The Miami area has two National Parks: Everglades and Biscayne National Park. The Everglades were amazing, so we wanted to check out Biscayne as well. Biscayne National Park is 95% water, with only one trail at the Visitor Center. There was parking at the Visitor Center and you could schedule a boat to take you around the park.
The Visitor Center had a movie about the park, as well as a great learning area about the history of the area and it’s ecosystem. We all learned that the red mangroves are the ones you normally think of with their long roots reaching into the water. The black mangrove trees have roots that stick up through the ground like straws! The Visitor Center’s trail was only about a 1/4 mile. The path consists of a bridge and a dirt path, but we did get to see the different types of mangroves in person along the trail. Nick was able to complete the Junior Ranger program there as well, as this book was mostly reading and could be done without taking a boat into the Park.
Guided tours (via boat, snorkel, paddle boards, and kayak) are available, but do cost extra. It was neat to see, but not very much to do unless you take a boat out.
While we were in Miami, we went to Everglades National Park. At first just to see it since we were in the area, but it turned out to be one of our favorite parks.
We took three trails: Anhinga, Gumbo Limbo, and Eco Pond. The Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo trails were at the Royal Palm Visitor Center and were a nice walk. Anhinga was a nice smooth path and boardwalk.
The Anhinga Trail had water that was amazingly clear. We saw two alligators along this trail: one swimming and one right next to the trail.
The Gumbo Limbo trail was a shaded dirt path through a forested area. We saw lots of dragonflies.
The Eco Pond was also a dirt trail that wrapped around a pond. We had read that it was supposed to be good for wildlife, but we didn’t see any.
We stopped at the Flamingo Visitor Center and saw two crocodiles and a few manatees. The water wasn’t as clear here, so we could only see them when they poked out. We saw some nesting ospreys and so many other birds.
There were boat and kayak launches throughout the park as well. The Flamingo Visitor Center had a food truck there making some tasty burgers, so we grabbed a quick lunch (Weeki Tiki Food Truck, $9.50 for a burger).
I would definitely recommend visiting the Everglades National Park!
Note: Each Visitor Center had their own stamp, if you collect them.
After being in Orlando for a few weeks, we wanted to see Miami as well. The drive wasn’t too long and we found a RV site at a Thousand Trails. This one wasn’t part of our membership, and we ended up paying for the stay.
We drove to Miami Beach and South Beach, but were only able to get glimpses of it from the road. We were unable to find any parking spots, so we didn’t make it onto the beach. From what we could see, it did look beautiful.
It was still really neat to see the city.
We also stopped at a Costco (I know…huge surprise!) and saw a few new items. This Costco had cheese flan, guava topped cheesecake, raspberry lemon muffins, and cornbread muffins.
We grabbed lunch at Casa Carlos. It was in a strip mall and was really good food. We got a Cuban sandwich, flan, and fried plantains.
General: The Thousand Trails RV Resort in Orlando is a huge campground (I believe they told us it has 1000 sites). There are several ponds on the campus (map had alligator warnings). It is located off of a busy road, but close to grocery stores. The campground interior roads were nicely paved. The newer section had paved sites, but WiFi was listed as not available there. Most sites were grass/sand. We had a 50 amp site, although our bonus 20 amp plug at the electric box did not work.
COVID: Mask wearing was a problem. Our escort to our site wore a mask, but the gate staff did not (had it on, but wore as a chin strap/neck warmer). Very few people wore masks unless it was inside.
Check-in: Check-in is at 12:00, preferably at 12:01 (per the front gate). We were there at 11:50 and told we had to turn around and come back. We got there at 12:04 and had a line of at least 18 in front of us. The check in lines were huge and took up the entire 1/2 mile driveway. To check in, you enter the campgrounds driveway, give your name to the front gate, proceed to the Recreation Building’s parking lot, check in and get the campground map/book, wait your turn and are escorted to a site. Our site was a corner lot, which gave us a little extra room, which was nice.
Review: This Thousand Trails location was much better than the other ones we have stayed at. They offered a few planned activities (Saturday donuts, Candy Bar Bingo on Wednesdays, walking group, knitting on Tuesdays, Poker, paid painting class, Food Truck Thursdays). There was no cable, but we were able to stream Netflix through our hotspot.
All in all, we enjoyed the amenities this park had to offer. Most of the sites in the park looked nice, although there were a few in the back that were really tight.
They offered propane refill for $3.25/gallon (our standard 20lb. tank, like on a grill, is about 4.6 gallons).
There were also several birds, including sandhill cranes around the campground. They walked everywhere, but were not aggressive at all. We also saw a couple of gopher tortoises, which Nick loved.
Cell Phone Reception: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile (Internet on all networks worked, but did get spotty at times.)
RV Sites: Back-in
Pop Up Tents/Gazebos/Outdoor Rugs On-Site: Yes
Amenities: picnic table at site, playground, dog park, pool, shuffleboard, pickleball, basketball, horseshoes, checkers/chess, mini golf, Saturday Donuts, some planned activities. Community fire pit (although not allowed while we were there for fire danger?), library/book exchange
Tent Camping: Yes
Full Hook-ups: Yes
Amps: 30 or 50
Food On-Site: No, not all the time. (They had food trucks come in on Thursdays. There are some food items in the camp store. There was also a restaurant on the map near the office; there were cafeteria style closed windows that may be a restaurant but it was closed while we were there.)
Camp Store: Yes
WiFi: Paid, free in common areas (per office staff)
Accepts Mail: Yes, but no 1st Class mail (no mail fee)
When Ben and I wanted to start eating less junk food, Ben came up with the rule of no ice cream in the house. “What”, you may say, “Never?” Well, not never, we will buy for birthdays or sometimes just a small pint for everyone to share after dinner. However, in general, it is not in the house. Meaning that if we want it, we have to want it so badly that we are willing to leave the house to drive to get it. It needs to be consumed before we get back to the house as well. It usually is more expensive this way, which also makes us ask ourselves just how badly we want it.
Anyway, the reason for the explanation is that we both wanted ice cream and of course didn’t have any in the RV. We drove to a local Twisty Treats (looks similar to The Cone for those back home). They certainly had plenty of options to choose from! Ben got a blue raspberry in a cone. I got a cookiewhich (ice cream sandwich) with reese’s pieces.
The building is built like an ice cream cone and the very top is meant to look like a chocolate topping. At night the topping has lights that come on that resemble sprinkles. It was really neat! The cookiewhich was delicious.
We ended up being glad we only did 1 park for the day, besides just the cost. We had 18,430 steps just from the time we got there (7:30am) to when we left (3:30pm)!
Our total costing was $795.68 for the day (Tickets $575.12, Parking $26, Food: $135.98, Wand: $58.58). We were trying to balance trying food and having fun with not going overboard. It was incredibly expensive for one day of fun.
The 3D imagery in all of the rides/show were incredible. The Harry Potter world of Diagon Alley was also amazing. The shops were really neat to see. Ollivander’s Wand Shop was pretty close to what I imaged in my head.
I wish we could have spent more time exploring the area. We were trying really hard to avoid the crowds as much as possible, so we didn’t get to see or ride everything. I would have spent a lot more time wandering around Diagon Alley.
I think Universal, in general, did a good job with dealing with COVID. Masks were required, hand sanitizer was around, spacing marked on the ground, rides left spacing and rows between riders. However, Revenge of the Mummy needed staff members who were willing to enforce the line markers/rules for social distancing. The Locker areas were also a free-for-all.
We love sending postcards to friends and family along our trip. We could not find postcards of Universal, except in Universal. Outside of the park it was just the mouse and general Florida/beach themed cards. We found some at the Studio Store in CityWalk for $12.95 for a set of 10. They were all prepackaged, either Universal in general or Harry Potter themed. I would love to have been able to pick out my own postcards to make up a set, or be able to find them outside of Universal.
We left early because the crowds were getting to be an uncomfortable size for us. Once we got to the truck, we sat and ate some snacks we had left in the cooler and watched the long line of cars still coming into the park.
Would I go back? Maybe. I would have liked to have taken a ride on Hogwarts Express, but you could only ride if you had a ticket to both parks (Studio and Island of Adventure), and to see Howarts in IOA. It just is so expensive to go for a day (or more). If you haven’t been to Universal yet and you love Harry Potter and rides, you should definitely check it out at least once. Diagon Alley was worth going for.
We stopped at the Leaky Cauldron for some food after riding Escape from Gringotts. We ordered a butterbeer ($7.99), a frozen butterbeer ($7.99), sticky toffee pudding ($7.49), and a scotch egg ($4.50). The butterbeer tasted a lot like butterscotch. The frozen butterbeer was similar to a slushy, and 3/4 of us liked the frozen butterbeer the best. The sticky toffee pudding was pretty good and was presented warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The scotch egg was ok. It came with a side of tomato (pico de gallo maybe) and a dipping sauce (mustard based). The breading had a flavor to it that I hadn’t had with a scotch egg before. It was $29.79 for the four items.
Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor was our next treat in the day. We all shared a cone (they said they were out of cups). We got a waffle cone, which came with double scoops ($7.99). We got a scoop of the Earl Grey and Lavender and a scoop of the Chocolate and Raspberry. The Earl Grey and Lavender was a very delicate flavor, it wasn’t very strong. It was tasty though and different from what we would normally get. The chocolate and raspberry was also good, but it seemed like it was a chocolate ice cream with raspberry flavoring added in. I didn’t see any pieces of raspberry, and it had a slightly artificial taste to it.
We stopped in at Sugarplums and they had quite the candy/sweet collection of offerings. We went with the Cauldron Cake ($11+tax). It is a chocolate cake that comes in box and is served in a silicon cauldron (which you can keep and reuse to bake your own cauldron cake at home!). The cake wasn’t too bad, but the icing was a little fake tasting.
While the boys and I waited in line for the Twirl ‘n’ Hurl in the Simpsons area, Ben went to find the Flaming Moe ($11). The ride line wasn’t moving fast, so we left and joined Ben. The drink tasted like an orange soda and unlike the show’s version, is non-alcoholic. The cup had a bottom compartment with dry ice that creates the smokey effect once the drink is poured on top.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we stopped at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium. It is a really cool building on the outside. We bought a chocolate shot ($7.95, looks like a little chocolate cup), a Shamrock cocoa bomb ($10), and 3 candy bars ($4 each or 3/$10). We got the Cherry On Top, Dark Amaretto Coffee, and Mechanical Malt bars. The Chocolate shot was good and really cute with the gear base and handle. It was filled with a ganache. The whipped cream topping was not as good, and I didn’t eat all of it. The Cherry On Top chocolate bar had cherry jelly beans in it! Cherry and chocolate is always a good combo, and it was an ok texture combination once you got over the fact that there were jelly beans in your candy bar. The Dark Amaretto Coffee was one of my favorites, but it was grainier with small pieces of coffee beans. I would buy that one again. The Mechanical Malt bar was ok, not as strong of a malt taste as I was expecting. We tried to get a spot for dinner in Toothsome’s restaurant around 2:00pm and they were booked for the entire day. I did not see a way to make reservations on the app. However, there was a phone number listed on the app. I also found out later that if you went to the actual Universal website you could make reservations online.
We stopped at the Studio Store in CityWalk on our way out to pick up some Harry Potter Chocolate Frogs. They are solid chocolate, which makes for one heavy little frog! ($12 each or 3/$30)
In terms of amusement park food, it was good, although pricey.
We had made a Virtual Line time scheduled for Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. For the Virtual Line, you selected an assigned time for your ride. You could do this on the Universal Studios app or at a kiosk near the ride. We did the app, so I’m not sure what the kiosk looks like. When we were there, the only rides with Virtual Lines were Race Through New York (in Universal Studios) and Hagrid’s Motorbike (over in Island of Adventure).
On our way over, it started to downpour. We ducked under an awning and pulled out the ponchos. Our feet were still soaked, but the rest of us was pretty dry. We presented the QR code to scan for entrance, walked down a corridor, were giving a colored ticket, and were directed to a waiting room. The waiting room did not have social distancing markers on the floor, but people were pretty good about staying to their own groups. The overhead lights changed to matching ticket colors to announce your group. It was a 3D ride and also had really neat graphics.
The outdoor roller coasters had stopped running due to the rain, so we headed over to The Revenge of the Mummy. The queue lines were also nice decorated for this ride. There were several things to keep your eyes busy and a lot of it was inside, so we were dry and in air conditioning. However, the employees stationed along the queue lines on this ride did not enforce the social distancing rule at all. We saw a few people pulling their masks down and I asked people to back up several times. The markers were clearly placed on the ground, there was just no one enforcing it. This was our worst feeling at Universal, which was too bad because it was a neat looking area. Ben and I did not ride, but the boys did and enjoyed it.
When we were done, the outdoor rides were still closed and the other rides had quite a long wait. We headed over to the Men In Black ride, which had the shortest line. Once again, the queue line was decorated like the movie and was lots of fun to look at. It was a fun ride, although I had to store the wand in a locker. You sat in car that moved along a track and shot at aliens. The seat was molded and a little tight for us. This ride was easy to socially distance at.
Our final event of the day wasn’t a ride, but a stunt show at Bourne Stuntacular. There were two waiting areas, one with queue lines and the other in a large room. The theater was pretty large and they were seating groups with empty rows in between and at least 2 seats apart. This show has a lot of potential. The graphics are incredible. It was really difficult to tell which people were just graphics and who was real. There was a track in the ceiling for additional stunts. The stage is completely smooth (although there are some trap doors in it), so the large set pieces are run on a WIFI type of program. It’s a really neat concept, but it is pretty new technology and they had to shut the show down twice while we were there to get the devices back up. One time “Jason” was hanging from a wrecking ball (update: Ben has since told me it’s called a headache ball) and had to be brought back around to the stage. I think once they get the bugs worked out, it will be an amazing show.
So you probably guessed by the title, but we chose Universal, specifically Universal Studios!
Disney made a strong case for itself. Who doesn’t love Disney? However, we had been there already and the brochure didn’t sell the kids on it. Universal had the most appeal with the Harry Potter rides/decorations. We ended up choosing Universal Studios so that we could see Diagon Alley.
Spoiler Alert: The day started a little rough, as we got lost.
PREPARING FOR OUR VISIT:
I never thought this would happen. In my mind I had these firmly locked away back in the 80’s, but I bought fanny packs for me and the boys. While Disney and Universal allow you to bring a backpack/purse into the park, Universal only allows fanny packs on most of the rides. They do offer free lockers near the rides for other types of bags. These lockers are only free for a certain amount of time (park calculates time based on ride time and line wait time). There are lockers that you can pay to have longer time periods as well. Universal allowed bottled water and small snacks in the park, which was nice (click for rules). We kept a bottle of water, a poncho (there was a chance of rain), a bag of nuts, and a granola bar in each pack. I kept a tiny 1st aid kit in mine.
We also checked on how they were dealing with COVID, as we have been trying our best to be safe along our journey. I will say that in general they did a good job. Face masks were required, social distancing markers were placed on the ground and floors, limited capacity, temperature check before entering the park, and everyone got a squirt of hand sanitizer before getting on a ride. There were also a few other hand sanitizer stations for rides and in shops. They made announcements at each ride as well, reminding people of correct mask wearing and social distancing were required. If you failed to comply you could be asked to leave the park. We did see a few people get reminded on keeping the appropriate spacing.
We parked, went through the temperature station, and started walking into the park. It was our first time at Universal, so we followed the main street and the crowds. Newbie mistake!
We kept on the main path and walked through CityWalk (shops/restaurants) and accidentally ended up in Islands of Adventure (IOA), which is not where we wanted to be since we wanted to see Diagon Alley. Luckily, Will noticed that the decorations did not match what we expected and we ran quickly to Guest Services and they were able to transfer our tickets to Studios since the park had just opened. NOTE: On our way out of the park, we saw a small directional sign. It was either faded or done in pastels and Universal Studios was the very last sign. Bigger signs would be helpful for first timers, especially when it is crowded and you can’t see the sign through the people.
We hurried over to the Universal Studios entrance and got there by 8:00am. We were a little sweaty, as it was warm already with really high humidity, but we were excited to have an adventure.
TICKETS: Starting at $109+plus tax/adults (ages 10+), Starting at $104+plus tax/child (ages 3-9). COVID Restrictions: masks required, limited capacity including on rides, temperature screening.
HOURS: 8:00am to 10:00 pm
PARKING: Pay parking for day guests (non-hotel), free after 6:00pm
TIME RECOMMENDED: At least a day
*Details correct at the time of posting, but please double check before you go.
We wanted the kids to experience one of the big theme parks while we were in Orlando, Florida. The debate was which one?
I know die-hards on both sides of the fence.
We had been to Disney when the boys were younger, back in 2012. Nick doesn’t really remember much from our day in Disney. I remember we all had fun, although it was a long day with a melt-down followed by a nap and dinner, before we headed back into the park for the parade and fireworks.
When we went to compare the two parks, the pricing structure of each seemed to be about the same. I did notice that both had a “Starting At” price for the tickets, but there were very little dates for that lowest price.
We had the boys look at the brochures we had picked up from the Welcome Center to see which one they would prefer to go to. Disney’s brochure seemed to focus on images of younger kids, which was a bit of a turn off to my tween and teen. For us, a map would also have made the brochure better! However, they had heard about Disney trip from school friends at school about going to Disney, so that was a big appeal was well. Universal’s brochure seemed to focus on older kids and also had a map. A big appeal for us was the Harry Potter features.
We have a “fun” budget for things we want to do along the way (like surf lessons and amusement parks). We still have 5 months to go in our trip, so Ben and I decided that we were only going to go to 1 park for 1 day, as tickets were a little pricey.