You did what? (Part II)

Now that I got all of the COVID-19 talk out of the way, let’s jump into the fun stuff! So yes, the fam plus the four usual suspects (my mom, stepdad, and two nieces) hopped on a plane to Florida last month. Destinations: Universal Orlando resort, Disney’s Vero Beach resort on the Atlantic coast, and back to Disney’s Saratoga Springs resort for one night before flying home. This trip was unique because it’s been awhile since I’ve been in the Universal parks and I had never been to their waterpark, Volcano Bay. It was also our first time staying at Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal. Moving to Vero Beach, it was our first time there as well, and also our first time staying in a Treehouse Villa at Saratoga Springs at WDW. So many new things to try out!

Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Orlando is AMAZING! We opted to upgrade to Club level service there, which during COVID, basically means you get access to the Club level lounge on the 7th floor of Tower 3, the Royal Tower. Non-COVID would’ve offered other things like turndown service, robes, cabana rental discounts (which we could’ve used but they weren’t needed, etc.) Our rooms were very close to the lounge, so that made access a breeze. The lounge was open from 7am to 9:30pm and had a schedule when specific dining offerings were available: breakfast, snacks/drinks in the afternoon, hors d’oeuvres plus wine/beer in the evening, dessert in the late evening. Everything was served to you when it came to the food and drinks but you weren’t limited on the quantities you could receive. We enjoyed having breakfast each morning (fresh donuts and pastries, hard-boiled eggs, oatmeal cups, fruit, granola, yogurt, cereal, milk, juice, coffee, tea, sodas. The snacks in the afternoon were things like chips, granola bars, cookies, peanuts, crackers, fruit, sodas, and waters. The evening service had hot offerings like chicken bao buns, wings, macaroni and cheese, BBQ as well as boxed offerings like meat and cheese or hummus and veggies. Dessert was usually cookies and/or brownies. Everything we had was really good, plentiful, and high-quality. The service in the Club lounge was top notch. Very attentive, kind, and genuinely happy to be there would be how I would describe the team. Every time we went in the lounge, I felt welcome and very well taken care of.

The resort itself was beautiful. The lobby was renovated last year and there was a conscientious effort to make the guests feel welcome and comfortable during their stay. I already mentioned the ‘text the front desk’ service and that was incredible. Unbelievably convenient and very responsive. I didn’t miss daily housekeeping service, despite being in a club level room, and felt like that was just another step Loews was taking to make sure their guests feel as safe as possible. The pool is huge, lagoon style, and a great way to spend a few hours (or most of a day, as my mom and stepdad found out). The pool was also just an elevator ride out of our building and a few short steps away.

Just past the pool was the shuttle boat dock to take you to Citywalk, where you then walk a short distance into either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure. The boat ride is so short, pleasant, and such an easy way to get around. Being able to hop out of the boat and be inside Universal Studios in just a matter of minutes is fantastic. You clear security before you board the boat so entering the park is literally just a scan of your ticket and you’re on your way!

A great perk received by staying at Royal Pacific (or the Hard Rock Hotel or Portofino Bay Hotel) is that you receive Universal’s Unlimited Express Pass for free for your theme park days. This can be very expensive to add on and is well worth it, even when the crowds are light (as they are right now). It’s basically like a Disney FastPass on steroids because you don’t have to sign up for anything in advance, you just hop in the Express Pass line for any attraction that offers Express Pass service (most do), and you’re on your way to a much shorter wait to experience that attraction. Love it! We rode several attractions before we headed to one I was really dying to try, the new Bourne Stuntacular show. This just opened shortly before we arrived and it lived up to every bit of the hype I had heard about it. I have never seen a show that mixed live action and virtual scenes so seamlessly. You really couldn’t tell what was actually happening right in front of you versus which pieces were added in digitally. Craziness! This attraction doesn’t use Express Pass but any time you wait to watch the show is time well spent. We also had to swing by and ride the classic E.T. Adventure ride that I remember riding as a kid on my first trip to Universal years and years ago (still the same!) On the way to that attraction, Squidward and Patrick of Spongebob Squarepants fame were hanging out looking for some folks to snap a few pics with. Of course, we had to oblige!

No visit to Universal Orlando is complete without enjoying the two sections of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley in Universal Studios park and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure park. My kid and the nieces had a great time learning and then casting new spells for a variety of fun outcomes in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. The ride on Hogwart’s Express between the two lands was super fun and, spoiler alert, is different each way!

Being as we visited Central Florida in July, spending some time at a waterpark was a huge relief on the hot and humid days. Volcano Bay really far surpassed my expectations and (gasp!) is probably now my favorite waterpark!! The wave pool there is a lot of fun with the typical variety of waves pumped out to keep guests bobbing along for hours. Some of their slides were down right insane! The lazy river was a nice break after we spent some time in the wave pool but our hands down favorite attraction was TeAwa The Fearless River! I read somewhere before we arrived that if Universal said you had to put a life jacket on to experience the attraction, they meant it. Was that ever right! This was a lazy river gone wild and nothing lazy about it. Life jackets were mandatory and you definitely needed one. No rafts in this river but you were traveling through rapids, strong current, and uneven depths… weak swimmers need not apply! We went around like five times before we were exhausted (happily) and decided to break for lunch. Luckily, we got seated for lunch right before a huge rainstorm came through so our break was perfectly timed. There’s so much to do for all ages at Volcano Bay that I can’t wait to go back again!

Volcano Bay

I could go on and on about Universal but alas, time to move on to Vero Beach. As I mentioned, it was our first stay at Disney’s Vero Beach resort on Florida’s east coast. Our two-bedroom villa there provided a nice home base for breakfast, lunch, and to crash at night. Other than that, we were in the pool most of the day, on the beach in the early morning or evening either looking at sea turtle nests or collecting shells. The beach was pretty seaweedy, which was ok with us as we don’t really swim in the US ocean anymore. Shelling was fantastic, lots of great shells here and I completely wasn’t expecting that. The big fun though was the sea turtle nests. Loggerhead and green sea turtles have made hundreds of nests in Vero Beach this year so far and you couldn’t walk a few feet without passing one. We saw scraps of egg shells when walking but had the pleasure of watching the Sea Turtle team at the resort checking nests one morning. They even found a straggler down in a nest where its siblings had successfully made it out to the ocean so they were able to save the little guy and get him on his way! It’s mindboggling to see the team pulling hundreds of eggs (shells basically, they are checking the nest after they know that some turtles made it out a few days prior) from over a foot down in the sand. Definitely an experience I’d like to have again! The picture below is of a loggerhead nest and you can see the eggs in a pile between the two team members. There was something like 5 unhatched eggs, no longer viable, in this particular nest and over a hundred that had hatched.

After a few days at Vero, we drove back to Disney World, about two hours away. My brother and his family now live in central Florida and we had made plans to meet them at Disney Springs for dinner at Raglan Road. We had a decent size party and were given a really cool booth to dine in that night, something along the lines of where the bad guys would hang out to handle their business in private. Super fun! The dancing and music that is typical for Raglan Road was still taking place as well, which I was happy to see. Delish food as always.

After dinner, we got settled in at our Treehouse villa for the night. These are such fun! They really are a villa in the trees with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and living room area, washer and dryer, private deck, etc. With windows all around, the view is just crazy! We’re all talking about staying there again in the future. These treehouses take woodsy and luxury to a whole new level!

Last stop before we flew back home was Disney’s Contemporary resort where we had breakfast at Chef Mickey’s. This was a completely new offering — no characters, no buffet — but the food was good, fresh, and brought to your table family-style. Still all-you-care-to-eat and priced at $25 per adult, we felt like it was a steal, and hello, Mickey waffles! After breakfast, we had a little time to burn so we visited the shops in the Contemporary and then walked outside to take a peek over toward Magic Kingdom. Cinderella Castle has gotten a face-lift and is now sporting a pinkish hue (nothing like the birthday cake of the park’s 25th birthday though, yikes!) and I had to snap a few pics. I think it is nice and while I would’ve liked to see it up close, I didn’t have the time or the Park Pass reservation.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the airport and fly home. Darn, all good things really do have to come to an end, don’t they. We had a great time with so many ‘firsts’ and the trip fully renewed my passion for travel. If I could, I’d be back on a plane and checking in at Royal Pacific again tomorrow to do it all over, mask and all. This Disney girl might have even been converted to the dark side (Universal). Everyone had a blast, felt completely safe, and made all kinds of new memories. Isn’t that what it is all about?

xoxo,

Amber

Advertisement

You did what? (Part I)

A little over two weeks ago, my family and I hopped on a flight and headed to Florida. This trip had changed so many times, it was enough to make your head spin. The final itinerary was set mere days prior: fly out from Richmond to Orlando, spend three nights at Universal Orlando resort, drive to Vero Beach and spend three nights there, drive back to Orlando and spend a night at Disney, fly home the next morning. This trip was meant to be one where we stayed in resorts we had never stayed at, enjoyed new experiences, and (the elephant in the room) visited theme parks during a pandemic.

At this point, I have a feeling that you are thinking one of two things: how were the parks different or what a moron I must be for traveling right now.

I’ve seen plenty of opinion pieces regarding travel in the last few months. How anyone that travels is inconsiderate, selfish, killing the elderly, you name it. How we go out without social distancing, not wearing masks, touching everything, spreading our germs to the world. What you should remember (and I struggle to) when reading those articles is that they are filled with the writer’s opinions.

Here is my opinion. When I leave the house, I wear a mask anytime I go into a store, get gas where others are around, etc. Hand sanitizer is frequently applied and I wash my hands every single time I come back home and while I’m out, as needed. I don’t go into stores very often and do online grocery order pickup once a week. As I mentioned in my last blog post about going to the beach in early June, I spent a great deal of time thinking about ways to minimize my contact with others before we ever left home. Gloves and hand sanitizer for pumping gas, masks for anytime we were in public, online grocery ordering so we could have contactless pickup for food to use for breakfast and lunch in our rental home, takeout from local restaurants for dinner to help their local economy and avoid contact with others, very minimal in-store shopping and always with masks and sanitizer. My stepdad, traveling with us with some health challenges, stayed in the vehicle on the rare occasion that we went to a store. On the beach when we were around others, we social distanced from others without issue. At no point did we feel unsafe or go out of our comfort zone as far as contact with others. There were people that were not wearing masks, as there was no mask order in North Carolina at the time, but we held firm on using ours. On the drive to and from the rental house, we had fast food lunches in our vehicles to avoid any contact concerns.

For the Florida trip, we traveled by plane. That meant masks from the moment we got to the airport garage in Richmond until we were in our rental van in Orlando. We each had hand sanitizer and used it regularly, in addition to actual hand washing when available. I packed a container of Clorox wipes and we spent the first few minutes onboard the plane wiping down everything we might touch in our seating area, despite the flight crew just having sanitized the plane too. JetBlue doesn’t have typical beverage and snack service right now but is offering a snack bag, a great alternative. Most of us kept our snack bag and ate it later that evening.

Once we arrived at Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Orlando, we had to enter the hotel and pass through a temperature screening. That was done every morning at the hotel (for guests, at the parks themselves if you weren’t staying onsite). Check in was contactless and very simple. Our rooms had been left empty for 24-48 hours prior to our arrival and thoroughly cleaned after the last guest. During our stay, housekeeping didn’t enter the room at all. Royal Pacific offered a fantastic ‘text the front desk’ service that had fresh towels, amenities, etc. delivered to the room in minutes and trash was picked up outside of the door daily. We upgraded to add the Club Level service during our stay and the staff there ensured that every table was wiped down between guests, guests wore masks, sanitizer was available, and food was handed to the guest instead of being self-serve.

With my stepdad’s health issues, he and my mom decided that this portion of the trip for them would be spent at the hotel enjoying the pool and relaxing. Myself and my husband, plus our daughter and two nieces, went to the two theme parks at Universal and the waterpark there, Volcano Bay.

Shuttle boats and buses were marked for social distancing as were the lines to wait to board. Universal marked the six foot distance everywhere you could think of and, in fact, it was more like nine feet in most places to allow for families that took up a little more room. That was fantastic. The parks in general are running well under capacity and everything felt very empty and a little eerie. Masks are required at the resorts (everywhere except the pool and if you are sitting down eating or drinking), on all transportation, and in the parks (unless you are sitting down eating or drinking). There are no exceptions. There are Universal employees in place to stop guests throughout the parks that are trying to walk and drink, pull their mask down so their nose is exposed, etc. and will stop the guest to correct the behavior. Surfaces and rides are being frequently cleaned and all staff wear masks. Attraction capacity is also reduced and you are not seated in a ride vehicle with someone that isn’t in your travel party. Upon entering an attraction, hand sanitizer is squirted into your hands to apply, no way around using it.

The only time I felt even slightly uncomfortable was later in the afternoon one day when waiting to ride Hagrid’s Magical Motorbike ride. There were so many guests returning to ride the ride for their virtual boarding time when we were that the line got very long, was in the sun, and social distancing went out the window for a bit. Everyone was still masked though and the line moved quickly, which then slid back into the social distancing spacing.

There are U-Rest Areas throughout the parks and Citywalk where you can socially distance yourself, remove your mask, and take a break from the action with your family. This was a great rest option. Masks are often hot and I would encourage you to find one that is lightweight but two-ply or more, breathable, and quick drying. If you find a mask you love (as much as you can love a mask), you really don’t think about it being on when you’re there. It is easy to wash them in hot water with soap each night and hang to dry.

Sit-down restaurants had tables socially distanced, masks required until seated, servers remained masked, some offered bags to put each guest’s mask in while they ate, fresh glasses were brought to the table with each refill, etc. This was the first time we had eaten at a sit-down restaurant since March 15th.

The waterpark, Volcano Bay, required masks for entry, shopping, and at all dining locations unless you were sitting and eating or drinking. No masks were required on the attractions or pools, for obvious reasons, but social distancing was required. Their chairs have been moved to allow for distancing between parties. Rafts are sanitized between guests as are life jackets.

After we left Universal Orlando, we drove to Vero Beach, less than two hours away on the Atlantic coast of Florida. There, we checked in at Disney’s Vero Beach resort. Groceries were delivered by Instacart, takeout for dinner. Masks required everywhere except the pool, on the beach while distanced, and while sitting down and eating or drinking. Pool chairs were distanced and you were seated by the pool staff with your family into the pre-arranged chair groupings. Social distancing in the pool was encouraged and chairs were sanitized between guests. No housekeeping but an employee did check daily to remove trash and ask if we needed anything.

Three nights at Vero were followed by a drive back to Orlando and a one-night stay at Disney’s Treehouse Villas at Saratoga Springs resort. The treehouse had been cleaned and sanitized prior to our arrival, just like Vero Beach’s villa, with device remotes in plastic bags, amenities wrapped, etc. Online check-in service was used here so we never went to the front desk at all. Our villa number was texted to us prior to arrival so we went straight there and unpacked. That night was spent at Disney Springs, where social distancing is encouraged, stores have been modified to allow for distance between guests, and restaurants are operating well under capacity. No paper menus, you’re shown a QR code to scan to pull the menu up on your smartphone. Servers wear masks, guests do too until they are seated and anytime they get up. Tables are spaced and capacity overall is limited.

The next morning, we packed up and drove to the Contemporary resort for breakfast at Chef Mickey’s — currently a family style meal with no characters. We were required to have a reservation to be able to park at the hotel, since we weren’t staying there, and check in for the reservation was done online. Once our table was ready, a masked and shielded server took care of our needs. The food was brought to us on serving platters, with refills as requested. Tables were distanced and guests were masked until/unless they were seated. Menu was via QR code here too. Even the check was in a paper folder instead of the typical padded plastic holder that restaurants typically use. After breakfast, we looked through the Contemporary stores, all masked and distanced, no pin trading right now, and grabbed a few last minute items. We spent a little while outside enjoying the view and checking out the new Cinderella Castle design before driving back to the airport to fly home. Orlando’s airport was the same as Richmond, masks everywhere, handwashing, hand sanitizer, etc. Some other travelers had shields on top of their masks, gloves, we even saw what looked like full Hazmat suits. Let’s just say that people were being careful.

Back in Virginia, we’ve generally returned to COVID life. My husband is working from home until we’ve officially been back for two weeks and we’re pretty much staying home or swimming at my mom’s pool. Masks stay on when we go out, which is rare, handwashing and sanitizer are used very frequently.

Would I go again? In a heartbeat. That’s not just because it is a great time to visit the theme parks with the incredibly low crowds but because I felt safer in those theme parks and resorts than I do in my local area. Masks are required and you’re reprimanded if you don’t follow the requirement. People generally keep to themselves and respect boundaries.

Don’t buy into the hype about traveling and how if you didn’t do it, those workers wouldn’t be at risk and wouldn’t have to go to work because you wouldn’t be there creating demand. Every single worker I talked to thanked us for being there, for visiting, and allowing them to be able to be back in their jobs. Hospitality and tourism is a huge industry and doesn’t just affect big cities and major tourist destinations. Think about your local restaurants and attractions. I live in a small town. Our downtown was a bustling place with restaurants, shops, a Shakespeare playhouse, art center, etc. Now with COVID, everyone is hurting. Not only are the locals not going out to these places but we’re also not getting tourists to come and fill that gap. Stores and restaurants here have already begun to close. I feel certain those workers and small business owners would generally be much happier to have guests coming in and enjoying what they have to offer than watching their businesses fall apart. I know this small business owner would.

Until Part II — where I talk about the fun stuff like club level perks, attractions in Universal Orlando, riding the fearless river at Volcano Bay, tracking sea turtles at Vero Beach, and spending the night in a treehouse — stay safe out there!

Amber