Destination

Orlando, FL, USA

A Nerd’s Adventure – with Pregnant Wife!

Orlando springs many things to mind. A vacation from cold Chicago winter. Sunshiny paradise. And most definitely a place to be someone else – but in a super nerdy way. This is not Vegas. But if you’re hoping to be a wizard, a kid again, or just escape possibility or plausibility, Orlando is a wonderful place to do so.

Our time in Florida also taught us some strong lessons about how it is to travel when pregnant. While most trips are not made difficult with an impending child, any theme park will be much more difficult to navigate with a pregnant spouse. And most of the reference points don’t speak to pregger travels. So hopefully some of the things in this article will be relevant to both pregnant and non-pregnant travelers alike. And in case you’ve never been to Florida in summer – it is so much better to be there when it’s not ragingly humid and stiflingly hot. Off we go!

 

TL;DR

  • Stay
    • Four Points by Sheraton Orlando International Drive, 5905 International Drive, Orlando, Florida 32819 USA
      • I selected this hotel on the basis of my SPG (now Marriott Bonvoy) loyalty, proximity to Universal Studios, and price – and was pleasantly surprised on all fronts!
    • Gaylord Palms Convention Center and Resort, 6000 West Osceola Parkway, Kissimmee, Florida 34746 USA
      • The last Gaylord hotel I stayed in was epically large, grandiose, and hard to navigate around. This confirmed what Gaylord hotels are supposed to be like. Fancy, nice amenities, and good food – but quite overpriced.
  • Eat/Drink
    • Aashirwad Indian Food and Bar, 7000 S Kirkman Rd, Orlando, FL 32819
      • Their $10.95 lunch buffet is delicious, but will likely put you in a coma. Chicken tikka masala and naan are my go-to items, and these are both tasty here. The biryani has a kick!
    • Pio Pio, 5803 Precision Dr, Orlando, FL 32819
      • Peruvian half chicken with sweet plantains, red beans and rice, and ceviche – just order it and you’re welcome.
    • Duff Gardens (Universal Studios Florida)
      • Grab a Duff (or Düff, if you’re from Sweden…only Simpsons fans will get that joke) beer, pull up a seat at the bar, and enjoy the sunshine and view of the water.
    • Leaky Cauldron, Harry Potter Land (Universal Studios Florida)
      • There are a number of eateries inside The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. This places serves British pub fare – or rather a theme park’s attempt at it. It tasted like it was mass produced. 😦
    • MOOR, 6000 West Osceola Parkway Kissimmee Florida 34746 USA (inside the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center)
      • At the flagship restaurant inside the Gaylord (that’s a nautical pun…it’s a restaurant on a giant ship indoors, and it’s also how you secure a ship…ah never mind), you’ll be treated to a delightful meal. Try the golden tile fish and she-crab soup.
    • Socio, 6000 West Osceola Parkway Kissimmee Florida 34746 USA (inside the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center)
      • The Cuban bar/restaurant inside the Gaylord is a good spot for a cocktail and a snack. Try the cubano sandwich.
    • Chick-Fil-A, 1800 Sand Lake Rd., Orlando, FL 32809
      • If you’re on your way to the Kennedy Space Center, stop here for a road snack. The chicken sandwich here simply cannot be beat. Add an order of waffle fries. Hold the politics, please.
    • Sonic Drive-In, 5399 International Dr, Orlando, FL 32819
      • I’m a little ashamed of posting that we went here on vacation, but wifey was hungry for junk food. And as a dutiful husband, I was obliged to ensure she got to eat what she wanted.
    • Zaza, Airside 1, Gate 17, 1 Jeff Fuqua Blvd, Orlando, FL 32827
      • Before you fly out, stop here for an egg sandwich and a Cuban coffee.
  • See/Do
    • Universal Studios Florida, 6000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL 32819
      • As one of three theme parks within Universal Studios Orlando, it is home to Springfield (aka Simpsons Land), The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, and a hodgepodge of old, repurposed parts of the park.
    • Kennedy Space Center, H9F2+4C Titusville, Florida
      • A simply epic place to visit to learn more about (aka geekout on) the history of the NASA Space Program, the race to the moon, and the power of science and one’s imagination.

 

Trip Background

When friends invite you to their wedding, you go. Unless there’s a conflict, they’re terrible people, or you’re just mean. In which case, you don’t go. Thankfully none of those apply to my friend Kaartiga and her fiancé (husband by the time this is published!), Rajiv. When she invited me and Caitlin to her wedding in Orlando, I told her we’d be there.

But in spite of our advance notice and normal planning style, Caitlin and I did not plan any of the activities until we were in Florida. As some of you might know, we are expecting our first baby in April 2019 and we moved to Chicago from San Francisco in November 2018. Couple that with holidays, new jobs, new apartment, and getting used to a new city, and you can understand how we lacked a lot of time to plan. But thankfully we borrowed a copy of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando 2019 and our friends’ wedding website gave us some great ideas.

Day 1 (January 18, 2019): The Calm before the Storm

I booked a one way ticket on American that left Chicago O’Hare at 7:15 AM because it was cheap and I figured I could work from the hotel. That decision proved fortunate as a large snowstorm clobbered Chicago in the hours and days after I flew out. Morning flights to start a trip are also my preferred way to go if you know your airport is subject to weather delays. It may not prevent a cancellation but at least you’ll be first to get rebooked if anything happens.

I landed in Orlando at 10 AM to a lovely warm sunshine – something I have not seen in my time as a Chicago resident. I had opted to rent through Economy, a car rental agency I’d never heard of before that has a lot of branches in Latin America and only a few in the U.S. To my surprise, the entire experience was outstanding. I brought my insurance coverage statement (as per their request), purchased the daily toll transponder (which if you’re in Florida will be well worth it as it’s $9.95 per day with unlimited tolls), and drove off in short order. Some folks don’t realize that there are a lot of toll gates in Florida and not all of them accepts cash – so if you intend to drive, purchase the toll package and don’t look back.

The rest of my day was as unexciting as most work days are. I checked into the Four Points by Sheraton Orlando International Drive so I could work through the afternoon. To break up the monotony of the day, I went to get some chicken tikka masala from Aashirwad Indian Food and Bar – their buffet was a bright spot in my culinary experiences near the hotel.

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The Four Points

While waiting for Caitlin to arrive, I did discover a couple of handy resources though:

  1. The Universal Studios Florida App: For all resources on the three theme parks in Universal Studios Florida, start here
  2. Lines app: If you plan on riding a lot of rides, this app will be super helpful to time the lines. (cost involved)
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The Universal Studies Florida app has maps, details on open/closed hours, and all of the things to do

I picked Caitlin up when her flight arrived around 7:30 in the evening and we found a lovely Peruvian restaurant called Pio Pio was a short 10 minute walk from the hotel. We enjoyed a half chicken with sweet plantains, red beans and rice, and ceviche and I found the place to be a charming spot for a date night dinner.

 

Day 2 (January 19, 2019): Pregnant people don’t go to Universal Studios Orlando

Something you should be aware of from the get-go: a pregnant woman is not going to be able to go on the majority of the rides in Universal Studios Florida. We thought this was the case but couldn’t find much on the internet specifically for pregnant guests. We debated the idea of a two-day, two-park pass at length before going to the ticket purchase counter in the hotel, but given that Caitlin couldn’t ride many of the rides, we decided to opt for the one-day, one-park pass ($130 per person).

Note: the desk in the Four Points where we bought our tickets has two people working it. One who arranges your seat on the free shuttle (win) and actually sells you tickets (also win). The other person is there to sell you on a timeshare presentation in exchange for $100 off a park pass. Despite several rejections, she was persistent and starting invading our space (like as in walking up to us across the lobby to continue to persuade) – quite irritating. So be prepared for “don’t take no” attitude from this person.

The shuttle picked us up at the back of the hotel and our hotel was the last of four stops, so we had the shortest ride. Once we arrived, we walked up the escalator to the main entrance for the security scan (bags and metal detectors) – which got us into the CityWalk area. This part does not mandate a ticket and you can spend as much time as you like perusing the stores and restaurants, including an outpost of Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts!

 

Our two main missions for this day were Simpsons Land and Harry Potter World, given that I started The Simpsons Club in high school and my wife is a Harry Potter fan. We had walked no more than a few blocks when we found my two favorite characters:

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Hooray Simpsons!

Because we came in the offseason and it was early in the day (~10 AM), the park traffic was still relatively light – thus we opted to explore some of the kiddy areas (Trolls and Curious George) before heading into Simpsons Land.

Once you head in though, immerse yourself in the whole thing. If you’re any kind of fan, you’ll appreciate some of the statues and monuments, including the Lard Lad donuts man and Jebediah Springfield, the founder of the now famous animated city. Caitlin encouraged me to go on the Krusty Ride, which is a motion simulator that was surprisingly effective in convincing me I was flying through the air on a runaway roller coaster.

Now, I’ve not seen the 3rd-6th movies in the Harry Potter saga – so I didn’t get as much as Caitlin did – but even I can admit that this place is nothing short of fantastic. Each shop has so much for kids and adults to interact with, whether it’s the creepy bankers at Gringott’s or the small private wand shop off to the first right when you enter. We even got Caitlin a butterbeer before continuing to explore the park. But nothing is as cool as the flaming hot surprise I got one moment:

This is where my confusion set in.

  • There’s supposedly a Fast and the Furious exhibit, which appears to be a garage with a car in it and a car outside it – and a lot of crappy souvenirs.
  • Then there’s (randomly) a “San Francisco” section with replicas of the Fisherman’s Wharf sign and a bunch of knock-off businesses designed to resemble the Buena Vista Café (the home of the Irish coffee) and Pier 39. There’s also the shark from Jaws hanging vertically, which totally does not fit the rest of San Francisco.
  • Next there’s the “New York” section – which had a Blues Brothers theme concert on a porch, Italian restaurant, and a replica of museum of antiquities from the movie, The Mummy.

All of it makes for an experience that is jarring. The Simpsons and Harry Potter parts of the experience are fantastic but the rest seems like they had legacy exhibits and no creative ideas to dislodge them. The only other part of the park that was compelling was the Shrek ride, which sadly we also could not ride. Even a Duff at Duff Gardens was just – meh.

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Sipping a Duff

As the afternoon continued, Caitlin and I started getting hungry (~2 PM). We waited in line for the Leaky Cauldron in Harry Potter land, and though the design was impressive, prepare yourself for some mass-produced theme park version of British food.

We continued making loops around the park, including a hilarious pass of the NBCUniversal studio where a cast member attempted to get us to join a focus group. In doing so he took down some basic demographic information and then without looking at me marked the “Caucasian” box. I took the form and looked at him and said, “Um, I am not white.” He looked at me and then asked me what I was. I said, “African American” and he started to check the box before the African American man looked at me, perplexed. Suffice it to say, I wound up not participating in said focus group…hahaha.

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It was now 3:30 PM and Caitlin and I both realized that we had seen all we were going to see. So we decided to head back to the Four Points to grab our gear and move ourselves to the Gaylord Palms Convention Center and Resort.

Given we were about 12 hours from the beginning of the wedding, we checked into our room and enjoyed some downtime before dinner. One thing I’ve come to realize about Gaylord resorts (I stayed at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, TN two years ago) is that they are beautiful resorts but terribly hard to get around. They’re huge, vast spaces with the sound of running water and plenty of natural light in each, but it’s really like navigating a theme park for a hotel.

Our room had a lovely view of the interior as well of the wedding site and for a moment we contemplated viewing the wedding from our deck.

 

We soon discovered the hotel has some outstanding food options. We perused the dining options in the hotel and given that this trip was also a babymoon for Caitlin, we decided on a date night dinner at MOOR, the in-house restaurant that features a full-sized boat as one of its dining areas.

To say that our food was good would be an understatement. Florida should always bring up images of seafood and after deciding on golden tile fish, I was not disappointed in the slightest. We also opted for some deviled eggs, a rich she-crab soup, and a Mediterranean salad consisting of goat cheese, fresh cucumbers, onions and tomatoes and – good lord – it was outstanding. Wifey and I waddled our way back to our room and went to bed early, full and happy knowing that we’d need as much sleep as possible since the wedding started at 7:30 AM.

Day 3 (January 20, 2019): My First Indian Wedding

I have been hoping to go to an Indian wedding for a long time. One grad school classmate invited me to Delhi for his wedding a few years back but I couldn’t go on just a few weeks’ notice, so this was a really exciting event for me. On top of that, my friend Kaartiga and I have known one another for nearly a decade now. She was one of the first of my friends to meet Caitlin when my wife and I were first dating in 2013. Out of respect for the bride and groom, I won’t post too many pics but let’s just say that their wedding was stunningly epic and introduced Caitlin and I to some of the wonderful traditions of Indian culture.

The morning was a roughly three hour ceremony with Indian coffee and biscuits, many prayers (of which I could not hear nor understand) and clearly a lot of love for Kaartiga and Rajiv. After the ceremony ended, Caitlin and I proceeded back up to our room for a nap so we could power up for the evening part of the ceremony and reception. The rest of our afternoon consisted of episodes of Silicon Valley on HBO GO and blissful slumber. In the hours before the ceremony, Caitlin and I camped out at Socio – the Gaylord’s in-house Cuban restaurant and bar. Wifey and I decided to have a cocktail (for me, obviously), a Cuban sandwich, a salad, and some papas bravas (delicious home fries) to pass the time.

And naturally I kept reading, because apparently fatherhood requires some preparation and study. The wedding was supposed to continue at 7:30 PM so we headed to the reception where we proceeded to spend the next three and a half hours eating, drinking (again, only me) and dancing up a mean storm. At the end of the night, Caitlin and I went back to the Four Points so we could make the most of our last full day in Orlando.

Day 4 (January 21, 2019): Nerding Out at the Kennedy Space Center

With the wedding now concluded, Caitlin and I opted for a leisurely Sunday morning. And there was an International House of Pancakes (IHOP) down the street, so, well, breakfast was a pretty easy decision. We packed a small bag with some road drinks from CVS and headed off. The drive is about an hour from the hotel and we stopped at a Chick-Fil-A along the way to have a snack to last us until dinner.

You’ll know you’ve arrived at the Kennedy Space Center because from a distance, you will see the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (where the rockets were built) and the large rocket boosters outside the Space Shuttle Atlantis building. It’s a $10 parking fee just to get onto the grounds and then you see the menu of options on what you can do (ahem, pay). We opted for the straight admission ($57 + tax, per person) and headed straight in.

Here’s the first of a few lessons. We arrived around 1:45 PM and the park closes around 6 PM. This did not give us (well, me) enough time to enjoy the entirety of the park. My wife thought it just right, but as the nerd amongst us, I wish we had arrived earlier. Our first stop was the Heroes and Legends pavilion for an intro video, the Astronaut Hall of Fame, and the Mercury Mission Control Room.

My top recommendation: Board the bus to the NASA Space Center Tour and go visit the Saturn V rocket. It’s a 15 minute bus ride but along the way you get to see alligators on the side of the road and hear the story of the bald eagles in the park (including the rather tragic one of how one died and then its mate died later of a broken heart). When you arrive, you sit through a re-enactment of a real launch and then walk through the doors on the right and turn your heads upward. Note: prepare to be in awe.

It goes without saying but … the Saturn V rocket is ginormous. And you get to see the various stages of the rocket, from the massive stage 1 all the way down to the command module and the service module. There is a touching exhibit on the tragic Apollo 1 fire with mementos from the three astronauts who died on the launchpad and inspirational quotes from those who knew them.

I thought a lot about all of the various movies I’ve watched or stories I’ve read related to the American space program.

  • Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon in the acclaimed Apollo 13.
  • Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures.
  • And of course the original footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface as crew members of the Apollo 11 mission.

And amidst it all, one famous quote which was often repeated during our tour still echos in my mind:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” -President John F. Kennedy

Touch the moon rock. Pay for an overpriced zero-g experience, if you feel so compelled. Then head back to the main park for another adventure – this time in the Space Shuttle Atlantis building.

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I won’t spoil the surprise that awaits you in the introduction. Just prepare to have your breath taken away. It’s hard to imagine the size and scale of the Space Shuttle Atlantis because you’ve likely only seen it on tv. Admire the design, the rivets, and the sheer size of the engines. There’s also a remarkably touching exhibit called Fallen Friends and Heroes which chronicles the stories of those who have given their lives in the exploration of the cosmos and service of their world/country.

We ended the day with a film in the IMAX theater (narrated by Jennifer Lawrence) before driving back towards our hotel – but not before my preggers wife asked for some junky junk food – and we stopped at Sonic Drive-In before we got back to our hotel.

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Day 5 (January 22, 2019): Flying Home

Since we were a mere two and a half months from the birth of our first child, we stopped at check-in to reflect on what would be a simple question for most people:

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By the time most people read this, we will be happily (and hopefully) pushing this button!

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Orlando Airport has what I consider to be one of the best breakfast restaurants in any airport. If you find yourself flying through here, grab a Cuban coffee and an egg sandwich at Zaza. We took our food to the gate and then received our last final surprise of the trip – an upgrade to first class!

Initially the gate agent called me up to tell me there was one seat open for an upgrade. I smiled and pointed back to Caitlin, asking if I could give her my seat. “If I go up front and leave my pregnant wife back in coach, we’re going to have a problem. The agent smiled, then looked back at her screen and revealed there were actually two open seats! #winning

 

We arrived home in Chicago to a dramatically different sight:

Not as nice as the Floridian sunshine – but the trip was a blast and I’m sure we’ll be heading back to Orlando in the future.

Final Thoughts

You don’t need a plan before you arrive in Orlando, but it sure helps. And that statement takes a turn if one member of your trip is pregnant. But that said, there’s a ton of things to do in Orlando. Universal’s three theme parks. All of Disney. Professional basketball. Shopping. The fascinating history of the Kennedy Space Center and NASA.

The weather is usually pretty nice and there’s no denying the fantastic Latin American influence across the state of Florida. So if you’re thinking winter getaway, bring the fam down to Florida. Just don’t be here in the summer. I still shudder when thinking about the stifling heat and humidity of a Floridian summer!

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