Sunday, February 28, 2016

Touring Central Florida

As our visit with Amber and Eddie continued I searched the web for ideas of things to do here in Central Florida.  This is the 3rd visit for them since we moved here, so in past visits we had already experienced most of the attractions and some local parks, beaches or historical sites.  So I wanted to find things that not only had they not visited, but we haven't been to either.  After our visit Wednesday to the St. John's Eco Tour (covered in my last blog post) they spent the day Thursday with extended family at the Magic Kingdom, while I remained home with the girls for Hannah's violin lesson and to do some schooling.

Left to right Eddie, Cousin Daniel and his wife Ingrid, Aunt Jenny, Uncle Pat and Amber

Then on Friday with Kevin taking a day off work and Cameron's school schedule getting off early he was able to meet all of us at the Orlando Eye.  I thought this would offer a unique perspective of the Orlando area.  I bought the tickets online, so we were all set for our trip once Cameron joined us.

Admittedly, I'm not crazy about heights or confined spaces, so I had a few butterflies about this, but still thought the experience would be worthwhile.  Glad to say this was the case.  It certainly helped that it was an absolutely GORGEOUS day.  The sun was shining and the temperatures were cool for Florida.  This combo made for a wonderful day to tour about comfortably.

After arriving and gathering our tickets at the will call line, we had a few minutes to kill, so we walked out front and took some pictures, then moved inside to enter the facility for the 4D film they show prior to your ride on the Orlando Eye.  We quickly moved out to the short line and stepped aboard our air conditioned viewing coach that moves slowly up to the pinnacle view point of this towering 400 foot observation wheel.

Our group shot purchased from the Orlando Eye Photo Stand

My crew checking out our views

All my girls

View from the pinnacle of the ride with Amber and Eddie reflected in the glass

Almost back to the start

It was really pretty up there and after taking lots of pictures we slowly made our way back to the starting point.  Having spotted a place to try for lunch from the painted roof top ad, we headed out and over to a restaurant called Cafe Tu Tu Tango.

This restaurant is full of art work and has it's own creed listed on the menu.  They serve only appetizer size foods, and as our waiter said it comes from different kitchens and will arrive at differing times, so you have to search for  a variety of foods that sound good to you and try to anticipate how much will feed your group.

My troop waiting for our food

The food itself was delicious, with each dish bursting with flavor and arriving attractively displayed. However, this is not a restaurant I would recommend for a group that's hungry and looking for a really satisfying meal.  The portions are SMALL and pricey, they take a long time to arrive and with a table of obnoxious kids seated at the table next to us we weren't enjoying the artsy atmosphere (not the restaurants fault I know, but our experience).  This would be a good place for a group that just wanted some drinks and snacks prior to going to one of the many entertainment venues along International Drive, or a couple looking for a leisurely evening to sit, snack and talk (they do have an outside seating area).  It's not as I said a destination for a hungry crew looking for a satisfying meal, we left with a good size chunk taken from our wallet and still a bit hungry.

Our next stop was a brief walk up the street to take a photo of a wild building we spotted as we drove over to the Orlando Eye.  It's the Wonderworks Entertainment Center.  We didn't go in, as we had other plans, but I had to get a photo of this crazy building that's made to look like one that's been picked up by a tornado and dumped upside down on this location. Will have to check this out at a future date.

We walked back to the van and drove a short distance over to The Chocolate Kingdom to take the factory tour.  I had seen a short feature on one of the local news stations about this tour here in Orlando.  If you ever decide to do this make sure you go online and buy a coupon from groupon.  I didn't and regretted the savings I could have had, sadly I realized this once we were home and I looked into pricing options available - learn from my mistake.

Lots of goodies at the front counter

The tour began by showing us their greenhouse room with small chocolate trees growing the cacao pods that produce the chocolate that we all love so.  From there we watched a film with some trivia facts as we waited for our whole group to be ready to start the tour.  After our guide Deanna joined us she introduced us to the video tour guides that would be repeated throughout this tour and the story line that goes along with it.

Greenhouse area with plants and samples of the cacao pods

Our video story and "guides".

We were introduced to the history of chocolate and given samples of the strong spicy drink that the Aztecs made from the cocoa beans and peppers. We also tasted what a bean tastes like on its own.  It has a flavor that is strong and bitter and doesn't seem to have much in common with the chocolate products we are so used to. If you've ever tasted Bakers Chocolate you have a good idea of what the pods taste like, without the crunch of the outer shell.

The chocolate history sets with cocoa bean samples

Chocolate Kingdom set and girls playing the game of catapulting the marshmallows into the dragons mouth

After our history lessons we continued with activities pertaining to the chocolate kingdom of the video story, then went to the equipment room where the processing of the beans is turned into white, milk or dark chocolate products.  We tasted the pure super dark liquid that is extremely bitter after the beans are roasted and crushed, then liquefied in the large crusher they have.  After an explanation of the products produced in the crushing we were given samples of true white chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate - Yummy!!

The refining and conching process and machines are here, the large vats top left of various chocolate liquids, and the women making the personalized bars of chocolate for the girls and Eddie and Amber.

Chocolate samples

Our final stop was to see the personalized bars made that I ordered at the start of our tour.  We had one made for Amber and Eddie and then Hannah and Lauren watched as their bar was put together.
After this we headed to the front to shop and wait for the bars to arrive on the conveyor system they have and with that our chocolate factory tour was done.  This was fun, but as I said if you want to do this take advantage of the real discounts available.  It's a bit pricey for what you get out of the tour and it's not an actual factory tour, but a group of sets explaining the history and process.  In truth they would do better to drop the price and would make up significantly on participant volume and after tour shopping. - Just saying.   It was a time to try something different, learn new facts about a product we were otherwise very familiar with. And to enjoy the tastes and treats associated with that product.

Amber with their chocolate bar

So with this our day concluded as we headed home for a quiet evening and an earlier get up to go touring at a new destination for our travel experiences.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

St John's Eco Tour

Wednesday the girls and I took Amber and Eddie over to DeBary to take a trip on the Eco Tour Boat of this section of the St John River to view whatever wild life would show itself that day.  This is a trip we've been wanting to do since we moved here almost 3 years ago now and simply have never made it around to taking this.
The tour boat picture - courtesy of Eco Tour website

Eddie and Amber waiting to go

Lauren and Hannah

It was a gorgeous day with the temperatures in the 70's, a nice clear sky and no humidity - perfect for this kind of trip.  We began at the boat launch at the docks just behind The Swamp restaurant.  Our tour guides were friendly and really informative and the river was calm and seemed to be waiting for our tour group.  The first site on our trip were the vultures and one stork I failed to get a clear picture of, just at the end of the harbor area.  They were busily eating "fish guts from the fisherman" as our guide said, and standing among the cypress and cypress knees near the shore line.

Vultures enjoying their meal and totally ignoring us

The St Johns

We headed out as we were given the thorough safety talk before the history lesson could start.  With these as the introduction phase the tour would now begin in earnest as the first of our wildlife encounters began to show up. The first was a Blue Heron and around the next bend some Purple Gallinules and a young heron.

Hiding among the water lily's were these Purple Gallinules

These had a beautiful iridescent coloring that really showed when the light caught them

Young Heron with it's juvenile white coloring now beginning to transition to the blues it will have as an adult
As we moved along the trees lining the river we saw an Ahinga, the first of many, in the branches.

Then would begin the siting of many gators on this trip.  They began with these baby alligators that are challenging to see, but you can just make them out with their orange and black coloring on this large stick in the water.  We learned that up to 80 eggs will hatch, but the majority will not live to adulthood and dad is the primary predator that finishes off these little guys.

Look close and you can see the body and tail of one at the top portion of the stick and the head of the other near the lower half

 The next birds were a nesting pair of Limpkin.  These brown birds are famous for their screaming and loud calls which they kindly treated us to.

Delicate and pretty features of the Limpkin

 After the next turn on the river we saw some activity in the middle of a large area of water lily's and a very interested bird staring at the area of disturbance in the water.  It was a manatee and the egret was anxiously awaiting the little bits and pieces the manatee will bring up as it eats.

You can just see the top of the manatee's head and nose as it surfaces here to munch more of it's swamp salad

As the boat reversed it scared the manatee and I only caught this shadowy image of it diving deeper and away from us
 Our next siting was this beautiful Snowy Egret who sat basically posing for us as we rounded the patch of lily's it was sitting on.  Then another Ahinga drying it's wings.

The green ball in this tree is a patch of mistletoe

Snowy Egret


As I got ready to snap another picture it turned as if on cue to give me another view

Now begins the many sightings of the large alligators that we would see on our tour.  We saw these 3 in quick succession all lazily enjoying the warmth of the day.

The turtles were also out enjoying the sun on various logs and sticks, then these Ibis sitting with their striking white color against the red leaves of this tree. I managed to only get one shot of a Warbler that was very busy and very fast as it grabbed up the bugs it was after for it's meal.  So a single back side shot was all I managed to capture of this quick fellow.

The Warbler



Another big gator snoozing
Then we came around a turn and our guide who had the girls sit on a seat up front told me to quick go up and join them.  As I did she told us all to sit tight as she was taking us to a spot in close to the trees.  Once there we were treated to a family of 3 Bard Owls.  The male and female have been visiting there for a good 8 years, and their teenager who hasn't left home yet has been with them for a year.  Our guides brought some fish for which the owls eagerly anticipated their treat and we got an up close look at these beautiful creatures.

Our first sighting as we entered this area among the trees

What incredibly beautiful faces they have

Getting a fish

Can you tell I LOVED this part of the tour?
After the owls we saw a nesting heron and it's mate gathering sticks, another and probably the largest of the day Alligator and then it was time to start back towards the docks and the end of our tour.

Blue Heron in the nest

Mate gathering sticks to add to the nest

This is a very young Blue Heron that doesn't have it's coloring yet

Our final and by far the biggest Alligator on the trip

On the way back the 4 kids on board were each given a chance to stand behind the wheel and try their hands at steering our boat.  If this was an indication of their driving skills I'll have my work cut out for me when the girls begin to drive!! (big smile here).  They absolutely loved this and it made the long cruise back enjoyable for all the kids.

Hannah's turn at the wheel

Lauren's turn

Lauren and I as we wait to dock

And so ended a really nice tour that I would highly recommend to anyone living near or visiting the Central Florida area.