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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Laid Back Fish on Fire - A Great Local Orlando Bar and Restaurant

Exterior of Fish on Fire bar and restaurant
Tired of the tourist scene or the same old chain restaurants you can find all over the United States? Head over to Fish on Fire and get a taste of what a real local Orlando bar and grill is.

Located just a half block East of our Orlando Airport area car rental office, Fish on Fire is a place that one of our service agents - Andres - stops by frequently after work. He loves the laid back, easy going vibe of the place. Pop in, and you're bound to easily strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.

If you're looking for a high class restaurant and gourmet food, this isn't the place. It's more of a bar that happens to serve really good food - nothing exotic, just good old home style meals. The service is fast, but not too fast, and the wait staff is super friendly.

Obviously there are plenty of seafood dishes and, if you've just finished a successful day of fishing on the nearby Conway chain of lakes, they'll even prepare anything you catch. There are burgers, wings, pulled pork, salads and plenty of tasty appetizers to choose from, too. For a true taste of Florida, give the "Allie's Gator" (gator nuggets) a try!

If you're a seafood lover, try the fish tacos, bacon wrapped shrimp, fried catfish or the grilled mahi-mahi sandwich. All of the burgers are great but the prize goes to their "Fatty Melt" - three burgers smothered in bacon, topped with a fried egg, onion straws and sliced cheddar cheese, all trapped within two grilled cheese sandwiches - ridiculous!!!

There are only three desserts to choose from but they are excellent. Try the Plant City Moon Pie - an explosion of chocolate and cherry goodness - or the key lime pie, which is real homemade key lime pie with a fabulous, flaky crust.

Again, the restaurant is sort of a "side dish" at Fish on Fire. People really go there for the environment and friendly people. During the day, a TouchTunes box pumps out classic rock and on many nights, live bands draw a huge crowd. It can get pretty loud when there are live bands, so eat outside if you want to have a conversation while you eat.

Is Fish on Fire going to be the type of place that you recommend solely for the food? Probably not. There is nothing that truly stands out (except, maybe, the Fatty Melt) but everything is good, the portions are large and the prices are reasonable. It's a real, neighborhood joint that the locals love, though, and a great escape from the plastic establishments in the tourist corridor.

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "Never be a food snob. Learn from everyone you meet - the fish guy at your market, the lady at the local diner, farmers, cheese makers. Ask questions, try everything and eat up!" - Rachael Ray

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Austin's Coffee Shop - This Hipster Hangout Has A Little Bit Of Everything

Exterior of Austin's Coffeee Shop in Winter Park, FL
Exterior of Austin's Coffee Shop
If you're tired of the same old Starbucks scene and looking for a truly unique environment, head to Austin's Coffee Shop in Winter Park, just North of Orlando.

Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Austin's Coffee Shop is a place that many people head to for a cup of coffee and to get work or studying done (it's located near Valencia College, Rollins College and Winter Park Tech).

You'll see all kinds of people banging away on their laptops or reading books while those that have come to socialize are more than happy to strike up conversations with friends or even complete strangers. There's a whole shelf filled with board games that patrons can bring over to their tables and play - classics like Clue, Life, Battleship, Yahtzee, Sorry, Operation, etc.

Truly a hipster hangout, you'll see some pretty interesting characters, ranging in age from their early 20s to 50s, hanging out here. Half the patrons don't even where shoes! Local artists have their creations displayed proudly all over the walls and the whole place has a dark, musky vibe with mismatched furniture.

At night, there is always something going on at Austin's Coffee Shop. Live hip hop bands, jazz bands, poetry readings, comedy acts - the entertainment is as eclectic as the atmosphere and people who flock to this favorite neighborhood hangout.

There are quite a few varieties of coffee and tea to choose from - hot, chilled or frozen. The beans are ground there on the spot, so you know your coffee is always going to be fresh. Austin's is not just for coffee and tea; though, they also have a decent selection of beers and wines. If you're hungry, they have plenty of sandwiches, wraps, salads, munchies and desserts to choose from. Vegetarians will definitely appreciate their wide selection of vegan dishes and everything on the menu is very reasonably priced.

If your idea of a perfect atmosphere is bright, fresh and new, Austin's Coffee Shop is probably not for you. If you define an ideal atmosphere by the people, sounds and vibe of a place, Austin's is definitely a hip little hangout you should check out!

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "I force people to have coffee with me, just because I don't trust that a friendship can be maintained without any other senses besides a computer or cellphone screen." - John Cusack

Ski Resorts You Can Drive To From Florida

Snow skiing is just a short drive from Florida
Snow Skiing From Florida is just a short day trip!
You could spend an entire day walking around Florida, talking to people and asking if any of them was born here and never find a single Florida native above the age of 30. Practically everybody who lives in Florida is from somewhere else, it seems.

A large percentage of Florida transplants are from up North and, although most will tell you they headed to the Sunshine State to escape the brutal winters, a great number of those people will tell you that one of the things they miss most about living up north is snow skiing.

Sure, you can jump on an airplane and head West to Aspen, Colorado or fly North and get to Stowe, Vermont but sometimes the hassle and expense of air travel just isn't worth it. If you don't mind a fairly long day of driving, you can reach a number of excellent ski resorts in as little as seven or eight hours – all depending what part of Florida you are traveling from.

What may be more surprising is that all of these southern ski resorts have an average season of about 130 days and some open for skiing as early as late October. That's more than four months available to get your ski fix!

Here are the five closest ski resorts to Florida, arranged in order of drive time:

Wolf Ridge Ski Resort

Travel Time:
  • Jacksonville: 7 hours, 10 minutes
  • Tallahassee: 8 hours, 17 minutes
  • Orlando: 9 hours, 12 minutes
  • Miami: 12 hours, 11 minutes
Elevation: 4,700 ft.

Vertical Drop: 700 ft.

Longest Run: 1,800 ft.

Number of Runs: 22

Snowmaking Machine: Yes

Lighted Slopes: Yes

Cataloochee Ski Area

Travel Time:
  • Jacksonville: 7 hours, 16 minutes
  • Tallahassee: 7 hours, 36 minutes
  • Orlando: 9 hours, 17 minutes
  • Miami: 12 hours, 29 minutes
Elevation: 5,400 ft.

Vertical Drop: 740 ft.

Longest Run: 3,500 ft.

Number of Runs: 17

Snowmaking Machine: Yes

Lighted Slopes: Yes

Appalachian Ski Mountain

Travel Time:
  • Jacksonville: 7 hours, 18 minutes
  • Tallahassee: 9 hours, 8 minutes
  • Orlando: 9 hours, 20 minutes
  • Miami: 12 hours, 19 minutes
Elevation: 4,000 ft.

Vertical Drop: 365 ft.

Longest Run: 2,640 ft.

Number of Runs: 12

Snowmaking Machine: Yes

Lighted Slopes: Yes

Sugar Mountain

Travel Time:
  • Jacksonville: 7 hours, 51 minutes
  • Tallahassee: 9 hours, 10 minutes
  • Orlando: 9 hours, 52 minutes
  • Miami: 12 hours, 52 minutes
Elevation: 5,300 ft.

Vertical Drop: 1,200 ft.

Longest Run: 7,920 ft.

Number of Runs: 20

Snowmaking Machine: Yes

Lighted Slopes: Yes

Beech Mountain

Travel Time:
  • Jacksonville: 7 hours, 55 minutes
  • Tallahassee: 9 hours, 28 minutes
  • Orlando: 9 hours, 56 minutes
  • Miami: 12 hours, 55 minutes
Elevation: 4,675 ft.

Vertical Drop: 830 ft.

Longest Run: 5,280 ft.

Number of Runs: 15

Snowmaking Machine: Yes

Lighted Slopes: Yes

Want More Skiing?

Those are just the closest ski destinations to Florida and they are all located in North Carolina. If you're willing to stay in the car for another hour or so, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia offer ten more ski resorts for you to choose from. That's 15 different ski resorts – all within a day's drive!

While nobody will ever say that any of these runs match some of the ones that you'll find in the Northeast or Western United States, they'll definitely provide a fun, challenging day for the great majority of skiers and will give you a chance to experience the fun side of snow – not the unpleasant kind you have to shovel!

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "Skiing combines outdoor fun with knocking down trees with your face." - Dave Barry

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Painting With A Twist In Orlando - Set Your Creative Side Free!

One of the great things about working for a small car rental company is that you really get to know a lot of your customers - especially the ones who come back year after year.

While every theme park does its best to add new rides and update the shows, once you've been to all of the theme parks a few times apiece, they lose their magic and many people aren't willing to fork out more than $100 per person to see pretty much the same things again.

When our perpetual customers return to us, they frequently ask our advice on something new and different to experience. Fortunately, there are so many fun things to do in the Central Florida area, you could never do them all, so we haven't run  out of suggestions yet!

One thing that most folks would never think of doing is taking a class while on vacation. Although I'd tend to agree that anything that sounds like "school" is in direct opposition to what I'd ever think of when it comes to something to do on a vacation, it's a little bit different when that class teaches you something fun to do that you can use when you get home, too.

Painting with a Twist is just such a place. Whether you are an individual, couple or family it doesn't matter; everyone can have a great time learning how to paint at Painting with a Twist. Experience doesn't matter. In fact, novices are both welcomed and encouraged to sign up. Classes are taught by various local artists who love showing newbies how easy it is to create a masterpiece they can be proud of!

All supplies are included in your two or three hour class - paint, brushes, canvass - even a smock to cover your clothes. In case you need a little "creativity boost," there is a wine, beer and soda bar available with drinks at very modest prices. If you'd like to eat while you paint, you are more than welcome to bring your own snacks.

Every day or night, a different painting project is taught, so make sure you select the right class if there is a particular painting scene you'd like to master. Most classes are evening ones between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., and day classes are available on the weekends, as well. The cost is $35 per person for two hour classes and $45 per person for three hour classes.

Painting with a Twist is located at 6700 Conroy Windermere Rd., just a few miles North of the Universal Orlando theme park. Reservations are a MUST; virtually all classes sell out. You can reserve your class online or call 407-601-7800.

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "Painting is easy when you don't know how, but very difficult when you do." - Edgar Degas

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

CSI: The Experience - Have Fun Solving Crimes During Your Orlando Vacation

CSI - the Experience on International Drive in Orlando
CSI: The Experience - on International Drive in Orlando
There are few television shows as popular as CSI: Crime Series Investigation. It has been recognized internationally by the Festival de Télévision de Monte-Carlo as the most popular worldwide drama series and has an estimated 73.8 million viewers.

Originally set in Las Vegas, the show has spawned two spinoffs, CSI NY and CSI Miami as well as the upcoming CSI Cyber, which will star Patricia Arquette and Luke Perry. When you add in the viewers from all of the various Law and Order crime drama series, it is clear that people really love trying to solve crimes.

Why watch television to get your detective fix? You can become a CSI agent and solve crimes all on your own at CSI: The Experience - a new attraction on International Drive in Orlando. Set in the location of the original CSI series, Las Vegas, you'll get to go through everything the detectives on the show do to solve a crime.

When you enter CSI: The Experience, you'll be offered CSI vests and lab coats so that you can look the part and you'll watch a short film where you are given instructions by Gil Grissom, your supervisor. Next, you can choose one of three crime scenes to investigate. If you want to do the other two, they charge you half price and you can do those other crime scenes the same day or come back on another day to try and solve them.

At the crime scene, you are instructed to take notes on everything you see and not to make any assumptions until all of the evidence is collected. Next, you'll head to the lab and use forensic technology to analyze the evidence before making your way to the autopsy room to get the last set of clues.

Finally, it's time to report to Grissom. You'll assemble and submit your evidence along with your determination of who the killer was. If you get it right, there's a CSI certificate waiting for you!

While this is a fun frolic for the family, it only takes an hour or two. You are permitted to take as long as you like and kids definitely like to play with the lab equipment longer than adults do. The cases are not difficult to solve and while older visitors would probably appreciate a bit more of a challenge, children love to get it right and earn their detective wings.

It should be noted that cameras are prohibited within the attraction and that you must turn your cell phone off while inside. Professionally taken photographs are offered to you at the end of the experience showing you in various stages of your crime investigation.

CSI: The Experience is located at 7220 International Drive and is open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Sundays. Cost of admission is $19.99 for adults and $12.99 for children (ages 5-12).

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "Every man at the bottom of his heart believes that he is a born detective." -John Buchan

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fun at the Florida Beaches - How To Build A Sand Sculpture

Elephant Sand Sculpture
Dumbo Sand Sculpture on the Beach
Have you ever been to the beach and seen those people that create huge, amazing sand sculptures and wondered how they do it? I know I have!

Contrary to oft-repeated rumors, they aren't using "special sand," glue, sugar water or hairspray to make those magnificent sand creations. It's just plain old beach sand and water and it's something anyone can do. Anyone with a little bit of creativity, that is.

The key is LOTS of water. The more water you mix with the sand, the more compact and sturdy your sculpture will be. It's also important to note that the bottom has to be wider than anything on the top; otherwise, the whole thing could come a-tumblin' down!

Below, is a video that shows how one sand artist creates a dolphin in the sand. Matt Long explains the tools that he uses - many of which you probably already have lying around the house - and shows you exactly how it is done.

After watching the video, I can't wait to give it a try! I'm thinking a car sculpture, maybe ...


Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "Even Castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually." - Jimi Hendrix

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Exciting Changes Coming To Walt Disney World

EPCOT Center's future world at night
What does Disney's future have in store for us?
It's got to be tough to be Disney. They set the bar very high nearly 60 years ago when they opened Disneyland in California and improved upon that theme park when they opened the doors to Walt Disney World in 1972. Because of those huge successes, people expect them to always be the best.

Both of the Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando are more than giving Disney a run for their money when it comes to ride innovation and even Sea World has come up with a few attractions in the past few years that many would argue are as good as many things at Walt Disney World.

Of course, Disney didn't build their reputation on having the fastest or most hair raising rides. They set the standard by building their amusement parks around a theme and then used never before seen technology to create "Disney Magic." Although they may not seem to have the technological edge they once had, it doesn't mean that they aren't working on some really exciting things that are guaranteed to bring families new and old to their parks in record numbers.

In an article recently published on Theme Park Insider, Robert Niles wrote an excellent piece about the things we can all look forward to at the Disney parks - PEP TALK: Why it's like Christmas Eve for Disney theme park fans. Not only is it a great sneak peek at what to expect in the coming years, it truly is a great, fun read!

Star Wars

Disney already has the very popular Star Tours Ride at Hollywood Studios and features Star Wars Weekends at the park, as well. Disney owns the rights to the Star Wars movies and with three new movies in the works, Robert points out that Disney already has plans to create an entire Star Wars themed land in Hollywood Studios.


The movie, Avatar, was, by far, the highest grossing film all-time and Disney owns the rights to that, too. Plans are in the works to build a "real world" version of that with "World of Pandora" Land in the Animal Kingdom. Rumor has it that this section of the park will have a 3D simulator ride similar to EPCOT's "Soarin" ride.


The most popular Disney animated film of all time was Frozen and Disney sure hasn't forgotten that fact. Plans for a ride based upon the popular animated movie are in the works but no firm decision has been announced about which park it will end up being placed in.

Is There More?

Robert speculates that Disney sure can't let a movie as popular as Guardians of the Galaxy go to waste. Since Universal owns the rights to all of the other Marvel character rides, Disney definitely might want to cash in on its own highly successful Marvel comics movie.

He also points out that Disney has a few Pixar movies it could be building attractions for, as well. Upcoming Pixar movies Inside Out, Finding Dory and The Good Dinosaur could all end up with an attraction at one of Disney's theme parks.

Robert also discusses "Legends of Frontierland: Gold Rush!" which just started last month in Disneyland. Who knows what the future holds for this massive, multi-player role playing game, but it could be a revolutionary knew innovation that spreads to Disney's other parks.

Give Robert's Article a Read!

Admittedly, I don't praise other authors nearly as often as I should; there's definitely some great stuff being written out there. I literally read over 300 articles a week on a variety of subjects from some very good writers.

Robert's article was one of those rare ones that really hits the mark on every count. It's very informative, written from a perspective that everyone can relate to and, I'll say it, it has that special "magic" that makes you hopeful and eager for the future - especially if you're a Disney theme park fan. Give his article a read. I think you'll agree!

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths." - Walt Disney

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Haunted Florida - A Haven For Ghosts!

a mob of ghouls
Florida allegedly has more ghosts than you can count!
When people think of Florida, they undoubtedly conjure up images of theme parks, beaches and, of course, lots of sunshine. The last thing in the world people would think of is ghosts. They'd be wrong!

According to those who hunt ghosts, Florida is one of the most haunted states in America. Maybe ghosts like the warm weather; maybe they like the sand and swamps. More than likely, it is because some of the oldest cities in the country are in Florida and it is also a place where many people come to retire and live out their final years.

HauntedPlaces.org lists more than 500 places in Florida where ghosts allegedly have been sighted. Now, you could certainly visit each place one by one and check them out for yourself. Ghosts don't tend to keep a regular schedule; though, so you may have to wait days or weeks at each place, hoping to see one (until you give up).

Instead of taking a hit or miss approach, why not go on a ghost tour? There are plenty of tours throughout Florida where you are much more likely to encounter a presence from the afterworld. Even if you don't meet up with a spirit, your ghoul guide will tell you hair raising stories surrounding the various places you'll be visiting that will make you glad you didn't!

Here are the most popular tours, arranged by geographic location:

Ghost Tours in Central Florida
  • Downtown Orlando Ghost Tour: On this very popular ghost tour, guests learn of some of the scandals, unsolved mysteries and eerie ghost sightings in downtown Orlando. Various tales surrounding the old Church Street Station complex are revealed as well as a particularly eerie tale of the ghosts that now haunt a building built on the land of what was once Orlando's first cemetery. One of the more interactive ghost tours in Florida, you actually get to go inside of most of the haunted buildings and guests are given special ghost hunting equipment to aid them in their ghost quest.
  • Kissimmee Ghost Tour: Historic downtown Kissimmee is a quaint little place that is as "Main Street USA" as it gets. That is, until you learn of some of the truly bizarre and horrific events that have occurred in the town's history. On this ghost tour, learn of a headless horseman who has been spotted on many occasions, of a little girl who died who still swings invisibly on the swing set, of a man who died in the lake while looking for the dock (his ghost is still looking) and of the many tortured spirits that linger around the "hanging tree."
  • Haunts of Daytona: Scary stories, scientific facts and gruesome history all combine to make this nighttime Daytona walking tour a frightfully fun frolic. Owned and operated by a certified ghost hunter and paranormal investigator who has authored several books about paranormal activity and had ghost cases featured on the Discovery Channel, this ghost tour is all about real, documented hauntings, not silly folklore. The highlight of the tour is Pinewood Cemetery. Pretty creepy stuff!
Ghost Tours in Southern Florida
  • Discover Haunted Coconut Grove: On the south side of Miami sits Coconut Grove - a chic area known for its dining, unique shopping, museums and art. It also is home to a ghost tour that is fun for the whole family that includes tales of smugglers, pirates, mobsters, soldiers and more. Learn about some of the haunted places in the area, the celebrities who have frequented "the Grove" and some of the unique history of the area. Tour highlights include stops outside of a haunted playhouse and the Mutiny Grove Hotel.
  • Ft Lauderdale Ghost Tour: This 2 hour walking tour covers 10 city blocks, exploring some of the most haunted places in all of Florida. The Stranahan house, for instance, is home to 6 ghosts and is ranked as the 4th most haunted house in all of Florida. The paranormal researchers who put together this tour also play EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena) that they have recorded at various times. Wear a comfortable pair of walking shoes, or, if the eerie tales become too much to bear, perhaps a pair of running shoes would serve you better!
  • Ghosts of Palm Beach: Rich people have ghosts, too! This hour and a half walking tour recounts many of the mysterious happenings, scandals, glamor and, of course, ghosts in the Palm Beach area. Be forewarned; the Ghost of Palm Beach tour operators say that they will not be held responsible for any haunting, supernatural event, soul-possession or poltergeist activity you experience during or after participation on the tour!
  • Wicked Delray Ghost Tours: Described by Rand McNally as "the most fun town," Delray Beach is such a great place, many people have apparently refused to leave - long after they have been buried. With a lantern lighting your way, your tour guide will tell you the stories of some of Atlantic Avenue's most famous haunts. You'll hear of the ghosts of shipwrecked passengers, the tales of many sightings of ghosts at the Colony motel (a luxury hotel that is still open for business) and of a British pub where the spirits aren't just in the bottles.
  • The Original Ghost Tours of Key West: Featured on the TV shows "America's Most Haunted Places" and "Weird Travels" this is one of the more famous ghost tours in Florida. Featured tales include one of Robert - a possessed doll formerly owned by renowned artist and author, Robert Eugene Otto, a well as the story of Count Carl Von Cosel - a disturbing tale of embalming, necrophilia and communicating with the dead. The walking tour ends inside of the only haunted Hard Rock Cafe in the world.
Ghost Tours on Florida's Gulf Coast
  • Tampa, St. Petersburg & St. John's Pass Ghost Tours: Expertly told ghost stories is what these tours are all about. Learn the spooky stories surrounding the deaths of the ghosts that haunt these two cities and visit the sites of the numerous ghost sitings.
  • Ybor City Ghost Tour: Rated the #1 ghost tour by US City Traveler, this two hour walking tour through the Tampa Ybor City neighborhod takes you to numerous places where ghosts have been spotted. Your ghost guide will tell you spine tingling tales of the people who once made Ybor City their home and who have refused to leave.
Ghost Tours in Northeastern Florida
Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "I'm pretty sure my house in Florida is haunted! He's a nice ghost though." - Ariana Grande