8 Great “Destination Wedding” Venues in the US

asiseeit_fayette_headshotMany couples tying the knot these days are not only looking for different kinds of ceremonies and receptions, but unique and memorable locations as well. More and more weddings are veering away from the traditional ceremony and reception, and instead heading toward what is known as the “Destination Wedding”. Typically these types of weddings result in smaller numbers of people attending, but allow for couples’ friends and families to experience an unbelievable day to remember.

Here are some of the most popular “Destination Wedding” ideas happening around the U.S.:

Central Park- NY, NY

The Wedding of Evan and CherylNew York City is arguably the most iconic city in America, so why not select a weekend afternoon in the ‘The City That Never Sleeps’ to exchange wedding vows? Though the venues in NYC are seemingly endless, perhaps Central Park is the most ideal location for a wedding. Nestled between the busy city avenues and skyscrapers, sits the tranquil beauty of this green-filled park. With nearly a dozen locations available throughout the park, the Conservatory Garden, the Pond, and the Boathouse are three annual favorites for weddings. It should also be noted that the famous Tavern on the Green is currently under renovation and inquiries about its expected time of re-opening should be checked on a regular basis. It’s important to know that there are fees, applications, and certain restrictions that go along with having a wedding in Central Park; for example No alcohol, amplified music, or tents are permitted in the park. For more information and to download an application visit the NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation’s website at www.nycgovparks.org/.

Mall of America- Minneapolis, Minnesota

moaGetting married in a mall? Yes, believe it or not, America’s largest mall plays host to hundreds of weddings a year, having had more than 5,000 performed since its opening. With over 4-million square feet of building area, 520+ stores, and a twenty-five ride and attraction amusement park built inside, it’s no wonder that more than 40-million people visit the MOA every year. But a wedding, really? The fact is the Mall of America has several venues to accommodate just about any style and budget. The MOA even has… (Move over Elvis…) The Chapel of Love! Catering to those who can’t get enough of ‘retail America’, the chapel has photographers, hairstyling, dresses and tuxes, and more all at your disposal. And they of course take all major credit cards. Find out how to book your nuptials by visiting www.MallOfAmerica.com .

Grand Canyon

grandcanyonFor a more rustic approach to tying the knot many couples are venturing to one of the country’s great natural wonders, the Grand Canyon. Some of the more popular ways to celebrate the big day in that area is to be helicoptered in and dropped off onto the peak of a mesa, or ride the historic Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, Arizona that winds through the magnificent canyon with all its colors and beauty. The helicopter rides range in price as well as duration. Bridal parties can view the Hoover Dam and Las Vegas from high above, as well as take in remarkable sunsets as they come and go from the majestic Grand Canyon. Staying more down to earth, the Grand Canyon Railway excursions offer a slower pace, yet still a memorable wedding day. Bridal parties can reserve their own 1923 rail car or mingle in with other passengers. Full-service wedding packages are available and an outdoor wedding permit is required by the National Park Service by calling (928) 638-7841.

Monterey and Carmel, California

MontereyDotted along the Pacific coast sits some absolutely incredible venues for a one-of-a-kind wedding. Carmel and Monterey, California offer breathtaking backdrops for a bride and groom’s magical day. From Monterey’s rocky cliffs to Carmel’s soft sandy beaches, this region gives couples a variety of spectacular venues to choose from. From Stewart’s Cove to Carmel Beach, and Cypress Point at Pebble Beach to the Monterey Stone Chapel in the Redwoods, this area of the Pacific Coast region is home to hundreds of “I Do’s” each year. Booking reservations at a specific area requires timely planning and flexibility of venues and dates, so couples are encouraged to make their plans as soon as possible. www.MontereyWeddings.com is a great place to view all that is offered for weddings in the region.

Rocky Mountains- Colorado region

rockiesIt’s widely known that for skiing enthusiasts there perhaps is no better place to be from mid-autumn to late-spring than the ski trails of Colorado. So it only seems natural that for those who happen to be planning a wedding and enjoy fresh Rocky Mountain powder Colorado is a perfect destination for them. Of course the summer months in the Rockies are also ideal for a memorable wedding. Perhaps the most popular location in the region is Aspen. With an array of hotels, restaurants and activities, Aspen is built for special events. Other Rocky Mountain venues that are perfect for weddings are Golden, Denver, Breckenridge, and Vail, Colorado. Whether winter, spring, summer, or fall, the Rockies offer fun, adventure, and endless memories for brides, grooms, and their families and friends. Finding a location and time of year to suit the soon-to-be-newlyweds in the Rocky Mountain region will take some research and maybe even a couple “fieldtrips”. A great online resource to get your magical day planned is appropriately titled www.RockyMountainBride.com .

Atlantis- Paradise Island, Bahamas

atlantisLike Muhammad Ali knew boxing, the Beatles knew rock n’ roll, and Michael Jordan knows sneakers; with fifteen locations situated around Paradise Island, Atlantis knows weddings. Whether it’s a sunrise or sunset ceremony, a flower-filled or sandy beach backdrop, or a reception for twelve or five hundred, Atlantis at Paradise Island has it covered. From barefoot casual to over-the-top elegant the possibilities are endless for one’s storybook wedding. With the serenity of the Caribbean rippling in the background couples can exchange vows at the secluded Cove Beach. For those looking for a little more ‘wow-factor’ in their ceremony and reception a reservation at Ripples may be just the ticket. Surrounded by a Mayan-style décor and breathtaking water features, a wedding at Ripples will have guests talking about it for years to come. A complete guide to weddings on Paradise Island can be found at www.Atlantis.com . Here visitors will be reminded of what to ask and what to expect when planning a destination wedding in the Bahamas. And remember, U.S. citizens are required to have a passport in order to return to the U.S. (which when you think of it, may be a great place to get stuck for awhile).

Epcot- Disney World, Florida

epcotFor generations Disney World in Central Florida has been thought as a childhood destination. But today the land of Mickey is playing host to nearly two-thousand Cinderella-like weddings each year. Though Disney offers dozens of places to hold a ceremony and reception, I think the most unique venues can be found at a place that may not come to mind right of the bat– the Epcot amusement park. Epcot’s World Showcase takes visitors on a trip around the world, with an incredible attention to detail paid to each country’s highlights. It is here that a bride and groom can choose to be married alongside an English countryside, next to a cascading Canadian waterfall, or with a replica of Rome’s Trevi fountain set as their backdrop. From flowers to cakes, and ceremony to fireworks-filled reception, the wedding planners at Epcot will be there to assist the happy couple every step of the way. Wedding venues at Epcot’s World Showcase can be found within the countries of Canada, United Kingdom, France, Italy, China, Germany, Japan, and Morocco. To start making plans for your Epcot destination wedding visit www.disneyweddings.com .

Fenway Park- Boston, Massachusetts

kimberly + blake | fenway park wedding | boston, massThere are sports fans across the country that would go to the ends of the earth for their favorite team or player. Perhaps there is no place in America where this is truer than in the city of Boston, where fans do just about anything for their beloved baseball Redsox. Having been crowned World Series champions three-times over the past decade, there is no hotter ticket in sports today than that with the Boston Redsox logo attached to it. With all of that in mind, many fanatic couples try to make the Redsox part of their wedding day in any way possible. Whether they decorate their reception hall with red and blue flowers, or have their bridal party decked out in home and away uniforms, some fans just want their favorite team part of their big day. On the other hand, more and more couples are taking their fanaticism to a whole new level; “upper deck level” that is.  The Boston Redsox, like many other sports franchises across the country, are now catering to their over-the-top fans by opening sections of the stadium for wedding ceremonies and receptions before, during, and after the game. Fenway Park’s history and charm can now be captured on sunny afternoon or starlit night during a Redsox home-stand or even while the stadium is vacant. Brides can say their vows from the famed Green Monster, or overlooking homeplate from the EMC Club, which seats up to 300 guests. So warm up your vocal chords for a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline” and contact the management of Fenway Park at www.Redsox.com  to book your upcoming wedding.

So from a ballpark to a mall, or an island to a mountain top, the U.S. has some amazing venues for those couples looking to create a once-in-a-lifetime wedding memory. Where will your dream wedding be?

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Family Getaway: Key West

asiseeit_fayette_headshotFor decades Key West, Florida has been seen as the ultimate adult getaway. From Bike week, the Hemingway Festival, and FantasyFest, Key West has created an aura of over-indulgence and the lowering of one’s inhibitions. And while to many that may truly be the case, my annual visits over the past ten years have found a let’s say, ‘Kinder and gentler Key West’. I have traveled there with my wife many times as a couples’ retreat, but we’ve also included the entire family as well on occasion. From seemingly limitless eating choices to non-stop water fun, the Conch Republic is a fabulous place to plan your next family getaway.

My home away from home is always the Hyatt Sunset Harbor located on the Gulf end of Duval Street. This resort is located just next to Mallory Square and its boardwalk. EveningsIMG_4003 produce breathtaking sunsets, while mornings awake to cruse ships making Key West their next port of call. The rooms at Sunset Harbor range from studios to 2-bedroom suites. All accommodations are spacious, and always up to Hyatt expectations. Their pool and hot tub are the centerpiece of many daily poolside activities.

If a resort setting isn’t your family’s style, Key West is packed with Bed & Breakfast inns, as well as VRBOs (vacation rentals by owner). Depending on your budget, your stay can be in an entire house or the sharing of one with another couple or family. Many of these rentals will even allow for the family pet to come along as well, but always make sure you check that out with management, and get it in writing, prior to arrival.

For those that have always dreamed of living on the water, there are many motor yachts and houseboats that are able to be rented out by the week or month. Some come with a complete crew, while others allow you and your family to sail solo.

IMG_4059When it comes to the ultimate in getting away from it all, there is no better place to stay in Key West than on a private island known as Sunset Key. Approximately three-quarters of the island located just to the west of Mallory Square consists of private homes, but the remaining quarter of the island has 1-bedroom to 3-bedroom cottages, along with pool facilities and a private beach. My annual visit to the island’s exceptional restaurant, Latitudes, lets me enjoy the surroundings if only for a couple hours, and keeps me dreaming for yet another year.

Getting around Key West is extremely easy. No car necessary! While my family usually walks from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean (about 14 blocks on Duval), bicycle and motor cart rentals are also available on a daily to weekly basis. Taxis are readily available, as well as pedicabs too. My taxi driver (I like to say that…) is saved in my contacts for a quick call when I arrive at the airport, and when my vacation is over. When staying in the historic section of the island known as Old Key West that’s about the only time I ever need a cab. While Key West is very pedestrian-friendly and speed limit concerns are rarely an issue, its always important to still be alert so your stay isn’t cut short by an incident.

Water fun on Key West can be non-stop. From ocean fishing to sunset dinner cruises, and jet skiing to snorkeling, the activities on the water are so numerous that you may not have a enough time toIMG_4031 take them all in on one stay. While I have enjoyed several excursions with the Fury and Sebago companies, my most enjoyable have been with Danger Charters. While the larger companies have you aboard with 40-50 others, the Danger Charters schooner only holds about twenty. My most recent adventure with ‘Danger’ started around 9:30 in the morning. Sailing out about five miles to the Strait of Florida we were able to snorkel for about 90 minutes on one of the world’s greatest reefs. One of the three crew on board Danger Charters actually became our snorkeling guide as she showed us the places to view amazing fish and underwater creatures. Following a fresh fruit and water break, two of the crew split the group and took us on a fabulous kayak journey around the Key West National Nature Preserve. This uninhabited island plays home to incredible wildlife as well as unique trees and plants. On our return the sails went up on the multi-mast schooner for a fun 60-minute sail.

Booking for either half-day or full-day excursions is as easy as going online and selecting the package that is right for your family. Whether it’s parasailing over the Gulf or jet skiing around this 2 by 4-mile island of Key West, a day on the water is sure to create a lifetime of memories. And when the busy day is coming to an end there is no better way to take in the famous Key West sunsets than by enjoying them aboard dinner and/or sunset cruises. Many companies have varied packages with one to surely fit every family’s needs.

IMG_4017If you’d rather enjoy a meal on dry land Key West is certainly not lacking for fantastic food choices. Many of the island’s restaurants have been featured in worldwide publications and on national food and travel television networks. Starting off in the morning a trip to a couple of Key West’s best breakfast stops is bound to get your family’s day rolling in the right direction. For me it comes down to three ‘can’t miss’ places. Two Friends Patio is open all day long, but their homestyle breakfasts are always a good start to the day. LeCreperie is an amazing new restaurant on my ‘foodie radar’. Located just off Duval St., their savory crepe stuffed with scrambled eggs, various cheeses, and bacon is enough to make you wish breakfast time would never end. Perhaps my favorite breakfast stop is Pepe’s, located down by the marina. While they serve what may be considered a typically good breakfast, be sure to order their ‘toast of the day’; and pray to God that it is Coconut Toast. One bite of this beautiful piece of toasted homemade bread, and you may never look at toast the same way ever again.

The lunch choices on Key West can range from a one-of-a-kind burger experience at Garbo’s Grill to a mouth-watering lobster roll from DJs Clam Shack. I also recently stumbled across a great little Italian food and pizzeria restaurant called Onlywood. Located down a narrow lane off of Duval sits this little slice of Italy. With tables for eating inside or out, this place fires up some of the most outstanding pizza I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy. With its wood oven approaching a mind-boggling 1,000-degrees, the custom made pizza pies are ready in mere moments after ordering. Blue Heaven, Sunset Pier, and Sloppy Joe’s are also fun places to take the entire family for lunch. With great live entertainment daily and unique surroundings, all three locations serve great-tasting lunches with flair.

For evening dinners, one of the largest menus in Key West can be found at Fogarty’s on Duval. With open-air seating, this restaurant serves up great tasting juicy burgers to high-quality steaks, andIMG_4076 savory salmon to delicious desserts. Located adjacent to the restaurant is the Flying Monkey Saloon, serving delicious frozen drinks for moms and dads, as well as for the “under-agers” too. Fine dining reaches its pinnacle at The Hot Tin Roof, located at the Ocean Key Resort & Spa. Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, this premiere location is only outdone by its exquisite menu. Starting with an appetizer of tuna tartare and a tomato burrata salad, followed by an entree of scallop risotto or Latin braised short ribs, executive chef Jason Westphal promises a dining experience to remember. For dining in a less formal setting, a family can enjoy a great dinner at the Conch Republic Restaurant by the marina or Pinchers Crab Shack located along Duval St. Both serve a wide menu that is sure to please adults and kids.

History abounds in Key West. A stroll through the Truman Annex will lead you to the Little White House where President Harry S. Truman spent much of his time when not in Washington DC. Various art galleries and antique shops line the streets of Old Key West. One of the highlights of the history of Key West is the Mel Fisher treasure museum, where visitors can view Fisher’s motherload from the Atocha shipwreck. This, as well as the Key West Aquarium, Fort Zachary, and the Shipwreck IMG_4082Museum can provide hours of learning and fun while on vacation. Imagine that?!

Hitting the beaches while in Key West is highly recommended. Smathers Beach along the Atlantic Ocean and Fort Zachary State Park are two of the best. While Smathers is free, Ft. Zachary is a little less crowded because of the nominal fee. At Ft. Zachary State Park beach goers will enjoy a sense of complete solitude, while those choosing Smathers Beach will have a large selection of water sports and rentals to choose from.

So when you hear someone mention Key West in the future don’t be fooled by what you’ve heard about the crazy Spring Breakers or FantasyFest crazies. Check the KeyWest.com website Events Calendar, and you may find your vacation will coincide with their annual Food Festival or Key Lime Pie Week. As I’ve so often said, Key West is Paradise Found, for couples and families alike.

Welcome to Miami Beach

asiseeit_fayette_headshotFrom Aventura to Key Biscayne the winter months in Miami Beach area are covered in white…..from the miles of sun-soaked beaches that is. Though snow doesn’t fall in South Florida, there is fun for all ages. Sunny Isles, Bal Harbour, Miami Beach, and South Beach all sit along the Atlantic Ocean inviting visitors to their pristine beaches and 75-degree waters. Just across Biscayne Bay Downtown Miami, Coconut Grove, and Littlewelcom-miami-beach Havana are bustling with various weekend that meld cultures into one. So for a change of pace from falling snow and temperatures in the forties, consider Miami for an upcoming winter getaway.

Tours around the Miami area are as diverse as the culture itself. Whether strolling through the Art Deco District of South Beach, sobeenjoying the beauty of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, or experiencing the tastes of region with the Miami Culinary Tour, this slice of paradise is sure to have you quickly forgetting about the snow and cold back home. Along Ocean Drive is the historic Art Deco District of SoBe (South Beach). The architecture is timeless, the names iconic, and the history behind each building is fascinating. From The Clevelander to The Carlyle the beauty of the area screams SoBe! Just a few blocks from the Atlantic sits a quiet and serene setting known as the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. Open during the daytime hours, this 2 ½ acre area of greenspace offers a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. Built in the 1960s and refurbished in 2011, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden is home to many native miacultourplants and flowers such as the palms, cycads, and orchids and many others. Whether you’re in Miami for the first time or making a return visit, a ‘must do’ is booking an afternoon or evening with the Miami Culinary Tour. On a recent visit to Miami Beach my daughter, Morgan, and I were given a walking tour through the streets of South Beach with more than a half-dozen stops at some of the area’s finest restaurants. Mirka was our energetic and informative guide for the Miami Culinary Tour, and shared with us the history, culture, and even gossip of SoBe. Our 3-hour tour (nod to Gilligan) included tasty samples of authentic empanadas, ceviche, churros, and gelato. All of these locations aim to help make your stay that more memorable.

While northerners may be skiing the slopes or sliding down Grandpa’s hill during the winter, those guests to Miami can kayak the waters of Oleta River State Park or soak in the sun on the miles kayakof beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. Nestled in North Miami is the Oleta River State Park. From the moment you arrive it’s hard to remember that you are in the middle of one of the busiest cities in America. The Oleta River State Park offers kayak and canoe rentals through the mango trees and even mountain bike rentals through several trails of various skill levels. Imagine kayaking on Biscayne Bay instead of fighting snowplows? After an enjoyable day at the park maybe grabbing a few hours of the fading winter sun on the sands of Miami Beach is just what the doctor ordered. From Sunny Isles to South Beach, and then Key Biscayne and Coral Gables, the Miami region has miles of beautiful sand beaches.

artdecoMiami is packed with fantastic stores and boutiques. From the Aventura Mall located in the northern part of Miami to the open air market-like experience of Lincoln Road, guests and locals always find unique shopping and a variety of restaurants to enjoy throughout the Miami region.

miabchEntertainment is nearly non-stop in Miami. From the hundreds of clubs and pubs to world class entertainment, there is always something going on in and around South Florida. The NBA’s Miami Heat and NHL’s Florida Panthers will all be hosting home games during the winter months and into the playoff drive of the spring.

So think about putting the parka away and start digging out that beachesswimsuit from the back of the closet, Miami Beach awaits you with warm temperatures, sunny skies, and friendly locals to help you forget about the winter season.

Sun and Fun along Florida’s Southwest Coast

Most likely when you think of vacationing in Florida you think of the hot spots of Miami, the Keys, Ft. Lauderdale, or the tourist mecca known as Orlando. For several years I have enjoyed traveling to the Southwest region of Florida to take in the charm of the area and the warmth of the sun.  I have visited up and down the Gulf Coast, from Sarasota to Sanibel, and Naples to Key West, and the draw for me is that each area has its own cool vibe that keeps me coming back for more.

Flying into Southwest Florida International (RSW) always gets my vacation off on the right foot. Perhaps one of the cleanest and most enjoyable airports in America, RSW sets the tone of rest and relaxation from the moment one lands. With a dedicated area on the ground level of the airport, getting a rental car is as easy as renting a car can be; and I’m off on vacation!

A stay at the Hyatt Regency – Coconut Point is always my hotel of choice when in Southwest Florida. Located between Ft. Myers and Naples, just off the Tamiami Trail, Coconut is centrally located for loads of shopping, dining, and fun activities.  A stay at the Hyatt Coconut Point wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hyatt’s private island, Big Hickory Island, across Estero Bay.  A free water taxi takes guests from the resort’s dock to the island every 30-minutes. While on your way you are likely to see dolphins and rays swimming alongside the boat. Once at the island, a two-minute walk to the other side brings you to the Gulf of Mexico in all her glory. (Wait, see the sunbeams shine down and hear the angels sing from above.) Privacy and more relaxation is the order of the day when spending time at this beach. With complimentary lounge chairs, umbrellas, and ice-filled coolers for your favorite beverages and snacks, a day at Big Hickory Island beach is perfect for saltwater swimming, sunbathing, and seashell collecting; and will surely spoil you for future excursions.

When in the Bonita Springs area visitors must visit the amazing Coconut Point shopping destination. This outdoor shopping and eating experience is rivaled by few. With condos above the stores, known as The Residences, to designer shops such as Coach and Aldo, and chain stores like Target and Champs, Coconut Point has shopping covered. The complex also has great restaurants such as The Grape, Stir Crazy, Tony Sacco’s, and California Pizza Kitchen. With hundreds of famous name stores, dozens of restaurants, and luxury living accommodations, the community of Coconut Point is a modern twist on an early 1900′s city.

The Gulf Coast offers an array of fun options for all interests.  The city of Naples is about 15 miles south of Coconut, and their pristine beaches, unique shopping, and outdoor restaurants make this a must-stop every time I’m in the area. Whether shopping along Naples’ historic Fifth Avenue, enjoying an afternoon bite to eat at the Bayside Restaurant overlooking Venetian Bay, or soaking in the sand and sun at one of its public beaches, luxury can be found in every corner of this Gulf coast city.

The famous Fort Myers Beach area is always ready to offer up fun til the early morning hours. Picking shells on the beaches, taking in the sunsets at the pier, and great food and drink at the famous Yukatan is a typical afternoon and evening at FMB. Branching out from its hub, known as Times Square and The Pier, Fort Myers Beach is home to many stores, restaurants, and nightspots to keep your vacation in high gear when not at the beach. With its many beachside hotels, FMB reminds me of the days of Gidget, Elvis, and Frankie & Annette at the beach. Fun times!

Across the bridge from Fort Myers sits the quiet little island community of Sanibel Island. Know worldwide for its seashell collecting and glorious beaches, Sanibel is one of the best places I know to get away from it all. Though there are plenty of restaurants and shopping opportunities to be found on this island, the tone and pace of Sanibel is much more laid back and easy-going. With several public beaches scattered around the perimeter of the island, taking in the warmth of the sun and searching for that elusive perfect seashell are all in a day’s pleasure on Sanibel Island.

If you’re looking for rest and relaxation in a peaceful, luxurious setting, Florida’s Southwest region may be beckoning you. With incredible weather year-round, true southern hospitality, and a slow-paced way of life, the Gulf Coast region is one of my favorite places to get away to. Whether its Naples to the south, Fort Myers to the north, or Sanibel on an island of its own, Southwest Florida is truly a slice of paradise.

10 Great Things to do at Disney World (Outside the Parks)

Most visitors to Walt Disney World feel that they must take in the four theme parks when vacationing in Central Florida’s wonderland. And for those visiting for the first time, a Park Hopper to the parks is a must. However, for those that visit Walt Disney World on an annual basis, and are looking for a change of pace on things to do, WDW is packed with sights and sounds located outside the four theme parks. To help you make your next visit a little more organized, here are ten things that you must do when visiting the Walt Disney World resort area, without ever stepping a foot inside any of the parks.

1- Dining at Downtown Disney. Divided into three sections, this area of Disney World has fun for every member of the family. The Marketplace, Pleasure Island, and West End are packed with dining, entertainment, and shopping galore. Start your day with lunch at the Earl of Sandwich. This gourmet sandwich and salad shop has perhaps the best meal you can get for the money. At around $6.00 lunch at Disney doesn’t get much better.  From the Earl Club to the Hawaiian BBQ, their sandwiches are made to order on fantastic artisan breads. Eat in or enjoy the Florida warmth outside, the Earl of Sandwich will turn out to be a place that you’ll come back to again and again. There’s also the Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. Offering up tasty chocolate samples, gift bags of their confections, and out-of-this-world ice cream sundaes, the Ghirardelli shop has something special about it (without the ears). C’mon, live a little! Let yourself splurge on a Ghirardelli hot fudge sundae that will make all other sundaes seem like just another bowl of ice cream. Perhaps my favorite place at Downtown Disney is Paradiso 37. This trendy restaurant/bar serves up some fantastic North and South American fare in a very relaxed atmosphere. Whether you decide to dine in or along DD’s waterfront, you will undoubtedly experience Paradiso 37′s cool vibe. One of the favorite beverages of many patrons (including me) is something the bartenders like to call a “Mangled Margarita”. Now I don’t know exactly what is contained in this magical drink, but after a couple you will be ready to take on Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Tinkerbell all in one swoop. From its 24-theater AMC movieplex and Gloria Estefan’s Cuban-flare restaurant, Bongo’s, to Planet Hollywood and The World of Disney megastore, Downtown Disney could easily be a daily stop during your Disney World vacation.

2- The Boardwalk. Located in Disney’s EPCOT resort area, the Boardwalk Resort and Spa is not only a wonderful resort, but is also home to an authentic Atlantic Ocean seaside boardwalk. Complete with games of chance, sidewalk entertainers, and the sweet smell of cotton candy and roasted peanuts, Disney’s Boardwalk is a step back in time to the early 1900s. Nightlife at the Boardwalk is plentiful with a video dance club at the Atlantic Dancehall, dueling pianos at Jellyroll’s, and non-stop sports action at the ESPN Club. Dining options at the Boardwalk include Cat Cora’s Kouzzina, The Big River Grille, and The Flying Fish seafood restaurant. Located between the EPCOT and Hollywood Studios theme parks, Disney’s Boardwalk is full of fun and food.

3- Golfing at Disney. There are four 18-hole championship caliber golf courses woven throughout the Walt Disney World grounds. The Magnolia course is located near the Polynesian Resort and is appropriately named for the fragrant magnolia trees that are found throughout the 7,000 yard course. The Osprey Ridge track is located near the Fort Wilderness Resort and is designed by the famous architect Tom Fazio, and measures about 6,600 yards long. Disney’s Palm Golf Course has just under one-hundred bunkers on its 6,500 yard lay out located near the Polynesian Resort. The fourth championship course is the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course. Located near the Downtown Disney area, this course measures about 6,700 yards. All four of these championship courses include a GPS enabled golf cart in the green fee. A fifth course, Oak Trail Golf Course, can be found at WDW near the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. This is a 9-hole walking course is just under 3,000 yards and a par 36. Golf club rental is available at all five courses. If playing isn’t what you’re looking for, guests of the Disney World resorts can take a lesson or two from award-winning PGA instructors.

4- LaNouba by Cirque de Soleil. This acrobatic, theatrical experience has been wowing crowds for over a decade at Downtown Disney’s West End. A mixture of strength and grace, LaNouba has performers from all over the world creating mesmerizing stunts and dance from hanging wires and trampolines. Nearly sold to capacity every night of the year, reservations are advised before you make your trip to Walt Disney World.

5- Characters in Flight. This giant tethered balloon rises nearly 400-feet above the Downtown Disney area, giving visitors a panoramic view of the surroundings. Priced at around $20 for adults and $12 for kids, this 10-minute balloon ride is sure to create Disney memories.

6- Miniature Golf. There are four unique and fun miniature golf courses at the Walt Disney Resort. Two are found by the Swan and Dolphin resorts. Fantasia Gardens has one course that takes players through the Disney classic “Fantasia” as they play, while the second is a fairway style course, resembling a traditional golf course. Two other courses are found just outside the Blizzard Beach water park area. Known as Summerland, these two courses celebrate two favorite times of year. The Winter course takes players through a winter wonderland with Santa and his elves, while the Summer course winds players through the sand and surf of summer fun.

7- Splitsville. Brand new to the Downtown Disney area, this rock n’ roll style bowling facility isn’t your grandad’s bowling alley. Located in the former Virgin Megastore, Splitsville is scheduled to open in September of 2012. It will feature 30 bowling alleys, a dozen billiard tables, a restaurant, and sports screens throughout. During late-night hours, Splitsville will have a minimum age of 21, so couples and friends can socialize in a kid-free environment.

8- Dining at WDW resorts. When it comes to world-class dining and menu variety, the restaurants found throughout the Walt Disney resorts are second to none. Some of my favorite places are The Turf Club found at the Saratoga Resort and Spa, The California Grill at the top of the Contemporary Resort, and Olivia’s at the Old Key West resort. The Turf Club serves lunches and dinners in relaxed atmosphere reminiscent of sitting on the veranda of the Saratoga horse track in Upstate NY. The California Grill offers guests spectacular views from its location atop the Contemporary Resort, and a menu ranging from yellowfin tuna to bison to organic chicken. Olivia’s is one of my favorite WDW restaurants because of its menu and laid back atmosphere. Throughout the restaurant are pictures and artifacts of Key West, Florida. With regards to the menu, be sure to try their Chicken Caesar Salad. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner will likely be a pleasant surprise. Of course every resort at WDW has at least one full-service restaurant, and all meet, or surpass the quality that you would expect from Disney.

9- DisneyQuest. Located at Downtown Disney’s West End, DisneyQuest is five floors of futuristic, interactive games. Whether you want to design, then ride, your own roller coaster with Cyber Space Mountain or drive your own out-of-this-world car with Buzz Lightyear’s Astroblasters, these and other fun interactive experiences can be found at DisneyQuest. Virtual Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Carribean  -Battle for Gold, and Mighty Ducks Pinball Slam are just a few other attractions that can be played at DQ.

10- Relax at the Disney World Resorts. Whenever I visit Disney I try to remind myself that I am ‘on vacation’. With so much to do at WDW, it’s easy to forget that Disney World is packed with some of the finest resorts and spas to be found anywhere. All resorts at Disney have multiple pools, each with one large trademark swimming area, and usually several smaller pools, for a quieter, more relaxed, day of sun and fun. Each resort wraps itself around a theme, and true to Disney style, it is always done to near-exact detail. The Saratoga Resort and Spa celebrates the historic charm of Saratoga, NY, The Wilderness Lodge places its guests inside an upscale log cabin, complete with a working geyser, and The Grand Floridian is simply elegance personified. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge offers guests a unique experience by having animals found on the savannah of Africa grazing and wandering outside their balconies, while The Polynesian Resort and Spa transports its guests to the feeling of the far east islands.

So next time you’re planning a trip to Central Florida’s most famous tenant, don’t feel you have to get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of the theme parks of Walt Disney World. True, the theme parks of WDW are like no other, and are world-famous, but the land of Mickey contains so much more. Besides the ten ideas mentioned, there are so many more things to do, like behind-the-scenes tours, parasailing, boat rentals, and bike riding. Walt Disney World is truly “The Happiest Place on Earth”, and has so many things to do that every time you visit you’ll find a surprise waiting for you everyday.

Changes coming to Disneyworld in 2012

Though Disneyworld in Florida still consists of its staple attractions like Cinderella’s Castle, the Indiana Jones stunt show, and It’s a Small World, big changes are heading to The Happiest Place on Earth in 2012. From a complete new world at the Magic Kingdom to a widespread overhaul of Downtown Disney, the coming year is bound to bring pleasant surprises.

At the Magic Kingdom, look for the Fall of 2012 to debut the new Fantasyland. Complete with the Beast’s castle, Ariel’s grotto, and a three-ring circus, the new attractions of Fantasyland will be found at the back of the park, near the existing carousel and teacups. New restaurants and quick service food stops will dot the landscape of Fantasyland, including one sit-down restaurant inside the Beast’s castle. Also in the new world look for a water attraction that wraps itself around The Little Mermaid theme. But perhaps the biggest attraction coming to the new Fantasyland is the 3-ring circus called Storybook Circus. However, unlike most circuses, this one will be permanent. Dumbo’s flying elephants, Goofy’s cannonballs, and character meet & greets will be just a few of the colorful, larger-than-life additions to the Magic Kingdom.

Meanwhile, over at Disney’s EPCOT look for the newly refurbished Universe of Energy building to feature an updated attraction with Ellen DeGeneres. This, along with the recently re-introduced ‘Captain EO’ 4D show, featuring Michael Jackson, will give EPCOT a positive shot in the arm.

Perhaps 2012’s largest changes will be seen at Downtown Disney. All three sections of DD are currently going through changes. At the Marketplace LittleMissMatched for girls has already opened, as has the new Pollo Campero quick service restaurant. Surprisingly, Pollo Campero sits in the same square footage where the longtime American icon McDonalds once did business.

In the Pleasure Island section of Downtown Disney changes can already be seen. Gone are the dance clubs of the 90’s, and instead you’ll now find family-friendly restaurants with an around-the-world flair. Street performers play for visitors of the area, and new shops like Apricot Lane and Sammy Duval’s Curl draw shoppers in. Mixed into the new Pleasure Island is the new Irish restaurant Ragland Road and Paradiso 37, which serves up a cuisine from Central and South America.

In the West End section of Downtown Disney the storefronts are changing faster than you can say “Bippity-Boppity-Boo”. No longer exists the classic Magnetron store. Where am I supposed to buy my gift magnets now? Also gone is the Masters of Magic store. I always felt like most of us stopped in the store just to see a free magic show, and never had any intentions of buying a $29.95 magic kit. In their places look to see a Sunglass Icon store and clothing chain Wet Seal’s – Blink store to open up in early 2012.

The most exciting news to me is the creation of the Downtown Disney attraction called Splitsville; a 31-lane bowling alley that will double as a restaurant, bar, and dance club. As a sign says outside the current construction zone- “This isn’t your grandfather’s bowling alley”. Located in the old Virgin record store building, things are already underway for a Fall 2012 opening.

In a recent visit to Disneyworld, I asked a business owner about things happening at Downtown Disney. In our conversation she told me that the DD that we know today will look like something totally different by the year 2014. And if the fast-moving changes of 2011 and aggressive plans for 2012 are any indication, the entire Disneyworld experience that we grew up with will be something completely new in the very near future.

Gulf Coast Getaway at Hyatt Regency Coconut Point

For several years I have enjoyed traveling to the Southwest region of Florida to take in the charm of the area and the warmth of the sun. I have visited up and down the Gulf Coast, from Sarasota to Sanibel, and Naples to Key West, and each area has its own cool vibe that keeps me coming back for more.

Recently I took my daughter, Morgan, on a father-daughter vacation to celebrate her journey off to college. She wanted to go where there were beaches and shopping. (Did I mention she was eighteen?) I immediately thought of the Gulf Coast and began to search for places. Through my Travelocity search I came across a pretty good deal for a fly & stay at the Hyatt Regency at Coconut Point. For a little under $400 each we got a roundtrip flight out of Rochester and 4-night stay at one of Hyatt’s premiere resorts. And as if that package wasn’t good enough, our arrival flight got us into the Ft. Myers airport by 11:30am, with our departure flight not leaving Florida until 5pm. To me those are great bonus hours for some sun & fun!

Upon arriving at the Hyatt Regency – Coconut Point Resort & Spa I couldn’t help but be in awe at the true luxury that welcomed us. From the valet parking to the doormen, this place screamed “vacation”! As you enter the resort the Stillwater Spa is located to your left. This full-service spa offers an enormous menu including their ‘Aqua Massage’. As guests enter the main lobby comfortable sitting areas and the Concierge are located to the left, with the minimalistic check-in area to the right. I found my check-in to be quick and easy, with the friendly desk manager giving me all kinds of information and answering all of my questions. Included with our check-in was a glass of champagne for me and a glass of OJ for Morgan.

Located on Estero Bay, which leads out to the Gulf of Mexico, the Hyatt Regency at Coconut Point offers views that are simply breath-taking. We actually made it a point one evening to stay in our room and take pictures of the sunset over the Gulf from our balcony. Incredible!

Our guestroom was magnificent. The suite contained two queen-size beds, a table with chairs, a kitchenette, and luxurious bathroom. The decor was modern, but not over-the-top. The staff cleaned our room each day and even turned our beds down at night when we weren’t there. Classy!

The Hyatt Regency – Coconut Point was recently awarded Travel & Leisure magazine’s Top 100 Hotels in the World and Top 50 Family-resorts in North America. Guests surveys have also resulted in the resort & spa receiving the AAA Four-Diamond ranking. With its 70,000 square feet of conference rooms, six restaurants and lounges, and three pools this Hyatt Regency has it all. My favorite place to eat at Coconut Point is the poolside restaurant known as the Corkscrew. Serving up great lunches and dinners, the Corkscrew is great as you relax by the pool. For more formal dining, Tarpon Bay and Tanglewood are superb. Tarpon Bay serves the best of area seafood, while Tanglewood offers up some wonderful American grille cuisine.

A stay at the Hyatt Regency – Coconut Point wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hyatt’s private island across Estero Bay. A free water taxi takes guests from the resort’s dock to the island every 30-minutes. While on your way you are likely to see dolphins and rays swimming alongside the boat. Once at the island, a two-minute walk to the other side brings you to the Gulf of Mexico in all its glory. (Wait, see the sunbeams shine down and hear the angels sing from above.) This mile long strip of private beach is for Hyatt guests only and has complimentary chairs and umbrellas, and is perfect for saltwater swimming, sunbathing, and seashell collecting. 

Though the resort has everything you could want during your stay- tennis, golf, pools, wall-climbing, internet, flat-screen TVs, restaurants, and more- if you wanted to venture out Southwest Florida is packed with things to do. Morgan and I had lunch at the Bayside Restaurant in Naples one day, took in the sunset and had dinner at the Ft. Myers pier another night, and shopped at the amazing Coconut Point. It is an outdoor shopping and eating experience rivaled by few,with condos above the stores known as The Residences. From designer shops such as Coach and Aldo, to chain stores like Target and Champs, Coconut Point has shopping covered. The area also has great restaurants such as The Grape, Stir Crazy, and California Pizza Kitchen.

Without a doubt if you are looking for rest and relaxation in a peaceful, luxurious setting, the Hyatt Regency – Coconut Point is beckoning you. With incredible weather year-round, true southern hospitality, and slow-paced way of life, the Gulf Coast is one of my favorite places to be. Located between Ft.Myers Beach and Naples, and just 15 minutes from the Southwest Florida international Airport, the Hyatt Regency – Coconut Point is the perfect vacation destination for your next getaway. For more information contact Erin Flanagan at 239-390-4205 or visit their website at coconutpoint.hyatt.com.