With neither of us having any experience at driving something which seemed pretty huge to us (but seems a pretty standard car size in the US!), we were a bit wary at first but were soon cruising along the freeway towards our final destination of the day, Savannah, Georgia.
As with our previous US road trip, we had tried to plan regular stops along the way on each drive day at road side attractions and sites of interest. Today’s first stop was in the Floridian town of Christmas which, as well as having a Christmas tree on display all year round, is also home to Swampy, the World’s Largest Alligator (sculpture!). The huge sculpture sits outside the Jungle Adventures Animal Park and while we didn’t visit the park itself, it was fun to pose alongside – and in the mouth of – the sculpture!
Already running late on our rough schedule after delays picking up our hire car and our first stop, we soon hot roadworks causing us to divert. Finding ourselves in St Augustine, we stopped to grab lunch and supplies at a Walmart then followed signposts to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, deciding it might be a good place to sit and eat lunch at.
If we’d had more time, it would have been fun to pay the entrance fee and actually see the fountain but after eating and stretching our legs, it was time to get back on the road again and cross the border into the state of Georgia.
We had booked a dolphin-watching sunset boat trip out of Tybee Island, on the outskirts of Savannah for that evening thinking we’d have plenty of time to make it but as we were till running late and hit more diversions around roadworks, it was looking less and less likely we would. Not having any access to the internet or being able to ring the company with the cost of calls from our UK phones, we had to make a decision whether to see if could make it or just give up and head straight to our Savannah accommodation. It could have gone either way so we decided to continue to Tybee Island and hope for the best.
Arriving at the departure point right around the time of departure, we quickly found a parking space and ran to the dock only to see the boat pull away and sail down the river without us.
Disappointed but not surprised, we drove into Savannah and checked into the hotel we’d be staying at for the next couple of nights, briefly venturing into the city to grab a snack before returning to our room.
The next morning,we were up early to get out and explore the city. Being early August, it was a hot and humid day as we wandered along the streets and through the pretty squares. We stopped at Chippewa Square, famous for being where the Forrest Gump bench scene was set. The bench he sat on in the film isn’t actually in the Square, it was a prop but the Square itself is very recognisable.
After passing some other Savannah landmarks including the historic Savannah Theatre and the huge Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, we found ourselves in Forsyth Park with its canopy of oak trees leading to its pretty fountain.
Next, deciding we needed to get out the heat and into some aircon, we walked to the Savannah History Museum to learn a bit more about the southern city.
We bought a combo ticket which also gave us access to the Jepson Centre, a contemporary art museum, which we made our next stop, and Owen House, one of the city’s historic homes.
Our tour of the large house was really interesting and our guide even gave us some recommendations for our upcoming stay in Charleston, SC.
Following our tour of the historic home, we walked down to the waterfront, strolling along the banks of the Savannah River and visiting some of the shops there.
We then walked through the busy City Market area with its many shops and restaurants before returning to our hotel to once again cool off in some air-con!
That evening, we returned to the waterfront, visiting one of the River Street restaurant bars for dinner.
While the heat had taken some getting used to, Savannah had been a really beautiful city to spend a day exploring! We’d be briefly leaving he state of Georgia the next day to visit Charleston in South Carolina but we were looking forward to returning later in our trip to spend some time in and around the city of Atlanta.
I am a huge Disney fan, always have been after growing up on a diet of pretty much nothing but classic Disney animations but as a child, Walt Disney World was always somewhere unaffordable and out of reach. We had won a family weekend to Disneyland Paris in the late ’90s and I’d loved every second of it but the huge Florida attraction with its multiple parks was always the dream and now, finally, in my late 30s, I was finally getting to visit!
Along with a couple of friends, I had an epic road trip along America’s East Coast planned. Starting in Miami, over almost 5 weeks we would be working our way up to the state of Maine before looping our way round to our final destination of Boston, MA and as we’d be passing Orlando on the way, it seemed the perfect excuse to finally visit Walt Disney World. While many UK visitors often spend 2-3 weeks at Disney World taking their time to get the most out of the experience, we planned to spend just 6 nights there working out that it would give us enough time to visit all of the parks providing we planned carefully and made good use of all our time.
One of my travel buddies had been on numerous visits to the park before and therefore knew the sites well and all the tricks to make the most out of our visit so we were more than happy to let her arrange an itinerary for us. We booked 6 nights on site at one of Disney’s ‘budget’ hotels, Art of Animation Resort, and got memory makers and fast passes included. A few weeks before arriving, we were able to use the park’s website to pre-book fast passes for some of the rides so it was important to plan out which park we’d be in on which day in advance rather than just decide once we were there.
Unfortunately, with it being the height of the summer season at the parks, there were no offers on Disney dining to take advantage on and we knew that food was going to be one of the main expenses of our stay.
After spending the first couple of nights of our trip in Miami, we had hired a car for the day to drive to Orlando airport. Once there, we dropped the car off and caught our pre-booked Disney ‘Magic Express’ bus to our resort. Just as we arrived, an afternoon thunder storm hit as is often the case in the summer there. It seemed to be easing off so we decided to start making our way from the check-in counter to our room in the Little Mermaid themed block. It turned out it was quite a walk and half way there, the rain suddenly got harder – much harder. Out in the open in the torrential rain with nowhere to shelter, we just had to keep going as quick as we could, our luggage getting heavier and heavier as it soaked up the water!
We finally made it to our block looking like 3 drowned rats and had to spend the next hour wringing out our clothes and finding places to try and hang up the clothes on top of our cases which were soaked through!
Our room was basically the same as what you’d expect at a budget chain such as Econo Lodge, Days Inn or a Super 8 but at a hiked up price because of the Disney decor. It was fine for what we needed – we’d be spending minimal time in there – and I especially like the ‘magic mirror’ on the wall which made me look considerable lighter than I was!!
Within an hour, the rain finally stopped and with it still being late afternoon, we decided to stick to our proposed itinerary and head into one of the parks. The hotel offered free transfers into all the parks on regular bus services leaving from just outside the reception area so, after first popping to the hotel gift store to buy Disney ponchos, we caught the bus to the Hollywood Studios Park.
Arriving in time to use our fast passes we had booked for a few of the rides, we spent the rest of the evening in the park, grabbing a burger meal from one of the many food outlets for dinner. I really loved the park’s thrill rides, Rock n Roll Coaster and the Hollywood Towers and, even though I was rubbish at it, the shoot out ride Toy Story Mania!
All of the parks have a show running at the end of the night but, tired from a busy day, we decided to save Hollywood Studio’s Fantasmic show for another day we had planned at this park and returned to our hotel early instead.
For our first full day at the resort, we had planned to visit EPCOT. We were up early and walked to the hotel’s dining area to get some breakfast before heading into the park. We found that the children’s breakfast deals were available to anyone of any age and were more than enough for what we wanted including pancakes, fruit and a drink so ordering these kept the cost of breakfast down a bit. Then we queued for the EPCOT bound bus, arriving just before the gates to the park opened. The queues into the park were well organised and it didn’t take long to clear security and the entrance gates.
After taking the obligatory photos with the famous huge golf-ball-esque structure at the park’s entrance, we spent the first half of the day in the area just beyond that using our fast passes to ride the excellent Soarin’ ride and queueing for some of the other attractions and shows on offer. We split up and used the solo rider to queue to save time and ride Test Track then went for lunch at the Garden Grill Cafe, again eating off the children’s menu to save a bit of money.
In the afternoon, we started to walk around the park’s lake to visit all the various areas themed on different countries, fitting in a meet and greet with Frozen’s Elsa and Anna in ‘Norway’ after riding Frozen Ever After.
At the end of the day, we found a spot to watch the IllumiNations fireworks show over the lake before catching the bus back to our resort.
After an exhausting first full day at Disney, we were up early again the next day, once again grabbing a children’s breakfast from the hotel diner before queuing for a transfer bus. This morning’s destination was one of the 2 waterparks on site, Typhoon Lagoon. We planned to spend the morning here, returning to the hotel briefly to freshen up and change before spending the afternoon and evening in the Magic Kingdom.
The waterpark was pretty busy meaning we didn’t get on a lot of water slides in the short time we were there but we still had lots of fun in the wave pool and riding the lazy river. We sat poolside at one of the bars eating a delicious Disney pizza for lunch before catching the bus back to the hotel.
That afternoon, the rain started to pour just as we arrived at the Magic Kingdom. We huddled under the bus shelters until the worst of it passed over then, ponchos on, made our way past security and through the gates onto Main Street.
Despite the dreary weather, I was still so excited to get my first glimpse of the Disney Castle!!
Our first fast pass for the afternoon was for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train but we arrived to find it had closed due to the weather. This at least meant our fast passes were now open to join the queue at any time that day once the ride reopened. Over the course of the afternoon we managed to get through a few of the park’s shows and rides, including it’s 3 mountains – Splash, Space and Big Thunder – and that evening stayed to watch the incredible light and firework show over the castle.
The next day we were off to Animal Kingdom again making use of the fast pass system to ride some of the more popular attractions and then using the interactive map on the Disney app to see what queue times were for everything else.
This park quickly became one of my favourites. I loved the theming, enjoyed the shows including Finding Nemo and the Lion King and rides like Dinosaur, Expedition Everest and the Kali River Rapids and the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction was amazing!
We spent the entire day in the park from when it opened til closing, attending the spectacular River of Light show at the end of the evening, a show specially designed not to include any fireworks so as not to upset the park’s many animals.
The following day, we returned to the Hollywood Studios park, this time planning to spend the entire day there. As well as getting to ride some of our favourites like the Tower of Terror over and over again, it also gave us the opportunity to ride some of the rides we’d not had time to go on the other evening including the Slinky Dog Coaster in Toy Story Land, a ride so popular it was one of the few we couldn’t fast pass and the only ride across all the parks we had to queue over an hour for.
We also enjoyed attending some of the park’s Disney movie-based shows like the Little Mermaid show, the Frozen singalong and Beauty and the Beast.
We hadn’t met many of the Disney characters at this point but Hollywood Studios provides plenty of opportunities for this so we got photos with Pluto, Minnie and, of course, Mickey Mouse.
At the end of the day, we watched Fantasmic, Hollywood Studio’s large scale end of the day show starring a whole host of Disney favourites.
Our final day at Disney World just had to be spent back in the Magic Kingdom! As the sun was shining, we took some time to retake our photos in front of the Disney Castle then spent the rest of the day riding anything we hadn’t already been on, returning to a few of our favourites and watching some of the shows.
Highlight of the day was the afternoon character parade. Despite it being so hot and humid I thought I might pass out at one point, it was great fun to wave at the Disney characters as they rode floats or marched along the street. We also got to meet some of our favourite Disney Princesses in the Princess Pavilion and The Little Mermaid’s Grotto.
With lots of packing to do back at our hotel and an early start ahead of us, we left the Magic Kingdom behind before the firework show began, the It’s a Small World song stuck in our heads as we made our way back to our room.
The next morning we’d be picking up our hire car and driving north to the state of Georgia. I had really enjoyed my stay at Disney and it had definitely been worth the wait. Trying to fit it all into less than a week’s stay was exhausting and we hadn’t wasted a minute. While it was definitely doable, especially with the use of fast passes to maximise our time, I would definitely like to plan for longer and take my time a bit more if I ever return. And I really hope I do get to return one day!!
Starting our East coast road trip with one day in Miami
After spending months planning another adventure driving through the USA, it was finally time to set off. We’d be catching a morning flight from Heathrow that would have us in Miami mid-afternoon. Once through passport control at Miami airport, we followed signs to the station to catch a bus into the city. We’d researched which number bus to catch and which stop to get off at for our South Beach motel and as the stops flashed up on the screens inside the bus, it was a pretty straightforward – and cheap – way to get to our destination.
Once checked in, we went out for a walk. Our motel was conveniently located across the road from the famous South Beach so after heading north along Washington Avenue finding somewhere to grab a snack and popping into the few souvenir stores we passed along the way, we walked east along Lincoln Road Mall, a shopping and entertainment district and looped around to South Beach following the path that runs behind the beach south, parallel to Ocean Drive with all its art deco buildings.
The sun was setting by the time we reached our motel so being jet-lagged from travelling, we called it a night making sure we got plenty of sleep for the busy day we had planned for the next day.
Having just one full day in the city, we had decided to take a combo tour which would include a visit to the Everglades, a city tour and a sightseeing cruise on Biscayne Bay. From the reading on the booking site, we were expecting this to be one long day tour run by a single company where we’d be with the same group all day but we soon realised this was not the case but instead, 3 different tours run by 3 different companies tenuously linked together in a rather disorganised way!
After checking in for the tour at a Lincoln Road Mall tourist information centre, we were told we had some time to kill before our scheduled departure so we walked along to South Beach to get some photos with its colourful beach huts. Then, back at the tour company office, we were eventually shepherded onto a double decker bus to be ferried out to the Everglades.
After being dropped at the head quarters for boat trips in the Everglades, we were given a number depending on the type of boat trip we had opted to take.
Having taken a private airboat trip along the Platte River in Nebraska the year before, we had opted to take a standard boat trip this time. Once our number was called, we queued up to board a larger airboat and this took us through the swamps to spot some ‘gators. As we cruised through the Everglades, we made regular stops so our guide could talk to us about what we were seeing.
It was great fun speeding through the swamp land and we managed to spot a few alligators hiding in the lilies and reeds along the way.
After our boat trip, we were given the opportunity to watch a presentation about the alligators and to meet one then we were provided with a sandwich lunch before boarding the bus again to return to Miami.
Once back in Miami, we were expecting to begin our city tour straight away but instead arrived back to chaos as various groups of people all booked onto different combo tours etc were gathered trying to find out where to go. We were eventually told by harassed staff that the buses lining the road were not the ones we needed to catch and that our bus was running late so we used the opportunity to go get cold drinks to cool down from the heat returning just as our bus pulled in.
Our city tour turned out to be similar to a hop on/off tour bus. The bus had a live guide who gave a commentary as we travelled through the city along Ocean Drive, Will Smith’s Miami blaring out, and out towards the downtown financial area. We sat on the outside upper deck of the bus and typically, as we drove towards our first stop in Little Havana, it started to rain heavily. Luckily, it was just a short, sharp shower!
Once in Little Havana, we were lead immediately into a Cigar shop to try and entice some group members into buying something from there. After a quick look at the staff rolling the cigars, we made a swift exit and instead wandered down to ‘Domino Park’ where locals famously sit and play dominoes and chess. The heavens opening again, we found shelter looking around some of the local store then under a shop parapet until it was time to board the bus again.
Leaving our first stop in Little Havana, the rain stopped again but we were instead harassed by an alarming number of low hanging branches on some of the residential roads! It was lucky that there wasn’t really anything to see at this point as we all spent most of the ride ducking down between the bus seats to avoid being smacked by a branch! While we all laughed about it, it wasn’t the safest I’d ever felt on one of these sightseeing tours!
The tour continued towards downtown Miami but we found that there was still very little of interest to see along the way, or at least on the route we were taken.
We were dropped off downtown at the marina a couple of hours before our Biscayne Bay Cruise was ready to leave by Bayside, a large shopping and entertainment mall by the marina, so we spent some time looking around and having dinner at pizzeria there until it was time to board.
While we had enjoyed visiting the Everglades, the organisation once we returned to Miami and the city tour being a bit of a disappointment had put a slight dampener on our day but I was looking forward to our cruise and it didn’t disappoint. The views were beautiful, especially once the weather started to clear and the dark clouds dispelled and I enjoyed the commentary as we sailed pointing out some of the celebrity homes we passed as well as Miami landmarks.
By the time the cruise finished, we were exhausted by what had been a long and busy day. We once again boarded the city tour bus and were dropped back by Lincoln Road Mall from where we once again walked the short distance along Ocean Drive back to our motel.
Trying to see Miami in what was effectively one day was probably not the best idea in hindsight and I would have liked to have been able to take more really exploring the different districts and just to have spent more time around South Beach enjoying the atmosphere and relaxing. But the next day, we had to be up early to get to the airport and pick up our one-day hire car to drive to Orlando for a few days of Disney fun. I really hope I get to return to Miami sometime in the future and give it the time I feel it deserves.