Fun Things to Do for Tweens and Teens in Melbourne, Florida

The Brevard Zoo is a fun time for teens.
The zip line at the Brevard Zoo is a fun time for teens.

This past Spring Break, I took a rather spontaneous trip to Florida with my teenage daughter and her friend.

We took the Amtrak Auto Train to Sanford Florida, and had just five days to explore.

Of course the main point of a Spring Break trip to Florida is the beach, and we planned to spend time on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

For my part, I was hoping for some relaxation on the beach:  sand, surf, and shells.

The girls were looking for more active adventures!

Melbourne Beach on the Atlantic Ocean

Florida did not disappoint!  Barely ten minutes out of Sanford the girls spotted dozens of alligators sunning themselves in a pond.

We caught our first sighting of a mermaid upon arrival at the Radisson Suites Oceanfront in Melbourne Beach.

From our top floor balcony, we could see dolphins — at least I hope they were dolphins — swimming along the shore.

The sun was pretty intense in late March.  We found that the best beach times were in the mornings and late afternoons.

The girls wanted to see more wildlife so we headed out to the Brevard Zoo.

The big attraction here was not the zoo itself, but the zipline over the gigantic alligators.  This turned out to be a treetop course of obstacles and ziplines that takes over an hour to complete.  It was quite strenuous.  Drink plenty of water beforehand — I saw a couple of people pulled out due to heat exhaustion.

The girls really enjoyed the Treetop Zipline adventure.  The Brevard Zoo itself was small.  The best part, I think, was the extensive display of meercats.

Melbourne is near several attractions that we did not see:  the Kennedy Space Center, and the Washington Nationals Spring Training Ball Park.

The Foosaner Art Museum in downtown Melbourne also looked interesting.

Sanibel Island and the Gulf Coast

From Melbourne, we headed across Florida to Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, where we met up with some friends.   The girls got some shopping in at Fort Myers Beach.

Kayaking at Cape Coral
Kayaking at Cape Coral

We stayed at the Colony Inn Condos on Sanibel Island.  

There, you can rent a fully furnished one-bedroom apartment, just steps from the beach.

The Colony Inn is a bit of the old Florida on what has become an overcrowded and quite ritzy Sanibel Island.  I recommend it if you are looking for reasonably priced place to stay near the beach.

The girls loved hunting for shells along the  beach at Sanibel Island.  The sand here was finer than on the beach in Melbourne, and the water was fairly calm.  There were plenty of shells for the picking.

The highlight of the trip, however, was the kayaking we did in Cape Coral.

The girls spotted dolphins and manatees close to shore!  It was quite a thrill to see a manatee at such a close distance.

 

Burn Your Club Carlson Points at Melbourne Beach Radisson

Mermaid fountain at entrance to Radisson Suites Oceanfront in Melbourne Beach, Florida
Mermaid fountain at entrance to Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront in Melbourne Beach, Florida

If you have Club Carlson points to burn and you need to burn them fast — consider  the Radisson Suite Hotel  Oceanfront in Melbourne Beach, Florida.

Melbourne Beach — where’s that?  

That’s the question I was asked repeatedly whenever I mentioned our Spring Break trip to Florida.

Melbourne Beach is on a barrier island about half an hour south of Cape Canaveral.  This area along the eastern seaboard in Florida is known as the “Space Coast.”  Melbourne Beach is a low key beach town.  There’s no boardwalk or amusements — just a broad sandy beach, the wind, the waves, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Melbourne Beach is a quiet residential area with four high rise hotels, some condos and and garden apartments, and single family homes.  The beach is very clean and not crowded at all.  Day visitors will find free beach parking at a municipal park next door to the Radisson.

The view from my balcony at the Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront
The view from our balcony at the Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront

Burn Your Club Carlson Points at the Radisson Suite  Oceanfront in Melbourne, Florida

The Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront is a gem of a property, and is especially well suited to families traveling with kids.  It was built in 1984 as condos, but was immediately purchased by Radisson for use as a hotel.

The view from my balcony at the Radisson Suites Hotel Oceanfront

We used 44,000 Club Carlson points to stay for two nights at this magnificent property where every room is a suite and has a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  Through the end of May 2015, holders of the Club Carlson credit card can get a second night free when redeeming award nights.

As a Club Carlson Gold member (due to having the credit card), I landed a top floor suite. The welcome gift was a bowl full of fruit and pastries.

The “rooms” are actually more like one bedroom apartments.  Both the bedroom and large living room have floor to ceiling windows overlooking the ocean, and all the rooms have an oceanfront balcony.  The decor is modern.  Each room has a king sized sleep number bed in the bedroom, and a queen-sized sofa bed in the living room.  I especially loved that the floors were travertine tile, which is so much cleaner than carpet.

I didn’t take any pictures of our suite because the panoramic photos on the hotel website are so drop dead gorgeous.  But I can tell you this:  every single room in this hotel is has a full oceanfront view.  Every room is a large suite — modern, clean, and comfortable.

There is a pool, hot tub, sundeck, and poolside bar.  Two beach chairs and an umbrella rent for $20 a day, but beach toys are free to borrow.  My only concern:  no lifeguard on the beach.

If you make your reservations before the end of May 2015, you can have a two-night stay in a gorgeous oceanfront all-suites hotel for just 44,000 points.  Award room availability is wide open through December 2016.

The view from my balcony at the Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront
The view of the bay from the room entrance at the Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront

There is a shopping center with a Walmart and a supermarket across the street from the hotel.  The Walmart features a large selection of beach items at the front of the store.  There’s also a pizza place, a Thai restaurant, and a Friendly’s.

Did I mention that there are laundry machines at the Radisson?  That is a necessity for our family when traveling with kids.

I am grateful to The Deal Mommy for introducing me to this place.

Everything is super easy, relaxed and convenient.

Where to Eat in Melbourne Florida

If you love seafood you can’t do better than Shells of Melbourne, which features about a dozen different kinds of fresh fish and seafood daily.  Shells of Melbourne is a family style restaurant located inland, near the Melbourne Mall.

Another place we tried was Squid Lips, located just over the bridge on the mainland.  It’s a rambling bayside bar and restaurant, with a view of the fishing pier.  The virgin coladas are highly recommended!

 

Where to Stay Within Walking Distance to Universal Studios, Orlando

Hogwarts Castle
Hogwarts Castle
Photo by Rstoplabe14 at en.wikipedia

A visit to Harry Potter World was on the agenda for our recent spring break trip to Florida.

Onsite hotels at Universal Studios Orlando were very expensive in early April.

I wanted to stay as close as possible in an offsite hotel, so that we could easily walk to Universal Studios.  I knew that we would be doing a lot of walking once we got to the park.

Many offsite hotels offer shuttle services, but these can be quite limited in terms of the hours and frequency of service, and their capacity is capped

Chain Hotels Across the Street from Universal Orlando
Stay with points at chain hotels across the street from Universal Orlando

Which Offsite Hotels are Closest to Universal Orlando?

A lot of hotel properties  advertise that they are within walking distance of Universal Studios.

But the Doubletree (by Hilton at the entrance of Universal Studios) is the absolute closest offsite hotel to the main gate.

The map above indicates where the hotel sits in relation to the massive parking garage at the entrance to Universal.

How Many Points Do You Need for a Free Night at a Hotel Near Universal Studios Orlando?

Several hotels are within a long block of the Doubletree.  Most of these are chain hotels that participate in the major hotel rewards programs.

Here’s how many points you need for a free night at each of these hotels:

  • Fairfield Inn & Suites — 25K points
  • Best Western Plus Universal Inn — 16K points
  • Doubletree — 20K points
  • Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites — 25K points
  • Hyatt Place — 8K points

I imagine these hotels offer similar amenities such as outdoor pools and free breakfast.

But there a lot of variability in the number of points you need for an award stay.

What’s All the Fuss About Hyatt’s Gold Passport Rewards Program

Hyatt Place Universal Orlando -- 8,000 Points
Hyatt Place Universal Orlando — 8,000 Points

At 8,000 points, Hyatt Place Orlando Universal is the clear winner in terms of least number of points needed for a free night.

A lot of travel bloggers rave about Hyatt’s loyalty program — Hyatt Gold Passport.  I never really understood the appeal.

In my mind, Hyatt Hotels are bland business class hotels in office parks or other sub-optimum locations.

Clearly, that’s an overgeneralization.

Now, after completing a stay near Universal Orlando during spring break, I finally get what all the Hyatt fuss is about.

In a word:  value.

The obvious value here was the 8,000 point redemption cost for the Hyatt Place.  Because we there on a peak travel day, the rates at the hotel were very high — $200 a night.  While the rates fluctuate according to demand, the points cost is generally fixed.  (A major exception is Starwood resorts, which sometimes jack up the points cost during high season.)

Hyatt Place Orlando Universal — My Take

Typical room at Hyatt Place Universal Orlando
Typical room at Hyatt Place Universal Orlando –2 full size beds and a pullout couch

The Hyatt Place is about a 15-minute walk to the entrance of the Islands of Adventure or Universal Orlando Theme Park.  

This hotel had very high ratings on TripAdvisor, so I decided to book it for two nights.  I transferred the points to Hyatt from the Chase Ultimate Rewards Program.

We chose a room on an upper floor with a view of Universal Studios, so we could watch the fireworks at night.  The room was well designed and functional.  The room had two beds and a pullout couch so it was perfect for myself, my daughter, and her friend.

The free hot breakfast was generous and varied, with real Starbucks coffee and Tazo tea.

The small outdoor pool was not crowded, despite the hotel operating at full capacity.

There was a convenient Universal ticket desk in the hotel lobby.

TGIF is right next door for teen-friendly meal options.

I would be loathe to pay $200 per night for this hotel, but for 8,000 points, it’s a good deal.

How I Leveraged My Bathroom Renovation Into a Spring Break Trip to Florida

Spring Break in Florida
Spring break in Florida, here we come!

Our 40-year old townhouse is in desperate need of repairs.

What with the original bathrooms, and leaks springing left and right, it was past time to take action.  Of course if you defer your home repairs like we did, you find yourself facing some major expenses all at once.

Luckily, I met Carlos the contractor when I was out walking the dog one day.  Carlos can fix anything and is super nice and flexible.  Our arrangement was that we would pay Carlos for the labor, and that we would purchase the materials.

Since I knew we would be racking up charges, I saw this as an easy way to meet the minimum spend requirements on some new travel rewards credit cards.

My Travel Rewards Credit Card Applications

My remodeled bathroom
My remodeled bathroom

It had been over six months since I had applied for a travel rewards credit card, and there were several cards with large sign-up bonuses on my wish list.

Purchasing materials for the home renovation would be an easy way to meet hefty initial spend requirements.

Warning — if you don’t pay your credit cards in full and on time every month, you should not be in this game!

Barclay’s U.S. Air Dividend Miles Card

The Barclay’s U.S. Air Dividend Miles credit card was offering 50K bonus miles after the first purchase and payment of the annual fee.  This card was on the verge of retirement due to the US Air – American Airlines merger.  I had applied once before, and was not approved, so this was my last ditch effort to rack up 50K miles before the merger.  I applied, and was denied once again, for having too many recent credit card applications.  Fortunately, the bank did not do a hard pull of my credit report, so no skin off my back.  This card is no longer being offered.

Chase’s Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card offers 40K bonus points after completing a minimum spend requirement of $3,000 within the first three months.  You can get an additional 5,000 Ultimate Reward Points by adding an authorized user.  Ultimate Rewards points are great because they are easily transferred to a variety of frequent flyer programs.  The card pays two times points on travel and restaurants.  There is a $95 annual fee that is waived the first year.  I wrote yesterday how I used 45,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points earned from opening the Sapphire Preferred credit card to finance our Amtrak Auto Train trip to Florida.

Capital One’s Venture Card

The Capital One Venture rewards card offers 40,000 bonus points to new applicants who meet a minimum spend of $3,000 within the first three months.  The card pays two times points on all purchases, and carries a $59 annual fee which is waived the first year.  After meeting the initial spend requirement, I had 46,000 points which could be used to offset $460 in travel expenses.  The Venture card is not a favorite among travel bloggers — which I think is crazy because it has a decent sign-up bonus, earns a great rate on all spending, allows flexible redemptions for travel expenses (while still earning frequent flyer miles on your purchases.)  I have read numerous reports of people having success in getting the annual fee waived, sometimes for two years in a row.

Gift Card Purchases for Home Improvement Stores

The last method I used to accrue free travel to Florida was to purchase gift cards for Home Depot and Lowes at an office supply store with my Chase Ink Bold business credit card.  The Ink Bold card earns 5x Ultimate Reward Points for purchases at at office supply stores like Staples and Office Depot and Amazon.  My contractor used these gift cards to purchase supplies for the renovation, and we used the cards to order plumbing parts, medicine cabinets, light fixtures and more.  When possible, we shopped through an online shopping portal to earn extra points and miles for our purchases.

A “Free” Trip to Florida for Spring Break

My daughter is graduating from high school this year so this was our last chance to take a spring break trip together.  She asked if she could invite a friend to come along, a request that was easy to accommodate thanks to miles and points.

Our trip was not completely free, of course.  But through the strategies outlined above, and prior accrual of points, we were able to enjoy our round trip travel on the Auto Train and four out of five nights hotels in Florida for free.

To compare current credit card offers, click here.  If you need a good contractor, drop me a line.

Catch the Auto Train to Florida Via Amtrak Guest Rewards

Amtrak Auto Train Station in Lorton, Virginia
Amtrak Auto Train Station in Lorton, Virginia

The best thing about the Amtrak Guest Rewards program is that the points redemptions have a fixed cost.  That is, the cost of a trip paid with points does not vary in accordance with demand.

There are blackout dates on popular travel days when you cannot redeem your points for travel.  But if you can work around those dates, you can find great value.

We recently returned from a spring break trip to Florida on the Amtrak Auto Train.  This was a great adventure and a lot of fun, because we were able to use our points to reserve sleeper compartments.

Travel Free on the Amtrak Auto Train with Miles and Points

The auto train departs from the Lorton, Virginia station south of Washington, DC every day at 4 p.m.  It arrives in Sanford, Florida, near Orlando, the next morning by 10 a.m.  Your car travels with you.  If you pay $50 extra for priority off-loading of your vehicle, you can be on your way within minutes of arrival.

Cost of the Auto Train: $1,435 or 4,500 ponts?
$1,435 or 4,500 Amtrak Rewards points?

I traveled to Florida in style with my daughter, her friend, and our Honda Civic Hybrid for 45,000 points.  The car transport costs 15,000 points one way, and a “roomette” sleeping compartment, which sleeps two, costs 15,000 points.  Since there were three of us traveling, we required two compartments.

I was able to instantly transfer 45,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak, to get the trip for free.  The points were earned by opening a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  The cash value of the points was $450.

Because we were traveling in “high season,” we received three times that value for our points.  The cost of the one-way trip paid in cash would have been $1,435.  The cost is less at other times of the year — but if you have kids in school — your vacation times are dictated by the school schedule.

I do believe I have discovered the best value in the world of miles and points for budget domestic travel.  It’s not exotic or foreign, but it is a whole lot of fun.

What’s It Like Traveling in a Roomette on the Auto Train?

Yeah Florida!
Hurrah Florida! It was great to catch some rays after the long winter.

If you are traveling in a sleeping car, you have the services of a porter to make up your bed at night, and to assist you with you bags.  You can eat in the dining car, or they will bring your meal to your room, complete with a white tablecloth.

The roomettes are very well designed.  Each compartment has a closet to hang your coat, some storage shelves, curtains for full privacy, clean towels, an electrical outlet, and a night light.  The porter makes up the lower bunk with fresh sheets, a futon like mattress pad, two pillows, and a blanket.  The bed is quite comfy, and the lower bunk offers a view of the scenery whizzing by.  I didn’t try the upper bunk, but it is fairly spacious, and certainly comfortable enough for kids.

There is a drink station in each car for free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.  The sleeping cars are double decker.  If you are on the upper deck, you will likely have to go downstairs to use the bathroom, though some sleeping cars have a bathroom on the upper level.  There is a small shower with an adjacent dressing room on the lower level, if you are so inclined.

The dining car on the auto train.
Meals are included in the ticket price. My daughter and her friend enjoyed breaking up the trip with a visit to the dining car.

There are several dining cars to accommodate guests, and a lounge car with limited WiFi passwords.

A full dinner is served in the dining car.  The dinner service offered bread, salad, ice tea, a choice of five entrees, dessert and coffee.  The food was quite decent.  There is also a continental breakfast of orange juice, coffee, cold cereal, warm muffins, and bagels.

Both meals are included in your fare.

The auto train features Disney movies in the lounge car in the evenings.

The negatives:  no WiFi in the sleeping cars; small bathrooms with tiny sinks, loud announcements in the morning calling you to breakfast.

It was great to arrive in Florida refreshed and ready to start our vacation!

Do you have any questions about the Auto Train?  Ask away in the comments!

Four Ways to Win a Family Trip to Universal’s Harry Potter World

Win a Trip to Harry Potter World
Win a Trip to Harry Potter World

There are at least four active contests to win a free trip for a family of four to Universal Studios in Florida to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, including the brand new Diagon Alley.

Some of these contests end tomorrow, so enter now for a chance to win!

I’ve been fascinated by all the press accounts this week about the new Hogwarts Express ride and Diagon Alley and I’m dying to go!  The park will officially open to the public July 8, 2014.

Here are four ways to win a free to trip to Universal Studio’s Harry Potter World

Fandango Harry Potter World Sweepstakes

One lucky family will enjoy the action and fun of Universal Orlando® Resort, including early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™.  The grand prize includes:

  • Roundtrip airfare to Orlando, Florida for a family of four
  • Hotel accommodations on-site at the new Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort
  • Ground transportation between airport and hotel in Orlando
  • Admission to both Universal Studios Florida® and Universal’s Islands of Adventure® theme parks, including Early Park Admission* to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ one hour before the parks open
  • Tickets to Blue Man Group
  • Admission to Wet ‘n Wild® Orlando waterpark

Enter here by 9 pm PT on June 30, 2014.

Southwest Vacations Universal Orlando Sweepstakes

Enter here for a chance to win a Southwest family vacation package  to Universal Studios Florida® and Universal’s Islands of Adventure® theme parks.  The family vacation package includes:

  • Roundtrip air fare for up to four via Southwest Airlines® to Orlando, Florida
  • Three-night stay at one of four on-site hotels at Universal Orlando® Resort
  • 3-Day/2-Park Tickets for up to four people to Universal Studios Florida® and Universal’s Islands of Adventure® theme parks
  • Four-day rental car from Alamo
  • Two (2) wands from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™
  • Four (4) tickets to Blue Man Group show at Universal CityWalk®

Enter by June 30, 2014.  See the official entry form for details.

Orlando Visitors Bureau Sweepstakes

The Orlando Visitors Bureau is sponsoring a sweepstakes for an Orlando Family Vacation for up to four people to travel to Orlando, Florida.  You have your choice of visiting Universal Orlando, Disney World, or SeaWorld.

Enter here for your chance to win:

  • Round trip airline tickets to Orlando
  • Four-night accommodations at the Hyatt Regency Orlando including a half-day cabana rental and a $100.00 food and beverage credit.
  • Two-day tickets to your choice of Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando or SeaWorld Orlando
  • Round trip ground transportation from Orlando International Airport to the hotel

Entries must be received by 11:59 pm ET on June 30, 2014.

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Free Guidebook: The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Free Lonely Planet Guide:  The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
Free from the Lee County
Visitor & Convention Bureau

My first paid job in the environmental movement was an internship at the Conservation Foundation in Washington, DC.

I worked for ecologist John Clark, a pioneer in the conservation of wetlands and barrier islands.

He had just published a the seminal guide to ecologically-based land use planning:  The Sanibel Report:  Formulation of a Comprehensive Plan Based on Natural Systems.  The report is a case study of how to develop a land use plan consistent with the carrying capacity of natural systems.

I have always been curious about Sanibel Island in Florida — was the conservation plan able to keep development in check?

Today, much of the island is preserved as the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge.  Sanibel, and neighboring Captiva island are best known as a shell collector’s paradise.  Eco-tourism is the major industry.

The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau is promoting the area by distributing a free copy of Lonely Planet’s guidebook, Discover the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, published in July 2012.

This is a full color softcover, pocket-sized travel guide — 176 pages, plus a pull-out map. There are no ads.

This guide covers:

  • Beaches: Beautiful beaches of every style, including world-class shelling, secluded white sand and sunsets
  • Nature & eco travel: From pristine beaches to wetlands and wildlife refuges
  • History & culture: Meet the pioneers, from the Calusa Indians to the Koreshan, and lively artists colonies
  • Entertainment: Shopping or nightlife,  from jazz bars to dives and boutiques
  • Dining: Everything from bargain seafood joints overlooking the water to ethnic eats
  • Sport & activities: Get your hiking boots on, your kayak prepped, or hop on a bike
  • Accommodations:  Choose from historic cottages, vacation rentals or chain hotels

Sign up here to request a free hard copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook.

If you prefer a digital version, you can download the Kindle edition free of charge from Amazon.com.