Hotel Review: Parrot Key Resort

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Parrot Key Resort in Key West, Florida is an amazing hotel located 2.5 miles outside of Historic Old Key West. For people who want to experience both the nightlife and relaxing features of Key West, I recommend staying at Parrot Key. Here’s why.

The location

The hotel may be off the main road leading into Key West, but you would never know it. All the rooms are nestled in palm trees, shielding guests from the hustle and bustle. You’re also in walking distance of a few restaurants and a Walgreen’s. With a quick cab ride, you’re in the center of the action on Duval Street. Enjoy the bars, live music and restaurants that everyone talks about. At the end of the night, you can escape back to your quiet hotel room.

The amenities

Want to hang out by the pool? There are four pools to choose from. My friend and I had a pool to ourselves for basically five hours. That’s unheard of at a resort! We also had a couple rainy days when visiting, but we were still able to enjoy the day out on our porch. Each room has a porch and chairs. The poolside bar served breakfast until noon, which was awesome. And the food was delicious.

The room

I’ve stayed at a lot of hotels in my life. The beds at this hotel were unbelievably comfortable. Probably the most comfortable I’ve experienced at a hotel. We stayed in a standard two queen room and it was spacious. The bathroom was a good size, too. If you want a water view, you’ll pay a bit extra. But if you want an awesome view of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s worth it.

The final say

I really enjoyed this hotel and can’t wait to stay here again. The staff was wonderful and the price was decent. It’s the perfect place to relax in Key West! Here are some more pictures that show you the character of the hotel.

Hotel Review: Marriott Village Orlando

I will not lie, I’m a Marriott fan. They offer so many different types of hotels, from budget-friendly to luxury. I’ve had the opportunity to stay in a handful of different types of their offerings. But today I want to focus on the Marriott Village at Lake Buena Vista in Orlando, Florida.

The location

If you’re visiting Disney, the location of these hotels are great. You’re about seven minutes from Downtown Disney without traffic. With traffic during prime hours like dinner, you should give yourself extra time. You won’t be staying on Disney grounds, but you’ll be very close. The Marriott Village also offered free transportation to select locations, mostly Disney-owned properties that I remember. I was there for a business trip, so did not use the hotel transportation.

If you’re going to Orlando to visit Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, it’ll take a bit longer to get there. Google Maps says it’ll take you about 15 minutes. With traffic, expect that to be at least double that. All in all, I would say this location is great if you’re visiting the parks,

The cost

This is definitely a budget-friendly hotel. Costs in the off season range from $87-$109 a night. Why the price range? Well, the Marriott Village has three Marriott hotels: Courtyard, Spring Hill Suites and Fairfield Inn. The Courtyard is the most renovated, so this one will cost you a bit more. Fairfield is the middle ground and Spring Hill is your least expensive.

I stayed at Fairfield when I visited and I couldn’t complain. The room was nice. The lobby was open and welcoming. Free breakfast was offered and there was a good variety of food. The only thing, if you can call it a complaint, is that if you need to go to the “market” to purchase something (aka a razor or medicine), you have to walk over to the Courtyard. Realistically, it’s a few steps away.

The food options

I loved the options for food here. They make it simple. Like I said, complementary breakfast was offered. Awesome way to save money when you’re park hopping! There was a little cafe that had a few cheap food options: Pizza Hut, a grill, a sandwich place and a snack bar. If you’re looking for a quiet night in, this is the best option. After long days at a conference, this was definitely my go-to option.

Another great food option is in walking distance,  but not on the grounds. Cross over the parking lot and you’ll be in a little strip mall that has a few food options. The one I visited was BJ’s Brewhouse. I’m a simple person when it comes to food. I went to dinner here solo one night and truly enjoyed my experience there. The food was delicious, even if it was your typical bar food. It was definitely well made. If I remember correctly, a Bahama Breeze was in the complex as well. A Longhorn Steakhouse isn’t too far away either.

The final say

If you’re looking for a family and budget friendly hotel that’s in a pretty central location to both Disney and Universal grounds, this could be your option. There are pools, onsite dining options, money saving opportunities with free breakfast and transportation, and more.

If you want something more upscale, I recommend going somewhere else. There are pools, but they didn’t look luxurious. If you like room service, I don’t remember this being an option. If you’re looking to up your hotel game, stay at a Disney hotel or a Universal hotel. They give you perks for your stay at the parks, but you’ll pay more for a place to lounge and sleep.

Have you stayed at this Marriott Village? What was your opinion? Share in the comments or on Twitter @tripintotravel!

Disney World Expansion Plans

Artist Rendering of AVATAR-Themed Land During the Day, Coming to Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort

It seems that Disney World will continuously grow with its endless success. I may be late to the party, but I was looking into some expansion plans that are planned for the Disney dynasty. So what can we see over the next few years?

Disney Springs?

What do you think of when you hear this? Personally, I think of a new hotel. If it was a new hotel, I would totally be on board. But it’s going to be the new name for Downtown Disney. Say what?! Twice as many shops are being added to the tourist-crazy, all-you-can-take Disney shopping center, which is wonderful. The expansion will hopefully give shoppers more choices. It sounds like Disney Springs will make its debut sometime in 2015.

But let’s get to the real issue here. Where is this name coming from? Why is Disney changing it after all these years? I don’t think the name needs a makeover. As a lifelong Disney vacationer, this place will always be known as Downtown Disney to me. You young ones, I hope your parents call it Downtown Disney when they take you to this magical shopping plaza.

Back to how it use to be

Sometimes you just need to go back to the original to get things back up to par. What am I talking about? The Polynesian Resort, of course! Or should I call it Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort? This hotel opened up in 1971 and needs a little sprucing up to keep it up to Disney standards. These reservations include a new restaurant, Trader Sam’s.

Welcome to Pandora

This is the big one. Disney has broken ground on a new section in Animal Kingdom, Pandora. If you haven’t seen Avatar, you have no idea and may not care. For those who have seen the movie, I bet you’re pretty excited. The vibrant colors will fit into Animal Kingdom’s landscape. Quite frankly, I think it’ll add a lot more value to the park.

Animal Kingdom is great because of the real safari. You don’t have to pay to go to Africa to see giraffes running free. Just visit the Africa section in the Orlando-based theme park! The one ride I feel Animal Kingdom has going for it outside the safari is Expedition Everest. I feel that the addition of Pandora will really liven up the park and bring more guests through its gates. This is set to open to the public in 2017. 

Check out Disney’s sneak peek of Pandora here. What would you like to see come to Disney World next? 

Image from Disney's First Look: AVATAR to Come to Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley

This post is long overdue. Part of me feels that I was lost in a whirlwind of Harry Potter heaven to really give this section of Universal Studios Orlando a recap, but I think that sums up the experience well. For those of you who are HP fanatics, you must get here if you haven’t already.

Diagon Alley

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

All I have to say is wow. I think this new ride gives Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey a run for its money. The talk I heard throughout the park was that the Forbidden Journey was the winner, but it really comes down to personal preference. So let’s talk specifics.

  • Atmosphere: Gingotts Bank is exactly how you would think of it. You see it in the movies, but walking through the main hall of the bank is awe inspiring. You’re flanked with goblins working away on your left and right. As you continue to move forward through the line, you feel yourself moving deeper into the bank. Then you enter an elevator that makes you feel like you are moving into the depths of Gringotts. Can you imagine your excitement building at this point?
  • On the ride: Grab your 3D glasses and get ready for some fun. Going into the ride, I didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be like the Simpsons ride or like Revenge of the Mummy? It’s more like the latter but surprisingly even better. I won’t spoil the ride for you but do know that this is a roller coaster, although a family friendly one. It’s not like Rip Ride and Rockit. Final advice: Sit front row at all costs.
  • The best part: There is a fire breathing dragon on top of the bank. Every 15 minutes, the dragon lights Diagon Alley up with flames. How cool is that?!

Gringotts Bank

The shops

This section of the park is all about the shops. How can it not be? Diagon Alley is where Harry and friends went to shop for their upcoming year at Hogwarts. Some of my favorite shops are the following:

  • Florean Fortscue’s Ice-Cream Parlour: If you want to be boring and have normal ice cream, they have it here. If you want to try some fancy HP inspired ice cream, they have that here, too! Like soft serve? Go with the Butterbeer soft serve ice cream. Really, you can’t go wrong with ice cream.
  • Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes: You can’t come here and not go into this store. It has such a strong presence in the books and movies — and now in Orlando. Go in and see what kind of tricks you can take back home with you.

Weasley's Wizard Wheezes

  • Gringotts Money Exchange: This is something you may overlook. It doesn’t look impressive from the outside, but I highly recommend heading inside for a treat. There is an interactive goblin that works at the exchange. Take a stroll inside and ask him a few questions. You can try: Where is Harry Potter? How much money do you make? Who’s your favorite wizard?

Grigotts Money Exchange

The hidden gems

Did you expect Universal to put everything out in the open for you to easily see? This place is all about magic! Here are some hidden gems to look out for.

  • Secret spells: You heard it right. There are secret spells throughout the park. Use the wand you just bought at Ollivander’s and use the swish-and-flick motion you learned from Hermione. Look for little metal markers in the ground that will signal you can do a spell. Note: If you purchased a wand during past visits at Hogsmeade, your wand won’t work with the new interactive spells.
  • The phone booth: It looks like a simple phone booth, but there is something special about it. If you go into the phone booth and dial M-A-G-I-C, you’ll get to hear a message from the Ministry of Magic.

Phone booth

  • Hagrid’s motorcycle: Want to sit on the bike the delivered Harry Potter to the Dursley’s? Don’t miss the chance! You’ll find this across from the ice cream parlor and next to Gringotts.
  • Knockturn Alley: This isn’t necessarily hidden because people know it’s here, but be sure you head down to the dark side of the magic world. What’s cool is that this area of the park is always colder than the rest to set the tone that you’re heading somewhere chilling. The workers down here stay in character. I wondered if I was going to be kicked out because of my Gryffindor shirt!
  • The Knight Bus: This clearly isn’t hidden. It’s big and you can’t miss it. But be sure to stop there when the conductor is there. The guy who plays this character is awesome. And, don’t worry, you get to talk to the shrunken head too!

Knight Bus

Final words

I’m sure you’ve noticed that one major important piece of the puzzle is missing. The Hogwarts Express. I was here for a special event and they did not have the Hogwarts Express running. Needless to say, I was sad. I got to look at King’s Cross Station, but not enter. I guess that gives me even more reason to head back.

King's Cross

Until then, here are some questions. Leave your answers in the comments!

1. What was your favorite thing about Diagon Alley?
2. Which ride is better: Forbidden Journey or Gringotts?
3. Was there something missing at Diagon Alley you thought would be there?

Why you should stay at a Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Resort

I love the perks that come with the onsite hotels at Universal Orlando. Back in my cheerleading days, we had competitions at Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure. Because of this, we stayed at the park hotels. Which hotels, you ask?

1. Hard Rock Hotel
2. Loews Portofino Bay
3. Loews Royal Pacific

The prices at these places can be a tad pricey during peak season. But, the hotels come with a list of perks that I believe are worth the price.

  • Free Express Pass to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. This pass allows you to skip the long lines and join the lucky people who have the fast pass. If you were to purchase this pass, it costs $89 (on top of the normal ticket price of $136 per person for a one day pass).
  • Early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You get in an hour before the crowds. With the new addition of Diagon Alley, these areas in the parks get swarmed with crowds fast and early. The line for the new ride, Escape from Gringotts, can be upwards of a five hour wait.
  • Priority seating at CityWalk restaurants. After a long day at the park, who wants to stand in line to wait for dinner? Yes, dinner. The restaurants at CityWalk get packed. Your stay at one of the above hotels gets you on a short list for dinner. If you love food like me, this perk is pretty amazing.
  • Complementary water taxis and shuttles back to the hotel. If your feet are sore and your legs are tired, take one of the complementary means of travel to your comfortable bed.
  • Prime location. You’re right by the parks and attractions. You want to go to CityWalk? It’s a short walk, bus or boat ride away. You won’t waste a lot of time traveling to your destination and paying for additional parking.

These are just the major perks that come along with staying at a Universal Resort. If the early admission and fast pass doesn’t make your mouth water, I don’t know how else to entice you!

If you don’t want to pay the sticker price of the deluxe hotels, Universal Orlando just opened up a budge resort for patrons as well. Welcome to Cabana Bay Beach Resort! If you stay here, you will lose some of the perks. You will no longer have priority seating or an express pass for the rides.

When planning your trip, it’s all about preference. Do you need the fast pass? Does the priority seating mean that much to you? If not, Cabana Bay sounds like it could be a good fit for you. It will keep you close to the park and other attractions. If you’re a hardcore thrill ride fan, the fast pass is 100% worth it. The lines can be terribly long and, if you’re traveling with kids, the wait can feel even longer.

Take a good look at what you want to accomplish on vacation and see if a Universal Resort is right for you and your family. The price may be worth it!

Undiscovered Disney Parks on TLC: What you may not know about Disney

World of Disney

Sometimes I find myself getting wrapped up in TV shows about travel. I’m sure none of you are surprised and find yourself in the same boat that I was in on the other weekend.

I turned on TLC after waking up and was sucked into the world of Disney. I just returned from Orlando the night before from a business trip, but had a taste of Disney Parks while I was there. I curled up in bed and took in all the information this TV special had to offer.

Here is what I learned about Disneyland (California) and Disney World (Orlando):

1. Downtown Disney is home to an indoor amusement park, DisneyQuest. Here you’ll find arcade games and motion simulators, but there is one thing attraction here that stood out to me. You can build your own roller coaster and test it in an F-16 simulator. It’s called CyberSpace Mountain. Talk about cool.

2. Be a NASCAR driver at Richard Petty Driving Experience. I feel like this one is a nice little get away for the adults on the trip. Get your adrenaline pumping by getting behind the wheel of a real NASCAR race car. Suit up and hit the track — after a few must-know lessons from the professionals.

3. Take in the sights parasailing. Disney’s Contemporary Hotel sits right outside Magic Kingdom. The lagoon has boat rentals and you can also go parasailing. Who wouldn’t want to look down on the majestic sights of Magic Kingdom from 100 feet above the Contemporary Hotel?

4. Take a surf lesson, or show off your skills, at Typhoon Lagoon. You can rent out wave pool before or after park hours to have a Private Surf Party with 25 of your closest friends. Not a surfer but want to learn? Typhoon Lagoon offers lessons, too. With 12 people in the class and the perfect waves being made, you will be standing up on the board in no time.

5. Be in the “in-crowd” at Club 33. Walt Disney himself opened Club 33 at New Orleans Square in Disneyland in May of 1967. It was the only place in Disneyland he could break from the crowds to park-goers. It takes a lot to get into this club, so you have to be patient. It’s so secret I don’t think there’s a webpage for it. Note: This is the only place in the park that serves alcohol.

6. Get VIP treatment with Disney World tours. If you want a peek into the behind-the-scenes of Disney, sign up for the Keys to the Kingdom tour. You’ll get to see the preproduction center and explore some of the tunnels located under the park. Would you rather have someone be your personal guide? Sign up for the VIP tour. Your guide will show you how to navigate the park, help you gather fast passes and get you to your shows on time. Essentially, you will get to relax and enjoy the day a little bit more.

7. Transform into a princess at Bippity Boppity Boutique. I think this is every girls dream when visiting Disney World. A Fairy Godmother will help turn you (or your child) into a little princess. Full costume, make up, hair and nails are part of the package. You can do this at Cinderella’s Castle or at Downtown Disney.

8. Experience the seasons at Disney World and Disneyland. 

  • Spring: Disney’s California Adventure Food and Wine Festival offers 600 cooking classes and different foods and wines from around the world. Epcot’s Flower and Garden festival is a sight to be seen because of all the intricate characters and structures made out of flowers. Also, learn tips and secrets from Disney’s horticulturists.
  • Fall: Epcot has its Food and Wine festival in the fall. Halloween at Magic Kingdom won’t be intimidating for the kids. The Not-So-Scary Halloween Party makes Halloween fun. There is a specialty parade even featuring the Headless Horseman.
  • Winter: Christmas is in full swing at Disneyland and Disney World. The decorations are overpowering. You can even expect some fake snow to set the mood.

9. Personalized fine dining experience at the Grand Floridian. Want to really impress your loved ones? Visit Victoria and Albert’s at the Grand Floridian and book the Chef’s Table. Chef Scott Hunnel invites you into the kitchen and customizes the dinner menu for you. Want to remember what you eat? No problem. You get to take home the menu with you.

10. Disney Vacation Club resorts offer you more. Staying onsite at a Disney hotel gives you added perks. You can utilize Disney transportation and experience the Extra Magic Hours at theme parks. Want a unique experience? Stay at the Treehouse Villas at Saratoga Springs. If you like camping, you’ll love glamping.

11. Don’t forget about Disney After Dark. There is a nightly fireworks display at parks that will keep your mesmerized. At Magic Kingdom, hang out to see SpectroMagic. There are more than a million lights in this parade. The whole parade is set to a musical score, keeping you entertained the entire time.

A big thank you to TLC for airing Undiscovered Disney Parks and sharing all this awesome information. For all my Disney lovers out there, I know they appreciate it, too.