The Best of Florida
The Group of Six on vacation in 2010


During the last week of September and the first days of October, the gang went to Orlando for about a week. (That would be Terry and I, along with Ellen, Richard, Mike and Louise.) This was a very different trip for us.

Very different.

To start off, all six of us have been to Orlando several times. In fact, in the past ten or so years alone, this would be the third time that Terry, Ellen and I found ourselves in Disney theme parks together… one time Richard wasn’t able to join us. And those visits are not the only trips to the area for Terry and I. That matters when it comes to a “Best of…” column and the way it is approached here at the Backpack… especially for such a tourist destination as Orlando… since I basically insist that when I write one, it can only involve stuff we actually did (or wanted to do) on this trip.

On top of that, we made no plans for this visit. And that led to some strange and aimless kinds of moments.

To tell you how crazy things were… I don’t have many pictures at all from the trip. Terry and I have been known for racking up thousands of shots in incredibly short periods of time.

On this trip I might have come close to one hundred.


(As in, I took less than that. Again… if you know how Terry and I travel… that is amazingly unusual.)

That’s the kind of trip this was. Amazingly unusual.

It had designs of being good food, good drinks, and lots of cards. There was talk of a theme park or two. And there was a familiarity each of us has with Orlando that led to the belief this would be a week off with nothing to worry about, no work to be done, and any option on the table since we all knew where we were going.

In the end, I was very surprised to find that people in Orlando don’t buy peanut butter. Ahh… but that is for a different article.

For now it is time to share our regular post-trip column… the “Best of…” feature that let’s you know what we did that you might find yourself happy to know.

A word of warning. As opposed to the normal answers I assemble for these columns, we’ve all been so ridiculously busy since the trip that I’m going from conversations and not direct answers. The only written feedback I’ve received is… well… none. So… feel safe assuming the thoughts here are mine.

What were your favorite things that we did on this trip?

I want to be different and stay away from the usual, easy answers. That would include the theme parks. That would mean trying to stick with restaurants I can’t find near my home. For this trip…

Orange Lake – A great resort to stay at. We’ve had the pleasure of enjoying the facilities here on multiple occasions, and it just keeps getting better. I’ve stepped out of our suites to watch fireworks at Disney. On this trip I saw a bald eagle in flight. And a special note this time goes to the water day… where we spent a few hours drifting along a 1,200-foot river on tubes. I can not recommend this place highly enough. Incredibly well-maintained. In the middle of everything, with amazing convenience to restaurants, shopping and the parks. And incredibly self-contained so that you could relax by the pool, play miniature golf, and do dozens of other things while enjoying a great vacation without really leaving the property.

Hurricane Grill & Wings – One of the surprise finds on this trip… and, as you’ll see over the course of this column, we were not hurting for very good restaurants. I mention this one specifically because in addition to all of us enjoying our meals, I could see how much fun it could be for spending an afternoon of football watching. This was it… Florida in a nutshell… with fans of teams from across the country, relocated to Florida and looking for a place to catch the game. (Whatever the game happened to be.) Several televisions on different stations, and all within good sight lines… an affordable menu, with some great appetizer options… good stuff. Best meal of the trip? No. Greatest restaurant we experienced? Probably not. But of all the places we ate at for the first time on the trip, this is the one that quickly comes to mind as fun, enjoyable and a place I would look for in the future.

Old Town – This isn’t going to really qualify as a true favorite, but I have to admit… in all of my trips to see the Mouse, this may be one of the most unexplored locations that I know about, would love to see more of, and routinely place in the background so that I either not visit at all or barely give it much thought. I’ve ridden go carts here. We stopped by for a classic car show this time. And for some reason, I never have seen the full, true Old Town. So… like the Hurricane Grill… I’m listing it because it is something I really feel like I want to do again, and not specifically because it was the very best of the trip. Even so, I feel confident mentioning it to you for consideration.

What were you most impressed by in Orlando?

Tough one. We visited two theme parks… and while that is always fun, the word impressive doesn’t immediately come to mind for one of them. (We’ll get to that.) Plus, I want to try and find some new stuff for this column when I can.

We went out for dinner and meals a few times, and enjoyed some fun locations and good food. Again though… “impressed by” is not the description I would first use.

So allow me to toss some Irlo W. Bronson Highway magic at you here.

Many of you will require no introduction to the road itself. This is it… I suppose you could call it the Mother Road of Disney. Sure, that’s a bit dramatic. But when it comes to finding hotels, restaurants, souvenirs, and honestly, for anything having to do with being a tourist in Orlando, Irlo W. Bronson Highway is the location.

It’s the home of discount ticket centers… the ones you should be very, very skeptical of, since most of them are likely offering you tickets that are no good… and most of the ones with valid tickets want to sell you something. And while I would advise you to stay away from them, it’s virtually impossible not to see them. (Over and over and over again.)

It’s almost like a mirror-image of itself. Many people can confirm the naming of “Main Gate East” and “Main Gate West” used on the road, which is based on which side of the Disney entrance of US 192 (the route number of Irlo W. Bronson) is being referred to. And, for lack of a better description, almost everything located on one side of that entrance is also located on the other.

(Heck… as an east and west divider, consider… Disney actually owns land at this point, so US 192 becomes a bit of a highway since at the points closest to Disney, it is the Disney exits from the road and the Disney main gates, and then there is literally nothing built on the road.)

So why is it impressive?

Simply said… because it’s there.

Over the years, the road has changed so many times it’s virtually impossible to keep track. And yet… it hasn’t changed at all. It looks and feels virtually the same every time you visit it. From the fast food locations to the family restaurants you may have frequented for decades… from the time share cottages offering you days at Disney to the t-shirts and merchandise centers with giraffes and wizards and other identifying landmarks outside the building… time marches on and the world remains remarkably the same.

And… once you get familiar with the road, you can find just about anything you could ever want.

So this one is for something unusual… Irlo W. Bronson Highway… the Mother Road of Disney.

What were you most impressed by outside of Orlando (Say in Tampa, Winter Haven, etc.)?

Geez… how about the final night, just outside of Tampa, when we stopped in Madeira Beach?

In a way, finding John’s Pass Boardwalk was an accident. We were looking for some place to go… plans that evening were simple, only pointing at musts of dinner and dropping off the van, and an otherwise completely open afternoon.

When we arrived in our room, we saw dolphins playing in the water near our hotel. We were experiencing a beautiful day weather-wise. As we tossed around ideas after lunch, we had this map of Tampa and the area, and as I recall it Ellen just shouted out Madeira Beach.

Now that may not be completely accurate. Nearby and on that map was Treasure Island (a name I recall from my childhood and had mentioned as a possible destination, but honestly can’t tell you why I recall it… and I still don’t know if the place on the map and the memory from almost thirty years ago are of the same location). Mike was looking over some maps and flyers and working with Mi Luv U. There are plenty of beaches named and bridges mentioned that I hoped to drive over and other things that could have gotten us to John’s Pass… or a number of other locations.

But I recall it being Ellen targeting Madeira Beach.

Having kicked back and walked around a bit on a slow-paced, late September evening, I really would love to figure out a way to spend a full day there.

Sure… some of the shops were kind of boring. Seemed like the pattern of stores repeated at every fourth door. (Door number one… shells and dolphin statues and discount t-shirts, none of which truly captured the feeling of Madeira Beach but seemed more likely set up to be just cheap enough and just beach-themed enough to take a dollar or two out of your pocket. Door number two… perhaps a restaurant or bar or store selling water. Door number three… something amazing and different and unusual that really attracted you by offering brilliant original stuff, plus the feeling that if you didn’t pay attention and look at everything you were definitely missing something. Door number four… shells and dolphin statues and discount t-shirts, none of which truly captured the feeling of Madeira Beach but seemed to be ordered from exactly the same catalogue that was used at door number one (and I mean, exactly the same catalogue). Door number five… perhaps a restaurant or bar or store selling water… and you see how this is beginning to repeat.) The goal was to get to as many door number three locations as possible.

And we just didn’t have enough time.

Favorite thing we did…

Again… I’m going to step away from the theme parks. And I want to step away from the traditional ideas of chain restaurants (although we did have a couple of great dinners).

I enjoyed a trip to Lakeridge Winery. This is our wine tasting group… the six of us that had so loved northern California. It was different for a trip to Florida to go here, while feeling quite comfortable.

John’s Pass Boardwalk was alot of fun. Something new… never experienced before… and ultimately relaxing.

The reality is there was no breathtaking moment on this trip. I’ve already mentioned some good things that we did and will have more in the next few sections. But I’ll stick with two things we hadn’t done previously.

Best place to eat (overall)…

We did have a couple of really good dinners either cooked in our unit or out as a group. But I want to eliminate what I know as chains around home. (The point being… I’m not listing Outback here, though we enjoyed it. Do I get that the places below might include a name or two that has several locations? Yes. But they aren’t in Connecticut or Rhode Island, so for my purposes they count as a vacation experience.) For me personally, I’m going to offer four meals that I thought were good…

Number four – Lee Roy Selmon’s in Tampa. Never would have known to stop there if two things hadn’t happened… (1) The guy at the counter of the car rental agency recommended it. (2) When using Mi Luv U while waiting to wrap up the car rental, the name was one of the first ones to pop up. A recommendation plus a GPS ready to provide us with directions equals lunch destination. It was a good meal… affordable… with nothing that stood out as insanely awesome, but everything pretty decent (or better).

Number three – Hurricane Grill & Wings. I know. Earlier I said it was one of my favorite things. And it was. But I also noted that it filled a funny place… not the best food… yet one of the places I would look for on a future visit. During a day of house hunting and visiting my uncle, we ended up here. Very good spot for lunch. All of us really enjoyed our meals, the service was friendly, the atmosphere was clean and upbeat… just solid all around.

Number two - La Teresita Restaurant in Tampa. We’ll come back to this location in a second.

Number one – Nine Dragons in China at EPCOT in Disney World. Terry and I had lunch here during our visit to EPCOT. We decided to order a few appetizers, share them, and create a meal out of them. The funny thing was… getting out of the sun on a very hot day and into some air conditioning, sitting down, eating good food… the entire experience was simply amazing. It wasn’t just the meal… it was everything. We left feeling fantastic. Just a tremendous moment from this trip.

Best place to eat (inexpensive)…

Absolutely zero to think about here… we are looking at Tampa and La Teresita Restaurant.

One of the things Mike wanted to do on this trip was find a place to eat Cuban food. As the days meandered along, he began to focus on our return to Tampa for the final stop on our journey, and ultimately his gaze landed upon La Teresita Restaurant.

All six of us left blown away by the food, quite satisfied by the service, and stunned by the low cost of our bills.

Biggest surprise…

Wow… umm… Old Town would qualify for consideration here. I had flashbacks to the time the boys and I raced in go carts years ago. I kept wondering why I never seem to spend much time here. And, if I had the money, I wouldn’t have hesitated to buy Terry the car of her dreams.

The reality is… Tampa and La Teresita Restaurant wins the prize again.

I ordered a stuffed plantain dish. Called Platano Relleno, it is a dish with grilled plantains and a ground beef stuffing. And the combination was simply amazing.

If I could recommend that they had to do this, regardless of expense, I would recommend…

Make the time to do something you’ve never done in Orlando or the surrounding area before.

Ok… that sounded stupid and vague… stay with me…

As I mentioned earlier, our group of six have all been in this area before. We may not have annual vacations planned for Orlando… still… we aren’t first-timers. And that means not only do I have certain things that I love to do on each and every visit, and expectations that go along with those things, it means I like finding new stuff to do.

The funny part is, some times that new stuff may be a ride that has been added… some times it might be a restaurant.


For this particular trip, we really never outlined anything that we had to do. It would be way too easy to tell you that you have to see the Magic Kingdom. Heck, a listing of the annual visitor numbers for theme parks would tell you that. Plus… for these articles here at the Backpack… it has to be something we did, and on this trip we didn’t go to the Magic Kingdom.

And in the end, we didn’t do much outside our comfort zone.

As I look at this section… one I’ve considered many times before, and normally for places I was traveling to for the first time… what occurred to me was that the places that seemed like the best potential answers from this trip were days or events we kind of tossed in and considered as relaxing, where we just wanted to get outside and do something, and ended up finding something different.

Lake Ridge Winery… drifting along on a tube at Orange Lake… driving to Madeira Beach.

All were fun.

But the only “must do” kind of thing I can recommend is the Soarin’ ride at EPCOT. It is unique, different, and brought us back for a second ride during our visit to the park.

So again… I tell you… explore the area and don’t be afraid to try something new.

If I could tell someone that they had to do this, but the expense did matter (so go cheaper), I would recommend…

La Teresita Restaurant.

I know… you’ve heard about it already.

Normally, in addition to this idea, I would cover segments about the people that may have impressed me… an event that impressed me… things I’m glad we did… and all sorts of other things. The reality is, for this trip, La Teresita Restaurant pretty much was the unexpected darling of the journey.

It didn’t cost much at all. I mean, it was so inexpensive it almost felt wrong.

With a few other businesses nearby, it became a bit of an event. For instance, we walked out of the restaurant and into the bakery next door. And, when we saw people selling fruit from the back of their van, of course Mike went over to check it out.

Just a little bit of everything in a single location and a mid-afternoon experience.

Thing I wish we had done…

There isn’t much to even consider.

We had no intentions of swimming with dolphins, spending four days in theme parks, wandering down to the Florida Keys, or finding every Florida restaurant ever featured in any way on the Food Network.

As noted earlier, we did visit Old Town. Spending more time there and looking around is definitely something I’ll consider for the future.

When it comes to the Disney property, I have always wanted to look around a bit more. I want to see some of the areas that aren’t at the front of the line for any visit. For instance, on my first ever visit we stayed in a camper at Fort Wilderness. Different plans each time since then have never made it an option, but I would like to get back there some day. And there are definitely times when I would love to stay at or visit some of the resort areas in Disney World. Again… that wasn’t part of this trip’s plan.

Suggestions from this experience…

This is going to sound so stupid when it comes to a trip designed to be relaxing and enjoyed without an agenda… and ultimately was relaxing and enjoyed without an agenda… but I felt a bit lost on this trip.

This is a card-playing group. We never really had time to play cards.

This can be a point-us-in-a-direction-and-we’ll-wander group. When we did wander, we didn’t have much time to realize the promise of the treasure we found. (See also: Old Town and John’s Pass Village as noted in this article.)

We had hoped to get Ellen and Richard some solid leads when it came to finding a new home. And yet, during the trip we learned so much strange or unexpected information that we sort of stopped in our tracks, and I seriously felt like we were letting them down because we weren’t out looking at more properties and areas. (They are doing amazingly well as I write this, and probably couldn’t be much happier about the way things have turned out with the move to Florida. They would tell you I am crazy for thinking this way. Still… at that time in late September… I felt like there was something else I should have been doing with them or for them.)

As I think about it now, I understand it a bit differently though. The reality is… Orlando… Kissimmee… Disney… Universal… the area is huge, the brand names as big as it gets, and the options border on limitless. Go there without some planning and thoughts, and you’re only asking to feel lost in the end… even if you consider yourself a somewhat experienced and well-traveled Mouse visitor.

Sure, this will be set up as a best of column, but you should always warn people about the bad, so here is something I think we need to mention…

I want you to go and find an article from Joe Posnanski. It involves a trip he made with his wife and daughters to visit Harry Potter in Orlando. And, I dare say, I think it’s incredibly important that you read it before I begin my answer here. Ok?

Run along. Go read it. I’ll wait.

The main thing I need to mention in the bad of Florida in 2010 is the Islands of Adventure theme park at Universal Studios.

(I know. Yes… yes… I know. I never expected it to happen either. That’s what makes reading Joe’s article so important. Because you need to know something… The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is small, but it just may be, by design and visual appearance, the most impressive area of a theme park I’ve ever set foot in. The buildings are wonderful, and do a simply brilliant job of bringing a fantasy world most of us know from books and movies to reality. The Butter Beer is amazing. You honestly wish the section was larger… and undoubtedly, there will be more of it as the years pass and additions are made. In a word… phenomenal… breathtaking… outstanding… pick the word, and it’s likely not good enough in describing how impressive this area is.

And, even after setting foot in it and agreeing it looks wonderful, Terry is just about 100% convinced she will never go to any Universal Studios theme park ever again.

I don’t blame her one bit.

Now back to our story…)

By some amazing twist of fate and circumstance, we didn’t get hit by the massive lines that Harry Potter has been swarmed with. Yeah… it took forever to get in the theme park itself. (Our “VIP” parking ticket was still at least fifteen minutes from garage to gate, and no blessing. (The special parking zone was so accessible and user-friendly that on the way back to the car, fading quickly and wondering how much more could possibly be ahead, I told the five others to sit on a bench, walked to the car myself, and then doubled-back to pick them up.) And then, at the ticket line, we waited well over thirty minutes for all six of us to make our purchases and get inside.) For those of you that on other days couldn’t get into the Wizarding World section… or found it insanely packed… or have heard horror stories… that really never happened to us. For those saying ride lines approached clocking with a calendar instead of a watch… well… nope. The big ride was accomplished for four of us in around an hour. All we ever saw as far as unmanageable crowds in Mr. Potter’s World that proved disappointing took place at the wand shop. The rest was just lots and lots of people while the rest of Islands of Adventure was bordering on empty.

The insulting thing about Harry Potter and Islands of Adventure, and the reason it earns such distinction here, was the ride restrictions when it came to size. And that insult is delivered in two ways…

First ~ It’s not communicated well. Oh sure, they did have a disclaimer on their web site. And there have been stories in the media. But they don’t mention a word of it as you’re purchasing your tickets.

Guess what? It’s not just Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s another ride in the Wizarding World… Dragon Challenge. It’s Doctor Doom’s Fearfall. Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls is slightly different, but offers no favors. This is not an isolated dilemma, and these are not the only rides with problems.

In short… and here I am making a vague, sweeping, blanket statement that isn’t perfectly true, since Jurassic Park River Adventure is one attraction that is pretty much fine for all riders… if you’re overweight, every major attraction in this park is off limits to you.

Second ~ Ok… I hear you. Rides have always had some form of restrictions. Could be height. May be head and neck problems, heart conditions, and other medical situations that should be considered before you step in line.

Surely I’ve seen those kinds of signs before. Safety first. Right?

No… no… wrong.

Because if this is a major deal in delivering safe experiences… how come Disney doesn’t have these problems? Why is it that Universal is unable to prepare and design for these situations?

On this same trip, at Epcot, classics like Test Track and thrills like Soarin’ were no problem at all. Barely months after this day… different trip, back at Disney… the Magic Kingdom presented no difficulties with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Space Mountain, Stitch’s Great Escape, or any other attraction.

I went around the Disney web site, and as I type this none of their thrill rides have restrictions like those found at Islands of Adventure.

Basically… what I am left to conclude, by documentation and personal experience, is that we are expected to believe a leader in the industry like Universal Studios can’t plan or engineer their most exciting rides to accommodate a significant number of adults. And yet, ten or so miles away, another leader in the industry has no such difficulties with any of their rides.

However… Universal Studios will be thrilled to take your money.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at