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florida

Empress of the Seas
Cruising

Review: Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas

Review: Empress of the Seas

When the travel restrictions were eased for traveling to Cuba, the cruise lines jumped at the opportunity to start sailing to Havana. We finally were able to go aboard Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas over Labor Day weekend! Needless to say, we had a wonderful experience. We are very loyal to Royal because we always have a nice time and they have a fabulous loyalty program called Crown & Anchor Society. Since we reached the Diamond level, we almost exclusively sail with Royal now because the perks are so worth it. We also enjoy sailing with Royal because the ships feel like a second home now.

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EPCOT: 4 Parks in 1 Day - The Traveling Gals
Disney

Date Night at Disney World

Date Night at Disney World

While Disney World is mostly known as a family destination, there are actually some wonderful date night locations throughout. These are great ideas if you live in the area, or if you are on vacation and want to do have a nice night out together. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, or you can spend a ton of money. Disney World has a variety of restaurant and entertainment options that will make your date night at Disney magical. Even just taking a stroll and enjoying one of the fireworks shows can make for a wonderful night out. Check out some of these favorite date night ideas.

[Related Post: Disney World 4 Parks in 1 Day Challenge]

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USA Travel

Barrier Islands of Florida

The splendor of Florida can be found in its hundreds of barrier islands. Barrier Islands are long, thin sandy stretches of land that protect the coast from the full force of storm waves. Between the island and the mainland is a calm water body such as a bay. Florida has more barrier islands than any other state. They are idyllic places to enjoy the tropical sunshine.

Panhandle There are many barrier islands in the Florida panhandle and many are connected via bridge for easy access. Some are simply undeveloped sandy beaches. St. George Island boasts a state park and 22 miles of sandy beaches. Santa Rosa Island across from the Pensacola Bay is a 40 mile island of beaches which often has strong currents conducive to surfing!

Disney

Disney’s Animal Kingdom After Dark

The Traveling Gals at Opening Night of Disney’s Animal Kingdom After Dark

When we booked our Memorial Day weekend at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge last year, we had no idea how much extra magic we were in for!  All three of us gals arrived just in time for opening night of Disney’s Animal Kingdom AFTER DARK!  In the first phase of the massive expansion happening at Animal Kingdom, the park is now open until 11 p.m. with a spectacular nighttime transformation.  It is always so exciting to see everything you have read about come alive Disney style!

Kilimanjaro Safaris

Our first stop was the evening safari on Kilimanjaro Safaris.  We were able to get Fastpasses so our wait time was only about 5 minutes.  We had a very entertaining safari guide so the trek started out just right.  Being on the savannah in the dark is such a different experience than during the day.  It was not quite dark when we arrived, but just after sunset so there was a beautiful, dusky glow.  Disney added very unobtrusive lighting that allowed for great viewing.  The animals were so incredibly active after sunset.  It was like an entirely different safari than the daytime (which we also love!).  Some of the hippos were out of the water walking around, the baby rhino was actually running with its mother.  The cheetahs were awake and alert, the lion and lionesses were wide awake and actually walking around!  It was such a thrilling sight.  For us gals who go on the safari regularly, this was almost like going on a new safari encounter all together.

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USA Travel

WEEKEND GETAWAY: Universal Studios Orlando

Weekend Getaway: Universal Studios Orlando [UPDATED FOR 2017!]

Of course we are unashamed big fans of Disney World. It is our favorite place to go, and we just love love love it. There is another theme park in Orlando that we also love, and that is Universal Studios. On some websites we have found that many Disney fans hate Universal and think Disney is far superior. While we think Disney exceeds Universal in certain aspects, we think it is a little ridiculous to say one is better than the other. They are different and we absolutely think you should spend a few days at Universal when you are in Orlando. Especially with all the exciting new things happening there!

Halloween Horror Nights 2016

First things first, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter absolutely exceeded any expectations we had. We thought Hogsmeade was amazing, and then were actually blown away by Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express. You feel like you have just walked into the movie. There are massive rumors swirling that Universal will be announcing a third Harry Potter section this summer. (Our vote is for The Ministry of Magic!) If you don’t really care about seeing Universal, we still think visiting the Harry Potter areas is worth it.

TIP: If you want to ride the Hogwarts Express, you have to buy a park-to-park pass.

Hogsmeade is obviously home to Hogwarts and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This is one of the most unique rides we have ever been on. If you get even slightly motion sick though, you may want to skip this one. You should still go through the queue thought because you never know what magical surprises you might find.

Hogwarts Castle - Universal Studios Islands of Adventure

So you can either start at Islands of Adventures or Universal Studios. Islands of Adventure usually closes earlier, so we suggest starting there. First you will go through the Port of Entry. While most people run right by this, there are actually a lot of neat details in this area. IOA is basically a big circle, so you can choose to go either right or left. If you go to the right you will hit Suess Landing, The Lost Continent, Hogsmeade, Jurassic Park, Skull Island, Toon Lagoon, and Marvel Super Hero Island. Each of these “islands” are a lot of fun to walk around. If you are here around the holiday season, Suess Landing celebrates “Grinchmas” with great decorations and special events.

TIP: Mythos is consistently voted one of the best theme park restaurants in the world. Even if you don’t want to have a sit down meal, peek your head inside to see the impressive theming. If you are looking for healthier fare, this is the place to be.

Weekend Getaway: Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

Our favorites: Spider Man, Jurassic Park River Adventure, Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey.

Things to Skip: Reign of Kong Skull Island was disappointing. The building and the queue were the best part of the ride. It was way too short and utilized the same screen and simulator technology as many of the other rides. If there’s no line, check it out but we wouldn’t wait in line for this one. Dudley Do Right’s Ripsaw Falls is fun, but you will literally be soaked head to toe no matter where you sit.

You can then either walk over to Universal Studios Florida or take the Hogwarts Express.

TIP: Take the Hogwarts Express in both directions. Just do it.

Weekend Getaway: Universal Studios Florida - Diagon Alley

Universal Studios Florida seeks to put you in the middle of all the moviemaking magic. While we think it misses the mark a little as far as theming goes, it still has lots of neat details to see and fun rides and shows. This is also where there are special events throughout the year, like Mardi Gras and Halloween Horror Nights.

Our favorites: Revenge of The Mummy, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, Despicable Me, Transformers The Ride, Horror Make-Up Show.

Things to Skip: Hollywood Rip Ride Rock-it was so shaky and choppy. It was the opposite of a smooth ride, and while it is fun to choose your own music, it was not worth the headache. Also, while Springfield is super cute and fun to walk around, The Simpson’s Ride is also very shaky and uncomfortable. It probably needs a technology update. We do suggest grabbing a drink at Moe’s!

If you still have some energy left, City Walk is quite fun to walk around, shop, eat, and drink. Our favorite is the dueling pianos bar, Pat O’Brien’s!

Universal Orlando City Walk

There are five on-site hotels at a variety of price points. The hotels all offer either bus or water taxi service to the parks. When you stay on-site you get early access to the parks as well, which is a nice perk.

NEW: Volcano Bay, the “water theme park” opens May 25th. Race Through New York With Jimmy Fallon is now open. The Fast & The Furious Ride is set to open in 2018.

So now we want to hear what you think of Universal! What are your favorite things to do and things to skip? Have you eaten at any of the restaurants at Universal or stayed at any of the hotels? What did you think? Let us know here or on Facebook.

The Traveling Gals

 

 

 

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Weekend Getaway: Anna Maria Island
USA Travel

WEEKEND GETAWAY: Anna Maria Island, FL

Weekend Getaway: Anna Maria Island

Anna Maria is a barrier island about seven miles in length located south of Tampa Bay and in Manatee County on the west coast of Florida.  It is an absolute treasure that is geographically stunning with gorgeous blue waters and sandy beaches accessible only by fabulous bridge crossings. This “Island in the Sun” was originally used for hunting and fishing by various Indian tribes and was not inhabited by permanent residents until the 1890s. Anna Maria preserves the feel of old Florida while still feeling fresh with charming restaurants, shops and entertainment. The island is broken up into the three cities of Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria City that each seamlessly blend together.

Pier at Bridge Street - Anna Maria Island

Pier at Bridge Street

Traveling Gals Tip:  Always check local events calendars to see what special events are going on in the area during your stay!

Anna Maria City is farthest north on the island.  The bay side has views of St. Petersburg and the striking Sunshine Skyway Bridge.   A highlight of Anna Maria City is Pine Avenue.  This street is lined with cute shops and restaurants and ends at the bay leading onto the City Pier.  This pier and the next pier over “The Rod and Reel” both have great restaurants.  These are also the piers where the locals fish.   It is great chatting with the amateur fisherman and grabbing a bite afterwards.   Plus you can’t beat the scenery!   The hidden gem of Anna Maria City is Bean Point.  Bean Point is the northernmost tip of the island where the Gulf of Mexico meets Tampa Bay.  It is nestled past the City Pier in a residential neighborhood.   Its entrance is a tree lined path between two residences and you can only park on the street.  It is a serene oasis and the perfect place to watch the sunset as the cruise ships go by on their way out to the Gulf.  You may have to ask directions, but it is worth it when you find it!

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Canoe Florida Fall Foliage
USA Travel

Fall Foliage in…Florida?!

Fall Foliage in Florida?!

We are starting to feel cooler breezes reminiscent of fall. Of course, this is Florida so that means a drop in humidity…not temperature!  Obviously Florida is not the first place that comes to mind when you think Fall Foliage.  When living in Chicago, Fall Foliage meant a weekend trip to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to see the beautiful leaves turning colors and hiking around the lake for the final time before winter.  Living in Florida, the colors are subdued but there is foliage nonetheless changing into muted hues of yellow, orange and red.  Fall colors can be seen on such trees as Cypress, Red Maple and Sorrel trees among others.  Since the evenings do not cool off until well into October/November, the leaves tend to change colors here sporadically and not until long after northern leaf changes have peaked.

Torreya State Park Fall Foliage

Torreya State Park – from floridastateparks.org

The Traveling Gals Tip:  Try something new and view foliage while canoeing!                                    

The panhandle and northern Florida are the best for viewing in places like Torreya State Park. This is a wonderful place for hiking, fishing, etc. and you can even spend the night camping or rent a yurt!  The stretch along I-75 north of Tampa is surprising hilly and can display a multitude of color, at least by Florida’s measures.  The I-10 corridor through the panhandle can some deeper hued color changes especially in the most northernmost part of the state.  Although Florida is not a conventional choice for Fall Foliage, it is a wonderful time of year in the Sunshine State to get out and experience nature.  If that is not enough for you…you can always travel!!!

Canoe Florida Fall Foliage

photo via Flickr user LOLren

Where are your favorite places to see Fall Foliage? Let us know in the comments!

USA Travel

Top 3 Must-Do’s in Sarasota, FL

We moved from Chicago to Sarasota about 6 years ago. Although we love the big city, we hate cold weather and were looking for a change of scenery. While Sarasota may not be on your radar when you think of Florida, this small city has a lot to offer! If you are planning a trip to this coast of Florida, you definitely should make a stop here. Check out our top 3 things you should in Sarasota.

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