Orlando Through a First Time Visitor’s Eyes

It almost makes me sick to think of how long it’s been since I last posted anything new. I could blame the holiday season…it’s hard to get to work when the Christmas tree is glittering, and there are presents to be wrapped and holiday festivities to be had. In reality I know it’s mostly just a horrible combination of a packed work and social schedule and my own (to put it bluntly) laziness. I’m always honest with my readers, but I think we’re at the point now where I can admit the embarrassing truth: sometimes I just don’t feel like blogging.

Cinderella's Carriage in the Main Street Electrical Parade Orlando
So like any responsible adult, I’ve been spending plenty of time theme-park hopping and taking in the Christmas sights!

Don’t get me wrong. I love traveling, and I love documenting my travels and interacting with people who share my passion. But sometimes I need to take a break. I’ve been a little bummed out lately, with no big travel plans until May 2016. I’ve been spending a lot of time hanging out in Orlando, and after living here for eight years, it just doesn’t seem all that exotic or thrilling anymore.

Nothing fixes hometown boredom like hosting first-time visitors, and in September, I had the chance to do just that. My brother Jared, who was still in middle school when I moved away from home, recently turned 21, and he booked his visit around Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights and Disney’s International Food and Wine Festival, two booze-heavy events.

Halloween Horror Nights and the Epcot Food and Wine Fest, Two of Orlando's Top Events

Related: Taste the World at the 2015 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival

Related: Becoming a Maniac at Halloween Horror Nights 25

Having family in town is always fun, but I especially love showing my city to someone who has never been to Orlando. It’s a little mind-boggling to think that most people save for years to visit a place that I tend to take for granted. Not everyone has Disney World in their backyard!

Jared's First Dole Whip at the Magic Kingdom
Jared’s first ever Dole Whip at the Magic Kingdom!

Jared arrived late on a Tuesday, and rather than jumping into things, we went home and caught up over dinner. My boyfriend Dan had to work throughout the week, so he dropped us off the next day at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Jared’s Universal onsite hotel of choice. The guy has great taste! For those planning to spend a day or two exploring Universal Orlando’s two theme parks, staying at an onsite hotel comes with plenty of perks, such as early park admission and shorter wait times throughout the day. For a closer look at the gorgeous Portofino Bay hotel and the benefits of staying onsite at Universal Orlando, check out this post.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel Lit Up for the Evening

Related: Experiencing La Dolce Vita at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel

Due to a variety of scheduling conflicts, it looked like our hotel stay would not coincide with our day spent at the Universal parks. Initially, Jared and I planned on staying at the hotel purely for the fun of it, and hoping the crowds wouldn’t be too bad when we finally made it to the theme parks. We lucked out with a discounted room rate at the last minute, however, and were able to check in early on Wednesday and spend the rest of the day hanging around Islands of Adventure.

The Portofino Bay hotel, as I’ve said before, is simply gorgeous. It takes my breath away each time I check in, and I was ecstatic to learn that for this particular visit, we had been upgraded to a stunning balcony room! Poor Jared had to listen to me swoon over every last detail, from the luxurious velvety ottoman to the stunning view from our own private balcony. You guys, I won’t lie. I think we had the best view in the entire property, with a huge outdoor space overlooking the balcony that hosts nightly opera performances.

Portofino Bay Hotel View from the Top Floor Balcony
The view from our balcony. The orange-and-red striped building to the far right is where the nightly performance is held. Not bad!

I recovered quickly, however, and after gathering the necessities (water, snacks, and sunscreen), we caught the water taxi from our hotel and strolled right on into Islands of Adventure. It wasn’t nearly as busy in September as it had been when Michelle visited just one month earlier. Lesson learned, guys. August is not the best time to spend an entire day in a packed theme park.

I don’t have any photos from our day at Islands of Adventure, which is a shame, because Jared loved it! I worked in that park for several years, and I often feel immune to its charms. World-class rides, themed lands, yadda yadda, yadda…but being there with Jared made the whole place seem fresh and exciting. Every ride seemed to be better than the last, and he left most of them saying, “Whoa.” One of my favorite parts of the day had to be when we re-rode the Dragon Challenge dual roller coaster over and over. I knew he would like that one, and it made me proud to share a ride that I personally worked at for a couple of years.

Popeye and Blutos at Universal Orlando
Image: Theme Park Tourist

We even rode the water rides! I normally avoid them because I hate walking around in damp, smelly clothes, but hey. It was Jared’s first time in Orlando! How could I deny him the pleasure of getting soaked from head to foot and then waddling back to our hotel? That sweet brother of mine even offered to let me wear his shoes over my own, to keep them from getting wet and smelly. What a guy. We had so much fun careening along rapids and leaning to avoid water from overhead, that I actually wanted to ride again when it was all over!

Instead, we went back to our gorgeous hotel, changed into fresh clothes, and emerged just in time to watch the nightly opera performance from the privacy of our own balcony. I think Jared actually enjoyed it more than I did, which is saying something!

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel Nightly Opera Performance

Feeling re-energized, we took the water taxi out to Citywalk, Universal’s dining and nightlife complex. We took a quick stroll around the area, scoping out drink menus, and settled on Pat O’Brien’s. This cozy little bar and restaurant is a replica of the New Orleans original, complete with their famous boozy Hurricanes! Pat O’Brien’s is where I shared my first drink with my now-boyfriend, and the site where Dan later organized the best surprise birthday party of my life! I’m a lucky girl, and my luck continued when Jared bought me my first drink! After all, he said, it was the least he could do for the sister who booked the hotel room and got him free tickets to Universal! The drinks were delicious, and came with high-quality souvenir glasses. Best of all, most of the specialty cocktails are priced under $10, making them a relatively budget-friendly way to indulge while on vacation. (Those who scoff at that claim clearly don’t live in crazy theme park world. Lucky ducks.)

It was the perfect way to celebrate my little brother’s first trip to Orlando, and after a drink or two, we grabbed dinner from Panda Express and retired to our hotel for the night. I could have stayed up all night, sitting on that beautiful balcony and enjoying the twinkling lights and the Italian music drifting across the bay. We had another long day ahead of us, however, one that I was looking forward to even more than our hotel stay. In just a few hours, we would be up and on our way to Walt Disney World!

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