Category Archives: Orlando, FL

News and information from the theme park capital of the world.

Nickelodeon Suites Resort – Let It Snow and SLIME Drop

Nickelodeon Hotel Exterior blog
Entrance to Nickelodeon Suites Resort, Orlando

 How Nickelodeon Suites Resort Celebrates Christmas and New Year’s

Orlando’s Nickelodeon Suites Resort holiday salute begins it holiday celebrations with Let It Snow, held on weekends and select weeknights. The event starts at 6 p.m. with the opening of the Oasis Pool, closed during the day because of the Christmas tree at one end and lighted snow flake decorations hanging next to the pool.

It’s kind of a neat experience to go swimming then, with a blue-white light bathing the pool and snowflakes falling occasionally near the Christmas tree. No danger of getting chilly from the snowflakes: they’re actually bubbles.

Nickelodeon Hotel Let It Snow-1 blog
Nick celebrates Christmas with an 84-degree pool

Lasting until 9 p.m., Nick characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants appear several times (along with humans) to dance and pose for pictures. Fire pits near the pool are ready for those hungry for S’mores but don’t make the mistake of waiting in line to use the fire pit unless you’ve already purchased the S’mores ingredients sold at the pool. Yes, it would be nice if they were free but it’s also easy to see how that could get out of hand with a big crowd.

Santa Claus also makes personal appearances either at the Oasis Pool or Studio Nick, based on the daily program everyone receives at hotel check-in.

Around 8:30 the festivities start at Studio Nick with a performance of Celebrate Nickmas, a high energy song and dance show that includes SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer. It’s a good idea to get in line 20 to 30 minutes before the show if you want to sit near the stage. At the end of the show, Santa Claus appears for individual photos with children in front of an elaborate Christmas background. Nick Resort photographers snap everyone’s picture in hopes of selling them but family members are given free reign to take their own. A much appreciated opportunity it is, too.

Nickelodeon Hotel Nickmas-1 blog
Dora the Explorer and friend at Nickmas

But if you want your child to meet Santa, you must make advance reservations, which also assures you seats at the show. Those who show up without reservations are let in on a space available basis but aren’t given a place in line to meet Santa. It’s easy to make a reservation.

New Year’s Eve will be celebrated by Nick Resort’s annual SLIME Drop where 400 gallons of the green sticky goo is dropped on revelers to create what undoubtedly is the messiest pool party anywhere that night. Before the great sliming, the year is ushered out with pool activities including a Dive In Movie, DJ Splash Bash, live entertainment and a Champagne or Slimeade toast.

At the moment, special Nickmas Packages are being offered but not the kind you expect from a hotel. Instead of selling anything, this is a package with room and other discounts. Could be a good deal but also compare the price options on the hotel website and sites like to see the best prices on different rooms.

As you might expect, the New Year’s SLIME Drop experience does cost extra. The party gives a good reason to look green for once on January 1.

To A Weekend at Orlando’s Nickelodeon Suites Resort

Nickelodeon Suites Resort–Orlando’s Best Kids Resort?

Nickelodeon Hotel lagoon pool-1
The Lagoon Pool, center of most of the action.

Nickelodeon Suites Resort Impresses Young Theme Park Pro

After spending the weekend at Nickelodeon Suites Resort with our 5-year old granddaughter, I’m convinced the Nick Hotel is probably Orlando’s best resort for youngsters 5-12 years. The almost non-stop daytime activity is well coordinated so there’s always something to look forward to, including frequent appearances by such iconic Nick characters as SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And the slides and flumes at the Lagoon Pool water park are ready and waiting throughout the afternoons.

Our granddaughter Harper may be only 5 but she’s a theme park pro. She started visiting Disney World regularly at the age of 2 and has been to all the other major theme parks at least once and frequently more. With that kind of background, we didn’t expect such an enthusiastic reaction when she first enters our suite.

“Look–SpongeBob is painted on the wall!” Harper shrieked happily. “I have a SpongeBob bedroom!” The cartoon art not only makes her excited but it’s also a little overwhelming. Later, when she turns on the TV in her room, the channel is tuned to the Ninja Turtles on Nick TV. She immediately starts imitating their moves, watching intently to copy them perfectly. Harper is in her own happy world.

Nickelodeon Hotel SpongeBob-1 blog
To Shake Hands Or Not To Shake?

However, SpongeBob-in-person proves to be a little overwhelming Saturday morning at a special meet and greet with the famous cartoon character. Normally very gregarious, Harper is intimidated when she comes face to face with the famous TV star. It takes a lot of coaxing to have her stand next to the big yellow kitchen sponge to pose for a picture.

A short time later we attend the Nicktoons Cafe character breakfast where SpongeBob and the other Bikini Bottom characters put on a show and then meander among the tables. It’s a harmless dance and hardly aggressive but Harper again finds it all a little overpowering. She’s never been able to spend so much time up close with the characters at Disney or anywhere else.

Even though the Café dining room is full, the characters remain surprisingly accessible for pictures and–thankfully–without the hassle of contending with a resort photographer wanting to sell us a picture. In fact, at all character events, family members are almost always given ample time to take as many photos as they want even when a Nick Hotel photographer is present; it makes the experience a lot more pleasant. (Framed photos start at $16.95 with additional 5×7’s at $10 each. Better prices than some theme parks.)

The buffet’s offerings are complete enough to satisfy even Harper’s finicky food likes. The character buffet ($24 adults, $14 ages 4-12) is impressive, more than I expect: various cheeses, sliced European breakfast meats, trays of pastas, fresh fruit, smoked salmon, tuna fish salad, eggs to order including Eggs Benedict, breakfast burrito, bacon, sausage, corned beef hash, cereals, yogurts, bagels, donut holes, muffins croissants, cherry blintzes and more than I care to write down or remember.

Nickelodeon Hotel Slime-1 blog
Slime time at the Lagoon Pool

Afterwards, it’s time to introduce Harper to the Lagoon Pool and its water park rides. Harper attacks the rides with enthusiasm. Although the air temps are only in the high 70’s, the large pool stays a comfortable 84 degrees as does the water flowing through the seven different slides and flumes. The rides start at different levels of a four-story water tower also featuring climbing nets, water jets and a 400-gallon dump tank, which dumps occasionally throughout the day. In the afternoon, during the special Mass Sliming, it pours a lot of slime-colored water on eager bathers ready to turn green.

Slime is a famous Nickelodeon trademark dating back to a 1982 TV show You Can’t Do That On Television. Although sliming opportunities are frequent, you may have to pay a charge to participate. The only times and place we witness sliming is at the Lagoon Pool during special events.

Harper proves she’s over her “fear of characters” on Saturday evening after we walk by the entrance of the Nicktoons Café, which is featuring Ninja Turtles character dining. Linda glances through the door and notices it’s almost empty. “People have left their masks on the tables. If they don’t want one, maybe I can get one.” Why not, it never hurts to ask.

She enters the dining room and asks for a red mask like the one worn by Raphael, Harper’s favorite Ninja turtle. Linda returns with one, reporting, “They couldn’t have been nicer.” The mask is really nothing more than a red strip with eyeholes but exactly like the turtles wear. To Harper, it’s a priceless possession.

As we start to leave, a Ninja in black with red eyes but no mask suddenly appears, ready to pose for photos. We tie the mask on Harper, who  rushes eagerly to meet the Ninja figure.

 Nickelodeon Hotel Ninja-1No fear!

That night, Harper doesn’t wear the mask to bed but sleeps with it clutched beside her. Even for this young theme park pro, something so simple is incredibly special. Like the rest of everything she experienced that weekend.


Orlando’s Nickelodeon Suites Hotel, the only one in the world, is a huge property with 777 rooms covering 24 acres. The all-suites hotel includes one to three bedrooms, kitchenettes and TVs in the living room and each bedroom. Our two bedroom SpongeBob suite included a master bedroom with a king bed and a separate kids bedroom (without a door) containing bunk beds. The living room sofa was a pullout, so the room could have accommodated six. The kitchenette had a microwave and mini fridge but no dishes or silverware; bring your own if you intend to make meals during your stay.

Which you might want to do.  Nickelodeon Suites Resort has limited dining options, all housed in the main activity known as The Mall. The Mall definitely could use another restaurant for those who spend all their time at the hotel. Breakfast has the most choices with either a character breakfast at the Nicktoons Café or dining at the breakfast-only Main Buffet ($11.95). The Mall’s food court has a Subway (offers breakfast subs), Cravings which features Starbucks but not much food and Antonio’s Pizza, which also serves burgers, hot dogs and chicken sandwiches. The hotel pools also have their own grill restaurant that  close at 5. Selections are sparse on Saturday evenings when Nicktoons Café offers only character dining; and pizza and burgers do become monotonous. .

The hotel provides transportation to all the major theme parks as part of the $30 daily mandatory resort use fee added on top of the room cost. Although I dislike any resort use fee, it may be worth it this time since it also covers free admission to live shows and entertainment, the two water parks, wireless room internet, unlimited local telephone calls and free parking. Just the parking at some theme park hotels is $17 a day.

To: Nickelodeon Suites Resort Holiday Celebrations

Orlando Theme Parks–What’s New for 2013

Fanstasyland at Disney’s Magic Kingdom is doubling in size. 

Three Major Attractions Open This Year

You can always count on Orlando theme parks having something new and exciting. That’s what keeps drawing the same people back year after year and luring millions of new visitors every year.

Last year, Orlando theme parks  had an unusually large number of new openings and travelers took notice.  Orlando had a record number of visitors: about 56.4 million,  making it once again the world’s No. 1 travel destination, well ahead of  No. 2 destination New York City with 52 million visitors. 

Here are the new attractions expected to help keep Orlando stay at the top.  (For info on all area attractions, see Orlando Essential Travel Guide ios and Orlando Essential Travel Guide android)

Kennedy Space Center
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is undergoing a 10-year, multi-million dollar expansion. The just completed first phase of improvements includes a $16 million entry with a grand plaza featuring a 70-foot long, 5,000-gallon granite fountain and a globe shaped NASA logo, new ticket stations, souvenir shop and restaurant. Opening in July is an estimated $100 million exhibit containing the space shuttle Atlantis and interactive exhibits, all housed in a new building near the just-opened visitor center entrance.  America’s efforts at manned space flight may be dead but the dream stays well and thriving at Kennedy Space Center. A visit here always is a good reminder of what America can do when the country is united behind a definite goal.  The souvenir selection remains impressive.

SeaWorld Orlando
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin opens this spring and follows the adventures of a young penguin. Riders board what’s advertised as a new type of simulator offering one of two levels of adventure, with each level having multiple variations of intensity. The largest expansion in SeaWorld’s history, the Antarctica attraction includes not only the ride but the chance to visit a real penguin colony—as well as a gift shop and restaurant. 

 Universal Orlando Resort
 TRANSFORMERS: The Ride – 3D opens in summer 2013, where passengers in a ride simulator face larger-than-life TRANSFORMERS characters and a storyline using life-like HD CGI media, state-of-the-art 3-D technology and special effects depicting an epic battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons.  Located in Universal Studios.

Universal Orlando Hollywood Drive-In Golf
Most golfers would find this more than a sand trap.

Hollywood Drive-In Golf, located beside CityWalk and under the concourse leading from the parking lots, offers 36 holes of golf on a course based on themes from really bad horror and sci-fi movies of the 1950’s. Whether you’re playing The Haunting of Ghostly Greens or Invaders From Planet Putt, you can play day and night thanks to the LED lighting. Extra admission charge: $14 for adults, $12 for children

Two new dining experiences are available at Universal Studios Park. The Superstar Character Breakfast features characters from the Universal Superstar Parade such as the Despicable Me Minions, SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer. Diners also have access to a special viewing area for the characters’ afternoon parade. The Cinematic Spectacular Dining Experience starts with dinner at Lombard’s Seafood Grille, ending with dessert served in a private viewing area for Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular nighttime lagoon show.

Walt Disney World
Magic Kingdom
Undergoing its largest expansion ever at Disney World, all the action is centered in Fantasyland, which is doubling in size. First phase attractions, most of which opened in December, include Enchanted Tales with Belle where Belle and friends share “the tale as old as time;” Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid, a musical show featuring Ariel and friends; Be Our Guest Restaurant;, a re-themed Barnstormer Featuring the Great Goofini, Gaston’s Tavern a dining experience in the ballroom, gallery, and mysterious West Wing of the Beast’s castle; Pete’s Silly Sideshow and a new family play area. The two carousels at Dumbo, the Flying Elephant, opened last spring.

Scheduled to open later this year is Princess Fairytale Hall where Cinderella, Tiana and Rapunzel will meet and greet their fans in a castle-like setting. Coming in the spring of 2014 is the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a coaster ride with vehicles that swing back and forth, a coaster ride first.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios
The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow takes visitors through a lost grotto where first they’re tested to discover if they have what it takes to be part of Captain Jack’s crew. Of course they do, proceeding to relive some popular moments from the films and be immersed in a ship-to-ship battle.

Late last year the re-imagined Test Track presented by Chevrolet re-opened with a much more lively and interactive experience. First, you design your own concept car, then test it out in a “SimCar” ride that puts your vehicle through a series of performance tests.

Not your normal test track.

In March at Epcot, the 40-piece Kinsey Collection of African-American art and history, with some works dating to the 17th century, opens at the American Heritage Gallery. Exhibit entrance is included in ticket admission.

Walt Disney World Speedway:
The Richard Petty Driving Experience is offering “Junior Ride-Alongs” where kids can ride shotgun with a professional driving instructor for three laps, in a specially equipped two-seat NASCAR race car. Cost is $59. Riders must be at least 48 inches tall.

Downtown Disney:
Splitsville Luxury Lanes bowling alley/eatery now fills the West End site once occupied by the huge Virgin Mega Store. The 30 bowling lanes are scattered around the two-story building in clusters of four and six lanes. Surrounding the lanes are dining tables, billiard tables, bars, gift shop and sushi bar. It’s a place to play and dine but tables are also available for non-bowlers. For sports fans, giant TV screens are tuned to ESPN. Expect wait times of 1-3 hours during busy periods.

Disney World Restaurants:
California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort closes from Feb. 1 until this summer for a major makeover. A new tweaked menu will still emphasize fresh, seasonal dishes.

In Epcot’s France pavilion, the upstairs Bistro de Paris has reopened as Monsieur Paul with a refurbished dining room and new menu, which is best described as casual haute French. The Boulangerie Patisserie bakery at the back of the France pavilion, opened in January.

At the most upscale level, Citricos at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa now offers a private, $155 per person dining experience in The Chef’s Domain for up to 10 guests. Offered Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the meal includes six courses; 407/WDW-DINE for reservations.

But it’s early in the year, and there still could be some more new theme park  news. 

New 2012 Attractions at Orlando Theme Parks


Legoland-1               Orlando’s newest theme park, LEGOLAND Florida, is the 2nd LEGOLAND
               in the U.S. and only the 6th LEGOLAND theme park in the world.

Visitors to Orlando this summer will find numerous changes in all the large theme parks. Some years the changes are minimal but this year the additions and renovations are unusually plentiful.

This is why so many visitors return to Orlando year after year. Always something new to experience.


Since opening Oct. 15, 2011, LEGOLAND Florida park attendance figures are surpassing expectations, according to LEGOLAND sources. A new water park opening in summer 2012 features a wave pool, Build-A-Raft lazy river, tube slides, body slides and an interactive water-play structure (of Legos, of course).

SeaWorld Orlando

turtletreklogo_282x88Opened in April,  Turtle Trek follows a sea turtle’s life struggle via a 3D film in a 360 dome theater. Replacing the long-time manatee attraction, Turtle Trek also features two large habitats, one containing manatees and freshwater fish. The second houses more than 1,500 saltwater fish and a handful of sea turtles.

“Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin,” SeaWorld Orlando’s largest attraction expansion ever, will open in spring, 2013.

Discovery Cove

Freshwater Oasis adds a new swimming and wading attraction this summer that provides face-to-face encounters with otters and marmosets.

Universal Orlando Resort

Islands of Adventure

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man has new animation and special effects that require high-tech 3-D glasses. It opened in March.

Universal Studios Orlando

Harry Potter at the Islands of Adventure overshadowed Universal Studios in recent years but now the emphasis has shifted to Universal’s original Orlando theme park.

Jaws closed in January, to be replaced by a new, unannounced ride. Some speculate a Harry Potter addition but this location seems too distant and too disjointed to be part of the Wizarding World at the Islands of Adventure.

With an early May, 2012, debut, Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular – 100 Years of Movie Memories multi-media  show (9 p.m. nightly) celebrates the movie companies’ classic films by projecting them onto cutting-edge waterfall screens. Narration by actor Morgan Freeman.

Universal's Superstar Parade at Universal Orlando                            Floats are a big part of the Universal All-Star Parade

This month, Universal also launched its first parade: The Universal All-Star Parade features such film characters as the minions from Despicable Me, E.B. from Hop, Nickelodeon’s Dora & Diego and SpongeBob SquarePants in a live, interactive parade at 5 p.m. daily.

This summer, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem replaces the Jimmy Neutron attraction with a 3-D simulator ride.


These two new attractions were ready early in 2012.

Blue Man Group: New stage, new performances, new music. Possibly even more paint!

Hollywood Drive-In Golf: Located near the park’s main entrance ramp, this mini-golf course features two 18-hole themed golf courses named “The Haunting of Ghostly Greens” and “Invaders From Planet Putt.”  An adult ticket is $14. 

Wet ‘N Wild

Wet ‘N Wild, voted the favorite water park of Orlando residents, this summer adds Blastaway Beach, new family interactive area with jets, waterfalls, 15 water slides and more than 100 soakers and water cannons. This will make Wet ‘N Wild Florida’s largest interactive water play attraction.

Walt Disney World

Disney Hotels

 art of animation resort    The Art of Animation Resort featuring family suites is opening in three phases, beginning the end of May and extending into September.  

In addition, all levels of Disney hotels are being upgraded to include free Wi Fi, with mini-fridge and extra beds available (but not always for free).

Downtown Disney

In the fall, Splitsville with 30 lanes of bowling open in at site of the Virgin Megastore.

Hollywood Studios

SwashbucklinÕ this Fall: The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow

The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow ride opens sometime this fall, located in the old Chronicles of Narnia theater. Details are scarce.

Magic Kingdom

This is where much of the action is. Continued expansion of New Fantasyland includes including a new Storybook Circus with two Dumbo The Flying Elephant attractions opening this summer (July). In late 2012, Under the Sea: The Voyage of The Little Mermaid attraction and the Beast’s Castle at the Be Our Guest restaurant join New Fantasyland. More new Fantasyland attractions will open in 2013.


“Captain EO,” an ancient 3-D musical production starring Michael Jackson, for some reason returned to the World Showcase last fall. Watching this video years ago when it first came out was strangely unsettling, and that was long before there was any suspicion that the talented singer had a strange fascination with young children.

Test Track is undergoing a makeover, which will result in an all new GM pavilion sponsored by Chevrolet. Details have been sketchy and contradictory, but it appears the attraction will be closed for most of 2012.

The Agent P World Showcase Adventure with new special effects and featuring Phineas and Ferb replaces the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure in June.

Walt Disney World Speedway

The Exotic Driving Experience –where you do the driving, not a professional driver– features supercars by Ferrari, Lamborghini, Audi and Porsche are an added part of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. The Exotic Driving Experience operates about 150 days annually on the specially configured The Exotics Course, which includes both an interior road course as well as part of the mile-long NASCAR track. Driving fee is $199.

Florida Eco Safaris @ Florida Forever

Rattlesnake by Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida                           The Rattlesnake, the first zipline roller coaster in the U.S.

Technically, Florida Forever  is not one of Orlando’s major theme parks.  Although it covers 4700 acres, the facility is too far away from Orland0 to qualify.  However,  the eco-ranch is quickly becoming a major zipline center in the entire Southeast. Florida Eco Safaris @ Forever Florida just completed year-long, $1.5 million attraction upgrade that added 4 new ziplines: 1) The Rattlesnake, the first zipline roller coaster in the USA. 2) Peregrine Plunge, the longest single straightaway zipline in Florida, measuring 1300 feet in length, 3) Panther Pounce, a 68-foot high challenge tower with a safely controlled rapid descent to the ground. 4) The Swooping Crane, an extreme swing where guests release into a freefall from 55 feet, finally swooping back and forth between the trees and brush.

Drug Addict Killed The Senator, One of World’s Oldest Trees

Florida The Senator Largest Cypress in USA
The Senator back in its better days.

The Senator, a 3500-year old bald cypress ranked as the fifth oldest tree in the world, was killed January 16th by an arsonist. Just as I predicted weeks ago, when silly theories of a deadly lightning strike when there was no lightning or–even more asinine–that spontaneous combustion caused by the tree’s own wind-drive branches rubbing against itself were offered as plausible causes..

The Senator, located in Longwood, FL, died a stupid death. It turns out the arson was accidental, committed by a 26-year old woman who set fire to twigs and branches around the tree to better see the drugs she was taking.

Once the tree caught on fire, she used her cell phone to take photos of it but did not bother to call the fire department or take any steps to end the devastation she started. Police were leisurely in arresting the meth head. Although they received a tip the day after the fire, the woman wasn’t arrested until February 28, more than a month later.

How much does the judicial system value the worth of The Senator? Not much. Bail for the arsonist was a measly $5,950. The low bail amount unfortunately reflects how much Seminole County officials traditionally have respected the importance of The Senator and a nearby much younger bald cypress, the 2,000-year old Lady Liberty.

Seminole County officials now willing spend money to protect—a stump? 
Protecting the tree while still alive might have been a better idea.

Their home, Big Tree Park, years ago turned into a notorious after-dark location where drug use and prostitution were common activities. Not only was Big Tree Park allowed to turn into a seedy nighttime spot, Seminole County officials never installed any lights or security cameras and nightly police patrols didn’t seem to be part of any cop’s beat. The only protection afforded The Senator was a metal fence around its base –and that worked great, didn’t it?

In a classic case of too little too late, Seminole County commissioners now has decided to spend $29,000 to build an 8-foot fence around The Senator’s stump and another around Lady Liberty before she becomes someone’s demolition project. Still no park lights, though, and no security cameras. As for police patrols, that remains to be seen.

Indifference by officials compounded by incompetence are the real culprits for killing The Senator. The towering tree had stood for 3,500 years and like other equally ancient monuments–the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge–it was expected always to remain.

It never seemed to occur to those in charge that living monuments might require more care and protection than stone ones. So, The Senator was disregarded and left on its own. That neglect is not only embarrassing, it’s unfathomable.

The Senator Cypress Tree, One of World’s Oldest Residents, Dies in Suspicious Fire

The SenatorCypress Tree Burned to the ground

Probably a victim of foul play

The Senator, one of the world’s oldest residents, died Monday, Jan. 16. A life-long resident of Longwood, FL, The Senator spent the final days of its 3,500 years as the main attraction at Big Tree Park. At 125 feet (38 m) tall and with a trunk diameter of 17.5 feet (5.3 m), The Senator not only was the largest cypress tree in North America but was ranked as the world’s fifth oldest tree. Before a 1925 hurricane, The Senator was almost a third taller at 165 feet (50 m).

Experts say  The Senator was only a sprout when Stonehenge was being erected, iron was being created and China gave birth to one of the earliest civilizations with a recorded history. Only four other trees on earth besides The Senator were alive at that time. For those who care about such things, the loss of The Senator is devastating.

Florida The Senator Largest Cypress in USA   Florida The Senator Largest Cypress in USA sign

Death was due a to fire that felled the tree within hours of the arrival of firefighters at around 5:50 a.m. Monday. By 8:15 a.m., the tree had largely collapsed. Most of The Senator was hollow. Local media have compared the fire inside the wood cylinder as a blazing chimney fire or the ignition blast of the space shuttle.

Cause of the fire is still being investigated. Theories include premeditated murder (arson), a lightning strike that occurred several weeks ago and–the most intriguing of all–spontaneous combustion.

Initially, responding fire fighters blamed the fire on arson because twigs and branches were piled near the base of the tree, possibly by a homeless person although Sunday night was mild compared to some previous nights this month. The initial report was that the greatest heat from the fire was at the base.

The_Senator_Champion_Tree_Burned-2blogThe investigation was quickly taken over by the Division of Forestry whose investigator blamed lightning and apparently concluded that the greatest heat was in the crown of the tree. His theory was that the strike occurred several weeks ago and the tree has been quietly smoldering before breaking out into a full-blown blaze.

This would mean that for several weeks no visitor or anyone in the area would have noticed any smell of smoke, a questionable scenario.

However, blaming lightning brings into question the competence of the company that had installed a lightning rod to protect the tree apparently following a previous lightning strike.

The lightning protection company name is prominently displayed at the main overlook of The Senator.  Blaming a lightning strike as the cause leans towards libel since it implies (clearly names?) the company as being responsible for The Senator’s death.

The spontaneous combustion theory theorizes that the few ancient limbs on the tree because were waving back and forth, creating friction, and thus the fire. Since the limbs were stubs and there was no great wind storm that night, an alien laser might make more sense.

Cause of death: UNKNOWN.

The Senator was named for Senator M.O. Overstreet, who donated this massive cypress and the land around it to the people of Seminole County in the 1920’s. Until the 1960s, Big Tree Park was one of the area’s most popular attractions for family picnics. Such a big attraction that gift stands sold souvenirs of The Senator. Besides Big Tree Park, the only other local attractions were the swimming pool at Sanlando Springs (now a private community called The Springs) and the Central Florida Zoo (still doing well).

Lady_Liberty_Champion_Cypress_Tree-7blogThe big question now is what will be done to save the Liberty Lady, a 2,000-year old cypress tree only a few yards from The Senator. With the death of The Senator, at 89 feet (27 m) high, 10 feet (3.0 m) in diameter Lady Liberty is now Florida’s Champion Tree for bald cypress. The age of Lady Liberty also makes it an unusual treasure.

Will anything be done to protect Lady Liberty from whatever fate killed The Senator?

Not unless there is an armed guard ready to intercept/report whatever happens next. The fence around the park is easily scaled, even by “homeless people” or real vandals.

Regardless of the cause, the fall of The Senator is a loss to everyone, anywhere, who cares about protecting the world’s most ancient nature. The Senator was one of the last of the Ents (Lord of the Rings).

Wading through the various causes of The Senator’s death, it would seem there is a fire bug out there that needs to be squashed.

The Senator Big Tree Park Rest in Peace Senator Sign, Longwood, Florida
A “Rest in Peace” sign left by a resident

Disney World Dining – If You Don’t Cancel, You Still Pay

disney wine epcot

Too many visitors to Walt Disney World in Orlando can’t dine at a favorite restaurant because all the spaces are taken. Reservation no-shows are one of the causes, so Disney World is imposing a fee on anyone who fails to cancel a reservation 24 hours in advance.

Beginning Oct. 26, Disney will charge $10 for the total number of people on a reservation not cancelled 24 hours ahead of time. For a party of 5, that’s $50. With a credit card required to make the reservation, Disney can be sure of obtaining the no-show fee.

The 19 signature restaurants included in this new policy are:

• 1900 Park Fare
• Akershus Royal Banquet Hall
• Artist Point
• California Grill
• Cape May Café
• Chef Mickey’s
• Cítricos
• The Crystal Palace
• Flying Fish Café
• The Garden Grill
• Hollywood & Vine
• Jiko – The Cooking Place
• Le Cellier Steakhouse
• Narcoossee’s
• ‘Ohana
• Tusker House Restaurant
• The Hollywood Brown Derby
• Victoria & Albert’s – $25 per person
• Yachtsman Steakhouse

The following restaurants require a full pre-payment. If you don’t cancel a reservation there 24 hours is advance, you forfeit the entire amount you’ve paid at:

• Cinderella’s Royal Table
• Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show
• Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue
• Mickey’s Backyard BBQ

Canceling a reservation is easy. Just call 407-WDW-CNCL (939-2625) or sign in at


This is a regular update for buyers of the app Orlando Essential Travel Guide and anyone who discovers this site.

Until next next week (or later),


LEGOLAND Florida Oct. 15 Opening Just Around Corner

Major new theme park aimed at kids 2-12

Legoland Dragon Coaster
LEGOLAND Florida photo

The new 150-acre LEGOLAND Florida theme park in Winter Have, FL, is on schedule to open Oct. 15. Catering to kids from 2 to 12, LEGOLAND features more than 50 rides – from roller coasters to race cars – as well as family focused shows and attractions. This is the 5th and largest of the world’s Legolands. The only other U.S.-based LEGOLAND is located in California.

LEGOLAND Florida is located on the site of Cypress Gardens, which opened in the 1930s and whose stunt water ski shows, Southern Belles and beautifully manicured gardens made it an international attraction for decades. The ski shows and gardens remain in some form but the Southern belles are now represented by Lego figures.

A distinctive part of the Florida attraction is its 4 “pink-knuckle” rides, junior roller coasters with the right blend of speed that should thrill the entire family, not just those with cast-iron stomachs. These include The Dragon Coaster in the Kingdoms zone with a humorous behind-the-scenes view of life within the enchanted LEGOLAND Castle. The indoor/outdoor steel coaster encounter a massive fire-breathing dragon along the way. Coastersaurus in the Land of Adventure features a wooden coaster that curves and dips in and around a life-sized Lego brick dinosaur, .

Other attractions include Duplo Village for 3- to 5-year-olds with themed play zones. Duplo Playtown lets toddlers operate a pint-sized town; at Duplo Barn they can climb, slide and crawl among a variety of Lego farm animals. Imagination Zone is a hands-on section of the park that emphasizes exploring and creation.

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At Pirate’s Cove on Lake Eloise, Lego “mini-fig” pirates star in a live-action, water-stunt spectacular families will love. This area also is the site of the Botanical Gardens, one of the attractions that made Cypress Gardens such a popular destination for many decades.

See map  for all the park attraction areas.

Realizing its out-of-the-way location could be a problem for some potential visitors, LEGOLAND will run a daily shuttle from Orlando Premium Outlets on Vineland Ave. Leaving at 9am and returning after the park closes, the 45-minute shuttle trip has a special opening price of $5, round trip, per person. The shuttle is equipped with seatbelts for youngsters.  To reserve a seat, click here.

For families that want to spend the night, LEGOLAND has a series of “Bed and Brick” preferred hotels , although some are not all that close to the property.

Ticket prices  are considerably less than at the other major theme parks. Hours vary by season and day of week.

Based on the popularity of LEGOLANDs in California and Germany and elsewhere as well as the advance ticket sales, LEGOLAND Florida will be a blockbuster. This new attraction should be motivation enough to attract a lot of families with young kids to visit Orlando once more, or for the first time.  

This is a weekly info update to the Orlando Essential Travel Guide for buyers of the app and anyone who discovers this site.

Until next Monday (or later),


Exploring Harry Potter’s Wizarding World

Universal HP Ride lead pixIf there really had been a fire-breathing dragon at this part of the Forbidden Journey, do you think we’d really be looking away from it?  Or appear so calm?  Universal Orlando Resort Photo. 

In Part 3 of our visit to Universal Orlando Resort, which has special vacation packages with Royal Caribbean Cruises, we share our experiences and offer some pointers for cutting line wait times. Part 2 was quite a while ago—Sept. 11; Part 1 appeared Sept. 5th. Blame Hurricane Irene cleanup in Virginia.

Although it’s a Friday morning and the beginning of a weekend, we’re able to check-into the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel early and move luggage to our room before noon. Unpacking, however, will wait until later. We’re finally off to the Islands of Adventure, taking one of the free water taxis that continually run from Portofino Bay to the landing serving both Universal theme parks and City Walk. Our water taxi travels through a lushly landscaped canal, bypasses the Hard Rock Hotel (each hotel has its own designated shuttles) and goes directly to the theme park dock, a ride of about 10 minutes. Another way to reach the theme parks is to take the sidewalk bordering the waterway. That would be a nice stroll in cooler weather, but with the water taxis starting as early as 6:30 am in summer and running until 2 am when City Walk closes, it’s an avenue we don’t bother to explore.

Both the Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Orlando have the landmark rides and shows that have made them so famous: Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey and more. Ironically, it’s an unadvertised experience the twins particularly enjoy because it’s a test of their strength and ingenuity. It’s a rock climbing wall near the Jurassic Park River Adventure. Blending in well with the jungle landscape, the rock wall is an extra $5 per person charge but well worth it. Much smaller than the ones on board many RCCL cruise ships, this wall is shaped like a tall cube; it also doesn’t sway from side to side.

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Twins Emily and Andrew, equally competitive, are eager to start their climb. Andrew ascends to the top first to ring the bell at the summit. It is kind of an unfair contest since it’s obviously easier for Andrew to ascend on the left side than it is on the right. Emily trades places with Andrew and quickly reaches the summit while Andrew struggles to climb more than three-quarters of the way up. Since both can rightly consider themselves winners, they’re quite happy when we depart for the small but still impressive Harry Potter’s Wizarding World squeezed into a corner of the Islands of Adventure. Count on this expanding soon; it has to, based on Universal’s contract with J.K. Rowling to add 2 more rides from the Deathly Hallows films.

Anyone who started their Harry Potter fandom by reading the books will feel twice the awe they experienced as the film spectacles kept unfolding with one new wonder after another the first time they view the reproduction of J.K . Rowling’s famous books. I still sense a tingle in my spine every time I cross the bridge leading into the Wizarding World with Hogwarts Castle on my left and the permanently snow-covered roofs of Hogsmeade Village in front. Hearing the emblematic film music near the Hogwarts Express makes me feel 10 years old. From the looks and comments from Linda and the kids, it’s obvious they’re reliving Rowling’s magical surroundings as we experience the enchantment of Dervish and Banges, Honeydukes and Hogwarts Castle’s popular gift shop called the Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods, named for Argus Filch, the caretaker of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Harry has made J.K. Rowling the richest woman in Britain and one of the wealthiest authors in history. I say well done, Jo Rowling, and thank you so much for enriching so many lives—and bringing some magic into them. People who can’t believe in magic don’t fully appreciate life’s many wonders, or look forward to the next possibility.

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On this afternoon, the Wizarding World lines are long and the Forbidden Journey is not covered by Universal’s Express ride pass. Which is the only reason why the next morning we are up at 5:30 am in order to get ready for the first water taxi departure at 6:30 am for the 7 am opening of Harry Potter’s Wizarding World in the Islands of Adventure. We have an hour to ride the rides before the regular park hours and the 20 minutes it usually takes after that for crowds to start forming in the Wizarding World. (The 1-hour early admission is another on-site hotel stay bonus; opening hours change by season)

Others were ahead of us when we arrive at Hogwarts. We place our cameras and other loose items in the free lockers just inside the entrance (on the right). We join the quick-moving line that abruptly stalls. The complicated Forbidden Journey ride is known to have its tantrums; this must be one of them. After about 5 minutes, the line starts again. We tour the castle and arrive at the ride without delay. The ride stops when we’re about three-fourths through and the lights come on, revealing a surprisingly mundane view of a room that looks like a second-rate haunted house.

That behind-the-scenes view is brief and the technical difficulty is quickly forgotten as the five of us are hastily escorted to the front of the line for a second ride, this time with no hiccups. Afterwards, eating breakfast at the Three Broomsticks, our conversation ranged from what was the coolest part of the ride to whether did-you-notice-this-or-that?

By mid-afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-90s and the humidity closer to 100%, we’re dragging from the early morning wake-up time and return to our hotel . Some of us take a quick nap, others opt for poolside fun. Without being able to take this break, the rest of the day would have been pretty miserable. When we return to the park in the early evening, Austin stays behind because his allergies are bothering him. The twins want to see the Wizarding World when it’s at its most magical, after sunset, and have one more butter beer.

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Much to my surprise, the line into Ollivander’s wand shop is only about a 20 minute wait, not the usual 90 minutes or 2 hours. Now spoiled by the instant access provided almost everywhere by the Express ride passes, Emily and Andrew are reluctant at such a “long” wait; talk about oblivious to theme park ways. We convince them to stay and a short time later we are crowded into Ollivander’s tiny shop where wand boxes cover the room from almost floor to ceiling.

Then we experience one of Universal’s best live presentations—also the type of shows the Wizarding World desperately needs more of. Mr. Ollivander, who with his beard and magical robes looks nothing like actor John Hurt, explains how “the wand chooses the wizard” and selects a boy of about 7 to demonstrate in a clever way with things going magically wrong with each wand choice except the final one. The twins are spellbound.

Our exit is through the wand shop (surprise!) where we choose our wands. Then we return to Hogsmeade’s main plaza for another round of butter beer. Standing beside a brightly lit window of Honeydukes sweet shop with his wand raised in his right hand and a butter beer in his left and grinning from ear to ear, Andrew suddenly announces: “This is one of the best days of my life!”

Perfect! That, after all, is what this trip was all about. And it delivered.

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Hint: To slash the typical 90-minute ride time at the Forbidden Journey, take the single-rider located on the right just past the Hogwarts locker area. You miss most the castle tour and arrive near the front of the line quite quickly. Although the ride has 4 people to a bench, you’re cut off from everyone once the ride takes flight. This is very much an individual experience; share it with someone else after the ride ends. For more advice on the Wizarding World, see my Orlando Essential Travel Guide iTunes app.

Avatar Theme Land Coming to Disney World


To Be An Eco or Adventure Land?

James Cameron’s Avatar film saga will become a new land added to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom theme park; construction is scheduled to start in 2013. According to the Disney press release, With its emphasis on living in harmony with nature, Animal Kingdom is a natural fit for the AVATAR stories.

Obviously, I need to endure the first Avatar movie a second time to appreciate the harmony with nature as the main message of the first Avatar film. Seemed to me the Terminator series director’s Avatar with its helicopters and warfare was simply a poorly disguised rehash of old Vietnam war movies. Never did get why this was so popular since it was so predictable and the 3-D, well, it doesn’t match Terminator 2: 3-D, which still impresses audiences at nearby Universal Orlando Studios. Saw that classic again for the first time in years this summer and it’s still just as exciting as when it opened 15 years ago, in 1996.

Suspect the Avatar theme land at Disney World certainly will equal and with latest advances technically surpass Terminator 2: 3-D. As with the Terminator films, Cameron plans a trilogy for Avatar on the planet Pandora. Of course, Cameron is the master of disaster films and Pandora isn’t exactly a name that promises tranquility or—thank all movie gods–the likelihood of Ewok teddy bears or other silly creatures appearing in Avatar 3, as in the original Star Wars 3 (now #6).

Cameron says, “I’m chomping at the bit to start work with Disney’s legendary Imagineers to bring our AVATAR universe to life. Our goal is to go beyond current boundaries of technical innovation and experiential storytelling, and give park goers the chance to see hear, and touch the world of AVATAR with an unprecedented sense of reality.”

Other Avatar’s could follow the opening of Disney World’s, depending on its success. It should be exciting and dynamic, but the idea of this theme land being based mostly on living in harmony with nature—don’t believe it.

Is that something you would want to pay to see?

No specific time yet for Avatar’s Disney World opening.

Until next Monday (or later),


This is a weekly info update to the Orlando Essential Travel Guide for buyers of the app and anyone who discovers this site.