The Iguanas of St. Thomas - Picture of the Week

Last week in St. Thomas, I plopped down on a park bench overlooking the port while MJ visited the conveniently located jewelry stores nearby. After a while, I suddenly had the strange feeling that I was being watched. Eventually I discovered the source of my discomfort... A group of iguanas were sunbathing on the rocks, drawn there by the flock of passengers coming off the Oasis of the Seas.

St. Thomas Port Iguanas

St. Thomas Port Iguanas

St. Thomas Port Iguanas

My guess is these are the best fed iguanas on the planet, because for some reason the first instinct of a tourist when they spot a strange animal is to toss it some food. I really could have used that pack of crackers later...

Enjoy Your Stay

Hotel Confidential - Outrageous Stories From My Career Behind A Front Desk

When I began the Hotel Confidential series last year, one of the first things I made clear was that this wouldn't be an outlet for me to dish the dirt on celebrity guests. The thing is, I'm a firm believer in what some call the Hotel Code of Silence, and regardless of the juicy stories those encounters might have provided, they will all go with me to the grave. Well, except for one that you'll read shortly. My years in the hotel business supplied no shortage of outrageous stories, however, and it would be a real crime to not share at least a few of them here, while leaving out details to protect the "innocent." Besides, if I've learned anything from the existence of things like TMZ and the Kardashians, it's that this is the stuff that apparently we really want to read. So why fight it?



The Odd Couple and a Taser

The last thing any hotel manager wants to see in the porte cochere is a squad car, because it usually means the day is about to get real bad real fast. Late one evening, I had alerted the police to a domestic dispute taking place in one of our rooms. We had asked the guests to politely keep it down several times, which is about all a hotel can really do, and now it was time to bring in reinforcements.

I escorted the officers up to the room where we could hear quite a commotion. After several of their knocks went ignored, the officers instructed me to use the master key to open the door. Once inside we found two half naked people having an all out brawl in the room. The officers pleaded for them to stop, but just like the knocks on the door, they were ignored. Finally one officer says to the other, "Just go ahead and use the taser on him." But there was just one problem...

He was a she, and she was a he...

No, they didn't say it...
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The Ball Player and the Super Model
 
Celebrities passing through the hotel was commonplace, but it wasn't every day I encountered the super model which resided in a poster on my college bedroom wall. I did a triple take with my eyes as she made her way to the house phone to call her boyfriend who played for an NBA team that was staying in house. I tried to compose myself for what I knew was coming next - her request for a room key to go see him. I think I managed a few words of English as I handed over the key, but it's all a bit of a fog.

A few minutes later the two emerged from the elevator on their way out to dinner. Shortly after they had walked outside, however, he returned to ask if our gift shop was open. It wasn't, and he was in a jam: his pants were too big, and she wasn't letting him go out without a belt. I asked what size he wore, which surprisingly was the same as me, so I took off my belt and handed it to him. It was a couple inches too small, but my colleague on the desk that night came through with one that fit. Relieved that his super model girlfriend would be seen with him in public, he handed us $160 and went on his way.

My colleague and I enjoyed a little surf and turf with the proceeds. 

Sadly, it wasn't Kate Upton. She was only 12 at the time...
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The Haunted Elevator

For a few months I found myself in the unenviable position of working a 4pm to 7am shift. Yes, this might have been about the time I changed careers, but I learned that a lot of weird things happen in hotels in the middle of the night.

At about 2am one evening I heard the ding of one of our elevators, and watched as the doors opened and closed with no one inside. The scene repeated itself two more times over the next hour, all three times on a different elevator. It wasn't until the next day that I realized how strange this phenomenon really was...

The elevators only dinged when someone called it by pushing the button. So who pushed the button?

It may as well have been the Twilight Zone...
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The Saudi Prince

"There's a Saudi prince in the restaurant tonight."

Nothing all that exciting really, except that said prince emerged about an hour later screaming at someone on his cell phone. It seemed that he was staying at one of our competitors and they failed to send a car to pick him up after dinner. In total disgust, he informed me that his security detail would be at the hotel shortly and we should have an entire floor cleared for him. He handed over his American Express, and I set to the unfortunate task of relocating two guests to another floor.

Everything was arranged within the hour, only our prince never came. A few days later we discovered why: it seemed that the "prince" was an imposter and had been arrested for identity fraud. He had somehow convinced American Express and yours truly that he was the 8th richest man in the world.

This guy wasn't carrying a staff. That should have tipped me off...
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The Relocated Resident

One of the hotel's most frequent guests was a consultant that worked for a large technology firm. She stayed with us for 50-60 days at a time, making her basically a resident of the hotel during her visits. Even though the company paid for her room the entire time, she still went home on the weekends and left most of her belongings behind.

During one of her trips home, we found ourselves sold out on a Saturday night and overbooked by a single room. Eventually I was faced with a moral dilemma: walk the guest with a confirmed reservation to another hotel, or clean out our resident's belongings and rent her room. The room was messier than my college apartment, but we still decided it was worth the risk. We rounded up all of her personal effects - and I mean personal - rented the room, put it all back in place the next morning, and the guest was never the wiser.

And that, my friends, is how you book 251 guests into a 250 room hotel.

If there's any one thing that I miss from my career in the hotel business, it's all of the wacky stories that each day would bring. While I don't believe any of these tall tales occurred on the same day, they could all have easily happened on a random Tuesday evening. As any hotel worker will tell you, there's never a dull moment in the business. For some, the rush of the day-to-day activity in a hotel is like a drug and they can't get enough of it; for others it wears you down until eventually one day simply bleeds into the next. As it turned out, I was a little of both, and the stories that fill the book inside my head would easily make for a bestseller.

Enjoy Your Stay

The Secluded Beach on St. John - Picture of the Week

St John Beach

Right about now, the Oasis of the Seas is steaming her way back to Fort Lauderdale, ending what has no doubt been an amazing week for its passengers, including yours truly. Yesterday, we stopped in St. Thomas where MJ and I took a catamaran over to the more secluded island of St. John and enjoyed some time on a deserted beach. This shot is from the same beach just a few years ago, and you can probably tell why we decided to go back...

Enjoy Your Stay

Orlando For Adults - The Best Things To Do Without Kids

Orlando might be the theme park capital of the world, but that doesn't mean it is just for kids. After all, the city is one of the largest convention destinations in the country, and relies heavily on the briefcase and name badge type to help fill their thousands of hotel rooms. Then there are the grown up kids, the ones like yours truly that love visiting Orlando and may or may not watch Disney cartoons every Saturday morning. Regardless of what brings you to town without the kids, rest easy that there are still plenty of things to in Orlando for adults.

Here are a few of my favorites. 

Disneyland Club 33

Jellyrolls

Face it: We're old. The bar and nightclub scene just isn't the place for us. That is unless that bar features dueling pianos with singers belting out every classic song imaginable from Bohemian Rhapsody to Baby Got Back. Yes, it is possible to do Sir Mix-a-Lot by piano.

Jellyrolls is located at Disney's Boardwalk Resort and is likely to provide the most entertaining night since your kid was born. That might sound like an exaggeration, but after a few adult beverages and a glass swinging rendition of Piano Man, you'll definitely be feeling all right.

Tip: Ask about "The Big Red Cup." The nightly drink special at Jellyrolls is a little weak on alcohol content, but it will keep you occupied most of the night and help minimize the damage of your bar tab. Trust me: In this environment, it can add up in a hurry.

On stage at Jellyrolls. Yes, that's a bowling ball padlocked to my ankle.

Drink Around the World

The World Showcase at Epcot is home to 11 unique pavilions, each featuring a different country around the globe. Sure, there are a few good rides and shows to visit, but the real attraction in World Showcase are the adult beverages. Each country features their own specialty, be it a local brew, wine, or other concoction - think: Grey Goose slushie in France - and the best adult entertainment at Disney World is making a game of this known as "Drinking Around the World." 

The idea is simple: visit each of the 11 counties in World Showcase and order one of their specialty beverages. For obvious reasons, this is one heck of a fun day. But before you go, I'd suggest reading my survival guide to Drinking Around the World. Remember: you're not in college anymore. 

Epcot World Showcase Canada
Having a little fun in Canada.

Velvet Sessions

Over at Universal and the Hard Rock Hotel, once a month you'll find one of the best things to do in Orlando without the kids. Velvet Sessions is an intimate concert that takes place at the Hard Rock Hotel lounge by the same name. The event usually draws names like Bret Michaels and Taylor Dane, which is sure to help you reconnect to the good old days.

Velvet Sessions is hugely popular, so you'll want to plan this night out on the town in advance and book your tickets early. The good news is they usually include a few pre-show libations to help you forget how long ago these guys were actually "stars." Still, your co-workers back at the office will definitely be jealous when you tell them you danced on the ceiling with Lionel Richie. 

Velvet Lounge Hard Rock Hotel
If you aren't in town for Velvet Sessions, still visit for the best cocktails in Orlando

Ride What You Want

Seriously, what adult enjoys waiting 90 minutes to ride Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? It's OK to admit it, I promise your kids aren't subscribed to this blog. You hear the screams coming from Splash Mountain and Test Track and in some corner of your brain you curse that little Johnny isn't tall enough to ride yet. He will be one day, but for now you have a date with "It's A Small World." Good luck getting the tune out of your head.

Well, guess what? You ditched little Johnny at Grandma and Grandpa's, so you're free to ride whatever you want over and over again. Forget One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, this is your day. Have a beer. Ride The Hulk. Repeat. 

Universal Islands of Adventure
So many choices...so little time.

Orlando has worked hard over the years to overcome the stigma that they are only a destination for families with kids. While the theme parks will always be the main attraction in town, there are still plenty of things to do in Orlando for adults. The key is to remember that this town was built on fun. For both the young and young at heart, that is one thing in Orlando that is never in short supply.

Enjoy Your Stay

A Bird's Eye View of the Oasis of the Seas

Oasis of the Seas from Above

Our next big travel adventure is right around the corner, and when I say big, I mean really big.  MJ and I will soon be setting sail on the world's largest cruise ship; Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas. Words really can't do justice the immense size of this floating city, but thankfully Google Maps has given us a nice shot of the Oasis in port next to a few other cruise ships. In case you can't tell, she's the monster on the left...

I have made no hiding of my secret love of cruising, and sailing on the Oasis has been a goal of ours since its debut nearly four years ago. Needless to say, a week may not be enough time to explore every nook and cranny of this ship.

So if you don't hear from me for a few weeks, please don't alert the authorities. I don't want Royal Caribbean to find out I've managed to stow away.

Enjoy Your Stay

Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando - Check-In Florida

When Anthony Bourdain rolled through Orlando on his Guts and Glory tour, I saw an opportunity that couldn't be missed. Nevermind listening to my not-so-secret man crush rant and rave about various Food Network personalities, what excited me about this event was a far geekier proposition.  Between dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, his show at Hard Rock Live, and capping it off with my first visit to the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando, Mr. No Reservations played right into my strange fascination with all things Hard Rock, by hooking me up with a menage a trois of awesome.

Thanks Tony, I owe you one.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando

The Hotel

The Hard Rock Hotel is one of three properties - soon to be four - operated by Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando Resort. The location at this theme park wonderland lends itself to a slightly different atmosphere than one might typically find at a Hard Rock Hotel. In my experience at some of the brand's other hotels, most of the clientele usually have more cool molecules in their big toe than roam my entire body. At the Orlando outpost, however, you'll find families and hipsters alike enjoying the resort's edgy, rock and roll theme for which the brand is famous.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando Lobby

That theme is easy to find, especially in the lobby which is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from the combination of Hard Rock and hotels. From the drum set and amplifier near the front desk, to the famous memorabilia which adorns the walls, the fingerprints of this legendary brand are everywhere. Of course, no Hard Rock location would be complete without the music, which plays throughout nearly all of the public areas of the resort. Which sort of made me wonder: why don't more hotels play Nirvana's Nevermind?

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando Lobby
Elvis is in the lobby.

Since summer arrived here in Florida about two weeks ago, my first stop after checking-in was a visit to the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel. There's a splash of the party-like atmosphere which has made the pool at the Vegas location legendary, mixed with an offsetting dose of family fun with various contests and activities designed for kids. My suggestion: Consider renting one of the cabanas for your own private slice of this popular oasis.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando Pool
A popular spot for good reason...

Beyond the theme and amazing pool, when it comes to amenities at the Hard Rock Hotel it's all about location, location, location. The ability to step out of your room and after a short walk find yourself at the gates to the Universal theme parks is a convenience that can't be matched. Plus, all guests of the hotel are given Universal Express privileges which allows you to skip the lines (most of it anyway) at some of the most popular attractions in the parks. By the end of your stay there is no doubt you'll agree: trams, buses, and lines are so overrated.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando Memorabilia
Sweet jacket dude...

The Room

About as close as I'm ever going to get to staying like a rock star are the rooms at the Hard Rock Hotel.  In addition to the stuff I usually ramble on about - read: white duvet - the room told the Hard Rock story in a clear, but subtle way. For example, the now customary "hang your towels to reuse, leave on floor to replace" sign was printed on a CD, and the clunky resort directory was humorously labeled with Beck's "Where It's At." Plus, as a fan of The Beatles, it was nice to see the traditionally boring in-room artwork replaced by a couple photos of the lads from Liverpool.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando Room

My only complaint about the rooms at Hard Rock: The lack of balcony made it a little hard for me to throw the TV into the swimming pool.

The Food

If you're concerned that a stay at the Hard Rock Hotel relegates you to a vacation filled with Pig Sandwiches and Ultimate Nachos - sounds like my kind of vacation - well, not to worry. The Kitchen is the hotel's three-meal restaurant, serving up New American cuisine in a hip but comfortable atmosphere. Instead of rock and roll memorabilia, the walls are adorned with aprons worn by stars that have performed cooking demonstrations while visiting the hotel. Around the corner from The Kitchen is Emack & Bolio's, which was where I spent most of my time as it's where Hard Rock keeps the coffee, donuts, and ice cream.

Palm Restaurant Orlando

Those looking for a more upscale experience will find the Orlando outpost of the legendary Palm Steakhouse located right in the lobby. Although the bag of donut holes at The Palm is rarely something I skip, we instead paid a visit to Velvet for a nightcap and dessert. The live music and chocolate mousse shooter was a great way to end the evening, but it was the New Fashioned - Hard Rock's twist on my favorite cocktail - which really stole the show.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando Velvet
The "New Fashioned" and Chocolate Mousse Shooter.
Hard Rock Hotel Orlando Velvet
I couldn't hear the music over MJ's Pop Rock Martini...

I will be the first to admit that combining two things that are near and dear to my heart - hotels and Hard Rock - is probably not going to lend itself to an unbiased opinion of the resort. Take away my John Lennon rose colored glasses, however, and there is plenty for the non-Hard Rock/hotel junkie to love. The Hard Rock Hotel brings together an edgy, yet family friendly atmosphere, with a location that's second to none to create one of the best theme park resorts in Orlando. But just remember....

There's no drugs or nuclear weapons allowed inside.

Enjoy Your Stay

Special thanks to the Hard Rock Hotel for hosting this edition of Check-In Florida. As always, all opinions and pontifications are my own. 

The Best Water Slide in the World - Picture of the Week

Best Water Slide in the World


As far as water slides go, the ride on this one in Ocho Rios, Jamaica is mediocre at best. Just your standard spiral before predictably ending in a shallow pool. On the other hand, the view just might make it the best water slide in the world.

If you're ever in Ocho Rios on a cruise - our ship is in the background - consider a ride up the chairlift and be sure to pack your bathing suit. And as if you needed another reason to make the trip up the mountain for this view, there's a bar serving frozen concoctions waiting for you.

Enjoy Your Stay

Disney World vs Universal Studios - Comparing Orlando's Theme Park Titans

Along a heavily congested stretch of I-4 in Orlando, a battle wages between Disney World and Universal Studios. The objective from both sides in this war is the same: extract as much of your vacation budget as possible, and keep you from visiting the other guy. While both resorts seek to lure visitors with their theme parks and hotels, understanding the differences between Disney and Universal can be quite daunting. Choosing which resort is right for you and your family likely depends on any number of factors, all of which both sides will claim they perform better. So it is time to clear the air and put my decades of tireless research to work with a side-by-side comparison of Disney versus Universal.

Universal Stuidios Orlando

The Parks

If the winner of this contest were decided by number of theme parks alone, Disney would win without much of a fight. Their four theme parks and two water parks double the offerings at Universal, but as my mom said when my first girlfriend dumped me for the dreamy, most popular kid at school: "It's what's on the inside that counts."

While there are plenty of similarities between Disney World and Universal, when it comes to rides and attractions inside the parks, the two are actually quite different. Universal is more about the thrill and technology, with such heart stoppers as Hulk and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey providing some of the best attractions in Orlando. On the other hand, Disney is all about the story, with each and every ride being carefully designed to help transport the visitor to another time and place.

Beyond the rides, the theming inside the Disney parks is far superior to that of Universal. When you step into Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, you are completely immersed in the scenes of Disney's fairytale movies, with no inclination that Tomorrowland lies just a few steps away. By comparison, walking the streets of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf in Universal makes zero sense when set against the backdrop of a movie based theme park. Across the way at Islands of Adventure, I recently heard the theme song to Jurassic Park playing in Seuss Landing, an attention to detail that would simply never happen inside a Disney park.

Of course, there is one huge exception within this argument, and that is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The new land inside Universal's Islands of Adventure is hands down the most brilliantly designed area of any Orlando theme park. The overall body of work, however, makes choosing the winner of this comparison pretty easy...

Edge: Disney 

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Cost

Examining the cost of Disney World vs Universal offers something of a mixed bag. Universal serves up the most expensive theme park ticket in Orlando, garnering $179 for a single-day and multi-park ticket. Disney, on the other hand, will set you back about $132 for the same thing. Muddying the water even further are multi-day tickets, which end up costing more at Disney, if only by a small margin.

When it comes to hotels at Disney and Universal, however, the real cost difference between the two takes shape. I priced out the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal for the first three nights in June, and discovered a rate of $299 for a standard room. The Beach Club Resort at Disney - a close comparison to that of Hard Rock - ran $457 a night for the exact same dates.

In all, a three night package for two adults and two children including a three day multi-park ticket came up to $1982 at Disney vs $1483 at Universal. A clear and decisive victory in my book.

Edge: Universal 

Disney Contemporary Resort

Convenience

I can spot a first time visitor to Disney World from a distance of up to six miles. They're usually the ones that have "I'm completely overwhelmed" written all over their face. What started as Walt's dream for a "Community of Tomorrow" is today the poster child of urban sprawl, with theme parks and resorts spread out over a space of 44 square miles. A network of buses, and to a small extent the monorail, are there to help move guests about property, but getting around will wear on both your time and patience.

Universal, by contrast, is the polar opposite of Disney in terms of logistics. Three hotels, two theme parks, and City Walk - the resort's restaurant and entertainment district - are all located within a reasonably short walk of one another. There are no lines for buses or hour long commutes to dinner. The way I see it, there's plenty of that waiting for you back home. You shouldn't have to deal with it on vacation too...

Edge: Universal 

Magic Kingdom Wishes

The Experience

There was a time when no one questioned Disney's ability to provide an incredible experience for their guest. There's a reason why the company has been the subject of so many books on business management and service. That reputation, however, was built in the early years, when the service was impeccable and no detail or expense was spared in the name of quality. Today, the outside world has slowly crept into Walt's kingdom and corners are routinely cut in the name of the almighty dollar.

Over at Universal, they are accustomed to living in the Mouse's shadow. Where Disney's service has slipped over the years, Universal seems to have seized on the opportunity to narrow the gap between them. On our recent visit to Universal, we had a half dozen employees simply ask "Are you enjoying your day at the parks?" I can't remember the last time that happened at Disney.

Still, as we reached the top of the hill on the Dragon Challenge roller coaster, it was clear why Disney still reigns when it comes to the overall experience. Those 44 square miles of space are the trump card in every hand pitting Disney against Universal. They are able to take you away from reality and, quite literally, into their own world. A place that despite the lines for buses, food, rides, and even the bathroom, you simply never want to leave.

Edge: Disney

Universal Islands of Adventure

Despite what they might think of one another, there is definitely enough room in Orlando for both Disney World and Universal. They both have their own advantages, be it rides, cost, convenience, or the overall vacation experience, but it is important to remember that this isn't an either/or proposition. When planning your vacation, simply choose whichever feels right for you and your family as a home base, and set aside time for the other somewhere in the middle. That way, you're sure to get the best of both worlds - pun intended.

Enjoy Your Stay

Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Hogwarts Castle Universal Orlando

Since its debut a few years ago, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando has been one of the most popular theme park destinations in Orlando. After wandering the streets of Hogsmeade and enjoying a Butterbeer inside the Leaky Cauldron, the adventure ends here, at Hogwarts Castle. Inside you'll find what I feel is the best ride in Orlando: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. During our visit, it seemed that Hermione had worked a little magic and kept the crowds away, because 100 minute wait times are far more common than 10.

Enjoy Your Stay