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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Orlando Wish List

My big vacation is 9 or so months away, but I keep seeing Universal Orlando promos on my TV and it's making me giddy. Diagon Alley is officially open and I'm officially excited already. (This is going to be me come summertime.) Past experience has prepared me for it not going away. Even Eric is excited already, which usually doesn't happen until we get on the plane. We'll be splitting our time between Orlando and Tampa, but the majority of our time will be spent near Disney, since that is where the bulk of the stuff we want to do is. Though we've been several times before, there is not shortage of cool things to do outside of Universal and Disney. Here are the things on my list so far:

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Diagon Alley
Our whole trip is planned around this new expansion at Universal. Eric is so into it, he's decided we need to spend three days in the parks. Am I complaining? Absolutely not! How can I pass up a chance to soak up the Harry Potter magic, while also strolling along London streets and then shopping in the crazy dark Knockturn Alley? I would be happy just to ride the Hogwarts Express back and forth all day, but I'll resist long enough to explore the rest of the village and stand in line at Escape from Gringotts.

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Been there, done that? Yes, but NO! One of the coolest things about Hogsmeade is the very detailed shop fronts and the looming silhouette of Hogwarts. There's always something you didn't see on your last visit. Also, with three days in the parks, I'll have a chance to try the new Butterbeer ice cream, sample more than one meal at the Three Broomsticks and actually see the shows.

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Universal and Islands of Adventure
Yes, there will be a thousand photos of me waving my wand around in a variety of Harry Potter shirts, but I'll also get out and explore the rest of Universal. We are hoping to do Halloween Horror Nights if only for the great shows that they put on specially for the event. I'm okay with scare zones, but I'm probably not even going to step foot into a haunted house, lest I be traumatized for the rest of my trip. I think I'm good enough listening to Moaning Myrtle in the ladies room.

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The Magic Kingdom
You can't go to Disney without going to the main park. I want to visit the castle, go to the Tiki Room and dress up for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. What will our costumes be this year? You'll have to stay tuned, because we haven't quite figured that out yet (even though we know what we'll be dressed up as for actual Halloween and our annual Harry Potter birthday party). It takes a bit more planning, since it needs to fit into our carry-on and be appropriate for the warm weather. Also, have you heard of this free card game called Sorcerer's of the Magic Kingdom? We'll be picking up our free packs and getting in on that!

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Lunch at Be Our Guest
This table service restaurant in the Magic Kingdom is French-inspired and Beauty & the Beast themed. It's always fun to dine in a palace, especially when you don't have to dress up (though that can make you feel a little weird at first). Will I be able to choose between the Coq Au Vin-style braised pork or the Croque Monsieur? Probably not, but either way I win and can cap it off with a dessert cupcake.

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Animal Kingdom
Can it get better than going on safari without having to spend the dough to get to Africa? I don't think so. Though Animal Kingdom is not the best of Disney's parks in Orlando, it is very laid back and you can easily do everything there by the mid-afternoon (if the crowds are thin) and then head to another park or Downtown Disney (my plan) to finish off your day. I'm looking forward to see the Lion King production and riding on Expedition Everest, which is truly one of their more surprising rides.

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Dinner at Sanaa
A meal with a view of fantastic African animals right outside the windows? I'm in! This restaurant is located at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is surrounded by wildlife and African themed. My mouth waters at the thought of vegetable samosas, naan and lamb dishes. I had wanted to dine at Jiko, but besides the high price tag, it doesn't come with the perks of Sanaa.

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Hollywood Studios
If you haven't heard, HS is getting an overhaul of sorts. Three of their major attractions/landmarks have gone away (the Sorcerer's hat, the Backlot, American Idol Experience), but that's okay. As much as loved having the Sorcerer's hat as a point of reference, you'll now be able to see the Chinese Theater and getting to all the park's great rides and attractions may be a bit easier. Obviously, we'll be taking in Fantasmic, because it's awesome and seeing some of the other shows that we may have missed on our last trip.

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EPCOT Food & Wine Festival
I live for the Food & Wine Festival. As you know, I love trying new foods and being able to take a trip around the world in a day, including cuisine, is a dream come true. You really need to wear your walking shoes at EPCOT, because even though there aren't that many rides, there is a lot to see and do. Of course, even though there's food everywhere, I still want to take in a meal at the Rose & Crown and the Biergarten Restaurant. Oh, and I shouldn't forget the free Eat To The Beat concerts!

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We're skipping Sea World on this trip (for obvious reasons if you know me) an therefore we now have a free day to explore something else in Orlando. For me, there was no question how we were going to spend it. I have been dying to go to Gatorland, if only for the kitsch factor. I mean, a whole land of alligators! This is also going to give me the opportunity to try a new food. I've already scoped out the dining options and gator nuggets are going to be on my plate here.

Obviously, with so many months between now and then, this list is only going to grow. You may see a part two, but in the meantime, you can follow my Orlando Pinterest board.

What are your Orlando suggestions for our trip?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

6 Cheap Eats in Minneapolis

Minneapolis has some cool stuff. You don’t have to spend your whole trip there in nearby Bloomington and the Mall of America. Shocking, right? As you know, I tend to look for fun things everywhere I go. Even if a place doesn’t sound all that interesting, it doesn’t mean it isn’t. Use Hipmunk to find a nice affordable hotel near where you want to do things and then start planning your trip. Here I want to give you some ideas on where to eat while you’re in town and not empty your wallet.

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I’m always up for something with hummus or covered in feta. Christos is a traditional tavern serving up Greek food on a budget. If you can’t go to Cyprus, at least eat like you’re there. The white tablecloths and cloth napkins give you the feeling of eating somewhere more expensive. Stop in for lunch and order off the lighter fare menu for favorites like spanakopita and dolmathes, if you want to go meat-free, or skish ke bab and moussaka if you don’t. Round off your meal with a baklava or try something new like galatopoureko or milopita. Skimp on dinner rates and splurge a bit on a glass of Greek wine.
Green Spoon
The University district has some wallet-friendly restaurants, including this one. The Green Spoon is a Korean Fusion joint tempts your taste buds with Kimchi & cheese French fries, spicy bowls of ramen and dumplings. Whether you’re hoping to find a place where you can find a good selection of vegetarian dishes or will try just about anything, then snap up a table here. Plus, during happy hour, get $1 off beer or buy a whole bottle of wine with your food for just $10 (or $3 per glass). You can easily eat her for less than $12, plus drinks.
Lucia’s Wine Bar
Sounds fancy, right? If you’re ready for a romantic time out, head to Lucia’s where they have $4-6 happy hour items and glasses of wine from just $5. Nice deals, right? They are offered every day they are open. The snack board is enough for two and has delicious charcuterie that you didn’t expect. Saturday and Sunday brunch has affordable meals choices, including French style omelet and chilequiles with roasted peppers. Yum!
Masu Sushi & Robata NE
In the mood for Japanese food? Find your way to Masu Sushi. Yes, you can get the traditional sushi here as you will find at other Japanese restaurants, but you can also order up a curried ramen or a selection of izakaya, including funky small plates of duck gyoza, dried squid with chili sauce, crispy pork kara-age and pork belly steamed buns. It’s like Asian tapas for less than $10 per plate!
Muddy Waters Bar & Eatery
Do you get excited about fish tacos? Muddy Waters has share plates for two for under $10 with these, lamb skewered and pot roast sliders. If you’re like me, you enjoy trying several things when you dine and tapas are the way to go. Maybe you’re more of a non-sharer. That’s okay, you can get sandwiches and hot dogs for $12 or less. Vegetarians will feel right at home here with menu items like fried tofu sandwiches, Korean BBQ mock duck tacos and pear and brie sandwiches with cherry mustard. Save even more by showing up at happy hour.
Feel like you’re out on an upscale dinner even if you just show up at Nightingale for small plates or bruschetta. There are choices for vegetarians and meat lovers alike. Pork & clams and salt cod fritters sit alongside plates like salt-roasted beets and butter-roasted cauliflower. Don’t leave without sharing an orange chiffon cake, because delicious. The brunch menu is just as innovative and appealing and under $15 a plate. Show up for early dinner during daily happy hour and grab a beer for $3, $5 cocktails or glasses of wine and a limited, but tasty and budget-friendly, menu. Split a cheese plate with some celery root bruschetta.

Disclaimer: This post was inspired by my partnership with Hipmunk - a great site to find low hotel rates wherever you travel. #hipmunkcitylove
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