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MarkMichaels 01-08-2013 11:14 PM

Last Minute Xmas trip, Universal and Busch Gardens
We had a few extra vacation days to burn, out of curiousity, we checked AP rates and found RP at $169 a night for Christmas. So, we decided to drive down, spend 3 1/2 days at Universal, then try out Busch Gardens for something new.

We ended up leaving in the middle of a snow storm, it was the last day of finals for our kids in school so we were planning on leaving town as soon as they were done. But, with the storm, school was delayed 2 hours I went on in to work to finish up a few things and the next thing we know, they cancel school due to the road conditions. Sounds like the perfect time to leave to us!

Its normally about 19 hours for us to drive from Iowa, we've done it a couple times. We changed our route because of the weather and tried to head straight south to St. Louis figuring the roads would clear sooner, the first 3 hours were a bit of white knuckle driving, after that the roads cleared and we started making really good time. Originally, the plan was to get just south of Atlanta then stop for the night, Atlanta takes us about 12 hours. It was just after 1am when we went thru Atlanta and as I was driving, we were hitting a lot of road construction. We've been in Georgia before in road construction, nobody moves for miles, so I plowed on and before I know it we hit Florida. So much for stopping at a hotel, but I am stopping at pretty much every rest stop in Florida trying to wake up. I think it was about 4am when I had planned on just reclining my seat back and taking a nap when I stopped, but that was the one point everyone else woke up and started talking so I drove on assuming good company for a while. There 5 minute energy drank wore off on them fairly quickly and it was just me again. Around 7am, I finally gave up and someone else had to finish, 56 miles to go, but I knew I wasn't safe behind the wheel. My wife finished most of it, but she absolutely hates big city driving. She let me get about 30 minutes sleep, really made a world of difference, then pulled over so I could finish. I will say, driving south on I4 at sunrise is very very difficult. I've never been so blinded by the sun. (almost to the minute, it was a 20 hour drive, not bad considering the first 3 hours were very slow bad weather hours) Anyways, we pulled into RP at exactly 7am on Saturday the 22nd, figured we'd get our keys and Express passes and head to the parks, but they actually had a room ready. The room was on the pet friendly floor, they did let us know that we didn't have to take it, but since it was ready, we decided to give it a try. Thought about taking a nap, but it was 7:20, we had our passes, luggage was in the room, I'm awake, lets roll!

We made it to IOA just as they were letting guests in, perfect timing. Our turing plan is normally hit IOA first, get the WWoHP out of the way, Hulk, Spidey, maybe twice, water rides only if its nice, then we're done. Usually we are ready to head over to Universal around 10, then its RRR, Mummy, MiB, maybe Simpsons, then lunch.

With express passes or not, we can do this almost any time of the year. The crowds up to and including Christmas Day were pretty big, I'm not sure they were the biggest crowds we'd ever seen but still big. It was the first time we'd seen the line for Fj out over the bridge towards Jurrasic Park. I think the wait was 180 minutes, that was Christmas Eve around noon. Just walking around the HP area was difficult, we were just going to get a butterbeer and head out, the lines at all the carts were 50+ people long. Thats when we remembered the bar at the back of the restaurant. No waits, no worries. I love having lunch at Margarittaville or Nascar and watch the crowds roll in from the parking area. Why do those people come at noon, don't they realize that the parks are going to be crowded? I just can't imagine most of them getting anywhere near the enjoyment we get out of the parks.

We did take great naps almost every day, especially that first day. We did make it back to the UO for most of the parade and caught a minute or two of Mannheim, then we decided to ride more stuff. We did take some time Sunday to stand and watch Mannheim when their concert started. I love their music and would recommend them to anyone. The crowds were pretty good sized, but nothing like Mardi Gras concerts.

We did leave Christmas day and head over to Tampa to try Busch gardens. Only because I couldn't find much info on BGT, I'll post a bit about that part of our trip here. We stayed at a Holiday Inn Suites at Busch Gardens, reviews weren't great, but it was $87 a night and we like the suite set up where you get a living room separate from the 2 beds. The hotel was dated, but rooms were clean, the staff was one of the best staffs of any hotel, very friendly, so it was a good stay. The whole are is unlike Orlando though, other than BGT right there, its not a touristy area with tons of restaurants, mini golf, etc. BGT itself was good. A few great coasters, lots of walking, the park is really bigger than I thought. We bought their "express pass" for Thursday, and I don't think i would recommend that to most people. If you show up when they open like we did, we walked on all the coasters with no wait the first 2 hours, and that was a peak day for BGT. After those 2 hours, yes the waits got crazy long, but go early, ride the big rides, then spend some time wondering around looking at the animals. What I don't like about BGT is the cost and add ons. For the 4 of us, it was $300 for a 2 day ticket. Plus, a 1 day express pass was $250 for the 4 of us. The Safari ride was another $160 for the 4 of us (45 minute experience?). The tiger experience was $20 each (the kids did this), the elephant experience was $20 each but sold out (my daughter wanted to do that). There are other add ons too, but these were the main ones. 2 days park tickets, 1 day express pass, Safari ride +$700 for 2 days. Not sure I'll pony up for that again, but I'm glad we did it once. Next trip I'd skip the express pass and do the safari. The park opened at 9am while we were there, the parking lot opened at 8:30 sharp. We got there both days around 8:10am, and ate breakfast from McD's in the car, I think there were 4-7 cars there before us each day, we were actually the first car thru and to park on our second day (this was our mini amazing race win).

Anyways, any questions, I'll be glad to try and help. I will mention the RP dog floor was not much of an issue. Room was clean, we couldn't tell it was a pet friendly room. We did hear some barking dogs, mostly in the afternoon when we tried to nap, but it wasn't a big deal. It was fun to see some of the different dogs going in and out, not sure if I would travel 20 hours with ours, but its a thought now. I know a lot of folks on this board love RP, but to us its just ok. I like HRH or PBH better if I have a choice, RP has a great staff, but it just doesn't do much for us. Getting ready to head for a few days at HRH and the Poly at Disney, (training for work, love my job!), both of these are my absolute favorite spots to stay.


macraven 01-09-2013 12:43 AM

i love reading others trip reports....
sounds like you had a very good time!

i didn't realize that BG would be that costly.
guess the add ons do that.

you are a much better person i am...............
i did the drive 3 times before and it wore me out.
now i only drive to the airport.

do you drive on all the florida trips?

Metro West 01-09-2013 07:36 AM

Thanks for sharing!

MarkMichaels 01-09-2013 08:35 AM


Originally Posted by macraven (Post 47129992)
do you drive on all the florida trips?

No, we usually fly. Flight prices were crazy high for this trip and we were trying to keep this on a budget. Flights for 4 plus a car rental for the week would have been almost $2500. Gas was only $320 plus a hotel in Nashville on the way home.

Leaving tomorrow and flying, since its not a holiday, flights for 4 plus car are only $1300. We normally plan our trips months and months in advance so I can watch prices and try to find something decent. Not sure we would have found much different over Christmas though.


macraven 01-09-2013 10:32 AM

have a good flight tomorrow!

enjoy your vacation and the parks!!

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