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Old 2 Mar 22, 05:50 PM  
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A Holly Jolly Poly Christmas December 2021: Day 1 - Travel Day and Disney Springs

Day 1: Wednesday 22nd December 2021

The alarm was set for 5.45 am but I woke up at 5.30 and couldn’t get back to sleep. I think I was excited and also running over everything we needed to do this morning in my head to check that we had enough time. The plan was for Mat and the girls to go downstairs to The Garden restaurant again for breakfast at 6.15 while I showered and repacked everything I could. They would finish getting ready when they came back up. Breakfast was included with our rate. We absolutely wouldn’t have paid extra for it as we never do with a breakfast buffet because with three of us being vegan we can never get enough value out of it. But if it’s included, the other three will pop along and anything they eat is a bonus. I can’t eat that early in the morning so my plan was to get something once in Departures after we’d got through security.

Mat had toast, boiled mushrooms and tomatoes, Freya had 2 mini pain au chocolat and a mini croissant with Nutella. Seren had toast with raspberry and redcurrant jam. They also had juice and Mat had a coffee which he said was bad. Seren brought me a banana and apple for later which was very sweet of her.

We were ready to leave the room at 7.10 am after a minor drama over how bad the hotel lightning was for doing make-up (this was the teens, not me.) Mat and Seren once again got a head start on us with the luggage. Freya and I got in the lift on our floor (floor two) having pressed ‘down’ (to lobby) but were sent up to floor three to collect a couple who I guess had pressed the button before us. So we were a bit confused about this slight detour. We then in true travel day style saw this same couple at the departure gate and in immigration later in Tampa as always seems to happen. Hello if this was you.

We walked back to the South Terminal and then took the shuttle over to North Terminal. We stopped before we entered the building to take these amazing sunrise pictures.

I also wondered why we were the only people getting off the pretty full shuttle who had luggage big enough to require us to take an elevator up to Departures. Everyone else hopped on the escalator (which has barriers stopping you from taking large luggage on.) Does everyone else go on holiday with just hand luggage and if so what am I doing wrong? We had two large and one smaller case just for a week, but then we did have several boxes of LFTs, a few Christmas presents and let’s be honest, two teenage girls, plus at this time of year we needed warmer clothes and space in the suitcases to pack our coats at Departures. I also thought I was being sensible because none of the cases were full to bursting, so therefore we had more room for souvenirs. But in the end we didn’t bring much back. This was mainly because none of the four Disney World parks had a single 50th Starbucks Been There mug, either the 50th ones or the previous design that came out before those (between our last visit in 2019 and the 50th ones, the ones I have are two designs ago). So from potentially eight new mugs, I came home with zero. I use the Starbucks You Are Here / Been There mugs every day and have over fifty from various places around the world, so they’re kind of my thing and I was planning to use my Christmas money to bring some new ones home. The only ones I saw on the whole trip were the Universal parks one and the Florida one, both of which I have. Can you tell that I was disappointed? I should have made this the first low on the Highs and Lows. Although the bright side of this is that I didn’t have to queue up in Starbucks in each park for 30 minutes to pay for them. Anyway rant over and fingers crossed I don’t come away empty-handed again in August.

As we approached BA check-in, there was a guy in a Santa hat greeting passengers and separating us into the haves and have-nots (in this case VeriFly and non-VeriFly.)

As we had completed VeriFly we went to the next staff member who checked the VeriFly (bit fed up with saying VeriFly at this point) status on our app and looked at our passports. We then joined the VeriFly line for bag drop.

The non-VerFly line:

The VeriFly line was about half the length of the non but there were only two desks open as the staff member at the third had had to go and get assistance for a man on crutches. So it was moving slowly but overall we waited less than 10 minutes. Between the two sets of desks were machines for Bag Drop and when we got to second in line a staff member came down the queue as he’d noticed it was getting a bit backed up and was not moving quickly. The first family in line needed assistance so had to wait for a desk but he took us to the bag drop machine and checked in our cases for us.

Next up security. I’m actually glad we’d flown to Edinburgh in August so the whole airport process didn’t feel as unfamiliar as it would have done if we hadn’t been on a plane for a few years. But all four of us get a bit stressed with Security. We were able to go through Premium Security as Mat is a silver Avios card holder. Two ladies in front of us were told they couldn’t use Premium with their status but they moaned and said some lady had told them they could so the guy let them through. Premium was quiet and not too stressful and thankfully none of us beeped. The only issue was those two ladies slowing things down as they took ages to get their things into the trays and then their trays didn’t appear at the other end so they were holding things up a bit.

With the most stressful part done, we took a breath and headed through Duty Free. None of us could remember the last time we went from the North Terminal but it was most likely before it was re-done so this was all new. We’re not Duty Free people though so we just strolled on through. The main Departures area was not too bad (we were expecting the worst because Gatwick) and there were lots of useful shops like WHSmith, Boots, Starbucks, Pret A Manger and Accessorize. With all the fun and games of travelling right before Christmas and when deliveries were slowed down by staff shortages because of the pandemic, Freya’s new bikini hadn’t arrived as it was supposed to on Monday (it was now Wednesday.) Good old Hermes always delivering my Next parcels a day later than they’re supposed to, although our neighbour had texted to say he’d taken delivery of the parcel on Tuesday afternoon. Avoiding temptation to ask him to drive it down to the airport for us, I put it down to just one of those things as right now trying to buy anything last minute was tricky. Although both of my children announcing about three days before the holiday that not a single one of their bikinis or swimsuits ‘worked’ was perhaps the problem rather than delivery issues.

Anyway, Freya went into SuperDry with Seren to have a look at bikinis while Mat went up to Pret to get a coffee for himself and said he’d bring one back from Starbucks for me. I meanwhile stood outside SuperDry as the bag holder. Freya found a bikini she liked so I went in to have a look and a staff member came over to tell us they had fitting rooms if she wanted to try it on. That sounded like the best plan so off she went to try it on. This for some reason took ages. Once she was done and said it fit, I paid for the bikini and we moved on. The girls went down to Boots to pick out the bits of make up and stuff they’d forgotten. I caught up with them while Mat stayed outside with the bags and my coffee which I had yet to get anywhere near. It was very busy and squashed in Boots (why are airport Boots’ so small with tiny narrow aisles?) Usually we all get some snacks and water for the plane from Boots so I sent the girls to choose what they wanted and I texted Mat to ask if he wanted anything as I couldn’t face coming back in for a second trip and wouldn’t suggest he did either. I got some barbecue Proper Chips for me and water for everyone. I sent Seren outside as it was a bit of a kerfuffle in there and having three of us crowded around one of the tiny self service machines wasn’t going to work. Freya helped me pay as we had inch of space to put everything while we put it through the check-out. It was self service machines in there only, no proper tills and it was not ideal since we were buying quite a few bits and it was so busy.

Once we finally emerged I felt like I needed a lie-down but a few slurps of my rapidly cooling black Americano did the trick. We went upstairs to Pret as everyone wanted more food for now, and I usually take a sandwich on the plane as the gap between the hot meal at the beginning of the flight and the sandwich towards the end always feels like about a month. Unfortunately there weren’t many vegan sandwiches and you know what it’s like in Pret when you can’t even see what they have because it’s three people deep in front of the sandwiches. I think they had three vegan sandwiches in total so I chose the Christmas flatbread (I don’t know why it was called a flatbread as it was a wrap.) Seren got some dried mango and a second smoothie. We decided at this point to go to the Lounge. As a silver Avios member, Mat gets BA lounge entry for himself plus one guest with staff discretion to let the whole family in if it’s quiet. Over the years we’ve sometimes got in as a family and sometimes have not even bothered to try when it’s been busy. In August at Heathrow Terminal 5 when we were flying to Edinburgh, we made the decision to leave the grumpy teens by Starbucks in departures with something to eat and drink and quickly pop into the lounge on our own for a drink which worked out great. We’d had half an hour to relax with a free drink and brought free waters and crisps out for us all for later. So today we planned to do the same again.

Departures selfie:

It was about 8.50 am at this point, and our boarding gate was being announced at 9.20 am. Flying at 10.25 was great in terms of (hopefully) getting to Florida nice and early but it certainly made it an early start and a short departure airport experience (although with that being Gatwick I wasn’t complaining too much. I should probably stop with the Gatwick-bashing. But I can’t until after this next thing.)

We followed the signs for ‘lounges’ but when we got down there we couldn’t find a BA lounge. We assumed it must be in a different place so we walked back to the middle of Departures. We couldn’t see anything signposted and Googling didn’t help so Mat queued at the information desk for 10 minutes to ask while I ate my banana and the girls quizzed me about what we were doing for the next couple of days. There were a good few people at the Information desk with issues and complaints so it seemed to take ages. When Mat was able to speak to a staff member he was told there were no BA staff around but they believed BA customers had use of the No. 1 Lounge. We walked back down there (the same place as our first attempt to find it) and before we could even get to the No. 1 Lounge desk we saw a sign that they weren’t accepting reward card holders and only paid bookings could enter as the lounge was full. BA are only temporarily at North Terminal while the South is closed so they don’t have a lounge. As the airport was so busy now that it was Christmas holidays, I’d expect it’s the busiest they’ve been for a while so it probably wouldn’t usually be an issue but it was a bit disappointing.

Abandoning the lounge plan, we found some seats and I went to use the toilets. When I got back I had a few bites of the Pret vegan chocolate cookie I’d bought at the same time as my sandwich but I could tell it was a day old as it was stale. I didn’t really fancy it anyway as I generally don’t eat sweet things. I had only bought it because I couldn’t find anything else I fancied for breakfast but in the end, the banana Seren had got me had done the job. Mat went to the toilet and then our gate was called at 9.20 as promised. I had sent the girls over to the board to check when it was announced to give them something productive to do. Our gate was 573 which was about a five minute walk. The girls went to the toilet on the way and I picked up a free copy of the New York Times for the plane which I didn’t bother to even look at. I think I couldn’t be doing with opening up a broadsheet in the confines of my little seat in the cabin.

Handy sign:

By about 9.45 it was quite crowded at the gate and they started boarding special assistance. They then called groups one and two together.

We are group two and as there weren’t that many people boarding in groups one and two it only took about five minutes. There was a nice man checking our passports who told us to have a good day and a good Christmas which was lovely.

We were row 29 so just a few rows back in economy which is where we usually book to sit for a quick exit. We always choose the four middle seats. We had all forgotten about Seren’s travel sickness pill which she is supposed to take an hour before flying so we sorted that. There was an announcement once everyone had boarded that there was a technical issue and we would be delayed 10-15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, they announced that we were ready to go but just had to wait for a take-off slot. The safety demonstration was done manually rather than the amusing videos they had before the pandemic. I believe it’s because they have to talk about masks now.

We pushed back at 10.45 am which was 20 minutes after our scheduled departure time so not too bad. The flight time on the entertainment system said 9 hours 30 minutes which was a bit grim and the pilot confirmed this and said it was because of a strong tail wind. As soon as I had sat down, I caught up with notes from the morning and told myself I wouldn’t watch anything until I was all caught up, especially knowing there was more time to fill with it being such a long flight.

We took off at 11 am. When I was done with my notes I scrolled the entertainment system. I had ordered adaptors for Freya and I for our Apple earphones to connect them to the entertainment system a few days before the trip since we couldn't find our old ones. However I had amusingly ordered them with the wrong 'ends' so when we went to plug them in once on the plane, they wouldn't attach to the system. So it was BA free headphones for us. The entertainment selection was pretty bad which wasn’t ideal for a long flight as I tend to just keep watching things to pass the time and don’t stop to do anything else. There were definitely less films than usual which I get to a degree because of there being less films made in the last couple of years, but when we flew in February 2020 or 2019 they’d had a dedicated Valentines’ section with extra classic rom-coms making the selection better. I was expecting them to do the same with Christmas films which would have been great as we’d barely watched any Christmas films so far this year with all the stress and busyness of the build up to the trip. So that was a shame. I picked out about three films I was interested in and a couple of documentaries but knew my picks had to last me the flight home too so I needed to be sparing with them. There also wasn’t even such a good selection of TV comedy box sets as the before times; no Friends or Modern Family for example.

I decided to start with The Broken Hearts Gallery which was pretty good. Drinks were served once I’d got settled into it. I had a gin (Gordon’s) and tonic (Schweppes ) and a water and Freya had a Diet Coke.

Pretty much as soon as we’d finished our drinks they brought our special meals. The vegan meal was sweet potato curry with brown rice. There was a lot more rice than curry which was disappointing as the curry was pretty good. We’d ordered the girls vegan meals even though we knew they wouldn’t eat them as they never eat the meals on the plane and Freya isn’t even vegan. But we thought it would be a good idea so we could have extra since we don’t get any snacks or anything on the plane as there’s nothing vegan, including the pretzels they bring round with the drinks.

The girls could also pick anything off their meal trays they wanted then too. I ate both mine and Freya’s curry and some of the rice. Seren ate everyone’s cucumber. The dessert was fruit and it was a bit sad but I had a couple of grapes and pieces of pineapple but left the melon and apple. We had finished our meals before everyone else got theirs. They were three crew down because of covid so everything was a bit slower. I didn’t get offered wine as the crew passed by us giving out the regular meals, and nor did Mat. However he grabbed someone as they went past to get me a Merlot.

Because of the staff shortages the tea and coffee also took a while to come round but I never have tea or coffee anyway. It took ages until all the food and drinks were cleared away. When I’d finished the movie I watched Reclaiming Amy about Amy Winehouse which I didn’t like as much as the original Amy documentary and then The History of MTV which was better. I shall repeat that the movie and TV selection was not great.

I had my Proper Chips as I was feeling a bit peckish. By now it must have been about four hours into the flight based on what I’d watched. The cabin crew brought round juice and water on a tray and Freya and I both had water. They did this about four times before the end of the flight and each time I had a water. Flying makes me extra thirsty. A message came up on the screens to say to call if we needed anything, keep masks on if sleeping and that the next meal would be 5.30 pm (UK time.)

There was a tall older teenage boy in front of me who reclined right back so I couldn’t cross my legs without his seat pressing into my leg which was annoying. I’m very much a non-recliner but always seem to get sat behind people who do.

The girls watched a few films and played some of the games on the system like Angry Birds and Tetris. Seren won £1m on Who Wants to be a Millionaire with Mat’s help. Unfortunately she didn’t get the prize money.

I caught up on some more notes and then ate my Pret sandwich which was not good. It was basically a wrap with big chunks of butternut squash with small amounts of falafel and lots of spinach.

Next I watched Unpregnant which was good and then In The Heights which I’d seen before and loved. I knew it would be a safe bet for when I was getting fed up of being on the plane. It really felt like a long flight, partly because it was and partly because we were out of practise I guess.

Around an hour and a half before we landed they brought out brown paper bags of tea. Ours was a chickpea and quinoa salad with a citrus dressing which was nice. I’m never very impressed with the tea when it’s a soggy sandwich and often I’ll leave it even if I’m hungry so this was a nice surprise. I ate both mine and Freya’s. I think we kept the snack bars for later in the trip.

When the cabin crew brought round the general bags after our special meals had been delivered, a nice member of crew offered Freya another bag and said ‘Take a bag, it’s got a chocolate in it’ which was sweet of him. She got a treat-sized Crunchie so she was happy with that.

So with the strong headwind we didn’t land until 3.30 pm. Have I said that the flight felt really long? I know we were out of practise but by the end Freya and I were saying it felt like we’d been on the plane forever. Obviously I’m grateful we were even on the plane but my word it felt like an age from getting on to touching down. I know it’s a means to an end but with the recliner in front of me meaning I couldn’t move my legs and with my screen basically in my face, I was very ready to get off and started thinking that we might need to sell kidneys and pay for premium in future (we did go through a brief phase of paying for premium at least on the return journey but lately the upgrade prices have been prohibitive when I’ve booked.)

Anyway, amazingly my film finished just as we were about to land. We had been told to stay seated and get off as we were called which I liked the idea of because I don’t like the bunfight of jumping up to retrieve baggage and get out into the aisle. But equally having been on the plane for over ten hours at this point, everyone was of course very eager to get off. By the time the premium cabin were called to get up, people in our section at the front of economy clearly couldn’t wait any longer and got out of their seats. My recliner friend kindly offered to let Freya and I go ahead of him in the aisle while he and I were both reclaiming our bags from the overhead locker, so maybe recliners are sometimes generous when they’re not being inconsiderate in their seats .

As we disembarked, a nice cabin crew lady said ‘Merry Christmas’ which reminded me again that it was actually Christmas time. Making the walk from the plane up to the immigration hall it seemed a bit surreal seeing the familiar signs and carpets, and looking out of the window at palm trees and what was clearly a Florida sky. As we passed our first airport worker and heard his American voice, it started to sink in that we had finally made it back to the US after 22 months and four cancelled trips.

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Old 2 Mar 22, 05:52 PM  
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Entering the immigration hall, we got in the very short line. As per usual at Tampa, there hadn’t been another arriving international flight so the only people in front of us were those in Club World and World Traveller Plus who would have got off the plane ahead of us. It took less than 10 minutes to get to a desk. They had as many desks open for arriving US citizens as for foreign passengers, but once the non US passengers queue got backed up and the few Americans were getting through, they sent more of us to the desks generally allocated to the US arrivals line.

Having followed Dibbers’ and UK YouTubers’ immigration experiences a bit since the borders reopened, I knew we weren’t about to get quizzed about covid and vaccination status or anything like that as the onus is on the airlines to deal with that and obviously that had all been taken care of already. The guy asked us to ‘Take your masks right off, you weren’t born with masks on’. The only question he had for us was how long we were staying. He asked Seren what her first name was and how old she was. She had to do fingerprints but no one else did so she must have been old enough for the first time.

It’s a couple of steps from the immigration desks to the luggage carousels. Mat went straight over to collect the bags which were already being loaded onto the carousel (take note Gatwick. We had a massive delay on the way home with bags not arriving after we landed. Which is grim when you’ve been on a plane all night.) The girls went straight to the restroom (about ten steps away) while I waited with the hand luggage. When they came out, I went to the restroom and when I returned a couple of minutes later, Mat had all three cases and we were ready to move on. All of the luggage had arrived quicker than the girls and I had managed to go to the toilet. This efficiency is why our preference is to travel via Tampa airport.

Things slowed down a little at this point as we had to take a monorail shuttle and then another monorail shuttle to the Rental Car Center. Pretty poinsettia tree:

But still everything ran smoothly and we only waited a moment for each shuttle. Plus with the airport being pretty quiet, it felt nice and calm. A guy on the shuttle was switching his sneakers to sliders which served as another nice reminder we were in Florida.

We had done Avis online check-in and have Avis Preferred but we weren’t sure whether we could just go down to the garage so Mat went to the desks to check. The girls and I wanted to get changed as we were heading straight to Disney Springs from the airport, so we took the cases over to the quiet area by the restrooms and elevators. Freya decided not to get changed after all, and I must admit she had the right idea as it was actually much cooler than expected. When I had been checking the weather in the run up to to the holiday, it was saying it would be 18 degrees this evening. However, when we landed the captain told us the temperature was 13 degrees and that it was breezy. I had put dresses and sandals in the top of the suitcases for the three of us girls to change into for Disney Springs. Seren and I got changed and I popped our travel stuff in the suitcases.

Meanwhile Mat hadn’t had to wait to see someone at the Avis desk. The guy was super friendly and smiley. He asked Mat how much luggage he we had as the car options were a Subaru Forester or some sort of Buick. When he said we had three cases, the guy said we should take the Subaru.

Mat asked the Avis guy about paying for tolls. He said ‘It depends where you’re driving.’ Mat replied ‘Orlando’. Smiley guy was extra smiley and said ‘Oh you definitely need tolls then.’ Mat said that the last time we had hired, they had charged the tolls as and when we went through them to our credit card and asked if that is what would happen this time. He said yes. Unfortunately that was not the case and he had added on an included daily toll package of $11.99 capped out at $59.95 for the week which ended up being charged as $72 for our seven days. Mat had noticed the extra charge on the rental agreement the following day and emailed Avis to basically say he’d been conned. Avis wouldn’t do anything during the rental and Mat had a back and forth with them via email. They apologised and said they’d spoken to the office responsible including the guy who charged us. They agreed to refund but couldn’t do it until after we’d handed the car back. In fact we finally got the money back a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t know about any of this until after the refund as Mat hadn’t wanted to stress me out about it. Funnily enough we didn’t go through a single toll on our travels. We’d had a previous issue with Avis a few years back where we’d been charged an additional $300+ dollars for insurance packages despite our BA booking including full insurance. It took months of complaining to Avis and BA before BA finally sorted it out and we got our refund. Suffice to say, Avis are not my favourite company in the world but doing the BA flydrive packages has always worked out well in terms of cost and only having to pay a deposit at the time of booking so that’s why we continue to end up hiring from Avis. The one time we had a car through a different rental company, the car itself was not in great shape so we always seem to end up back with Avis.

Mat and Freya had headed down to the rental garage while Seren and I were finishing off putting our travel clothes back in the case. Once we were down there we obviously had no clue whereabouts they would be so it took a few minutes to get a response to our text to find out which aisle the car was located in. When we got to the car we could see Mat was struggling a bit to get the luggage in as the car, and the trunk especially, were a bit smaller than we were used to. A guy came over and asked if everything was ok. We said we had been given a compact SUV which was the terminology the guy upstairs had used but as always, I’d booked a Group F which BA define as ‘large.’ When we booked, the suggested vehicle on the page had been a Mazda SUV. I was a bit peed off because I didn’t feel there was a connection between what I thought we’d booked and what we were offered. Whether the shortage of rental cars has made this more of an issue I don’t know, but I’ve just done some Googling and it seems the Avis group F description is a large saloon whereas BA seem to suggest it’s an SUV.

The guy offered us a Nissan Rogue instead which wasn’t quite as nice but had a slightly bigger boot so we went with that. Cue moving all the stuff including the children who were already settling into the back seat of the Subaru.

Eventually we were ready to leave. When the radio came on, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ was playing and it was another reminder that it was actually Christmas. I connected my phone and our family Christmas playlist was loaded up when I went into Spotify, meaning the first song we played was Silver Bells by Michael Bublé. I know I’ve said it several times already but it felt so weird to think it was going to be Christmas in a couple of days because it was warm and we were on holiday. It felt like when we’ve gone to play mini golf at Winter Summerland and the Christmas music has been playing but we knew it wasn’t Christmas as it was the summer. Only this time it actually was Christmas.

I set up the holiday playlist which was a very random mix of Christmas songs, songs that remind us of previous Florida holidays, and favourite current and classic tunes and we set off. Holiday playlist:

We left the Rental Car Center just after 5 pm and Google maps said it would take an hour and a half to get to Disney Springs as there was traffic. Being rush hour it wasn’t really a surprise, and we’ve never done this journey in the minimum expected time as there’s always been traffic. Both I275 and I4 were busy but it was quieter once we got well out of Tampa and before we got into Kissimmee.

The sunset at around 5.40 pm was beautiful.

We were approaching Disney Springs at about about 6.55 pm so nearly two hours after setting off.

As I’ve said many times on the Dibb, we’ve never experienced the ‘just over an hour’ drive between Tampa and Orlando that some Dibbers seem to quote. It always seems to be really busy when we make the drive. Usually we are going to Universal which is obviously further, but today we thought we’d benefit from only going as far as Disney initially, but alas the rush hour traffic in Tampa and then the general holiday traffic heading to Orlando meant that wasn’t the case.

We headed for the Orange Garage, our preferred car park of choice at Disney Springs. It was busy but there were still spaces (we would find this not to be the case on Christmas Day evening.) We parked up and because it was colder than anticipated, Seren and I had decided to get changed back into our jeans rather than freeze in dresses and sandals. So we faffed about a bit getting the stuff back out of the suitcases and then squeezing into our jeans in the car.

I think it was this evening that security was set up near the escalators which was new to us. Disney had a handful of security CMs stationed on the walkway in the car park before you reach the escalators down to ground level, and everyone had to pass through the electronic security arches. We assumed this was because with it being so busy, using undercover and roaming security staff was perhaps likely less effective with a lot more guests. We made two more trips to Disney Springs on this holiday, and I think one time we had this enhanced security again and the other we didn’t, which I think was when we arrived in the day. It definitely wasn’t set up as a permanent security check.

It felt so good heading down the escalator into Disney Springs although it was definitely colder than I’d anticipated. As soon as we saw the familiar sights such as the Coca Cola store to our right and the AMC theatre up on our left, it almost felt like no time had passed despite it being 22 months since we’d last been here. We saw some of the Christmas trees that were part of the Christmas Tree Stroll. It was lovely to be back but equally, we were very tired and also on a bit of a time-pressured mission so it wasn’t quite the perfect moment I’d pictured in my head. But there would be more opportunities for those as the week went on.

We had a reservation at House of Blues at 7.30 pm but decided to head straight there for a refuel as we didn’t really have time to walk up to Marketplace to any of the shops we wanted to go in before our reservation, especially with how busy it was. We figured we could go to the store we needed after dinner and still wouldn’t be too late leaving, especially if we were seated for dinner a bit earlier than planned.

Check in for House of Blues was at a new temporary desk set up outside on the porch rather than inside the restaurant as it has always been on previous visits. We were told we’d get a text when our table was ready which was also new here as on our previous visits it’s been a pager alert without a US mobile number.

We moved to a space on the porch to wait and I got my text within a couple of minutes despite it still being about 15 minutes before our reservation time. We were taken to our table which unfortunately was in the side room to the left rather than the main dining room with the bar. We’ve also been seated in a third dining area here which really didn’t have any atmosphere. Mat and I came to House of Blues I think three times on our honeymoon in 2001 and we’ve been back at least four or five times with the girls. The only time we remember being sat in the room we were in today was on our honeymoon trip so it was nice to reminisce.

There were only two or three other parties sat in the room and it seemed that all of the central tables had been removed, I assume for distancing purposes, so there were only tables down both walls. We were seated right behind one of the few other occupied tables but within half an hour or so of us sitting down, pretty much all of the tables had people sitting at them. It felt very different to being at home at the time though. Obviously we wore masks to our table but this was the time at home when there was a real panic about Omicron and people were cancelling Christmas parties and restaurant meals which was a big contrast to here where everything seemed so much more relaxed. It felt great to be able to relax and forget about covid, almost like the before times.

Our server was Erika and she was lovely. She complimented my Disney nails and was very friendly. There was definitely a reduced menu which I don’t have a picture of (blame the tiredness), I think all of the dishes were listed on one page if I recall correctly. We knew they had what we had come here for though; the Impossible burgers which are definitely the best vegan burgers at Disney. Most Disney World restaurants have Beyond burgers rather than Impossible, and while Beyond burgers are really good, Impossible ones are better. Plus we can now get Beyond burgers in Tesco whereas Impossible are not yet available in the UK. Mat and I had double burgers (you can add a second patty for an extra $5 and we have to get our Impossible fix when we can) and had them as they come with lettuce, vegan cheese, secret sauce and dill pickle chips. The girls had single patties and had their burgers plain so they could just have ketchup on them. The burgers are served with fries.

To drink I had a Havana Twist Mojito (Havana Club 3-year blanco rum, simple syrup, mint, raspberry, blackberry, lime) which was really good, Mat had a sweet iced tea, Seren had apple juice and Freya had a Coke (apparently because she didn’t know what Diet Coke is called in the US so ordered a Coke which she then didn’t drink as she prefers Diet.) My cocktail:

The burgers were as good as we remembered and Mat, Seren and I really enjoyed them although I couldn’t finish mine.

Freya only had a bite or two of hers which was frustrating as before ordering we’d had a conversation with her along the lines of ‘Are you sure you want a burger and not just fries?’ ‘Yes’, ‘Are you sure you’ll eat it?’ ‘Yes.’ She is a fussy eater and has some issues around food which often means she doesn’t eat very much when we’re out which means we end up paying for wasted food.

When Erika came back and saw she had barely touched her burger, she asked if there was anything wrong with it and we assured her there wasn’t. She asked if we wanted it boxed up and we politely declined. She then said she was going to take it off the check because Freya hadn’t eaten it. That was so lovely of her to do and we really appreciated it, making sure to tip her on what would have been the full cost of four meals rather than three. The total with tax was $91.66 plus tip which was definitely our cheapest table service meal of the trip, partly because we only had entrees and one drink each, and obviously partly because we only paid for three meals.

We were all done by 8.30 pm and visited the quirky restrooms on the way out as that has to be done. Seren finds them a bit freaky but I love them. I also took a couple of photos of the Christmas decorations in the restaurant, but photographs tonight were definitely kept to a minimum as we were so tired and pretty cold.

The reason for our trip to Disney Springs tonight was to purchase Magic Bands to link to our tickets before we came back to Disney for our first park on Christmas Day. We have a few old Magic Bands at home but I’d read that the battery only lasts a couple of years and didn’t want to find they didn’t work after all when we got to the parks. We would much rather use bands than card tickets or phones for ride access using Genie+ etc plus we would use the same bands for our next trip in August so it felt like a worthwhile purchase.

We walked all the way round to Marketplace and the walkways were so busy.

A couple of minutes after we started walking we realised Seren had left her glasses at the restaurant so Mat went back to get them and said he would catch up with us. We went to Co-op Marketplace first as we’d bought create-your-own D-Tech MagicBands there before but they didn’t seem to have any Magic Bands in there this time and we didn’t want the premium create-your-own ones this time anyway. So instead we went over to the pin store where they had bands but a smaller selection than previous trips. I guess they have less now because standard Magic Bands are on their way out. They had about 15-20 designs to choose from including a handful of plain coloured ones. Mat wasn’t back from House of Blues at this point but I had a feeling he would choose the plain navy so I picked that up for him. He arrived at the store by the time we went to check out and confirmed that he liked the navy one. I went with plain mint green. Seren chose a turquoise Stitch design (Stitch is her favourite character) and Freya chose a red one with Pride stripes and Mickey heads. The character ones were $29.99 and the plain ones were $19.99 hence why I didn’t choose a character one for myself and neither did Mat. They also had some special ones that were $39.99.

We paid for the Magic Bands and I tried not to be a little taken aback at how that was a very quick way to be parted from over $100. We were definitely in Disney now. We started walking back towards West Side and I wanted to pop into World of Disney as I wanted some Christmas Minnie ears and one of those light up string of Christmas lights necklaces. World of Disney was very busy and there was a CM or two just inside the door policing masks. An unmasked group in front of us were moved to the side and handed some disposable masks to go further into the store. I remember thinking how good it was that Disney were being hot on masks given the fact that Omicron was very much on the rise and had increased transmissibility. Thinking that became a bit ironic because I’m pretty sure Disney Springs is where I actually caught Omicron. It was inside the entrance to Co-op Marketplace where a maskless young guy sneezed on me (I was masked as required by Disney.) The reason I think it was this incident was because we only really came into contact with unmasked guests three times on the trip, which was pretty indicative of how well people followed the mask rules considering the thousands of people we were among every day (incidentally the mask rules would change from Christmas Eve to be more strict). The other times we came into contact with unmasked guests were outdoors and none of them sneezed, coughed or even talked when in direct contact with me whereas this guy literally sneezed right in my face. I was taken aback enough to turn around to Mat and the girls and say ‘Some guy just sneezed on me.’ Anyway, luckily this was later on in the trip and I didn’t test positive until the day 2 PCR but for now I was impressed with guest compliance and Disney enforcement of the mask rules.

World of Disney was very busy and there were lots of signs around for mobile check out using MDE. Some of the merchandise we looked at didn’t have any prices so we tried scanning the mobile check out QR code on one of the signs to see if we could find out the prices, but we couldn’t get it to work which I think was due to not having a US address or mobile number if I remember rightly.

They only had one set of Christmas Minnie ears which looked like cookies. They also had some LoungeFly ones but I didn’t like either. I’d seen a couple of cute pairs in YouTube videos but since I spent all week looking for them, I can only assume they’d sold out pretty quickly and no further stock had been received. I did read a few weeks ago on WDWMagic that Disney had been struggling with merchandise shortage / delays because of the shipping crisis and that their Halloween merchandise was arriving way after Halloween so perhaps they’re now receiving all those Christmas ears (and my Starbucks mugs) now. They also didn’t have any of the multicoloured lights up Christmas lights necklaces and again I looked out for them all week. The only ones they had were just red, green and white and I didn’t want those. Annoyingly I’m pretty sure they had coloured ones at Universal but I didn’t buy them there and thought I would wait until we got back to Disney.

We decided to call it a night as it must have been nearing 9.30 pm by now so we’d (well I had at least) been up around 21 hours by this point. We headed back to Orange Garage and set off for Hard Rock Hotel.

Today’s notes run out before dinner and I can’t remember very much about arriving at the hotel. I think by this point we were all a bit like zombies. I do kind of recall discussing how busy the parks were with the staff member who checked me in, and confirming with her that both parks were open for early park admission for the two days we were there rather than the usual one park only. Oh, also, there were external refurbishment works going on at the hotel and she had to advise me that our window may have a film over it because of the external painting which would affect our view. They had to explain this to all guests as they couldn’t know whether our assigned room would be affected. Luckily ours was not.

I have posted a bit in the Accommodation forum about the Hard Rock since we’ve been back. We stayed there every year for five years beginning in 2017 and it was our favourite of the Premier hotels which offer included Unlimited Express Pass. We love the theming, atmosphere and location. During our first three stays, every staff member we talked to was super friendly, helpful and professional.

However in the past couple of trips we’ve had problems with dirty rooms which we also think need a refurbishment as we’ve experienced quite a lot of wear and tear in terms of stained carpets and marked walls. These are not budget rooms and although the Express Passes make the cost much more worthwhile, for over $500 per night I want a clean room that’s not well-worn. We also felt the service had gone downhill a bit in our last few trips as we experienced a few staff members who weren’t very helpful or friendly. In 2020 we stayed Club Level for the first time and our room was in better shape so it kind of restored our faith a bit, plus Club Level staff were excellent. We don’t like the rooms or the theming at Royal Pacific, and had a bad experience at Portofino Bay in 2015 so had decided to stick with Hard Rock for this trip. Plus you can’t really argue with the location, it wins hands down on being so close to Universal Studios (our preferred Universal park until this trip) and CityWalk.

Anyway, once we were all checked in we headed up to our room which was on the 4th floor who I think is the 1980s floor as we had Michael Jackson and Madonna costumes in the corridors. Someone crashed my room photo as she was desperate to start charging her phone:

The room again wasn’t as clean as I’d hoped which given Covid enhanced cleaning measures was annoying. At least one of the surfaces had water marks on like it hadn’t been wiped since a drink had been put down there, and the carpet had some crumbs and bits that hadn’t been hoovered up. I have a bit of a phobia of dirty hotel rooms, I can’t relax if it’s not 100% clean and I know most people probably wouldn’t notice but Mat did comment that it was a bit dirty too. There were also a few big stains on the carpet and lots of marks on the walls. This was the case in the corridors as well. As I said, besides stepping up the housekeeping, it feels like the rooms are in need of renovation. I think they were last completed in 2016 and I think for the price you’re paying here, having freshly painted walls and new carpets every five years isn’t unreasonable. I still love the hotel and when it’s refurbished we’ll go back to making this our Universal hotel of choice, but for our next trip this August, I’ve booked Portofino Bay where the rooms have been more recently updated, and will hope we have a better experience there this time than last. I am sad not to be returning to Hard Rock next trip though and can’t wait to go back when the rooms are new again.

Anyway, even though it was late I wanted to unpack so it didn’t impact on us getting to the parks early tomorrow. I like to make sure everyone has their outfit for the next day chosen and laid out to help us get out as soon as possible in the mornings. Now the girls are teenagers who struggle to get up in the mornings plus take ages to get ready with make-up and everything, plus having one bathroom between us all, anything I can do to speed things up a bit I’m going to do.

Once the girls were ready for bed they went to sleep while Mat helped me unpack for a bit. We often get drinks from the Velvet Bar downstairs and bring them up to the room when we stay here, especially if we’ve driven somewhere for the evening and therefore Mat hasn’t yet had a drink. I suggested he go and get a drink as he really likes the bar and the cocktails here. He offered to get me one too and I wasn’t bothered either way but said I’d have a gin and tonic if they had a nice gin. He brought back an Old Fashioned for him and a double Aviation gin and tonic for me. My drink was in a plastic cup which it isn’t usually which was a bit meh. I didn’t realise until later how much the drinks were or I would have 100% said I didn’t want one. Because Mat had asked for a double for me it ended up being more than a double double in UK measures (US standard measure is 2 oz so 60 ml whereas our double is 50 ml.) He didn’t realise that he shouldn’t have asked for a double until he went back the next night and saw how much that actually was. So my double double was $28 and his Old Fashioned was $16 meaning we could have had a decent quick service meal for the four of us for the $56 these drinks cost us including tip. Whoops.

He paid for the drinks at 10.45 pm so I guess it was probably near midnight by the time we’d finished the drinks and were completely unpacked and ready for bed. So I’d been up for pretty much 24 hours by the time I fell into bed but I was so grateful we were back in Florida, I didn’t mind at all.

This was the instagram post I did once I got into bed. Kind of a very short version of today's report but I'm including it because I think it gives a good idea of how I was feeling at that point.

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Old 2 Mar 22, 08:39 PM  
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Your comments in this really made me laugh Jo, especially about the girls and their teenage ways (the bikini one is exactly something I would even do now and expect it to be here on time). I love how chill you are about things, I hope I’m the same when my two are older.

I’m totally the same at the airport and can’t relax till I’m airside. What a shame you didn’t get the options you wanted all round. The flight does sound loooooong as well.

Flying into Tampa sounds like a dream (Avis issues aside). You guys are so impressive with a Disney springs visit and sit down meal on your first evening after a two hour drive.

Sorry to hear your Hard Rock room wasn’t up to scratch. It does seem like covid has been used as an excuse for certain things and it’s getting to the stage where there’s just not enough care/money being pumped in.

Note to self to make sure I try the impossible burger when state side…

Can’t wait for the next day xx
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Old 3 Mar 22, 11:08 AM  
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That was a long day and well done for heading to Disney Springs!

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Old 5 Mar 22, 02:14 PM  
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Wow you are hardcore going to Disney Springs for a meal after landing!
Thanks for sharing
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Old 6 Mar 22, 07:24 PM  
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Shame your hard rock room wasn’t in the condition you’d expect. Ours was clean but had workers on scaffolding outside the window 😂
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Old 6 Mar 22, 08:31 PM  
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im loving the very thorough trip report, almost feels like im there!

looking forward to reading the rest!
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Old 22 Apr 22, 12:59 PM  
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Originally Posted by sheluk View Post
Your comments in this really made me laugh Jo, especially about the girls and their teenage ways (the bikini one is exactly something I would even do now and expect it to be here on time). I love how chill you are about things, I hope I’m the same when my two are older.

I’m totally the same at the airport and can’t relax till I’m airside. What a shame you didn’t get the options you wanted all round. The flight does sound loooooong as well.

Flying into Tampa sounds like a dream (Avis issues aside). You guys are so impressive with a Disney springs visit and sit down meal on your first evening after a two hour drive.

Sorry to hear your Hard Rock room wasn’t up to scratch. It does seem like covid has been used as an excuse for certain things and it’s getting to the stage where there’s just not enough care/money being pumped in.

Note to self to make sure I try the impossible burger when state side…

Can’t wait for the next day xx
Thanks Michelle. I think with teenagers you have to pick your battles but believe me I'm not always chill!

It was definitely a looong flight and yes, glad Tampa worked out well again.

I think besides the wanting to get the Magic Bands before we came back to Disney for the parks, we also pushed ourselves to do the sit down meal at Springs that night because we only had a week and wanted to just do as much as we could after being away for so long .

Agree on the covid excuses a lot of companies seem to be using now, frustrating to say the least... it's not like we're paying less for hotel rooms now.

Absolutely recommend Impossible burgers, hope you enjoy . Thanks as always for reading and commenting xx

Originally Posted by mick View Post
That was a long day and well done for heading to Disney Springs!

Thank you Joan . A very long day indeed! Thanks for reading and commenting.

Originally Posted by flo-tinka View Post
Wow you are hardcore going to Disney Springs for a meal after landing!
Thanks for sharing
Thank you, we're not usually that hardcore but glad we went for it. Thanks for reading and commenting .

Originally Posted by Rescuer View Post
Shame your hard rock room wasn’t in the condition you’d expect. Ours was clean but had workers on scaffolding outside the window 😂
Oh how lovely for you . Hope you still had a fab trip. Thanks for reading and commenting .

Originally Posted by gemma-lou View Post
im loving the very thorough trip report, almost feels like im there!

looking forward to reading the rest!
I'm definitely thorough Glad you're enjoying and thanks for reading along and commenting .
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Old 23 Apr 22, 08:13 AM  
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Looking forward to reading the rest of your trip. Thanks for sharing.

Gatwick to Tampa sounds like a good option. However flights only to go Heathrow from where I live and we are not fit enough to do the cross city hop.

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Old 23 Apr 22, 10:06 AM  
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An epic travel day! Lovely to read one of your trip reports again.

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