Vacationing and Taking Trips In The Era of the Virus

Enjoying Florida in the New Normal

The rapid spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has had an enormous impact on the vacation plans and travel activities of Americans and people all over the globe.  With concerns about future outbreaks, the effectiveness of vaccines, and the reality that some virus strains can find ways to mutate, it is unlikely that people will quickly revert to their old habits.

I live in Florida, the only state that gets over 100 million visitors per year and is the home of the world’s greatest family entertainment complex of amusement parks and attractions.  Walt Disney World and Universal may be opening slowly but with so many restrictions and limitations one may wonder if a visit is essential.  And besides, visitors coming and going face the possibility of 14-day isolations.

As a person who writes about travel and history, I question what I recommend in selecting vacation and trip activities.  What skills and options should I include? As a college history professor for fifty years, I tend to look at what might be long term trends and changes in our society and culture.

Let me state then the approach I will take in more and more of what I write and why I will orient my present and future writing.  These may reflect some of the trends which I think may be more part of “the New Normal” in vacations and trips:

DRIVING TOURS and EXPERIENCES:  I have always been impressed how European cities provide maps, guidance, and options for all types of people. My mother-in-law had health issues and little money while raising five kids so on the weekends she would pack a picnic lunch, take a full-day trip in the old automobile, sight-see and only stop if something met her criteria, and dine in a park.

Kayaking and Snorkeling Provide Independent Social Distancing

I think many people will be leery about going to a restaurant or any attraction without observing the present options.  Indoor activities such as museums, galleries, and even sporting events will  be looked at in a different way than in 2019.  Safety will join cost and value when I write about any spot in Florida.

The OUTDOORS and ECO-TOURISM, I believe, will become more popular and more important as an option to visitors and residents.  A kayak or snorkel trip is a pretty safe choice for exercise and learning about your destination.  Soft adventures like boardwalk tours and zip lines allow for social distance control in a safer setting.

Florida has one of the most diverse and best State Park Systems and it has been underused by a large segment of our tourist population.  For every famous park destination, there are two or three park options that will be practically deserted on the weekdays.

INSIDER ADVICE in articles usually emphasizes the best food or the most popular attraction, but it should now include options and ideas that relate to health concerns.  Long before the virus I told people that instead of standing in a luncheon crowd to get into a Walt Disney Magic Kingdom restaurant, take the monorail to one of the hotels or the boat to Wilderness Lodge for the lakeside patio restaurant by the Villas.  Better meal, same price, and less crowded and rushed environment.

This summer I will inform you of several new e-books and PODs about Florida travel options, including the dates when these publications will be part of free downloads or reduced prices.

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New Things For Florida Tourists and Vacationeers To See In 2019

This is the time of the year when individuals around the nation make New Year’s Resolutions and also the time Florida Chamber of Commerces start promoting what new things are coming up in the New Year.

For Florida’s all-important tourist industry that means new attractions, new resorts, and even new cruise ships.  Actually the largest cruise ship, the Symphony of the Seas by Royal Caribbean, sailed into the Port of Miami in November.  The ship is (gads) five times larger than the Titanic.

In the theme park industry which heavily impacts the 100 million annual Florida visitors, here are some of the 2019 highlights to come:

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge (Disney Hollywood Studios) appears to open minus its ultra-fantastic resort hotel around November of 2019.   The Millennium Falcon ride will probably open sooner at Disneyland, but the Orlando site will include the entire Black Spire village on Batin complete with shops, a restaurant, bars, and performers.

floridatraveler STAR WARS HOTEL entrance way

The first floor of new Star Wars hotel won’t open until 2020

Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway (Disney Hollywood Studios) will open in late summer in the huge Chinese Theater complex.  This is the first interactive ride where riders will enter a wild film short featuring Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy.

Harry Potter Themed Roller Coaster (Universal Islands of Adventure) may be solidly located away from the other Potter attractions, but will feature the flying creatures of Wizarding World and be a “family” coaster.  A summer opening is hoped.

FLORIDATRAVELER -busch-gardens-new-roller-coasters

Tigris Roller Coaster (Busch Gardens) will fly this Spring next to Jungala, the tiger compound, and display a very scary l,800 foot layout with speeds of 60 mph.  Most terrifying will be the fact riders will fall backwards at one point.

Floridatraveler LEGOLANDFLORIDA_LEGOMOVIE

Lego Movie World  (Legoland) is a new section with a giant play area relating to the Lego film.  There will also be two new rides: an interactive boat ride, the Quest for Chi, an a new adventure in Emmett’s Bricksburg.

Next to theme parks, most Florida towns advertise new resorts and large hotels:

 Last year Miami had a hotel boom with some twelve new resorts and complete makeovers, but more are on the way. Most interesting to be is the arrival in South Florida of Paligroup from Los Angeles.

FLORIDATRAVELER Palimous Miami Beach

The Palihouse Miami Beach

They are opening this Spring Palihouse Miami Beach, a 70-room boutique hotel on Indian Creek Drive, Miami Beach.  The Intracoastal resort is certainly going to be shabby chic eclectic.

FLORIDATRAVELER Isla-Bella-Guest-Room

A bedroom at Isla Bella is like staying on a ship

Perhaps more exciting will be the debut of the 24 acre Isla Bella Beach Resort on Knight Key in Marathon, almost next to the famous Seven Mile Bridge.  This is the first big resort in the Keys since the destruction of Hurricane Irma and this 199 room, 4 restaurant, 5 pool place will become an instant landmark in the Middle Keys.

In Orlando, Universal is opening two new resorts.  I thought since the theme park filled up its property, they couldn’t continue its hotel boom, but I was wrong.

FLORIDATRAVELER Universals-Endless-Summer-Resort-Surfside-Inn-

The Endless Resort

Universal’s Endless Resort is being built on the location of the old Wet and Wild park at International Drive and Universal Boulevard.  The first stage will have 750 guest rooms with 390 two-bedroom suites.  Additional sections are in the works.

It will be interesting to see how Universal will operate a transportation system on major highways outside their property.

Have a happy holiday and a Merry Christmas.

Posted in adventure vacation, attractions, disney, florida history, florida vacations, mcbobleonard, travel, Universal Studios, Walt Disney World | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

DOWNTOWN MIAMI IS BECOMING CRAZY COOL

When I was a student decades ago at the University of Miami (the U), I rarely went into downtown Miami.  There was a neat jazz club on the Miami River by the main bridge, but young people went to Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, the Gables, and the Grove for fun and action.

By the 1980’s, the Art Deco district was established on the Beach and people who watched Miami Vice on TV could see the skyscrapers going up.  Remember the building with the square hole in the middle?

Later when I visited Miami from my home on the Florida West Coast, I usually visited the Bayside Marketplace with its 140 shops and tour boats of Biscayne Bay’s islands.  Only a historian like me would be a visitor to Fort Dallas (1836) or the Freedom Tower or historic Bayfront Park where the mayor of Chicago took a bullet meant for FDR.

Miami buildings since the 1990s Have Been Colorful Compared To Other Cities

By 2000, the establishment of Miami as an booming international metropolis and gateway to South America and port to the Caribbean was known to most Americans.  There is much more now to downtown than banks and trading firms.

Miami downtown is becoming more than just a business destination.

People are returning to the area for more than jobs. If I still lived in my Coral Gables apartment, I could quickly hop into the 25-mile dual track monorail system that speeds thousands into the downtown business, museum, and educational sites.

Miami Downtown has transportation that few American cities offer.

With the fast Metrorail taking people from Miami International to downtown, few cities in the world can match this setup. There is a Loop Route and Miami is working on a monorail to Miami Beach.

Historic Flagler Street with its older buildings is being rebuilt as a festival street.  It may not be the Freemont Street Experience of Las Vegas, but who knows for a lot of investment is being spent.

Flagler Avenue is being redesigned for festivals and concerts.

Downtown Miami seems to be growing bigger and better. Just north of downtown is the hipster WYNWOOD ARTS DISTRICT with galleries and restaurants in the wildest of building colors.

Wynwood Arts District is what the Grove was in the early 1960s

And north of there is the booming MIAMI DESIGN (and Garment) DISTRICT, 18 square blocks of high fashion boutiques like Prada, Celine, and Balenciaga, mixed in with untypical art studios, public art parks, and upscale restaurants.

The Miami Design District is 18 square blocks of arty fun.

The Miami Film Festival moved from the beach to downtown, quite logical since Miami’s FILM GATE located in the Downtown Media Center is a headquarters for so many Indie Film production groups.

What is really mind-blowing is all the monstrous projects going up in downtown Miami.  With its tropical climate, nearby beaches, and international investment, this development is getting more of a Dubai look than a Northern American city.

The Marriott is just part of the Miami World Center.

Smack in the heart of the Central Business District is the MIAMI WORLD CENTER with 27 acres between the waterfront American Airlines Arena (Miami Heat) and the Miami Central Station (from the Airport.)  

Miami’s view of a rooftop pool is not the average image of rooftop condo pools.

It has three hotels: citizen M, Legacy Tower, and a Marriott Marquis hotel with 1700 rooms and a 600,000 square foot convention area.  The Legacy is a hotel and a giant condo.

If one thinks the 52-story Miami World Tower will impact the already tall skyline, nearby going up is the WALDORF-ASTORIA MIAMI hotel-condominium skyscraper. 

Count the cubes at the 1000+ Miami Waldof Astoria

At 1,049 feet in height and over 100 floors, it will be a photographer’s dream with its highly controversial Cuba shape.   You can get a 516-square foot studio in Cube 4 for $656,000, or perhaps a four-bedroom, 3256 square foot unit in Cube 6 for 4.9 million dollars.  All the four bedrooms are at least above the 60th floor of excellent views.

The Legacy Tower has a high rise view of the Atlantic.

With all these attractions and activities, some visitors to Miami might not even get out to the beach.

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The Dumbest Things People Say About Hurricanes

While September has been the worst big hurricane season, we can get one here in Florida in early July.

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The Dumbest Things People Say About Hurricanes

Well, hurricane season came early this year to Florida.  As I sit in my home office gathering information to see how close Elsa comes to Tampa Bay, I have a lot of images of past storms flash into my mind.   If it goes past on the Gulf side, Tampa Bay will get up to 4-feet of storm surge; fortunately, I live at 12-feet in the middle of the Interbay Peninsula.

Hurricanes remind long-time Floridians like me of all the dumb things you have been told about hurricanes.  Here are some of the dumbest statements I can remember.

“I don’t plan to leave my oceanside condo for I live on the twenty-second floor.”

I suggest you take a close look at photographs of condos after a huge hurricane. As many upper floor windows are gone as lower floors.  The winds are higher as you ascend. Your “vertical evacuation” is a bad strategy and I hope you don’t mind going without an elevator.

Count the broken windows – up and down.

“I don’t worry about storm surge for I don’t live near the ocean.”

Thanks to modern weather forecasting, while property damage on Florida islands can be huge, most people evaluate and are saved. But quite often there are more casualties from a hurricane due to flooding from rivers, lakes, and being in low-lying areas. 

People who live fifty miles from the ocean in Florida die from hurricanes!

“Hey, I’m a Florida snowbird and I’m not here in the summer months. Got my metal storm windows up at my house so I don’t fear hurricanes.”

Sounds great but police will tell you that it tells every burglar you are LONG GONE, and every fireman will tell you it is horrendous if your house ever caught fire.

“I always leave a window slightly open.”

This does not equalize air pressure and it can let in driving rain.  This is one of the world’s oldest unscientific statements. 

But does it not save your home from tornadoes?   Even this has been proven to be incorrect – studies have showed it not only doesn’t help, but tornadoes will sometimes use the opening to blow in and even explode your house upward in a draft.

“I like to go out into the eye of a storm and take great photographs and movies.”

This might seem logical, but it is really a good move only for the Weather Channel people.  As a teen, I went out with a friend in the eye of a hurricane in Brant Rock, Massachusetts.  It was wonderfully calm, until a TV antenna slide off a roof and hit my friend in the face.

“I have bought National Flood Insurance for years, so I do not worry about hurricanes.”

I bet every private home insurance guy carries around a bunch of brochures about NFI.  Know why?  It only covers $250,000 for your home and $100,000 for personal property.

Why I will never buy a houseboat.

“When the storm approaches, I always fill my tubs and sinks with water to drink.”

I am assuming you still have electricity to heat that water on the stove.  That is good for one cold bath or washing the dishes once.

“If a storm is getting near, I always tape up my windows.”

Another classic hurricane statement.  I wonder if people believe this turns their windows into automobile windshield shatterproof strength. A hurricane, however, can throw a tree at 90 m.p.h. into your window and only metal shutters and maybe 5/8 inch plywood would slow the missile.

Sealed tight but a burglar may still bite.

I have my mobile home tied down so I’m safe.”

If a house screwed down into the concrete foundation can be destroyed, your mobile home can not be safely grounded in a big hurricane.  You might as well use Gorilla Glue on your mobile.

HERE IS MY FAVORITE.  “I don’t live near the coast, so maybe I will see one hurricane every ten years.”

Look at this map and you will see that some homes in Polk County alongside US27 saw three hurricanes sweep across their yards in the SAME year!  On one side of the road, the trees are bent eastward, but on  the other side of the road, the trees are bent the other way.

Three hurricanes visit the same street from different directions in SAME year.

RESULT: I do not trust hurricanes whether you give them a male or female name.

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Florida’s Best Beach Campgrounds and Recreational Stops

Florida is warming up with the Spring and late Spring months great times for camping and RVing if you have the equipment, but even if you do not, full facility State Parks have kayaks and canoes, nature trails, and some of Florida’s best beaches.

The water may still be a little cold, certainly for Floridians.  The further south you go the water gets warmer.  Fernandina Beach near the Georgia border is today a chilly 58.2 F, but it will be 67.8 by mid-April and 74.1 F by May.  Key Largo in the Keys is 76.7 F now in March.  The Gulf is always warmer as an enclosed smaller body of water: Panama City is 64.3 F right now, so you won’t see the college spring breakers in the water for long, but it becomes 75.4 F by May first. Sanibel (Ft Myers) is a nice 72 F.

Here are my favorite Florida beaches with RV and campground facilities:

Reservations at State Parks are made via Reserve America (800-326-3521) and all these parks have great websites with maps and photographs and information.

FORT CLINCH STATE PARK CAMPGROUND on Amelia Island is neat for seniors and couples due to all the B&Bs and sites in historic Fernandina Beach.  The park houses a huge Civil War fortification with tours with bike and kayak trails on the protected island side.

Fort Clinch just tops a beachside park near a wonderful town to explore.

JONATHAN DICKINSON STATE PARK on the Atlantic has perhaps the most diverse facilities for families.  It is a short drive to some of Florida’s best surfing beaches, but the park on the Loxahatchee River is the largest in Southeast Florida with 16 natural communities to explore. There are 8.7 miles of bike trails, even 9 miles of mountain bike routes.

Huge Jonathan Dickinson State Park offers the greatest diversity of activities in Florida.

There is swimming on the river, but the place is best for kayaks and canoes or a tour on the Loxahatchee Queen pontoon boat. You can even bring a horse ride with its 8 miles of horseback trails.

BAHIA HONDA STATE PARK is the best full-service campground and beach in the Florida Keys, and it is mid-way to Key West.  It has beaches on both the Atlantic and Bay sides, snorkeling tours to Looe Key Sanctuary, and tons of opportunities for kayaks and boats.

It is difficult to break the facilities and location of Bahia Honda.

FORT DeSOTO COUNTY PARK (727-582-2267) south of St. Petersburg has all the facilities of a state park and maybe even more.  The complex contains four islands with large Mullet Key housing a Spanish-American War fortress and museum and a beach, once selected “Best in the USA.”

The massive size of Fort DeSoto offsets the huge weekend crowds.

The waterside campgrounds have all the facilities of any center in Florida.  With two fishing piers, a dog park and beach, food services, and rental boats, it is not a shock to see how popular Fort DeSoto Park is with the residents of Tampa Bay, as urban beaches lack enough parking and space.

ANASTASIA STATE PARK, on Saint Augustine Beach, has 1,600 acres of prime real estate.  Minutes from the historic Ancient City, the park has good beaches and a backyard of wonderful nature trails.

Minutes from historic Saint Augustine is another world for campers.

While the Atlantic Ocean may have its surfing, swimming, and shore fishing, the marsh side of this park is for nature hikes, bird watching, and boating.

ST. GEORGE ISLAND STATE PARK and ST. JOSEPH PENINSULA STATE PARK in the middle of the Panhandle makes an interesting combo. St George State Park is located on one-half of St. George Island and has beachside campground facilities with some nearby restaurants and stores.

There is a reason the Panhandle elite have places on St. George Island

The park on St. Joseph Peninsula State Park is for people who want isolation and a huge white sand peninsula that looks like Cape Cod in reverse.  You come here to fish and swim with few people within sight.

While campground now reopened, St. Joseph State Park is a natural wonder.

SADLY, THE CAMPGROUND at St. Joseph IS CLOSED since repairs from Hurricane Michel are not completed. The bayside is a wonderful haven for birds and the Marine Hammock Nature Trail.  You can stay at one park and make an exploration at the other.

NOTE: There are several incredible State Parks with beautiful beaches, good parking and recreational services but NO CAMPGROUND. One of these is Lovers Key State Park west of Fort Myers.  What a sight for a campground, but maybe not enough room when all the Floridians.  Yet the water today  at Lovers Key is 73 F.

#Florida #stateparks #beaches

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THE LAKESIDE TOWN WITH THE LIGHTHOUSE: MOUNT DORA

When growing up in Massachusetts, my family had a summer rooming-house in a fishing village.  Next door was the town toy and gift shop run by a lady named Mrs. Gassett. I got a job as a kid of putting out the windmills, toy sailboats, and beach goods on the store front porch.

Besides having the most popular store for kids, the other thing, Mrs. Gassett did was paint landscapes, but not of New England, but her winter home in Mount Dora, Florida.  Her paintings looked like a New England village on a hill, but there were palm trees on the waterfront.  Other paintings showed what looked like a seaside New England Victorian inn but with more palm trees.

It was a real shock when my family moved to Florida and I discovered that the town Mrs. Gassett loved so much was fifty miles from the Atlantic.  When I finally visited Mount Dora, I had another shock – a 35-foot New England style red and white lighthouse graced Grantham Point at Gilbert Park on Lake Dora.

The Mount Dora Lighthouse is a real lighthouse on a freshwater lake.

In case you think the lighthouse is just a decoration: you are wrong.  The lighthouse has a 750-watt photocell that uses a blue pulsator that helps guide boaters to the town docks. Boat tours around some of Lake County’s 1200 named lakes begin lakeside at the historic LAKESIDE INN, which started in the 1880s. The town with hilly roads has a New England charm that has attracted people like Mrs. Gassett.

One thing I hope to return is the Royal Palm Railway that took visitors on a 75-minute tour to and from the neighboring town of Tavares.  That might not be operating, but the railroad depot is a historic site.

The town and the lake are named for Ms. Dora Ann Drawdy, a Georgian who homesteaded in the 1840s and convinced other Southerners to come to farm and grow citrus. The arrival of the railroad brought the first Northerners, who found the lakes and the 184-foot plateau where Mount Dora is situated a great winter location. 

ATTRACTIONS and SITES

Why do people pour into Mount Dora not just in the winter, but on weekends all year? The hilly town of 15,000 is loaded with shops, particularly antiques and art galleries, fun restaurants, historic buildings, and interesting lake and town events. 

The people are proud of Mount Dora and like to point things out to you.  Some people were so friendly in 1981 that they agreed to temporarily paint their buildings and homes an ugly pink for a stupid movie “Honky Tonk Freeway.”

Mount Dora is the favorite spot for antique dealers in the winter months.

A star attraction is the 117-acre Renninger’s Vintage Antique Center and Farmers Market outside town on US 441. While it operates all-year on weekends, in the winter months, hundreds of dealers from the North bring antiques here and there are big, promoted shows, where you can buy anything from classic cars to antique guitars.  Downtown has many antique shops such as the 60-vendor Village Antiques Mall at 405 North Highland Street.

In case you think the Mt. Dora shops only sell used, vintage stuff, you should visit the Modernism Museum Shoppe at 144 East 4th Avenue.  The three block-by-three block hilly downtown has dozens of gift shops, two pet boutiques, five large art galleries, and an abundance of historic buildings, museums, and unique public buildings.

FOOD AND DRINK

Downtown Mount Dora packs twenty-five restaurants into the district, but be warned: the town has been called “The Festive City.”   I have only visited on weekends and every-time there was a car show or an art show going on and the streets were packed.

People will drive for miles to reach The Goblin Market

There are two food spots I always want to visit. The Goblin Market might look like a huge multi-storied old house until you discover every room up to the attic has been converted to book-lined dining areas and lounges. This is an expensive restaurant, but people drive from Orlando twenty-five miles away to dine here.  Try the whiskey onion soup. (352-735-0059) 330 Dora Drawdy Way

Looking at all those antiques makes me want to have a cup of afternoon tea.

All those antiques make me want to have tea and scones at the Windsor Rose Tea Room and Restaurant (352-735-2551) at 142 West 4th Avenue.  If you want something a little more male-like, you will enjoy the highly rated Magical Meat Boutique (352-729-6911) at 322 North Alexander, a British gastro-pub and bar open from 8 am to midnight.

ACCOMMODATIONS

While there are your standard motel chains out by the highway, the heart of Mount Dora is quite unique.  Besides the Lakeside Inn (352-3834101) at 100 North Alexander Street, started in 1882 and now a large complex with restaurant, Mount Dora has an incredible eleven bed-and-breakfast spots.  It is a B&B paradise for people who love comfy accommodations and friendly hosts. Tripadvisor gives you a good pictural look at the major ones.

The Victorian Lakeside Inn is a proud local landmark.

OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

It is not surprising that one of the main activities in Lake County is taking a boat tour and if you want to speed along in a two-seater, contact CatBoat Adventure Tours (352-322-1442), located at the downtown Boating Center. Their two-hour tours zip thru the Mount Doral Canal into the Harris Chain of Lakes, where you will see mansions and gator swamps.  This firm also does Segway tours around the town.

Cruising into the Mount Doral Canal to other lakes.

For people who prefer letting someone else cruise the lakes, there is Premier Boat Tours (352-434-8040) waterside at Lakeside Inn. Their boats are covered pontoon boats that can handle weather issues.

A boat tour can be relaxing after a day of shopping downtown.

Inside or outside, Mount Dora is a great place to visit or stay.

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DISNEY WITHOUT KIDS: ROMANTIC CHOICES IN A PANDEMIC WORLD

With Walt Disney World operating at a limited capacity and some restaurants and resort not open, it might seem premature to write an article on this topic, but I suspect that as Disney slowly opens options in 2021, more people will look into Disney because this was going to be the “great 50th anniversary year of the park.

Here is my evaluation. Right now, WDW is best suited for locals, annual passholders, and frequent visitors who already know what they want to do and see. That would describe my family.  Considering the high costs, WDW in 2021 is a poor choice for families with small kids since there are few character meets or meals, strict rules on masks and lines, and even disciplined ways to eat and drink.

Magic Kingdom Fireworks at Bay Lake Tower & Contemporary Resort

Disney without kids and less people might NOT be such a bad vacation trip or place for romantic celebrations.  Disney is still not an inexpensive holiday spot.  Still, here are my choices for romantic WDW for this year’s options and years to come:

WHERE TO STAY:  To no one’s shock, the opening of WDW resorts favored villas and upscale resorts, and not value hotels. Since this article is for 2021 travelers, we are including reopening dates.

WILDERNESS LODGE (June 6) and open now COPPER CREEK VILLAS & CABINS, BOULDER RIDGE VILLAS.  Just a neat boat ride from Magic Kingdom, the Wilderness Lodge has lakeside cabins and lakeview villas. I give high marks for the romantic lakeside Geyser Point Bar & Grill and have breakfast/lunch fun at Whispering Canyon.  You feel you at in the Pacific Northwest with all the forests and natural Bay Lake.

Cabins and villas at Wilderness Lodge are lakeside

JAMBA HOUSE & ANIMAL KINGDOM VILLAGES at Kidani Village – the Lodge is closed and with it Boma and Jiko, but if you have an automobile, this is the place to get away to Africa. The animals await at the windows of Sanaa restaurant and the Uzuma Springa Pool Bar is a plus as is two good lounges.

At a window at Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge, you get exotic food critics.

CONTEMPORARY RESORT and ultra-expensive BAY LAKE TOWER VILLAS is for urbanites with its monorail to Magic Kingdom and Epcot, plus classic top-floor CARIBBEAN GRILL and quality THE WAVE and its Lounge.

Bay Lake Tower gets a two lake ultra-view.

YACHT CLUB, BEACH CLUB (May 30) and BEACH CLUB VILLAS lost points for unopened Yachtsman Steakhouse & Cape May Café, but win points with its boat-ride to Epcot and boat-ride or gondola to Disney Studios.  Location to the best parks and best pool are strong points.

GRAND FLORIDIAN and VILLAS are just very expensive and sneak onto this list for having good lounges, facilities, the monorail, and NARCOOSSEE’S, a romantic restaurant.

Narcoocssees is the Grand Floridian’s waterfront seafood star.

It is hard to spend less money in Disney’s moderate and value resorts and still carve out a romantic atmosphere. CARIBBEAN RESORT has the gondola to Disney Studios and Epcot, but the table restaurant was closed.  So I look into these non-Disney but inside WDW choices:

DOLPHIN and SWAN RESORTS are Marriott resorts so you can use your hotel points, and with less conventions, they need lots of visitors. They have some low rates. These hotels are in the middle of WDW with boats to Epcot and Disney Studios, and facilities like a quality spa, several pools, lots of bars, and 17 restaurants, including such good romantic spots as Kimonos, Todd English’s Blue Zoo, and El Mulino.

Todd English Blue Zoo bar is really in the blue (Dolphin Resort).

WARDOLF ASTORIA BONNET CREEK with its attached HILTON is perfect if you come by automobile and want a golf course outside your door, two of Orlando’s Top Five restaurants, a lazy river, and the use of two resorts (like the Dolphin/Swan) to explore.  Bonnet Creek is actually “inside Disney property”, but not owned by Disney.

* * * *

ROMANTIC PARK DINING: Although not all restaurants have yet reopened, Epcot had always been “the adult’s park”

EPCOT easily wins here as it is the “adult-park.”  Try to get a window-side table at Hacienda de San Engel or a hideaway corner at Le Cellier or Tutto Italia.

MAGIC KINGDOM has always been a fast-food wasteland. Overpriced Be Our Guest is nice for dinner and if you are somewhat daring, look into the menu at Jungle Navigation Skipper Canteen.

HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS is best with a corner table at the Hollywood Brown Derby, but you will have great fun at the food spots at Star Wars Galaxy Edge.

Find a quiet corner table & pretend you are a movie star at the Brown Derby.

ANIMAL KINGDOM has only Tiffins for romantic dining, but you should enjoy an other world trip to Pandora’s Satuli Canteen.

Eating on the another planet at the Satu’li Canteen in Pandora, Animal Kingdom.

DISNEY SPRINGS is not a park, but WDW’s food and nightlife plus shopping spectacular is here and since these are not Disney restaurants, most are open. Beautiful Marimoto Asia, Jalio, and STK Steakhouse are logical choices, but look at the DRINK and ENTERTAINMENT choices.

The Boathouse dock is a great place to eat and watch the automobiles (?) drive by.

* * * *

Morimoto Asia at Disney Springs is not your typical local Chinese restaurant.

ROMANTIC DRINKS & ENTERTAINMENT:  Since most the clubs at Disney’s Boardwalk complex are not open, Disney Springs is the place to go particularly if you eat there. Raglan Road was nightly music and dancers and all those massive bars imported from Eire.  The Edison is the only spot resembling a nightclub with no less than seven food and drink areas.   The bar out of the dock at the vast Boardwalk restaurant has a good menu of food and drink.    Enzio’s Hideaway is a speakeasy in an underground location – certainly atmospheric.

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The Forgotten Weekend Florida Vacation Spot

When people schedule their Gulf Coast Florida vacations, very few consider Punta Gorda as a town to stop.  The nearest beach is over thirty-minutes away.  There are no famous historical landmarks.  But they may be making a mistake.

PUNTA GORDA, county seat for Charlotte County, sits at the mouth of the Peace River and at the start of massive Charlotte Harbor.  Conveniently located just off I-75 and US41, the town is usually identified for its fishing and boating, not its restaurants and hotels, wilderness tours and entertainment.

In 2004 Hurricane Charley rammed downtown with 145-mph winds, destroying the old hotels and causing a redevelopment of the area.  The beautiful waterfront Victorian houses survived the storm, some of them turning into neat restaurants.

The Charlotte Convention Center, where my parents put on shows, is now surrounded by three new highly rated hotels: Four Points Harborside (941-637-6770);Wyvern Punta Gorda (941-639-7700); and Spring Hill Suites Harborside (941-347-4224).  Seafood restaurants and tiki bars stand by the marinas, and until the Co-Vin hit, downtown has so many cute bars and taverns, the Chamber held a walk-run bar hop every night.

The new Punta Gorda resorts have waterfront facilities.

Along the waterfront is large Gilchrist Park, named after the early pioneer Albert Gilchrist who rose to become Governor of Florida.  Further west, you can not miss FISHERMAN’S VILLAGE, extending out into Charlotte Harbor with restaurants, shops, rental suites, and a huge marina.  Just before the Village entrance at 900 Marion is the 17,000 square foot MILITARY HERITAGE MUSEUM.

Fisherman’s Villages has shops, restaurants, suites, and tour boats.

At the Village is located KING FISHER FLEET (941-639-0959), which operates fishing charters, boat tours to the islands of Charlotte Harbor, and sunset cruises. If you would like to tour up the Peace River, WILDERNESS BOAT TOURS (317-997-4639) on Nesbit Street by the waterfront Laishley Crab House.  Once you leave town, the river’s natural attractions appear.

If you drive west from the Village you will enter the upscale Punta Gorda Isles development which contains PONCE DE LEON HISTORIC PARK, a tribute to the Florida explorer’s 1521 visit to the area.  No one really knows the exact spot in Southwest Florida where de Leon met his fate by a poisoned Calusa arrow.

With the river and Charlotte Harbor, boating rules in this town.

Punta Gorda is so nicely compact that every block seems to have an interesting building. Walk along Retta Esplanade and Gilchrist Park toward Fisherman’s Village and you will pass a row of beautiful Victorian houses built in the 1890’s by the town leaders, many converted in recent times into quality restaurants, which make good use of large verandas, courtyards, and water views.

The compactness of Punta Gorda helps its night activities.

Turn inland and the commercial district is filled with 1920s structures. The 1923 COUNTY COURTHOUSE, the 1927 WOMENS CLUB, and more.  Punta Gorda is one of those towns that has covered most of its downtown empty walls with impressive murals that tell the story of the town.  These murals are a photographic op for most visitors and provide a unification to the area. 

Beautiful murals boost the facade of older shops.

Small restaurants, bars, and shops have filled up most of the older buildings. Across from the historic 1926 SMITH ARCADE is the transplanted 1886 shed-like ISAAC TRABUE COTTAGE, home of the farmer-fisherman who started the town. He=is desire to have the town named after him failed, but at least his house was moved into a more prominent spot.

There is more to see and do in Punta Gorda. Besides several historic parks outside downtown, south on US41 is the MUSCLE CAR CITY MUSEUM, a collection of over 200 of the most famous and collectible vehicles in US auto history.

For those who prefer the nature, most of Eastern Charlotte County is the 67 million acres of the BABCOCK RANCH PRESERVE (800-500-5583). This is not just a functioning ranch with cattle, it is a great sport to hike and hunt (in season) and fish and take a long tour into the wilderness.  This vast landscape is home to boars, black bear, bobcats, panthers, and herds of deer.

Babcock is not an amusement park tour.

And if you prefer animals of an African or Asian kind, off FL31 and the Babcock area is the OCTAGON WILDLIFE SANCTUARY (239-543-1130), one of the Florida’s most respected refuges for unwanted big cats and other creatures.

The front door sign tells you about some of the residents.

That looks like a place worthy of a visit. Punta Gorda will be just one of many places in my Driving Tours of the Florida West Coast paperback to be released later this year.

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Christmas – A Florida Story

This is the time of year that blogs talk about Christmas and perhaps the joys of having families get together and experiencing snowflakes and cocoa filled with marshmallows.  

This year, 2020, a lot of people will be separated from their families and snow is not something expected here in Tampa, Florida. My Northern family will not be coming to Florida this winter.  It might be cold this Christmas as it was in 1837 when a huge contingent of 2,000 soldiers 1,000 horses and 70 wagons, headed southward from the St. Johns River in the Second Seminole War.

The men, mostly from South Carolina, knew they would not be home for Christmas and as a group they hated their leader General Abraham Eustis, a Virginian who seemed to have nothing positive to say about this force made of small town farming boys.   It had been two years since the massacre of Major Dade and his 111 reinforcement troops going from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to Fort King (Ocala) and the men still feared Seminole ambushes despite their huge contingent.

The scattering of settlers in what is now Orange County (Orlando) demanded better protection. The needs fit the plans of the U.S. Army to build a supply depot in the area to help push the Seminoles southward into the swamps of the Everglades.

On Christmas Day 1837, a site near a deserted Indian village located near a freshwater creek was selected and the troops commenced building a small, two-blockhouse fort of palmetto logs. Instead of naming the fort for a military hero which was the common practice, the place was called Fort Christmas.

Since the fort was designed for two companies, most of the troops lived in small tents. Captain N. S. Jarvis, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, recorded the men were miserable, but at least had a place to go inside.  He rode his horse into the deserted Indian village and was immediately covered with fleas.

Fort Christmas did not last long for the Seminoles had continued further southward and the depot at Jupiter Depot was closer to the action. In March 1838 Fort Christmas was abandoned and left to rot away in the Florida sun.

Yet today, the site has been reborn and honors both the soldiers and the early settlers of the region.  Fort Christmas was rebuilt complete with a museum honoring area history.   Seven Cracker buildings have been moved to establish one of Florida’s most authentic pioneer village.

A few miles south of Fort Christmas on US90 (East Colonial Drive out of Orlando) is the Christmas Post Office, usually quite reserved except for this time of the year when people mail out cards and packages with the Christmas, Florida, postmark.

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The Craziest Things About Key West

There are more than hundreds of crazy things about Key West so these are my favorite crazy things about Key West, that little island at the end of the Florida Keys that is as close to Havana as Miami.

Key West may seem like a different planet even to Floridians, but that is what makes it a wonderful tourist destination if you come to the Sunshine State.

Here are some of my favorite Key West things:

THE CONCH REPUBLIC is more than a flag in Key West.  It reflects the personality of the locals probably developed by the island’s populace being isolated from mainland Florida and their independence from outside influences.

When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, Key West seceded from Florida and remained in Union hands.  Well, except for one lady who kept flying a Confederate flag from her waterfront house.  Locals removed the flag, but she made three others.  Eventually, they let her keep it up

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We cats own this Hemingway place and don’t forget it!

ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S CATS are the most popular attraction at the famous author’s Key West retreat.  The author may have been blown away, but his six-toed cat’s ancestors are still around and people spend as much time looking for felines as looking at the rooms and the island’s first swimming pool.

ERNEST HEMINGWAYS BY THE DOZEN.  Key West loves festivals and parades as long as there is a lot of drinking and fun.  Actually, that happens every night anyway.  The city’s Ernest Hemingway look-alike festival is a photo treat.

Running of the bulls? No running of the Hemingways!

THE KEY WEST CEMETERY is proof that the city is full of creative and often batty people. A casual walk in the cemetery will show the diversity of the city’s history.  Remember the issue of salt-water intrusion.

Even in death you will read my words and learn.
An “UNDERstatement”

SLOPPY JOES  is a Hemingway institution and visited by more people than Key West’s museums, but take a visit to the place next door and you will find information that Hemingway hung out here.  Sloppy Joes had a big brawl a few years ago – the cause was that someone farted.

LIKE VENICE, KEY WEST IS DROWNING. As the world’s waters slowly rise, Key West suffers from serious flooding during winter storms and hurricanes.  Eventually, I think, Key West may be known as “The Netherlands of America.”

Shoukd Key West rent some gondolas from Italy?

CHICKENS OUTNUMBER SEA GULLS.  I live in Tampa and our Latin Quarter Ybor City has a lot of chickens and roosters running about, but as an island, I am amazed at how the Key West chickens tell the seagulls to stay on the beach.

Now let’s play Where Is Waldo again. Note that birds avoid streets.

THE SOUTHERNMOST POINT is one of the most photographed spots in Florida, but it is amusing in many ways.  Florida extends southward from Key West to the island with Fort Jefferson, another fifty miles.  One could even debate whether Key West, an island, is part of the Continental USA.

Did you know that a 64-year old grandmother swam from Cuba to Key West?

GEORGE IGNACIO MIRA, with baseball star Boog Powell, was probably Key West’s greatest athlete and star quarterback at the University of Miami.  When I was sports editor of the Miami Hurricane I “interviewed” him, but I could hardly understand him for his “Key West Conch” accent was something a New Englander could not quickly grasp.

Miami’s offensive line came mainly from Pennsylvania and I wondered how they ever got a play right. One guy said, “It was like having Desi Arnez as our QB.” Mira or his teammates must have adjusted for Mira played 8 seasons in the NFL, 1 in CFL, and 1 in WFL where he was MVP of that league’s championship game. Mira later opened the George Mira Pizza Huddle in Key West.

Tune in for my ebooks and PODs that will be coming out in a few months.

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Coral Gables – City Beautiful – Past and Present

Most visitors to Miami, do not look at Coral Gables as a destination unless they have friends or family living there.   Coral Gables is viewed as a very upscale residential community without beaches and South Beach lifestyle.

Coral Gables doesn’t promote itself as a tourist location, but there is plenty to see and do just within the city, even though it is a short drive to the great beaches of Crandon Park and Key Biscayne.  Just to the north is Calle Ocho with its great Cuban restaurants and colorful shops.

As a historian and historic preservationist, Coral Gables has a special place.  George Merrick planned a complete town in the booming 1920’s with incredible architecture, neighborhoods of homes reflecting the diverse culture of the nation, and Miracle Mile, one of Florida’s favorite shopping spots. The Gables is the most complete of the Florida Land Boom communities.

Restaurant at the BILTMORE RESORT in Coral Gables

I have a bias about the Gables since I lived there, both on the University of Miami campus, and also in an apartment just north of downtown near the library.  I was there in a heavily Cuban neighborhood when Bay of Pigs was going on and South Florida was arming itself for an invasion and building bomb shelters in a town where digging basements is almost salt-water intrusion impossible.

Here are some Coral Gables sights that have significance to me.  Gables has dozens of safe and exciting hotels and resorts in all price ranges.  Here are two of them which I know well.  THE COLONNADE HOTEL in the middle of Miracle Mile was my bank when I lived nearby. Today, it is the front part of a huge hotel attached in back complete with a rooftop pool and fancy restaurants. 

Front entrance to Colonnade Hotel; I knew it as a bank.

But the original building in the 1930’s was Colonnade Movie Studios where my mother (film name Nona Kaye) made several films for Columbia Pictures.  Originally a dancer, my mother and her brother dancing partner performed during the winter season at the Miami Beach.

The Colonnade was a movie studio owned by a certain Hollywood firm company.
My mother outside Colonnade; most of her films were done in England & South Africa.

The most historic resort in the Gables is the BILTMORE resort, built in the Florida Land Boom, complete with golf course and gardens.  The Leonards (Dad and his parents) stayed here when they came to Miami and my grandmother even pointed out every room where they stayed.

I never swam here even after I covered UM swim contests.

As sports editor of the Miami Hurricane newspaper, I spent many hours covering swim events which were then held in the Biltmore’s vast pool.   Two of the UM photographs actually donned scuba gear and photographed the diving events under the three-meter board.  

Coral Gables isn’t entirely beach-free if you count the place where I went to study: MATHESON HAMMOCK PARK off Old Cutler Road was a CCC project that became a quiet 630-acre oasis. Safe for kids to wade into the water, MHP has lush walking trails.

The Hammock was a great place to study and even today it is relaxing.

Despite recent hurricane damage, the park is restored as is the famous RED FISH BY CHEF ADRIANNE restaurant on the beach.  The food place didn’t exist when I was at “the U”; NOTE: the Gables has more 4+ star restaurants per square mile than anywhere else in Dade County.

The waterfront Red Fish is one of dozen of top-rated Coral Gables restaurants.

George Merrick’s biggest project in the city was the creation of the largest private university in the Deep South – the UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI.  The original building was north of the Main Campus and it had cardboard walls for the Florida Land Bust hit before completion.   You’ll have to go to the Main Campus is see whet is viewed as historic.

This was the original North Campus; now you have only the Main Campus.

So much is new except for the Administration Building (1947) where I met with Wilson Hicks, the advisor to student publications.  The baseball field is still there by Fraternity Row, but back then the basketball team had to play games on Miami Beach, where half the fans were rooting for the opponents.

Merrick also built what was once the largest public swimming pool in the world, VENETIAN POOL, from an old limestone quarry.  I had a friend who was a lifeguard there and I was shocked the pool required a huge staff due to its size and unique underwater features.

Venetian Pool is so large, areas are usually off-limits to swimmers.

Coral Gables is an architect’s dream – by driving around this planned community, you’ll see what you can do with detailed zoning regarding telephone poles and garbage cans.  Entering through DOUGLAS GATEWAY or some of the other entranceways has the feel of going into a movie set.  Gables was what the Florida Land Boom tried to create: a new Riviera.

Entering the Gables on one of the main drags is like entering a giant movie set.

But the Gables is not a town of just Spanish Mediterranean homes and California bungalows. Merrick built little villages that reflected the architecture of Dutch South Africa, Chinese, French Country, Italian, French Normandy, Greek, and French Country.  His Moorish and English villages were incomplete.

Chinese mansions in Florida? At Coral Gables, it is so.

So if you are planning a trip to Miami or want a different South Florida weekend excursion, I suggest you take a close look at Coral Gables.

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