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Universal Orlando & Disney Vacation

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Don’t plan your Universal Orlando & Disney World vacation without reading this post! Actually, go right ahead and plan. Just read this post for a laugh!

In a cave known as Leang Tempuseng in a remote region of Indonesia there is a crude painting of a babirusa, or deer-pig, that is estimated to be 39,900 years old. In Chauvet Cave in France, images of now-extinct animals fill the walls and are thought to be about 30,000 years old. In Kakado, Australia, if you were to look, you would find 40,000-year-old paintings of birds that no longer exist. And should you ever find yourself in southwestern Namibia, in the great continent of Africa, you would certainly want to explore the Apollo 11 Cave, where you would encounter marvelous stone slab drawings of the local fauna that are at least 27,000 years old. All across the globe, in every hidden corner, there are similar drawings and paintings of staggering age.

Archaeologists and scholars tell us that these sites and these images represent early man’s desire to preserve what he had seen and what he knew and to turn it into a narrative. They also tell us that early man may have been dabbling in “art for art’s sake.” They may never reach a consensus, for the humans that painted, carved and etched those works are long dead and forgotten.

But I know.

Indeed, I know.

You see, those earliest cave paintings and all the ones that followed were early man’s first forays into the realm of “vacation pictures.” Have you ever wondered why no one is ever living in those caves? No, it’s not because they are 30,000 years old and the tribes have all died or evolved. It is because the cave dwellers couldn’t bear another boring night of “point and grunt” from the chieftan’s gap-toothed son.

This is how we populated the Earth. Every time some long-winded cave-scribbler demanded the attentions of his tribe, more and more people would quietly slip out the back, gather up their skins and flints, and head out for less crowded pastures where they wouldn’t have to endure “picture night” every time some spear-chucking blowhard went out for a hunt. Yeesh, the animals were pretty much everywhere. They didn’t need to sit around a smokey cave all night looking at crummy renditions of them and listening to the same “Unga Bunga” stories over and over again.

Unfortunately, we humans never learned the lessons of our long-deceased ancestors. To this day, we still insist on boring the crap out of each other with our vacation photos. We are running out of escape routes.


Oh, hello there, most kind and gentle reader. I wonder if you could spare a few minutes while I tell about our recent holiday to Orlando, Florida? I took lots of pictures…


Okay, let’s set some ground rules:

  1. This will not be a play-by-play of our entire holiday.
  2. There is a lot of text in this post, especially in the beginning. I hope you like to read!
  3. I’m not going to explain in detail everything in the theme parks of Orlando – there are many sites that do that already, and they do it well.
  4. I will be raving about some things and ranting about others.
  5. I’ve kept the “posed family shots” to a minimum. Only grandmothers get excited about those.
  6. The pictures will not necessarily have anything to do with what I’m writing about…but they may. Best to pay attention. Unless…
  7. Unless you’re bored, then feel free to slip out the back. I won’t judge, and I won’t call you out.

Buckle up, buttercups, we’re cleared for takeoff.


It was a typical Florida summer night as our Airbus A320 descended into the Orlando area. Thunderstorms fired in the distance, but the air we flew in was tranquil and clear. I figured the boomers must have rolled through already, leaving fresh and cool air in their wake.

We deplaned, and that thought melted into the humid night air.

If it had rained, it brought no relief. It was about 8 pm and the jetbridge was stifling. We were the first ones off the plane, as we had sprung for the JetBlue upgraded seats. They’re just like regular seats, but with a few more inches of leg room – and ours were the very first seats in the plane. Handan and Barish sprinted out the door like two greyhounds after a rabbit. I waddled after them, not far behind.

After retrieving our one piece of luggage, we hopped the escalator down to the pit of hell rental car holding pens counters.

We walked past Enterprise.

No line.

We walked past Hertz.

No line.

We walked past Avis.

No line.

And then we got to the bargain brands. There was Budget and there was Dollar, our glorious partner for this holiday.

And there was the line.

Jeezum Crow! Don’t these people know there are other rental companies??

I walked to the end and asked the woman ahead of me if this was the line for Dollar.

“Actually this is the line for Budget and Dollar. We’re Budget.” She said.

“Super.” I said. The line was moderately long – about twenty people – but there were three people working the Dollar desk, so I figured it would move right along. I sent Handan and Barish over to some lounge seats nearby while I took care of business.

And then, not one minute later, one of the counter jockeys disappeared.

What the..?

Okay, two could still process this line in a reasonable amount of time. I checked my phone. Gah! No service! I’d have to wait the old-fashioned way. I looked back up.

Another jockey had disappeared!

There was only one.

And the line ground to a halt.

Here’s how it went.

Counter Jockey (we’ll call him CJ) would talk to a customer for a while. CJ would then get up and saunter over to Budget. He’d yap with the Budget guys for a while, then he’d return to his post. Lots and lots of yapping went on. Very little was accomplished. From time to time a Budget guy would invade the Dollar space, and more pointless yapping would ensue. Once, one of “the disappeared” reappeared through a door with a coded lock.

Yes! Finally!

Another figure emerged from the strange door and sat down at a terminal and began to type.


But he never looked up and called a customer. And First Guy never sat down. After a time, First Guy called Terminal Tom over to yap with CJ. CJ stood up, and First Guy introduced him to Terminal Tom. They shook hands. Then First Guy called over to the Budget desk, and they all came over for a second round of glad-handing. What the hell was going on here? Had I stumbled onto some sort of counter-jockey convention? I was waiting for them to bust out the beer and cocktail weenies.

First Guy and Terminal Tom eventually disappeared back through the door with the coded lock. They never even looked at a customer. People were starting to get angry, and I was in the mood for revolution. If I didn’t have a wife and son to worry about, I might have gotten obnoxious. It takes a lot to get me there, but woe to the pitiful fools who encounter my wrath once I’m pushed over the edge.

Instead, I bided my time and took comfort in the fact that I was a writer. I sharpened my pencil and stared at CJ.

One hour later, it was my turn to talk to CJ. I stepped up and waited for him to look up. I waited some more. At last he looked up with a smug smile and asked if he could help me. I was annoyed, but I was on vacation, so I played it cool with him. We went through the banal ritual of Reservation Number, Drivers License and Credit Card, and then he went for the hard sell. Handan was expecting them to bait-and-switch me with a different car. But they didn’t use that tactic. First he played the gas card. He told me that I could pre-pay for a a full tank of gas at $2.70 a gallon. That price wasn’t horrible compared to Connecticut, and really, I had no idea how many miles I’d be driving. I was tired and hot and didn’t want to do any thinking.

And that was the whole point of the long line: get your customers confused and disoriented, and then up-sell the crap out of them.

I mentioned that the price they offered for a fill-up wasn’t too bad. I thought about taking the bait.

“Oh, yes sir. And what’s more, around here you’ll find that gas can be as high as $10 a gallon, so it really is an excellent price.”

$10 per gallon. It was an outrageous sum, but we were in the land of Disney, so nothing surprised me. My mind was clouded. It was stifling in there. I turned around and shouted for Handan across the crowded room. I needed her guidance. She came over, all flint and steel and business. I mumbled something about the gas deal to her.

She looked at CJ. “We don’t want it.”

CJ looked like a cat that just had its mouse snatched away by a bulldog. He tried again.

“Sir, we can also offer you a fast pass for the tolls. Anytime you come to a toll booth, you can sail right through.” He then launched into a lengthy and convoluted explanation about how difficult Florida toll booths were to maneuver through for lowly and pathetic cash customers. Then he peppered me with highways and byways, interstates and freeways, as if I had any knowledge of the seemingly random numbers he was spitting at me. My brain felt mired in molasses. CJ was starting to make sense. We probably did need that fast pass. I asked how much it was.

“It is fifty four dollars, and….” He again launched into another verbal assault involving numbers and cities and mileages. I was ready to sign. I was so confused. A voice cut through my mental haze.

“No!” Handan said. “We just want the car. We want the full-size car we paid for. Do you have it for us? If so, please give us the keys, so we can be on our way. If not, call a manager. Thank you.”

CJ was defeated, and he knew it. He produced a sheet for me to sign and pointed towards the exit.

“Go out that way and follow the signs. Pick any car with the trunk open. The keys are in the ignition.”

With a sigh of relief and a prayer of thanks for my wife, we headed out to pick up our rental.

Our car was great – it was a brand new Camry. I have no complaints about the vehicle. But…

But for the record – the most expensive gas I saw all week was about $2.20 per gallon, cheaper than anything in Connecticut, and the cheapest I saw was under $2 per gallon. We burned half a tank all week. Cost to fill up: about $20. Price CJ wanted to charge me: about $50. Furthermore, we encountered only 3 tolls – 2 on the way to the hotel from the airport, and one on the way back to the airport at the end of the week. Total toll cost: $5.25. I don’t mind an up-sell attempt. I do mind being lied to and purposely misled.

CJ was a lying scumbag, and because of him, I now consider Dollar Rent a Car to be a lying scumbag company. Be careful whom you try to screw, oh Great and Mighty Companies of the World – you never know who wields a pen as a sword.


Lightning flashed around us as we drove towards our hotel. I still thought the rain had already moved through. The storms looked distant, though I hadn’t yet determined my compass directions. Had I taken the time to do so, I would have understood that those flashes I was seeing were to the west of us. If you live in America, you know what that means. The storm hadn’t hit yet.

With the help of Google Maps and their Robot Woman voice, we found our hotel with only a few small problems. We were booked at the Hilton Buena Vista Palace in the Disney Springs area of Orlando. Though it was approaching 10 pm, I wasn’t worried. I had booked the trip through, and there was a disclaimer at the top of my printed itinerary that read:

“Your reservation is booked. There is no need to call us to confirm this reservation.”

They went on to declare:

“Your room is guaranteed for late arrival.”

Excellent. All spelled out in black and white. I didn’t need to worry about a thing.

Robot Woman sent me past the main entrance of the hotel, and demanded I turn into one of the parking lots. She then started barking commands at me after I refused to follow her instructions that appeared to be leading me to a loading dock. Her increasingly insistent commands came at me, rapid-fire, and she seemed to be getting frustrated by my lack of compliance.

“Turn left. Turn west. Go straight. Turn north go right turn east turn leftgostraightturnwestgonorth!”

I muted my phone and wound my way through the parking lot towards the hotel entrance on top of a small hill. As we approached, a few light drops of rain started to fall.

“Ha! Excellent timing!” I proclaimed to my family. I pulled the car up to the entrance, popped the trunk and told Handan and Barish to get out and go inside while I parked the car.

The valets were eyeballing my car, but I gave them the stink eye until they realized that their overpriced services were neither welcome nor wanted. Handan and Barish disappeared into the lobby, and I got behind the wheel and pulled around the covered circular drive towards the parking lots.

The sky opened up the moment my car cleared the covered entrance.

I’ve seen a lot of rain in my days. I’ve lived in Vietnam during the rainy season and India during monsoon season. But I’ve never seen rain like this. It was as if the skies were so desperate to unload their burden that they didn’t bother to form proper drops. Instead, the clouds spilled forth their contents in a steady stream of water. Such drops as there were exploded like water balloons when they hit the windshield or the ground.

My wipers were useless against this onslaught. I tried to feel my way down the hill towards the parking lots. When I turned into the first, I could see that it was full. There were cars idling to take any spot that opened up. I drove farther and farther from the lobby entrance in search of a spot. I finally found one, far from the lobby considering the winding driveways that led to it. I hoped I could cut the distance by walking as the crow would fly. I couldn’t see a path in the dark and driving rain. I parked and waited. Perhaps these were quick storms.

After a minute, the phone rang.

“Babes, they won’t let me check in because the room is under your name” Handan said.

“Okay my babes. It’s pouring out, but I’ll start walking now.” I hung up the phone and cursed. There was no way I could stay dry. I was going to get soaked, so I just accepted it and opened the door.

By the time I shut the door and locked the car, I was soaked through. This wasn’t rain. This was a swimming pool.

I started for the hotel, planning on walking down a little ditch so I wouldn’t have to wind back around on the driveways. I began walking down what looked like a path, but soon realized that it wasn’t a path, but a storm channel. Water poured over my sneakers and was quickly filling up the culvert into which I was walking. I had visions of alligators lurking in the black water below.

“Nahhhhh.” I turned and walked back out. I couldn’t see a direct path to the lobby, so I resigned myself to the soaking trudge along the winding road. Another minute passed, and then my phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket (pun intended), and tried to answer. It was Handan again. But my hands were soaked, and so was the phone. The screen wouldn’t register my swipe. I watched as it rang and rang. I stuffed it back in my pocket, knowing that Handan would be worrying now.

A minute later, she rang again. Again, I tried to answer. This time, I kept swiping and swiping until at last the screen registered my attempt and it connected the call.

“Babes, where are you?” Handan sounded angry. She said there was a problem. I told her of my plight and assured her I was on my way. I hung up and trudged up the hill. I was almost there.

My clothes hung off me, sopping wet, as I squished into the lobby.

Schlurp schlurp schlurp

My footsteps echoed through the lobby bar. Patrons looked up from their beer and wine to gawk at the sopping sap schlurping towards the front desk, thoughtfully located at the back of the lobby. The air conditioning was on overdrive. I felt like I was exploring Antarctica. I started to shiver.

I spotted Handan and Barish and walked up to them. I stood at the counter looking at the woman Handan had been speaking with. She had a phone to her ear and was looking at her computer screen. She didn’t seem to notice me, though I find that hard to believe. I was creating a small lake beneath my feet and my teeth were chattering.

Still she stared at her screen.

I continued to drip and shiver.

“Babes, you’re soaked!” Handan said, louder than was necessary.

Still she stared at her screen. I was 18 inches from her!

At last she looked up, eyes vacant, brow knitted in confusion.

“Oh,” She said. “Is it raining?”

I was dumbfounded. The needle on my dunce-meter jumped into the red.

“Little bit.” I said.

I stood there, dripping and shivering, expecting an offer of a towel at the very least. When it became clear that a towel was not forthcoming, Handan plopped our suitcase on the ground, unzipped it and began rifling through its contents there on the lobby floor next to the lounge. She offered me a dry change of clothing.

“Here you go, my babes. Change into these.” She said.

Again I stood before the Lobby Dunce, dripping and shivering and clutching a dry shirt.

“Um, is there a bathroom nearby, so I can change? I’m freezing.” I said.

“Oh! Okay. Let’s see. Okay you’re going to go down this corridor…” She went on to outline the 1/4 mile walk I’d need to make in order to reach the nearest restroom.

When I returned from the bathroom, drier now and no longer shivering, I took up the issue with our room. We had booked a suite with two queen beds, so Handan and I could have a bed and Barish could have a bed. They didn’t have that. They offered us a king suite – that is a suite with one king bed. Barish would have to sleep on a rollaway bed they would provide “for free.” It would only be for one night. The next day, we would be able to move into our reserved room.

Because they went to such lengths before the trip to assure us everything was in order and that we shouldn’t trouble them with a phone call, we made an issue of their screw-up. Mistakes and over-bookings happen – I understand the industry. But when they do, and when it is the hotel’s fault, it is upon the hotel to make things right. Offer me something. Make me feel good. A free cot won’t cut it.

So Handan made them an offer: waive the “resort fee” for the whole week. The resort fee is a ridiculous and hidden fee that we only found out about after we hit the BUY button on Expedia. There was no mention of it before then, and once you hit the BUY button, you can’t cancel. The resort fee was $28 per day and allowed access to the pool and wifi and a few other amenities. I thought that having that absurd fee waived for the week was a fair exchange for their mix up. They inconvenienced us not only on our arrival, but we would have to pack up and move again the next day, and Barish would be forced to sleep on a crappy cot for a night. $196 for our inconvenience. Fair price.

Lobby Dunce relayed the offer to her manager via a chat window on her computer. The manager came back with a counter offer: one day resort fee waiver.

Handan got angry. More words were exchanged.

Lobby Dunce sent another message to Hidden Manager. Another counter: two days resort fee waiver.

Handan was about to go nuclear. I moved her aside. She is more ferocious than a honey badger in a fight, but I wasn’t ready for her to go full bananas just yet. I stepped up to the desk and asked Lobby Dunce to call Hidden Manager out front. This problem would never be solved as long as the person in power was hiding behind a curtain.

When Hidden Manager came into the light, I introduced myself and explained the situation and told her what we wanted to make things right for us. I never broke eye contact, not even for a second. And I finished it with the argument that $200 is nothing to that hotel. It’s not even a rounding error on their accounting books. But it is a big deal for us. I told her to think about that and make the right call.

I saw the war behind her eyes. She came within an inch of fighting me, but then her fire went out, and she agreed. We had won the battle, but had we won the war?

We would learn that answer when we moved into our queen suite the next afternoon. But first, we settled into our temporary room and waited for the cot to be delivered.

A knock at the door…

I opened it to see a man standing with a wheeled cot turned up on its head. I asked him to come in, thinking he’d lay the cot down, unbuckle it and make it up with bedding and pillows.


He wheeled it a few feet into the room, turned tail and left without a word.

Nice service.

We shrugged, seeing a pattern emerging, and went to the lobby bar for a cocktail. We sat and enjoyed a couple of drinks while we prepared for our first day at the theme parks the next morning.


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  1. Great vacation report!!! Kept my attention all the way through page 6. You are a great story teller, Loved Handan’s happy face.

  2. Well, aside from the disaster of the hotel it seems like a pretty great vacation. ๐Ÿ™‚ I love the photos of Handan – the joy! ๐Ÿ™‚ I am sure that her happines was contagious to all the folks around.

  3. I am not one to go on ‘themed’ holidays and I will be honest and hesitated to open your post, but, MAN! I am glad I did open it! It looks like you all had such a fun time! I sure know what the hotels from hell are all about. been to many of them! Your photos are really fun. The pelican one looks just like a painting!
    You will need a holiday to get over your holiday now!

  4. The joy on Handan’s face alone is reason to go back! Also, not many people can be that hot and sweaty and still take a great picture like she can! I agree that Universal is more fun than Disney but the attention to detail at both places is amazing! I think you could go back over and over again and still see new things. I really enjoyed reading your story and not once did I think about sneaking out the back door! Lol! I’m glad you had a good vacation!

    1. Thank you so much, Giselle! You’re right about the detail at both parks – the engineering and artistry are breathtaking! And yes, I’d go back just to see the joy on Handan’s face!

  5. i am going to say this again greg you should write novels, i either was laughing my butt off or was grinning from ear to ear or nodding my head and handan you should be the poster child of smiling joyfully, you were making me go aww at every photo, and barish don’t be upset at the teasing because my face looks exactly like your face did on every ride i get on and if y’all want to ever go again, go in january nothing like leaving in snow up to your butt and swimming in the pool in fla on the same day and of course it’s 5 degrees cooler lol i love, love this post xx ps the pics were amazing

    1. Chris, I will one of these days. Just need to find a little more time! ๐Ÿ™‚
      Yes, if we ever go again, it won’t be high summer. I imagine it would be really enjoyable with cooler temps and fewer people!

  6. You are a great writer. If you ever write a book, please let me know, I would definitely buy it. I live in Florida and love it. But I’m on the other coast. A lot less commercial and more about nature. If you do come in the winter it will be cooler but with a lot more people also. Still it’s manageable.
    It must be great to be with such an enthusiastic partner by your side. Your son looks like a fine young man also. Your family is what a great family is all about. Thanks for the blog.

    1. Thank you so much, Marcia! I hear nothing but good things about Florida’s west coast. I think I’ll take the family there for a vacation in the near future. I know Handan doesn’t want to stay in CT forever (neither do I, for that matter), and the Florida climate suits her just fine, as it reminds her of Izmir. Maybe we’ll end up down there for good one of these years!

  7. I loved every minute of reading this Greg, I was 5 minutes late for a meeting too, just in case you wanted to know :D. And seeing Handan smile from ear to ear in almost every photo. Ah man so worth it!!!!