Finishing Up

I’ve completely neglected this blog! We’ve been back from the States for over two months now, and last time I posted, we’d just finished the Tour. We spent the remaining eighteen days touring California before flying to Florida for three and a half weeks.


Anaheim is only a thirty-minute(-ish) train ride from the centre of LA, and is a very pretty spot, but of course, there is only one reason anyone goes to Anaheim unless they live there – Disneyland! The original theme park in the glorious Disney empire, Disneyland Park is the only park in said empire that Walt himself oversaw the construction of. It also shares a ridiculously small amount of rides with the other parks, justifying our visit for five nights. We managed to pick up an “Honorary Citizen of Disneyland Resort” badge whilst we were there (mainly cause they were out of “First Visit” badges) and managed to have a nice relaxing time, especially after the stress of the tour. We also enjoyed a ridiculously huge cake at Outback Steakhouse – it was only 1,000 calories, and suggested for three people. We actually had to give up and bring it back to the hotel and put it in the fridge and ate it on our last night there.

San Diego

When I posted the last blog, we were on the (remarkably plush) train from Anaheim to San Diego. After five nights in Anaheim, we had to tear ourselves away from the lights and sights of Disneyland to the most south-easterly city in the United States – San Diego. We only had four nights in San Diego, so decided to only do the major sites – Old Point Loma Lighthouse, SeaWorld (much to the irritation of Lawrie Brailey) and the USS Midway. Despite a run-in with SeaWorld (who advertised their water park as being just minutes away, when it was actually less than two miles from the Mexican border, and two hours away on public transport), we really enjoyed San Diego, and it was by far the most relaxing bit of the Californian adventure so far.

A proper visit to LA

For the last eight nights in California, we travelled back to LA – Hollywood in particular. In addition to a return to Universal Studios (obviously – we had an Annual Pass to use!), we saw sights such as the Griffith Observatory (Amazing Race 22 Start Line!), the Walt Disney Concert Hall (Amazing Race France task site!) and of course, Pasadena, where we took our L’il Sebastian plush back to his spiritual home at Pasadena City Hall. If you don’t know what the end of that sentence means, go and watch Parks and Recreation – do yourself a favour! We used the Hollywood part of the trip as a more quiet endeavour, mainly because we knew what was coming next – the biggest part of the trip, and the part where we were most likely to see well over 75,000 people in a day – Florida.


The last part of our trip took us to the Sunshine State, the home of not one, but FIVE of the top ten theme parks in the world in terms of attendance, at the busiest time of the year, with our trip coinciding with 4th July celebrations. It is also the home of two of the top three water parks in the world. As a side note, by the end of the trip, we’d been to seven of the top ten theme parks, and eleven of the top twenty, which is a pretty impressive stat.

We’d chosen the Maingate Lakeside Resort as our base, as it supposedly had great links to the theme parks (Disney and Universal), but as we found out, the Disney parks were closer if we walked, as it was only around a mile away by foot. We only visited Universal Florida once, but it was full of surprises, as I discovered that one of my classmates from high school worked at the Simpsons Ride, which was a very surreal moment when I said hi to him in the queue.

The hotel was comfortable enough – we weren’t planning on spending much time there anyway (at least in comparison to the other hotels), but it did have one major benefit – a Pizza Hut on site. Even better, there was an offer on allowing us a refillable cup for $10.70 (about £7.00), allowing us to refill said cup any time we wanted whilst it was open throughout our stay. This as you can imagine was abused, and we more than made our money back.

We decided to spend 4th July in Epcot, as Magic Kingdom was forecast to have 100,000 people (also known as a Phase 4 closure) on that day, despite it being a Thursday. Epcot is also home to, in my opinion, the world’s greatest fireworks show – IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, which has around 2,000 fireworks added as an Independence Day celebration. We watched a patriotic concert at the American pavilion to start the day, and it was as over-the-top as you can imagine. Thankfully, Disney provide wi-fi in all the theme parks now for free (a great help when using their app), so it was there that I found out another classmate from my high school class was also at the same concert. I suspect there must be something in the water at BRGS that makes us all come to Florida in early July. We also had a day trip to Miami, which featured an Everglades airboat ride and Miami Harbour Cruise – I didn’t really enjoy it, but if you’re into the sort of trip where you look round islands where famous people live, it probably has much more appeal. We left Florida feeling very pleased with ourselves for a holiday well done, as well as a little homesick (although not necessarily pleased to come back)!

All-in-all, a job well done – we were disappointed at some aspects of the holiday, but nothing was bad enough to ruin our impressions of the US. We travelled somewhere in the region of 10,000 miles (3,000 of which were in the tour alone!), and spent 77 nights in (on the whole) beautiful surroundings. Thanks to all who helped us with this trip, whether it be work allowing us the time off, our parents for helping us with a load of the planning, and Tim Johnson at Travelbag, who put up with my nagging and helped sort the flights, tour and some hotels. I’ll be back tomorrow for one final post, where I’ll be imparting some advice on how we sorted out a trip of this magnitude.

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An open letter to ATI

A week ago, we finished the 12-day Western Discovery tour with American Tours International. Our driver was Chris Gonzalez and our Guide was Mark Leuthold. You may think this information is useless, but anyone contemplating this tour will need all the information they can get.

We joined the tour at the Crowne Plaza Los Angeles Airport on Saturday 25th May. Until we checked out from this hotel, we’d received precisely zero information from ATI about joining information – in fact, they didn’t even have a record of our information until the day we joined! I was immediately introduced to Chris and her odd sense of humour (if indeed you can call it that!) when she tried to convince me our soft-top holdalls were not allowed, and we needed hard suitcases. This was the first of many irritating ‘jokes’ that would normally be dismissed at home as banter.

The tour began with a warm introduction and a 10-minute spiel on how in America, tips are expected – they recommended $2-3 a day per person for drivers and $4-5 for guides. As it happened, they both received a tip, but I’m not sure it was entirely what they expected (All will be explained)!

After the first of many coffee breaks (we were one of only two pairs under the age of 65!), we were dropped in Middle of Nowhere, Arizona – better known as a service station near Quartzsite – for a nutritious lunch at McDonald’s. We then motored on to Fort McDowell, a Hotel and Casino in the middle of the desert, where we received free casino money and an alcoholic beverage each for free. What a shame then that there was no contingency plan, such as soft drinks available for those of us who are actually underage – a fact they already knew! They also singled me out at check-in by making me put my hand up before we could get our room key.

This was the first of many instances where we were disregarded or even vilified for being under the pension age. By the end of the first week, we had been independently told off for using the toilet on board, due to it being “for emergencies” (although the definition of emergency is ambiguous!), I had the coach door shut in my face as I was approaching on the second day and we suffered the wrath of an obnoxious American, who shall be known forever more as Dennis (for that is his name) who insisted we all wake up at 6am, despite the coach leaving at 8:30am.

The main issue we had with the tour is the insistence upon what is known as “The rotation system” – the mindless sheep mentality of not being able to think for themselves and being told to move two seats. Naturally, as two guys with an average height of 6’3″, this brought us into a little bit of contention with the other passengers, the first of whom to complain was our best friend, Dennis, when he and his silent but judgmental wife sat in front of us.

As time went on, we were getting more annoyed with people just being sheep, and as we explained to Mark, if people ask, we’d explain our struggles with legroom, and when people did, they got off our case.

By the time we got to Death Valley (Day 8), the Australians began trying to confront us, leading to the best line from Mark in response to being told “Just a word, you guys are beginning to piss people off with not rotating”, which was bluntly saying “Just a word, we don’t care.” Chris also attempted to stop us sitting in the same seat, but incurred Mark’s ire in that argument.

By the end of the tour, we were tired of having to argue with too many people, but the places were amazing, with the exception of Vegas, which was a hole. Ultimately, there’s a few things to bear in mind if you consider this tour (and I’d assume ATI generally):

  1. Be prepared to not have much legroom.
  2. Be prepared to wake up early, especially if there’s someone obnoxious shouting an obscene wake up time.
  3. Lots of the hotels are in the middle of nowhere, leaving very little food choices (Fort McDowell especially – you have to walk through a smoky casino to get to them as well!)
  4. The above also applies for lunch/coffee stops.
  5. The guides are in charge of random toilet breaks, so family-owned or friend-owned shops or even fruit shops (yes, this happened!) are possible.
  6. Tips are included, but they expected more on top!

On the subject of tips, as I mentioned above, we did leave them tips in their envelopes. Sadly for them, Chris’ tip was a penny and a note saying “this is all your dreadful customer service deserves – next time try and be pleasant and you would get more.” and Mark’s was a note reading “The website says service charges are included – nice try, you cheeky git!” We did, of course, let rip on the comment card, but surprisingly, I’ve not heard back from them! We let the travel agent know as well, so he’ll hopefully relay our irritation.

We loved the places, but we’d think twice about doing it again, purely for the reasons dealt with above.

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Philadelphia, DC, Herndon and LA

This blog is still being rather neglected, isn’t it?

As you probably guessed from the last post, Philadelphia was a breath of fresh air compared to New York. The hotel was so much better, and we managed to find a nice Irish restaurant that we went to a few times, as well as discovering TGI Friday’s, adding another potential string to our restaurant bow.

The day we arrived in DC was the hottest day so far on the trip, and coupled with the traditional DC swamp heat, meant that it was a bit uncomfortable doing all the sightseeing that we did that day. I also managed to pick up a very sunburnt foot (only one though oddly), which has thankfully browned nicely now. The hotel was alright, but the restaurant had dreadful service there, and upon asked the question of what came with our burger, the waitress handily forgot to tell us it was layered with mushrooms underneath the cheese – a fact which incurred her Mark’s wrath! We were also rudely awoken by the sound of dance music at 9am from the pool, which our room looked over, being played on huge speakers. The pool was, of course, not even open yet, as it wasn’t Memorial Day (which was the 27th May).

After two days, we travelled to the town of Herndon, Virginia via the airport (which was a farce in itself) as there was a free shuttle from the airport to the hotel. I can honestly say that the hotel in Herndon was one of the nicest hotels we’ve ever stayed in – free breakfast, free coffee in the lobby 24/7, free soft drinks on one of the evenings (or beer/wine if you wanted them) and just a generally nice place. It also had a free laundry, which was very welcome given the price of some of the coin laundries over here!

On the 22nd, we flew from DC (technically the airport’s in Virginia) to Los Angeles, the sixth busiest airport in the world. The flight was decent, although my MP3 player had gone walkies (luckily it was just hidden in my bag!) and I had to sit next to a deeply odd woman, who insisted on falling asleep before Mark or I had got there, meaning we had to wake her up, brought a very pongy fruit bowl on board for the journey and wore both ear plugs and an eye mask for 90% of the journey, disturbing me for a great deal of the journey.

Once we got to the hotel (thankfully only about a mile from the airport), I discovered that the TSA had left me a delightful note that they’d rifled through my bag when it went through Dulles airport. Obviously, there was nothing in there untoward, but I’m still puzzled as to what they thought looked suspicious! The hotel was nice, but didn’t even offer free wi-fi. The hotel also served as the starting point of the tour, but very few people seemed to know anything about the joining instructions (as ours had been cut off, and I found out later that they’d changed the plans anyway!) so we actually didn’t know what on Earth was happening until we checked out and the lady handed us an ATI envelope with luggage tags attached.

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Boston & New York – The Tale of Two Cities

This blog’s been rather neglected, especially considering that there’s been no posts so far! We’re in Philadelphia at the moment, the third stop on our tour around America.

Boston was really cool (yes that word was chosen given Mark’s birthday card from Annie!), with a beautiful location, especially the view from our window, free wi-fi and a traditional American breakfast of pancakes. The weather was top notch, as well. The fish & chips in the pub in the hotel was exactly what we needed after about ten hours on the road, and we ate there four of the five nights.

ImageNew York, however, was a bit of a catastrophe. The hotel was lacklustre, with wi-fi only available in the lobby, surly staff, dreadful food in the cafe, and just an awful awful area, the sort where you just don’t feel safe after about 6pm. The hotel was more Bates Motel than Hilton Hotel. It says a lot when the highlight of that part of the trip is a choice between a tour where you can’t take pictures (which was still very interesting!) and going to see the Unisphere and getting caught in a storm.

Philadelphia so far is a much better hotel, with wi-fi in the rooms and much more light and general enthusiasm so far.

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