The Best of Florida
A second helping in 2011
Bob, Terry, Ellen and Richard


First of all… I want to send out a huge thank you (and a quick hello) to Jamie.

On the Wednesday of our trip… December 7, 2011… Terry, Ellen and I went to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. That night, we wandered over to the awesome holiday display, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. And, right in the middle of the chaos was a retail outlet, Youse Guys Moychundice.

Terry is legendary for finding stuff while on vacation. I am fairly certain that only once have we ever travelled together and not either: (1) bought a piece of luggage (or pieces), or, (2) packed empty luggage into our actual luggage for later use. And on that one trip when we didn’t… Las Vegas with Ellen and Richard in December of 2005… we’ll sum the situation that resulted up by just saying all four of us had carry on materials.

(Full disclosure… we checked four pieces of luggage for the return trip home on this trip. When we left, we only had two. And… thanks to bringing Christmas presents down… when, as we headed to the airport, I jokingly asked how many pieces of luggage we would need to get home on this trip, I was informed there was plenty of space available in those two for the return. Of course there was. Anyway…)

On this particular trip the holidays were in full swing… both literally and emotionally… and Terry was looking for different things, including ornaments and decorations and gifts for friends. At Youse Guys she saw a festive Minnie, Donald and Pluto she liked, but no Mickey. And if no Mickey… no group… no purchase.

Enter Jamie.

Understand… this was a very impulsive buy. It wasn’t something so amazing or perfect that years from now we would even recall not getting it if the purchase wasn’t made. (And trust me, Terry, Ellen and I can tell you lots of stories about purchases never made.) Here were just the basic characters, small and stuffed, decorated for Christmas. If we got them, that was awesome. If we didn’t, we would be on to the next stop without much of a second thought.

Terry asked Jamie if she knew where there were any Mickeys to join the group.

I’ll leave out some of the details here... for instance how she assisted in navigating traffic flow… but in the end Jamie found a shop that had a Mickey, walked us over to the shop, assisted in packaging the items in that store, and walked us back over to the display of lights.

She showed us several hidden Mickeys. She shared the story of the Osborne Halloween cat. And, she assisted us in making a purchase that we otherwise would not have made (and it even expanded by a few items when we got to the second store).

On top of that, she provided a fantastic ending to the day… it was a great day, and an encounter with Jamie that will always be remembered.

That earns best of status around here folks… thank you Jamie at the Hollywood Studios.

Ok… it’s the traditional “Best of…” column for this trip, and it has some interesting twists. First, Richard wasn’t able to join us every day. Poor guy had to work. Ellen has provided answers to our questions, and for the most part she tells me that Richard agrees with her and doesn’t have much to add separately. Fair enough. That makes it answers from just three of us. Second, this was the second trip to Florida this year… and that even includes being the second visit for all of us to the Magic Kingdom in 2011.

Should be fun…

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

Bob: Well, I’ll always include any visit to Disney World parks as a high point of a trip. And the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios certainly fit the bill as great experiences. That said, each of those parks will be getting their own postings soon enough on the site, and likely will be mentioned again in this column. So let’s look around for something a bit different.

As a special part of the theme park experience, I will take a second here to point directly at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Thanks to processing ticketholders early for admission, we actually paid less for our tickets than the cost of a regular full-day ticket, and yet we had six rides and dinner done before the event was even scheduled to start. Add in the holiday atmosphere, and you have a tremendous experience.

I loved the food we had at Harry’s. My crab and corn chowder was amazing. One of the best chowders I’ve ever eaten. And Terry’s she crab soup was delicious. Atmosphere was really good, and David took great care of us.

I would have liked to have seen more of Ocala, including more time taking pictures at night of the Christmas decorations, but can definitely say I was really impressed with what ground we did cover. The town center was festively decorated. We ate in a couple of good restaurants… such as Harry’s… that we didn’t even know existed earlier in 2011. Applause goes to Ocala.

And while I’m not big on Cracker Barrel as a restaurant, I do like their gift shops. And on this trip we stopped at about two-hundred-forty-seven different locations. (I only slightly exaggerate… very slightly… since I can immediately think of five that we stopped in, and while shopping a few days after we got back home Terry made me pull in to one so we could look around for an item she has been searching for since seeing it in Ocala.) It wasn’t the place that was great though, it was the experience and funny repeats found in looking around. Ellen and Terry began asking repeatedly if there was a Cracker Barrel near any destination we visited. Plus, when we got home we decorated our Christmas tree, and I learned exactly how many ornaments Terry had found in the various Cracker Barrel stores. Great memories from Cracker Barrel… but the mention comes with the thought that I’m not enthusiastically recommending them to you.

Terry: Loved seeing Ellen and Richard... loved getting back to Ocala... and always enjoy visitng Disney.

Ellen: Just being able to get together and hang out again.

What were you most impressed by in Orlando?

Bob: I am always impressed by Orange Lake. They did a nice job with some holiday decorations. Most importantly though they offered up the convenient, clean and simply great property we have visited several times before.

I don’t know if there’s anything else to suggest. As I mentioned before, the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios… heck, Downtown Disney and the Disney World property overall… are sort of in their own place and not quite an Orlando concept.

I think it would be wise of me to tip the cap in a direction just outside of Orlando, to the Winter Garden Village. We had ventured out on the last day… at first heading from Orlando to Mount Dora. And that was very nice, but it quickly became apparent that a day in Mount Dora wasn’t what we were looking for on the last day of the trip. So we got in the car and started back toward Orlando. And I pulled off the highway into a spot where Ellen and Terry had seen some stores they liked, with no clue what we would find. (Yes, it included a Cracker Barrel.) Huge place… lots of everything... and a nice surprise.

Terry: Orange Lake never ceases to thrill me as a property. Convenient for anything you would want to do in Orlando.

Ellen: Seeing the fireworks from the unit at Orange Lake.

What were you most impressed by in Florida, but outside of Orlando?

Bob: For reasons we need not visit here in depth, the Veterinary offerings at the University of Florida in Gainesville were quite impressive. A big, can’t-thank-you-enough thank you to those folks. Professional, thoughtful, and delivering of all those amazing little things.

On a more fun, vacation kind of theme, we never really did all that much exploring outside of Orlando. Even in Ocala. I’ve been scouring notes and trying to recall something non-Orlando other than the day I managed to set foot in three different Publix locations in under four hours without actually intending to go to different Publix locations. Other than restaurants, I don’t have much.

One place I do have -- which is a restaurant but I haven’t mentioned them yet -- is Red’s. What an amazing find. We went there for breakfast, and it was simply fabulous. Great food… huge, sharable servings… nice, friendly, home-like atmosphere. How local and home-like is it? If I have my bearings straight, one of the closest cross streets to its location is Withlacoochee Trail. That’s a Florida home-like name right there. (Plus, insert your own joke here. Richard and I did. Unfortunately, to the constant eye rolling of Terry and Ellen, the two of us also spent a lot of time talking about the Ok-to-hump-her rest stop. (If you’re looking, that would actually be the Okahumpka service area.))

Terry: I was impressed by the vets and staff at the University of Florida to begin with... but when the staff and the vet called to follow-up, my respect for them went even higher. Just a great group of people that handled things wonderfully.

I also loved some of the exploring we got to do around Ocala.

Ellen: Hands down, the University of Florida Small Animal Hospital. Thank you.

Favorite thing we did…

Bob: Magic Kingdom and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party for one, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios for two.

I also enjoyed the do-nothing shopping day that started with a disappointing hunt for candy. (We’ll just say the sweet shop we had heard about… with candy and baked goods… was very misleading.) It turned into a western store with boots for Terry and I, Ellen picking out boots to look at later with Richard, the discovery of a boot jack, and stopping at a restaurant outlet store.

Yeah to the Ocala area!

Terry: Going to the Magic Kingdom for Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and to the Hollywood Studios for the Osborne lights.

Ellen: Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.

Best place to eat (overall)…

Bob: Hmm…

I’m going to go with Harry’s. The crab and corn chowder I had was insanely delicious… just a perfect combination of flavors and spice. Terry’s she crab soup was also beyond outstanding. As the main course I had a scallop dish that featured a bacon-wrap for the scallops, service over grit patties, and a specialty sauce. The bacon was beautifully cooked (crisp and perfect) and the entire thing was simply a fantastic combination of elements.

I believe Terry had crab cakes and loved them.

Ellen had a jambalaya and finished, as I recall, impressed overall but with mixed feelings. She liked the restaurant a lot and has already returned a second time with Richard. He loved the place and instantly placed it into his top local places. To her, everything we shared and sampled was very good. The trick was her own meal. As she put it to me in a follow up e-mail: “The dish was ok, but nothing I’d order again. There is plenty of other stuff on the menu to try.”

Miller’s Ale House has to get a mention, since we went to locations in both Gainesville and Orlando. Good. Solid options on the menu. (Including a crab mozzarella appetizer that we all enjoyed.) But I wouldn’t call it the best. We also enjoyed the Orlando location of Bahama Breeze and Bruno’s.

Terry: Harrys and Fiores Café in Ocala.

Ellen: Fiore’s Café

(Editor’s note – Ellen and Richard sold Fiore’s Cafe to us while recommending the garlic knots. Well done. Terry and I can also highly recommend an appetizer… could have been a special of the day… that involved mozzarella wrapped by prosciutto with basil and a balsamic drizzle. Ellen and Richard… also a special as I recall… ordered pockets filled with pears and artisan cheeses. Great food. Nice atmosphere. Friendly service.)

Best place to eat (inexpensive)…

Bob: I could go with Harry’s here as well… because good lord, the menu is not pricey. I’m also tempted to bring in the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater from Disney’s Hollywood Studios since the prices there were very reasonable and the food pretty darn good. (Including a buffalo chicken potato skin appetizer that was brilliant.)

In order to be a bit different though, I’ll go back to Red’s for this one. We got there early on a Sunday morning… and there was a crowd outside waiting for a table by the time we left. The service was friendly, and the food was good and generously portioned.

Terry: Red’s was great.

Ellen: Steak and Shake.

Biggest surprise…

Bob: Can I mention the boot jack? I feel I have to. Why didn’t I know about these things before? Terry and I both ended up buying cowboy boots, and one of the sales associates pointed to a boot jack to help us get off the boots we were trying and… good lord, the damn thing is amazing and I don’t know where it’s been all my life.

I hate doing this… but I need to mention the Rainforest Café, and not in a wonderful way. I don’t know. I’m a bit confused these days about the place. I suppose the surprise, for me, is a realization that I won’t stop anyone from taking me to one or suggesting it, but I don’t believe I’ll be the one offering it up as an option any more. It’s a feeling that has been there, building, for a while and now has effectively been confirmed.

Some of you may recall the piece I wrote about our visit to one Rainforest Café in Atlantic City. Scroll down… and down… and down. It’s under the “bad” comments. I wrote in that one about being a fan of Rainforest Café, but even back then I think that was a generous evaluation of my feelings, meant more to speak of the horrendous experience in AC. Calling myself a fan was generous because of something I also said in that same notation… I don’t like the place for the food.

On this visit, it hit me again. Something I have thought on previous occasions. I just don’t really enjoy anything on their menu in a way that makes me sad if I miss out on it. Not one thing.

Terry and I have been to Rainforest Cafes in at least two countries and five states, and that’s without really counting or thinking too much about it. Heck… with Ellen and Richard we’ve been to ones in Atlantic City, Las Vegas and Orlando. (Oh wait… six states. I think Terry and I ate at one in California when visiting Disney with the boys.)

When I first set foot in one… which was this very restaurant, in Orlando and Downtown Disney, and well over a decade ago… it was with Terry and the boys. In fact, I believe our friend Chris joined Jay, Justin, Terry and I almost 15 years ago on that first visit. It was new and different and visually engaging. It earned rave reviews from family members living in Florida that had been. And at the time… it deserved it. Fish tanks and a great theme and lots of surprises.

This time, I forgot to bring my member card with me. (Yes, we have been regular enough that I had a member card. Safari Club days.) But the Safari Club has changed now… and get this, in the computer-wizardry world we live in, they couldn’t do a thing for me. I would either have to sign up for a new membership (and pay for it) or find my card when I returned home to transfer the membership for free. Not that it matters… but is that scenario knock-down, overwhelm you customer service at its finest? No… it’s not… and because of it my visit on this trip did start on a bit of a disappointed note.

Terry: I guess the Osborne lights. So much of Florida and Disney is awesome and fantastic all the time, not really surprising.

Ellen: All of the lights at the Osborne Family display in the Hollywood Studios.

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

Bob: Well… this is a tough one.

First – Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. No doubt about it. One of the most post pricey things we did. Worth every penny. A visit to the Magic Kingdom… plus all of the tremendous holiday specials that go along with it.

Second – Explore Ocala. It’s possible for you to buy cowboy boots, stock up on kitchen goods, and then visit Harry’s… all quality visits to places that could combine for a great afternoon.

Third – Breakfast at Red’s. I don’t know of many places that would start a day off better.

There… three really different things.

Terry: The Christmas events at Disney. We saw the Christmas Party at the Magic Kingdom and the Osborne lights at the Hollywood Studios. Both of those were incredible.

Ellen: I would say the Hollywood Studios and seeing the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

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

Bob: Weird trip for developing this kind of recommendation. I’m tempted to just stick with Red’s and leave it at that… but I think I can do better... and I’m going to once again recommend all three.

Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party was not only a good value because of what it offered overall, it became a great value because of what it offered in unannounced (though not promised) bonuses.

Ocala was filled with great things. Ellen mentioned Steak and Shake a moment ago. I had almost forgotten our visits there. The bacon was crisp. The banana and chocolate shake was awesome. And that was just one place we stopped at in Ocala of several that were fantastic.

One of those other fantastic things was Red’s. As a do nothing, lazy day ahead, place to get things started, it would be hard to beat Red’s with any other location in the country.

Also worth mentioning… My Mochi Frozen Yogurt. Different, fun, and delicious.

Terry: The Magic Kingdom for Mickey’s Christmas. It was cheaper than a full day ticket, and with the early admission we saw everything at a laid-back pace plus we were treated to several great holiday activities.

Ellen: Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. It wasn’t cheap, but it did offer savings and a special event.

You know, I never really thought about this before, so I found it interesting when…

Bob: I have used FASTPASS at Disney parks before, but I had never seen one in operation that was shut down for the day before noon. If I understood the Disney associate accurately, that is the case for Toy Story Midway Mania! at the Hollywood Studios on this trip. So beware… that is a hot ride. We didn’t get on it.

Oh yeah… and the boot jack. Awesome. We found it at the Ocala outlet of RCC Western Wear.

Terry: I cant think of anything from this trip.

Ellen: I realized I’m starting to feel like a Floridian.

Thing I wish we had done…

Bob: I still have never been on Expedition Everest, so the Animal Kingdom is an easy answer for this one, especially since I have now been to the other three of the four Disney parks in the past 16 months.

Downtown Disney is another answer for me to put out there. I haven’t really spent an afternoon there… really looking around and diving in… perhaps in a decade. Actually… more on that in the last segment.

I keep stumbling across things for the holiday events held at Epcot. Might need to keep that in mind for future plans.

Terry: Bought a house.

Ellen: Looked for more houses to get the two of you guys to move.

Suggestions from this experience…

Bob: Geez… get to Toy Story Midway Mania! as soon as you walk through the Hollywood Studios gates.

Check out a boot jack… especially if you are looking at cowboy boots.

Terry: I still don’t believe the lines we saw at Toy Story Midway Mania! in the Hollywood Studios. Get in line or get your tickets quick to that one!

Ellen: Houses are cheap! Buy now! (Wait… I need both of you to buy first. Is this getting posted on the web? Never mind. Nothing to see here. Florida is closed!)

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…

Bob: I am finding that to my eyes the crowds at Disney World are getting bigger and bigger than ever before. That was especially true back in January at the Magic Kingdom, at both parks during this trip, and in Downtown Disney on a Monday in December.

Funny… and maybe it’s just me… in the theme parks, even with crowds seemingly bigger, most of the rides seem more accessible than I recall in some past visits.

In the Disney mega-store though (The World of Disney), I just can’t really explain it. The lines weren’t awful, though they were long. It just wasn’t a place where I felt good about spending time. It felt a bit uncomfortable. Kind of (my words): “Ok, get what you need and let’s get out of here.”

Do they need a fifth theme park? Am I just missing out on something that the old Pleasure Island memories I have are blocking me from seeing?

Don’t know. But geez… look at all the people.

Terry: Sweet Jane was very nice, and I loved a couple of the things we found in her store. But, her whoopie pies were a let down.

Ellen: Hate to do it, but Sweet Jane’s Whoopie Pies. I thought we were stumbling into a hidden treasure, and the reviews seemed so good. But it wasn’t what we expected to find, and you both thought yours were blah (at best) and mine wasn’t that great either. Sweet Jane was friendly enough. She was nice and welcoming and really friendly. Just won’t be going back.

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