In October of 2021 we traveled to Orlando and the nearby Atlantic coast. Over the 6 days we would visit the Universal Studios Resort, Disney Magic Kingdom, New Smyrna Beach, and Kennedy Space Center. We stayed at the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort in Orlando all 6 nights.
- Days 1-3: Universal Studios Resort
- Day 4: Disney Magic Kingdom
- Day 5: Atlantic Coast
- Day 6: Cape Canaveral
Highlights: Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, Amatista Cookhouse, Universal Islands of Adventure, Voodoo Donuts, Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, Kennedy Space Center, Sonny’s BBQ in Titusville
LowLights: Disney’s Magic Kingdom
Days 1-3: Universal Studios Resort
Lodging: Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Resort: 4.5 Stars
Upon arriving we checked into our resort hotel which we booked for the entire duration of our stay. Overall I think this is a great hotel to stay at if you are visiting the Universal theme parks. The pool area is extensive and includes a faux beach and cantina area. The hotel offers every amenity (restaurant, coffee/snack bar, exercise room, ping pong tables, movies at the pool, etc). You can take a boat to the Universal City Walk or just walk the path along the waterway. It can get a bit pricey and we were unaware of the $26/night self parking charge until we checked out. But overall I would stay there again.
Restaurant: Amatista Cookhouse at Loews Sapphire Resort: 4.5 Stars
To make things simpler on arrival we decided to eat in the hotel’s restaurant, the Amatista. This was a very good dinner on our first night even if it was a bit expensive. The dishes and appetizers are great and the cocktails were great too. Since it’s attached to the hotel you can also take your drinks back to the room to finish them.
Attraction: Universal Islands of Adventure: 4 Stars
Our first theme park visit was on our second day, at the Universal Islands of Adventure. Of the two Universal theme parks we visited, the kids enjoyed this one a little more. The park is divided up into areas based on popular movies or themes such as Jurassic Park and Harry Potter. Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure was our favorite ride. At night, just before we departed, a really cool light show was presented against the backdrop of the Hogwarts Castle for Halloween.
I read every Harry Potter book and was a big fan of the movies too, so the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the area I wanted to see the most. The streets of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle are really impressive, to say the least. You’ve got to stop in Olivander’s Wand Shop. And we ate lunch at the Three Broomsticks. It’s great for turkey legs.
I’m so glad they made the movies as good as the books, and didn’t change the storyline from what was in the books. But that’s another topic for another page.
Attraction: Universal Studios Theme Park: 3 Stars
The following day we visited the main theme park of Universal Studios. Surprisingly, the original theme park has taken somewhat of a back seat to Islands of Adventure. Not to say it isn’t good, but the rides now seem a bit dated. Also missing are really any rides or attractions that cover the movie-making process beyond a stunt show, etc. That used to be the main purpose of the studio theme parks.
The Mummy Ride is now 20+ years old but still good. Simpsons Town is great for people like me that saw nearly every episode over the course of the 90s and early 2000s.
The Fast and Furious ride was particularly disappointing and the Transformers attraction was also somewhat dull.
Universal park has the Diagon Alley portion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with the Escape From Gringotts ride. That’s a good one. But yeah, I’m a Harry Potter fan.
That night my teenager Daniel and I spent 4 hours at the Halloween Horror Nights. The lines were incredibly long at an hour each and we only ended up seeing 3 of the haunted houses.
Universal City Walk
Each day we passed through the Universal City Walk where a variety of restaurants were available to us.
Restaurant: Big Fire Grill: 3 Stars
The food at Big Fire was good overall. We ordered an appetizer of mussels and I ordered a seafood bake which included more mussels, fish etc. The service was friendly enough but overall the experience was blah. Having made reservations here to celebrate a special occasion we felt that we could have done better in terms of atmosphere and fun next door at Margaritaville.
Restaurant: Voodoo Donuts: 5 Stars
For a breakfast option before entering the parks you won’t want to miss Voodoo Donuts. They have an amazing variety of donuts of every unique flavor you could imagine. We liked it so much we bought a box to take back to the hotel.
Restaurant: Toothsome Chocolate Emporium: 5 Stars
I’m only rating the shakes here that we had for desert. They take the idea of a shake to the next level. Pictured is the Cookies and Cream shake. I had a Key Lime Pie shake that has an entire piece of pie on it.
Day 4: Disney Magic Kingdom
Attraction: Disney’s Magic Kingdom: 1.5 Stars
Ok, for those of you who are Disney-obsessed, nothing will ever convince you not to go to Disney World. For the rest of us, a visit to Disney World just isn’t what it used to be.
My now 8-year-old son Evan was last at Disney World when he was 2 and we felt that it would be good to take him there now that he was old enough to remember it. Our trip to the Disney World parks in 2015 was enjoyable for everyone. Further, we used to live near Disneyland in California and visited the theme parks or Downtown Disney fairly often.
This visit to the Magic Kingdom was anything but fun. The “Happiest Place on Earth” was overcrowded despite the reservation system and the crew that once was renowned for friendliness was downright rude. Evan, who loves Mickey, even felt the experience was a disappointment. I realized only afterward that we were having so little fun I didn’t even take a single picture while there.
In my opinion, Disney is now too obsessed with making money and has lost touch with what made it popular. We paid $60 ($15 each for 4 of us) just to move further up in line a couple times on rides using the new Genie app, but still only managed to ride 5 rides the entire time we were there.
The worst experience was getting an hour into the line at Pirates of the Caribbean and then, and only then, being told we needed to go all the way back to the front of the park to buy masks. Everywhere else we went except Kennedy Space Center did not require them (we are all fully vaccinated btw). They could have easily made paper masks available all throughout the park and clarified the nonsensical mask rules.
Disney really needs to stop worrying about being at the forefront of woke politics, stop being so ridiculously greedy, and get back to being who they were when they really were a place you wouldn’t want to miss. As for now, skip it.
Restaurant: Liberty Square Tavern at Disney’s Magic Kingdom: 3 Stars
I had slowly built up Disney Dollars via a Chase Disney card I opened all the way back in 2015. By the time we went on this vacation in Oct 2021 it was up to $260. We were able to use part of it for the badly overpriced Genie app which allows you to skip ahead in line at scheduled times (you can only schedule one ride at a time and time slots are limited).
The remaining $200 we used on the Liberty Tree Tavern. The food is basically a Thanksgiving style dinner with relatively good side dishes. We ordered cocktails too the cover the full cost. We’ve been to real historical taverns in Williamsburg, VA and New England and I really feel Disney could have done a bit more to really get the feel (mugs instead of simple glasses, for instance). For the price, I don’t think this is the best value, but if you are willing to spend it’s a relatively good dinner.
Day 5: Atlantic Coast
To be honest, the vacation was feeling a bit taxing. Three days of theme parks had began to take a toll on us mentally. We needed to find some peace and a place to relax. Time to head to the beach.
Attraction: New Smyrna Beach: 4 Stars
Leaving Orlando behind for the day we decided to give New Smyrna Beach a shot after hearing that it was likely to be less busy and more natural. We stopped at the 27th Avenue Beach Park which unfortunately is not devoid of condos at the beachfront, but the park does have easy access to a safe and wide beachfront, and the part that we entered was vehicle-free (just to the north you can drive on the sand).
I would certainly consider going back to this beach and we spent several relaxing hours here, but I would be inclined to go further south to Canaveral National Seashore or further north to the St. Augustine area where it is a bit less built up.
Restaurant: Norwood’s Restaurant and Treehouse Bar in New Smyrna: 3 Stars
We arrived with wet feet from the beach at Norwood’s enthused to sit in the treehouse but unfortunately it is 21-and-older only. So we could only site in the restaurant and enjoy a few beers and what we hoped would be a great dinner. While we did enjoy some beer and a good, chill atmosphere , the food left a lot to be desired. Probably the worst fish and chips I ever had. Really popular place though since as we left there were people waiting to get our parking spot.
Day 6: Cape Canaveral
Our vacation really lacked any museum time and fortunately we had something special planned for the last day.
Attraction: Kennedy Space Center: 5 Stars
We had gone to Orlando before but had never made the journey out to Kennedy Space Center. The space center exceeded my expectations which were already pretty high. I am glad that we were able to devote an entire day to KSC because even after 5 hours we could have spent more time easily.
The Apollo Program/Saturn 5 and the Space Shuttle exhibits are particularly expansive and will leave you feeling truly awed. Don’t miss it.
Restaurant: Sonny’s BBQ in Titusville: 4.5 Stars
This was probably the best dinner we had the entire trip and it didn’t even cost that much. The BBQ was excellent and we even got 2 for 1 beers. I had the Carolina pulled pork and Shelley and Daniel had really good ribs. Evan had his typical macaroni and cheese. Side dishes are great too.
Overall, I think the trip went fairly well but I also think we’re going to not visit theme parks three days in a row in the future. While our kids certainly enjoyed the experience, I felt like this vacation was not as memorable or interesting as many of our other recent vacations. The kids really enjoy many different types of activities and I think mixing it up a bit more will give everyone more enjoyment.
It’s really hard to compare this vacation to the much more memorable trip to South Florida and the Keys in Dec 2020. However, like I said, the kids enjoyed the theme parks (except Disney’s Magic Kingdom), so in that respect it was a success.