Sunday, April 09, 2017

A Weekend in Magical Orlando

The Yacht Club lobby.
Back in the fall, I won a free conference registration at a professional development event. I used that freebie to attend a conference in sunny Orlando, Florida, figuring that I'd talk my little family into coming along for some fun.

No dice. Hubs was on call that weekend back at the ranch, and I couldn't take little man without someone to watch him while I attended the conference sessions and networking events. Undeterred, I decided that *I* would still go down early for the weekend and enjoy myself.

I flew into Orlando around lunchtime and caught a cab to Disney's Yacht Club Resort. I'd never stayed at this property before, so I was interested to check it out. It's so lovely! Built to evoke a New England-style yacht club, the expansive lobby features model boats and a huge, spinning globe so you can chart your adventures. My room was a spacious double with a lovely little balcony. The resort hugs a bay, with a lighthouse pier jutting out into the water. From the pier, you can catch a free boat shuttle to the boardwalk (replete with restaurants and shops), Epcot, or Hollywood Studios. Epcot, the Boardwalk, and the Dolphin and Swan resorts are all clustered around the man-made bay, very close by and easily walkable along the resort's many trails and pathways.
The Boardwalk, lit beautifully at night!

I unpacked my things, freshened up a bit, and headed out in search of lunch.

I found it at Beaches and Cream, a cute little sandwich shop at the resort. It's retro-themed, and in addition to lunch fare, it also serves ice cream. (Lots and lots of ice cream.) I took a seat at the counter and ordered a snappy grilled cheese and tomato soup. The food came out quickly and was delicious, if a little pricey. (You are at a resort, after all.)

Sated, I decided to toss on my swimsuit and check out Stormalong Bay, the resort's pool. I'd heard it was one of the best at Disney World, and I wasn't disappointed! First of all, it's BIG. Several swimming areas are connected, traversed by small bridges and centered around a windmill and a raised, covered patio featuring a pool table. At one end of the pool, a huge pirate ship functions as a water slide. There's also a hot tub, a pool bar, and free lockers for your things. Plenty of chaise lounges and umbrellas dot the area. (And as I discovered later, this isn't even the only pool at the resort. There's another, more standard hotel pool also on property. Not as gee-whiz, but also virtually deserted.)

Drinks at bluezoo!
I swam most of the afternoon and got some sun. I also walked a bit around the resort and took a quick turn on the free boat shuttle, just to orient myself and take in my surroundings a bit. It's a lovely area.

I went back to my room to shower and get ready for dinner. I had reservations at Todd English's bluezoo, a short walk away at the Dolphin resort. A beautiful stroll in the evening air, and I was there. I started off with a delightful sweet cocktail called the bee's knees (made with local honey), then moved on to the grouper, which was served with a rock shrimp risotto and an amazing sauce. I ate up every bite!! Delicious! Plus, the dining room is atmospheric, and the service is wonderful.

After dinner, I decided to walk around the boardwalk. I'd heard that street performers appeared there in the evenings, and I was treated to a quick magic show and a fun juggling act! In addition, views around the bay are lovely in the evenings, as all of the resorts and shops are lit brilliantly.

I'd heard that a bridge on property offered great views of the Epcot fireworks each night, so I headed over there at 9 p.m. Lovely! You can't see the low part of the Epcot show from there, but you can see all of the big fireworks. A great vantage point for a free show! After that, I walked along the "beach" and back to the hotel for lights out.

The next morning, I was up early. I had a ticket to Discovery Cove, and I was excited to get there! I decided to go to Discovery Cove instead of the Disney parks because I hate waiting in line. I happened to be visiting Disney at a really high-crowd time (spring break), and I didn't relish the thought of so many lines and crowds at the park. Discovery Cove, however, caps admission to its park. So it's never more crowded than it ever is (if that makes sense). So, a day of marine wildlife it was!

Discovery Cove is GORGEOUS!
I caught a quick Uber to the park and checked in, getting my badge for the day. From there, it was off for a full (and yummy) breakfast on site: eggs, bacon, potatoes, pastries, french toast. They had it all. You pay to get into the park, and all your gear, lockers, meals, drinks, and snacks are included. They have plenty of towels for guests and even fish-friendly sunscreen! It's nice not having to think about any of that! After breakfast, I got the lay of the land. The great thing about Discovery Cove is that it's plenty big, with plenty to do, but it's easily do-able in one day. After getting my bearings, I suited up in my free wetsuit for my first activity - a swim with the dolphins!

My group of 9 or so folks followed our trainer out into one of the dolphin pools, where we met LaToya, our dolphin for the morning. For the next hour or so, we learned about dolphins, stroked LaToya's smooth, soft skin, and watched her show off. She splashed, waved, and talked to us. She also did some jumps and other tricks. At the end, we each got to swim with her for a short distance and have our photos made with her! It was so fun! Discovery Cove has about 55 dolphins on site, and they rotate them out for guest interactions so the dolphins have plenty of time to rest and relax. When you buy your ticket to Discovery Cove, you can either include or exclude the dolphin experience. I highly recommend including it! I had such fun!

This is my sweet dolphin, LaToya!
After the dolphin swim, I checked out my free snorkel gear and headed for the Great Reef, where you get to snorkel with oodles of fish and non-harmful rays. When I first got there, there was almost no one in the water. It was amazing to swim through the "reef" alone, with fish all around you and rays gliding silently by. The reef is big enough that even later in the day, when it got more crowded, you could find pockets of solitude within it. Really, really cool.

After enjoying the reef, I headed over to the bird aviary. There are a few of them, and there are plenty of Discovery Cove employees around who can give you food to feed the birds. Birds would perch on your hand or your shoulder to eat! So fun! And there were so many to see!

Then, I explored the freshwater oasis, where you can see otters and marmosets. The otters weren't very active while I was there, but I got up close and personal with the marmosets, who were all hanging out in full view. I also stumbled on the oasis bar around this time, opting to try a mango cocktail to wet my whistle.

I wasn't yet really hungry for lunch, so I checked out Serenity Bay (a "beach" pool, with sand and a waterfall) and the Windaway River. (It's kind of like a lazy river, but HUGE, and with really deep parts. You use pool noodles to float through it. You can also snorkel through it.) I really loved Windaway River. It's gorgeous, and it wends through the aviary. I saw huge peacocks resting in the trees, their tail feathers dripping down like a cascade of jewels.

By this time, I was hungry! You can choose from a wide variety of food, with both traditional fast food and much healthier options available. (It's also all-you-can-eat!) I had beef tips with veggies and rice, then a piece of cheesecake. Yum!

After lunch, I hit the reef, the oasis, the bay, and the river all again. I also explored the resort more on foot, swung in a hammock, and got some sun in a chaise lounge before deciding to call it a day at around 4:30 p.m.

A quick Uber ride later, I was back at the Yacht Club, freshening up for dinner. I was meeting up with a fellow conference attendee for dinner at the Yachtsman Steakhouse. Katie and I met in the waiting area for the restaurant, were quickly seated, and then enjoyed steaks and pinot while we got to know each other and discussed our work and life. The steak was rare, the pinot was dry, and the company was great!

More to come . . .



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