For our honeymoon in 2000, my wife and I went on a 7-night Caribbean cruise on the Disney Magic cruise ship. In 2007, my extended family (including my wife, son, and my parents and sister) took a 4-night Bahamas cruise on the Disney Wonder. Both trips were great fun and made us into big fans of the Disney Cruise Line.
When Disney announced that the Disney Dream, the first of two new, larger and more advanced ships, would debut in 2011, we booked another 4-night cruise as soon as they became available. While the maiden voyage was in late January, my son’s school schedule meant that the April 17th sail date, during his spring break, was our first opportunity. I was able to book a family stateroom with verandah on deck 7, using points from our Disney Vacation Club timeshare to cover the cost. The itinerary was the same as our 2007 cruise, with stops at Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, plus one day at sea. The extended family was unfortunately unable to join us this time, so it was just my wife, 7-year-old son and me.
Due to the travel time (plus the 3-hour time change) from our home in Southern California to Port Canaveral in Florida, it was necessary for us to fly in the day before the cruise. Since we have family in the Orlando area, we generally do annual trips out there. For the last several years, we have been traveling on Delta, which has conveniently scheduled direct flights from LAX to Orlando International. This year, we also had enough frequent flier points to get one of the tickets for free, reducing the cost by quite a bit.
Our experience with Delta wasn’t really the best this time and I expect that I’ll be looking closely at alternatives for the next trip. The biggest issue was that they lost all of our luggage on the flight home and then took nearly 24-hours to get it to us. I’m just thankful that this happened on the return flight. It could have been a massive problem had they lost it on the flight to Florida instead.
Delta has also been slow to upgrade their planes to the latest conveniences. Neither the flight to Florida or the flight home offered seat-back entertainment systems or, for that matter, any in-flight entertainment at all. There wasn’t even a movie. While the planes did have wi-fi Internet connectivity available, the seats are so closely spaced that we didn’t even bother to try using our laptops in. They also don’t offer any power at the seats for charging batteries. These types of improvements are pretty much standard on newer airlines like Virgin America and Jet Blue.
Finally, Delta just isn’t all that competitive in price anymore. In the past, I have often found them to be the cheapest choice or only marginally more expensive than non-direct flights on other airlines. Delta’s prices have gotten higher, plus they now charge extra for all checked luggage and any food items more substantial than peanuts or pretzels. When I did price comparisons for this trip, I found that even with the one frequent flier reward ticket, the airfare for the three of us was only slightly cheaper than some of the more bargain priced airlines, particularly Southwest.
The night before our 2007 cruise, we stayed at a Walt Disney World resort (Saratoga Springs) and then took Disney transportation to the port. We found that to be a somewhat frustrating experience, as the bus didn’t get us to the port until around 2:30 in the afternoon. My parents and sister had driven themselves to the port, which resulted in us getting phone messages that they were having a leisurely lunch on the ship while we were still sitting in front of the hotel waiting for the bus. We hated losing out on those first couple hours when we could have been onboard the ship.
Because of that experience, this time we decided book a hotel room near the port, specifically at the Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa Beach. For transportation from the airport, we booked a rental car from Budget. Florida law does not allow rental car companies to charge extra to return the car at a different location, so it was no problem to book the car for just one night and return it at the location near the port. Budget also offered a free shuttle from the return location to the ships.
A nice feature of the Orlando International Airport is that most of the major rental car companies, Budget included, have their cars in a garage adjacent to the terminal instead of requiring shuttles to a remote lot. This made the process of getting the car relatively quick and easy. It also helped that they just weren’t that busy at the time, so we didn’t have to wait at all.
We did have some brief confusion because I had forgotten that I had used their “Fastbreak” service that allows pre-payment online. With that service, you don’t go to the counter in the terminal, but instead the paperwork is waiting at the booth out by the cars. Fortunately, there was no line at the counter, so it only took an extra moment or two for them to direct us to the right place. I couldn’t really blame them for this as they did have a sign up telling “Fastbreak” customers to go to the garage. I had just forgotten that I had used that service.
One strange thing was that the agent tried to talk me out of our reserved GPS rental, arguing that the cruise port was easy to find. I still wanted it since we would be making a couple other stops and I didn’t mind the extra $10 for the 1-day rental. Another problem with the GPS was that there is apparently some variation in the models they provide. Online, they offer a downloadable program that lets you write destination addresses to an SD card, which can then be used in the rental unit. I had done this, but found that the GPS we got at the rental place didn’t have an SD card slot. It wasn’t a huge hassle looking up the addresses and manually entering them, but it was a bit frustrating.
The biggest problem was the car itself. My experience has been that most rental car agencies direct you to where the cars of the type you booked are located and then let you pick one out. Budget actually assigned us a specific car, so we didn’t really have any choice. The specific type of car, a mid-sized Nissan, wasn’t really a problem for us, though. The problem was that the car had a transmission problem of some sort, which didn’t become evident until after we had left the parking garage and started accelerating up to normal street speeds.
When accelerating, the engine was extremely noisy and there was substantial, noticeable hesitation as it would switch gears. We really should have taken the car back and asked for a different one, but I didn’t really recognize that there was a problem until we were already on the way out of the airport and I wasn’t entirely sure how to find our way back. Since it was only an overnight rental, we ended up putting up with the problem, praying that the car wasn’t going to just give out and strand us somewhere. Luckily, we made it to Port Canaveral with the problem only really amounting to an irritation.
Dinner at Steak ‘n Shake
Our flight arrived in Florida around 6pm Eastern Time. For $5 each, Delta offers some pretty decent snack boxes containing some cheese, crackers, salami, dried fruit, and cookies. I knew from our last couple trips that these would serve as a reasonably decent lunch, so we wouldn’t be overwhelmingly starved when the flight got in. For this reason, I did an online search of restaurants in the area around the hotel in order to come up with dinner options.
In that search, I discovered that there is a Steak ‘n Shake restaurant only a couple miles away from the hotel. This is a chain that doesn’t have any locations in California, but which we really enjoy visiting when in areas where it is available. The chain has some sentimental meaning to my family as well. It originated in my birth town of Normal, Illinois and was the site of my parents’ first date.
The restaurant is basically a diner-style, burgers and fries place, although with full table-service. They bill their burgers as “steakburgers” and they do use a higher quality of beef than you would typically find at lower-end fast food restaurants. As the name suggests they also have extremely good, hand-dipped milkshakes, offered in a pretty wide variety of flavors. I had a mint Oreo shake which was delicious.
A few weeks before the trip, my wife and I both started diets with Weight Watchers. We had originally thought we would start the diets after the vacation, but instead decided to go ahead and get a few weeks’ head start and then basically suspend them for the trip. The dinner at Shake ‘n Shake was probably the official start of that suspension. When I looked up the nutritional information for the milkshake on their website, I found that it was worth an extravagant 27 Weight Watchers points!
After seeing that, I didn’t even bother tracking for the rest of the week. I still felt it was wise to have started the diet before the trip, though, as I did at least give some thought to my food choices and continued a few good habits I had established, such as ordering iced tea with meals instead of soda. Even at Steak ‘n Shake, I ordered a salad with my burger instead of fries. Between those habits and the very large amount of walking that I did on the trip, I essentially broke even where the diet was concerned, essentially picking up where I left off after I got home.
When we finished with dinner, we headed over to the Holiday Inn Express to check in. We have generally found Holiday Inn Express motels to be a fairly safe choice, with reasonably high consistency from location to location. They frequently offer 2-room suites at a reasonably affordable price, which works really well for us since we all three sleep better when our son has a separate room. Also, the motels always have an included breakfast buffet, which tends to be pretty good.
The Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa Beach is a reasonably new and up to date hotel. We found it to be clean and well-maintained. The room was a bit smaller than the 2-room suites we have stayed in at other Holiday Inn Express locations, but it was large enough for our needs and generally comfortable. I honestly don’t really have much to say about the motel, other than to say it met our expectations and our needs well. I don’t recall any problems during our visit.
My experience on trips to Florida has always been that the generally lengthy and tiring travel, plus the fact that I never sleep well the night before a trip, pretty much eliminates any significant adjustment time to the time zone change. We were all able to get to sleep by around 10pm or so, despite the fact that was only 7pm at home.