans Flight(75 min), Space Mountain (90 min)
Disney Hollywood Studios:
Toy Story Midway Mania (75 min), Aerosmith (90 min), Tower of Terror (80 min)
Chevrolet Test Track (80 min), Soarin (90 min)
Expedition Everest (45 min), Kali River Rapids (75 min)
I found the Disney FastPass system complicated to get to grips with in the beginning and I hope this helped. If you have any questions about the Disney FastPass+, ask in the comments, I’d love to try and help you.
At 8am, whilst queuing outside the Magic Kingdom, patiently waiting to get in (in July, if you don’t go early -> LOL) I noticed people were bypassing the queue, looking decidedly smug and getting into the park. There were no magic hours scheduled for today? What powers did these people have? Were they celebrities? Or Disney’s grandchildren? No — it turns out that they were savvy enough to make breakfast reservations and thanks to their smarts, could skip the lines, enjoy a sit-down breakfast and then swan about the park at their leisure.
Very few people know about this tip. Obviously breakfast was booked at “Be Our Guest” — the new, themed restaurant in Fantasy Land, as soon as I got home. The early morning reservations are like gold dust, but if you keep trying you might get lucky.
On Monday morning, I waved the reservation around, skipped all the queues and became that decidedly smug person. The park was eerily, eerily quiet — if you’ve been to Disney World, you’ll understand how rare it is to have a photo with no one else in it. Also, notice those puddles and ominous clouds? I was thrilled to be able to go indoors and not stand outside in my terribly fashionable poncho. Later on however, I became best friends with it. It was the only thing separating me from buckets of water falling from the sky.
On arrival at the castle, you are shown into a room, where you order your meal (don’t forget to look at the beautiful stain glass window to your left as you enter) and once you’ve paid, you’re directed into the ballroom. Unexpectedly the cashiers weren’t too friendly or helpful, and this was a bit of a let down. Besides the unDisney-like ordering experience, the castle is beautiful and no detail has been spared. The ballroom is 9 year-old-me’s equivalent of heaven with ornate chandeliers overhead and snowflakes falling on the giant arched windows. Whether 7 or 27 (ahem) you’re guaranteed to feel like a princess.
There are 3 separate dining areas and you’re allowed to see them all and take pictures. The West Wing is beautifully done, but I wouldn’t recommend eating in there as it’s very, very dark.The breakfast menu is pretty decent for a theme park — let’s be honest, they’re not famed for their culinary prowess. You can see all the options here. And yes it’s completely over-priced, but honestly what were you expecting?I went for the open toasted sandwich with bacon, bree and poached eggs. It arrived with a cup of fruit and each table gets a free (can you believe it?) tray of tasty pastries.
Highly recommend getting a breakfast reservation (between 8–8.10AM) — it really beats waiting outside the park (especially if it’s raining). Make sure you’re done by 8.45 AM, as sometimes Disney opens the park a little early and you don’t want to get caught out. After breakfast, head straight for the 7 Dwarves Mine Train — their newest and most popular ride. It’s right next door to Be Our Guest and after 9.30 the wait time doesn’t drop below an hour.
practical stuff— obviously this tip doesn’t work for extra magic hour days, where the park opens at 8am. You can book your dining reservations by calling, or on the My Disney Experience app and you can make them as soon as you have your tickets. Book your tickets online and make your reservations as far in advance as possible. They have a 24hr cancellation policy and you can cancel using the app if you need to. You can find all the official info here, on their Disney page.
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Every day, at 3pm, Walt Disney World’s Main Street U.S. A is home to the characters of the Festival of Fantasy Parade. Even though I’m not an authority on parades, it has to be said that Disney does it best. Embarrassingly I got teary-eyed as much-loved, childhood movies came to life on the street in front of me. Group singing always gives me the feels, thank God for oversized sunglasses.
If you would rather cut off you arm and beat yourself with it than go clubbing, then South Beach might not be top of your travel list. SoBe, is a neighbourhood in the city of Miami Beach, famous for it’s neon nightlife, fleets of rental Rolls-Royce Phantoms and cocktail menus with more dollar signs than Trump’s campaign budget. Yet, despite my onesie-wearing, Netflix-binge-watching approach to anything past 9.30pm, it’s one of of my favourite cities to visit.
go parasailing — there are a few operators working on South Beach and we chose to go with Miami Beach Parasail. It costs $75 per person and was worth it. I’d never been before and despite my brother talking about sharks, shark attacks, “what if the tow rope just disconnected,” for 90% of the trip, it was fun and definitely something I’d do again. Sadly, I didn’t spot any wildlife, but the group before us saw turtles! Go early in the day to catch the best weather and the least chance of storms interfering with your plans.
drink a cup of Kava — We were looking for a place to get coffee and the Purple Lotus Kava Bar came highly recommended (yelped) for … tea. For those too lazy to Google, the Kava plant is consumed throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures. The tea is made from the Kava root and has sedative and anesthetic properties. If it’s your first time drinking Kava, go for a cup of Black Pearl ($13), sit back and chill. Well, you won’t have much choice here as the drink is designed to relax the hell out of you. Also be aware that it sometimes does taste like you’re drinking diluted dirt. This picture isn’t mine, I was too busy working out how long my tongue had been numb to take any.
hit the beach — 98% of Miami is sand and sea, so if you’re not into nightlife or sand in your costume … why are you even still reading this? The beach opposite the Loews Miami Beach Hotel is great. They’ve got chair and cabana rentals, water sports and there are a few beach bars in the area. There’s public beach access to the right of the hotel and if you’re driving, a nearby parking garage on 16th and Washington Ave. As umbrella rental can cost $20 per day, consider buying an umbrella at a local supermarket.
don’t forget a bikini — Sadly, I did forget. Coming from Washington, where temps got down to -28 Celsius, beach attire was the furthest thing from my mind. I had to end up buying one and it was pricey. Most of the swim shops are either tacky gift shops (where the tie-dye bikinis will make you want to sew your eyes shut), or designer stores (where the prices will make you want to get in touch with your South African tendencies and liberate an unsuspecting tourist of her costume on your way to the beach). If you’re really stuck, Lincoln Road has the standard fast fashion trifecta: Zara, H&M and Gap.
wander round with your camera— because South Beach is home to an array of characters and is also an Art Deco paradise. If you need some inspiration, SoBe is home to 800 Art Deco buildings and ten of the best are listed right here. South Pointe Pier is another nice photo opp and is easy to find at the southernmost tip of Miami Beach.
where to stay — Hotel 18 on 18th street is in the heart of Miami and is a short walk to the beach. I had my doubts on arrival, as it looked like a bit of a dive from the outside, but they turned out to be unfounded. The staff is friendly and helpful, they have washing machines and dryers (hooray) and each room has a little kitchenette. The hotel is close to an airport bus stop and within walking distance to everything mentioned above.
practical stuff- don’t go for drinks on the main strip (there aren’t any prices on the menus and you get hit with an insane bill and hopefully a defibrillator). There are tons of places to eat on Lincoln Road and some of them are affordable. Save your quarters for the washing machines. Cell reception in South Beach was non-existent. If you need to work, take note of where your local Starbucks is and live your best life abusing their WIFI whilst slow-sipping their tiniest cappuccino.
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