Universal Studios – Orlando

Universal Studios:
Theme parks with locations in Orlando- Florida , LA – California,  Sentosa – Singapore and Osaka – Japan
Universal Parks & Resorts is best known for attractions and lands based on famous pop culture properties (movies, television, literature, cartoons, comics, video games, music, etc.) from not only NBCUniversal but also other companies. – Wiki
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I had the opportunity last year (2015) to go to all of the Universal Studios (apart from Japan) but I only ended up going to the one in Orlando, Florida.
When I was in LA I pretty much just ran out of time, and in Singapore it was far too humid to be standing in line all day for rides so I didn’t go. I also hadn’t made any friends in Singapore to go with. Sad I know 😦

When I was on my Contiki Tour,  going to Universal was one of the options when we were in Orlando. If you’re ever there, defiantly go!! I had soo much fun. Especially as I was with a group of people, there was always someone keen to go on a ride with me.
It’s funny because when I went to the Theme Parks in Australia with my boyfriend last year, I was pretty nervous to go on half of the rides and didn’t even do some of them!
However when it came to going on the rides with my new-found friends from my tour, I was all for it!!

I think it’s because we didn’t even have time to contemplate how scary a ride would be. The lines were short that day so we’d just immediately line up and go for it without waiting and thinking how scary it was. The less you think about it, the better it is! Plus I didn’t want to seem like a wuss and chicken out at the last minute in front of everyone haha.

When the bus dropped us off at Universal, we all fast-walked to the ticket booth (And believe me, it’s a bit of a walk!)
You walk up all these ramps and go on these moving escalators to get to the park. I’m assuming they must get super super busy over the Holiday periods but luckily for us we went first thing in the morning and there wasn’t too much of a line.
When you get let through to the park, you go through a short process where one of the park employees uses a scanner on your finger tip and the software scans the swirls and arcs of your finger to create a grid of intersecting points. These points are then stored as a series of coordinating numbers so when the finger is scanned again, the number series will repeat and match itself to the stored original. I think they do this so they know the same person is using the same pass if it’s allocated to them for a ‘season pass’ or something.

Once we were given our tickets from our Tour Manager, we quickly got into groups and headed off to the rides.
My group decided we’d head to the Hogwarts Express first and take the train to Hogsmeade where we knew there were some Harry Potter themed rides.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a Harry Potter fan at all. I know the basic characters and everything but have never seen a full movie.
Anyways, we met a Hogwarts Prefect at the ‘London Station’ who lead us to our passenger compartment on the train and I have to say, it was pretty cool!

We were seated on the train just like I assume Harry Potter was in the compartments, and there was a screen on our window showing the beautiful country side as we chugged along.


When we arrived at Hogsmeade we went on the Dragon Challenge Ride first. It’s an intertwining roller coaster and has two corkscrews, and two vertical loops. Not everyone in our group was keen on this so myself and 3 others ran to line up. I’m glad I got a roller-coaster out of the way because it got all my adrenaline running at the beginning of the day.
It’s one of those roller-coasters where your feet hang down and you’re terrified you’re going to kick something or someone haha.


(The above video isn’t mine, I just found it off Youtube)

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When we got off the ride, we met the rest of the crew who had been waiting for us and tried one of their Butter Beers they bought from the Wooden Barrel. I was a bit hesitant to try one because (1. I hate beer, and 2. because as it was a dark color I assumed it’d taste like coke which I also hate)
However I was very wrong about this one. Looking back, I really should have gotten one because I always seem to crave it when I think of it.

Apparently Universal won’t release its butter-beer recipe, but people describe the drink as a”reminiscent of shortbread and butterscotch.”
The drink is drawn from a tap, like a beer, and the dense, whipped topping is added from a separate tap. It’s served in cups, about $3 ($4 for frozen) for a disposable cup and about $10 ($11 for frozen) for a hard plastic souvenir stein so not expensive at all!

The next ride was Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™
We walked through Gringotts Bank which was a large marble lobby and saw all these ‘Goblins’ hard at work.

When we arrived at the Underground ride, we hopped on to these flying benches and got strapped in. The ride is all in 3D and it honestly felt so real! We were flying on broomsticks with Harry & Ron, we were navigating the underground vaults and trying to get away from Villians. It’s a family ride, but I was still screaming with laughter.

I was expecting more rides at Hogsmeade but that was pretty much it. They also had a Gift Shop to buy all the Harry Potter Merchandise you could ever think of which is cool if you’re into that.
The Harry Potter adventure didn’t stop there however. We took the Hogwarts Express back to ‘London’ and went to Diagon Alley which is set up like the streets of London with a fire breathing Dragon at the top of one of the buildings.
There were so many shops!
You could buy your own Ollivanders wand and also these Interactive Wands so you could cast spells throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. You just waved your wand in certain areas, recited a spell, and then magic stuff would happen haha.
You could also buy assorted Wizardwear from Madam Malkin’s Robes and purchase wizarding wares and supplies like crystal balls, telescopes, binoculars, and hourglasses from Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment.
It was like a Harry Potter geeks dream.

The only thing I bought was an ice-cream from Fortescue’s Ice-cream haha. It was pretty good though!

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Silly me didn’t take a photo of my treat so I took this photo off Google 🙂 Pretty similar to what I had though.

They have three water rides at Universal Studios Orlando, we went on the Jurassic Park River Adventure Ride first which I kind of regret because I got soaked and ruined my hair for the rest of the day! Such a princess I know haha. You’re basically in a boat with 3 rows of other people and you go around a calm river with dinosaurs until something ‘goes wrong’ and then you’re put in front of the terrifying jaws of a towering T-rex and suddenly plunged 85-feet into total darkness.


I didn’t take any picture on this ride as I didn’t want my phone to get wet so I’ve found some pictures off Google too. 🙂

The second ride we went to was called Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls. I had only just dried off so I skipped this ride and was the photo taker for everyone else. As you can see, this one is a log ride and is set in the Canadian North Woods. It has a 75-foot drop (22 meters) underneath an “exploding” dynamite shack.
20150904_104449.jpg20150904_105818.jpgWe were all pretty hungry by this stage so went to one of the many food places the park has. I can’t quite remember what I got but I think it was a combination of fries and a drink of some sort. Knowing me, I didn’t want to eat too much in case it made me sick later on!

If you explored the whole theme park, you’d find so many places to eat!!
They have everything from New York Dining which has  Italian food, and an Irish-American pub and restaurant which serves Fish ‘n Chips, Corned Beef & Cabbage, Guinness Beef Stew, Sandwiches, Salads, and a Full Bar.
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They also had restaurants which have ‘Character Breakfasts’ (Great if you have kids with you) which you pay like $26 USD for and you get eggs, bacon, pancakes, yogurt, muffins & croissants in a buffet. You get to have your photo taken with characters from Hop & Despicable Me and then on the day of the breakfast you have access to an exclusive viewing area where you can see the Universal Superstar Parade which has floats & music etc.
Note: This is only available on Thursdays – Saturdays from 9am to 10am

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Universal also has Mel’s Drive- In Diner which is all 50s themed and plays golden oldies on the jukebox and serves Burgers and Fries, Chicken Sandwiches, Chicken Fingers, Onion Rings, Root Beer Floats and Frosty Milk Shakes. I didn’t go to this diner, but I went to the one in Hollywood when I was there and the shakes were so good!
ORL455_USF_MelsI could really go on and on about all the places you can eat but I’d be writing for ages! They have your Burger King in the food court. They have Starbucks, Moes (Mexican food), A Sushi bar, Cinnabon, Cold Stone Creamery and a place called Lone Palm Aiport which is an outdoor tiki bar with hot dogs, shrimp and beer. Writing all this has just made me hungry haha.
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I didn’t actually know this until I started researching more about Universal, but they have nightlife there!  At Universal CityWalk they have bars like The Red Coconut Club and a movie theater which has a concession stand serving hot foods like pizza and fries, plus a full liquor bar featuring beer and wine. I wish I went to The Red Coconut Club now 😦 it has three different bars spread across the club’s two levels, signature martinis and specialty drinks, an extensive wine list and VIP table service!!
I guess this just means I have to go back 😉

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Once we were all fed, we headed over to The Mummy Ride.
It was so much fun!! We made two of the people on our group go on this who barely went on many of the scary rides and they loved it, even if they were screaming their head off the whole time hahaha. We loved it so much we went on it like 4 times that afternoon.
You’re plunged into total darkness, there’s huge fireballs (Which are actually really hot) and swarms of scarab beetles and an army of warrior mummies coming at you.
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If you love The Simpsons growing up, you’d love the whole Simpsons Theme they have going on. They have a Simpsons Ride which we lined up for. You go into these individual rooms with groups of about 4 people and you’re put into a cart-type thing. It’s a 3D high definition ride so you don’t really go anywhere but you feel like you are!  You embark on a wild ride through Krustyland where you fly and float and crash through the attractions and stunt shows and your cart moves from side to side and up and down which is fun. It’s crazy what they can do with animation and stuff nowadays which makes you feel like you’re really about to fall down this cartoon roller-coaster haha.
20150904_150200.jpg‘Springfield’ was getting a bit dark and gloomy when we walked through the park thanks to a thunderstorm arriving so one of the guys in our group quickly bought one of those big pink donuts from Lard Lad Donuts and we took a couple of pictures before heading to Moe’s Tavern for a drink of Duff beer.

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There were quite a few people inside lining up for a cold Duff beer so the boys spent awhile trying to get the bar tenders attention. As I don’t like beer, I didn’t try it but the boys said it tasted all good 🙂20150904_150635.jpg
I didn’t get to try a Krusty Burger as I wasn’t hungry, but they also have a restaurant there selling the famous Krusty Burgers, the Clogger Burger, The Ribwich, Sideshow Bob Foot Long, or a Heat Lamp Dog.

Before we finished our day at Universal, we went on the Mummy Ride one last time and when we exited, it absolutely poured down with rain!
We all huddled underneath some shelter near the lockers hoping that the rain would pass but it didn’t so I went inside and bought a poncho.
They look a bit lame and everyone laughed at me but eventually they all bought one too!
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We wanted to go on the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket which is a roller-coaster with this massive loop but it closed because of the thunder and lightning before we left.
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I forgot to mention this, but at some stage during the day. We did go on The Incredible Hulk Coaster®
You go from zero to 40 mph (60km’s) in two seconds flat, and was defiantly one of the coolest roller coasters I’ve been on.20150904_115159.jpg
The Hulk-4So that was my day at Universal!
Hopefully I’ve inspired you to go to one of them whenever you’re in Los Angeles,  Orlando or even Singapore! Or maybe I’ve done some of the research for you.
Head to http://www.universalstudios.com for more info about all the rides and resorts you can stay at.
If you’ve been, let me know what your favorite ride was in the comments below!

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Contiki Vs. Top Deck Tours

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I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about these two tour companies for ages!
When I was in the stages of planning my trip around the world, I knew I wanted to do a tour across the states but I was having a hard time deciding what one. I’d heard so many different views from people but it was always the same. Friends who went on Top Deck recommended it as “the best thing ever!!” whereas Contiki go-ers loved their trip “Soooo much!!”

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I decided to go on both to find out which one I enjoyed more.

Contiki

I allocated myself just over a month in the USA. I wanted to start my travels on the West Coast of America in August so I could experience some of their Summer time.
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I looked into Contiki Tours first. They aim their tours at people aged 18-35 years old. For their American & Canadian tours they had a selection of 34 different trips to choose from with lots of different tour dates which suited me really well.
They have 6 different types of tours that you can do around the USA & Canada.

  • Discovery Plus – See the best parts of each place you visit while staying in hotels
  • High Energy – Explore during the day and party it up at night!
  • In-Depth Explorer – 2 night stays in most places so you can explore more + more free time
  • Easy Pace – Slower, more relaxed seeing only a few of the states.
  • Festivals & Short Stays – Pretty much what it says. Shorter trips focused on one thing like Las Vegas for New Years or 4 Days in New York.
  • Winter & Ski – Skiing & Snowboarding activities, Zip-lining and Snowmobiles are included on trips like these.

I was tossing up between the ‘High Energy‘ and the ‘Easy Pace’ type of trip. Basically the Easy Pace is where you get to have a sleep-in most mornings and than board a plane to your next destination. It’s quicker I guess to see each city but then I felt like you wouldn’t really ‘get to know’ your Contiki group on a plane compared to the 6-8 hour bus rides you can do instead. (They sound boring but you get that much needed sleep)

In the end I chose the High Energy style tour. Which included…

  • Twin Share Hotel accommodation (or a room to yourself if you pay extra)
  • Breakfast every day
  • Trip Manager & Coach Driver
  • ME Time
  • Air Conditioned Coach – you drive across the USA
  • Included Activities & Some sightseeing toursThis is more for travelers who want to see as much as possible as their trips range from 8 days to 26 days

Don’t worry if you don’t want to just do the States! Contiki also have tours around Europe, Asia, Latin America, Australia & New Zealand.
For the Europe trips, if you’re on a Budget they also have Camping trips where you stay in tents with 1 other person (Of the same sex) or opt to pay a bit more for a single person tent.

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Top Deck has similar style trips as well which include staying in Hotels, Camping, Winter trips and Club trips to suit what you want to do.
I looked into their American trips, specifically their Road Trip USA tour that went for 28 days which started in LA and finished in New York but decided on doing a Contiki in the end.
Looking back, I’m not sure which made up my mind…the Top Deck tour went for longer and it was cheaper than the Contiki. Hmm..

What I decided for America
I embarked on a 26 day tour with Contiki called The Grand Southern – starting in Los Angeles.
I made sure to spend 5 days in Los Angeles beforehand at a hostel because once the tour starts, you leave LA immediately and won’t have any time to explore.
(I’d recommend 3 days at least in LA so you can do Theme Parks, Hollywood Sign, Bus Tour etc)

I took an Uber from my hostel to the Kyoto Hotel** the night before the Contiki started and attended a brief orientation with our tour manager and the rest of the group.
You don’t have to go to this, but it’s beneficial as you can give all your passport information and next-of-kin info to your group leader and don’t have to worry about it in the morning.
It’s fun too because you get to meet everyone that you’re going to be travelling with and then head out for some drinks etc.

** – Please note that the Kyoto Hotel is now called DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel

I’ve already written a day-by-day blog on everything I did on my Contiki which you can start to read about here.
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My Thoughts on Contiki

The trip on the website promised…

  • “An experienced & professional Trip Manager & Driver team”
    We defiantly got this, I absolutely loved our Manager and our Driver. In my head, I assumed the driver would literally just be driving us places and not saying much at all.
    The very first day he stood at the front of the bus and explained the rules of the bus (No hot food, no hot drinks, no dairy on the bus, no using the bathroom unless for absolute emergencies)
    I think a few people thought he was way too strict throughout the trip but I’m glad he was as the bus didn’t smell like hot food or urine like I can imagine some to be.
    He had a rule where you had to be on the bus by the allocated time every morning to leave for our next destination and if you weren’t on the bus he’d leave without you.
    He was true to his word and we left someone in Memphis!
    When I did Top Deck they were a bit more relaxed about it but it did get annoying when you were always having to wait for someone and then got to your destination way later than you wanted to.
    Lateness = Less time in cool places
  • “32 meals: 19 breakfasts & 13 dinner”
    I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but throughout the 26 days we had some great dinners. When I read that we’d be getting dinner included in the cost of the Contiki (for some of the days) I was a bit disappointed. I wanted to go out and choose my own food and pick what I wanted to eat that night!
    It ended up being great though. Whenever we were going to be arriving at our destination, we’d have a sheet our tour manager would hand out on the bus a couple of days before with about 5 different options of meals to order at the restaurant we’d be going to. We’d write our name down and what we wanted to eat so they could serve it up really quickly when we arrived.
    The best meal I can remember was from Ellens Southern Kitchen in Dallas, Texas.
    I had Buttermilk Fried Chicken which was fresh organic marinated chicken, fried crispy and served with broccoli and sweet potato fries.
    You got Breakfast at pretty much each destination too. Some were a bit mediocre but most places did bagels, oatmeal, cereals, toast etc…image
  • A list of Inclusions (Things included on the trip)
    • We did an Evening tour of the famous Vegas ‘Strip’
    • We Visited Fremont Street & saw the light-and-laser show in Las Vegas
    • We got into groups and did the Vegas strip in a limo with champagne
    • Non-stop nightlife (You can be out as late as you want, just as long as you’re back on the bus by a certain time in the morning)
    • Stopped for photos & souvenirs in pretty much each state we were in.
    • Hiked along the Canyon’s South Rim 
    • Drove through the Rocky Mountains
    • Visited Old Town Albuquerque
    • Visited the unusual outdoor tribute to the American automobile at ‘Cadillac Ranch’ and got to spray paint old Cadillac’s.
    • Experienced Big Texan culture & food.
    • Visited the infamous John F. Kennedy Sixth Floor Museum
    • Visited Fort Worth Stockyards
    • Mingled with cows and cowboys in this rodeo town in Texas.
      And much more!
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  • ME Time Options
    Contiki has these ‘extras’  you can sign up for on the trip. A piece of paper is passed around the bus before you get to the next destination and it has written down all the ‘ME Time Options’ you can do.
    On the Grand Southern Tour, we got to sign up for activities such as…

    • Cirque du’ Soleil show in Vegas – AWESOME by the way!
    • High Roller Day Pass
    • Grand Canyon Biking (seasonal)
    • Helicopter Flight of the Grand Canyon- Imperial
    • Rafting (seasonal)
    • Snowmobiles – Single or Double Rider (seasonal)
    • Horse Back Trail Ride (Seasonal)
    • Hot Air Balloon over Albuquerque
    • Cowboy Stadium Tour (including transportation)
    • Rock & Soul Museum
    • Visit the legendary Sun Studios
    • School of Cooking in New Orleans
    • Airboat Swamp Tour
    • Universal Studios
    • Miami Party Cruise
    • Bike tour of South Beach
    • Thriller speed boat ride in Miami
    • Speedway Tour in Daytona

    I didn’t do all of these but overall everything I did do I enjoyed.
    You don’t pay for anything until your tour finishes which ended up being easier otherwise your tour manager always has to chase you up for your money and then it gets confusing remembered who has and hasn’t paid for what.
    At the beginning of your trip you get given a list of all the ME time activities you can do and the prices next to it so you always know from the beginning how much you’ll be spending.
    I’ll say this now, if you have the money, try and sign up for as many activities as you can!
    Even if it’s not really your thing, you could end up having such an awesome time because of the people you’re doing the trip with. Also, it’s no fun sitting in your hotel room while everyone else goes out on these cool adventures.

  • Shared Accommodation in Hotels
    For the accommodation you’re paired up with 1 other same-sex partner on your Contiki. (You don’t choose unless pre-arranged beforehand I think) and they’re your room-buddy for the whole trip. Obviously if you’re travelling with your partner, let Contiki know so they can put you in the same room.
    On my trip, one of the girls had major problems with her room-mate being a bit of a physco (very annoying, complaining the whole time, criticizing her etc…) so she ended up pairing up with me when my room-buddy went home half way through the trip (Long story but she basically missed her boyfriend)Anyways, at the beginning my new room buddy and I got along great!!
    We had similar interests and loved getting glammed up etc, until it got to the last 2 days of the trip and we basically had a falling out because she started talking shit about me to other people on the trip.
    I’m glad I only had a few nights with her and it’s really unfortunate that girls just some times can’t get along. Our Team Leader always said to say something straight away if you’re having problems with someone, but I guess it’s hard when people are already buddied up and don’t want to switch to a new room mate.
    Now just because there were a couple of problems on my trip, don’t let this deter you from sharing a room!! Things like this rarely happen and it was just unfortunate that it happened on mine.The places we stayed at however were great!
    I think there were probably only 2-3 places out of the whole trip that I wasn’t really fond of. But they were more because of Wi-fi problems or the fact that my headphones were snapped out of my Tablet while I was out for the day. (Grand Canyon House keeping I’m looking at you)
    Other than that, I always felt safe wherever we went and you can see that Contiki tries really hard to find centrally located places for us to stay at. Contiki people are usually a rowdy bunch so it’s good that the hotels put up with us!!
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Overall, I absolutely LOVED my Contiki. Beforehand, I’d read some people say things like “For the same amount of money, I could have stayed at 4-5 star hotels and had private tours of everything”
This may be true, but Contiki is such an experience in itself. I traveled by myself for 3 months and Contiki was one of the highlights because of all the people I met, because I could sleep on the Coach all day travelling to my next destination hungover while our driver drove us, because I didn’t have to research ‘What to do’ in each state and Contiki organised it for me. So many reasons!

“The meals are crap. Everywhere. If they are included, they are crap.”
This is SO not true!! I Loved all of my meals! I can’t even remember a meal that I didn’t like. If I didn’t like something it’d probably have been because it was Seafood and I hate seafood. But they try and cater to everyone (Gluten free, vegetarian etc…) so I don’t think I even ever had a seafood meal.
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“You’ll stay in the outskirts in most places, which makes it very difficult to get around”
I guess there were a couple of places that were a bit ‘out of the way’ like in Orlando we were around a grocery store, about 3 steak houses and LOTS of souvenir stores but that was it. We were only in Orlando for 1 full day anyways and we all did Universal Studios so it was probably good there weren’t any bars or clubs around! I couldn’t imagine going on a roller coaster hungover.
Most of our other hotels however were centrally located. In Memphis we could walk to the main bars, in Las Vegas the bars were IN our hotel, in Washington D.C we were right next to the Subway so we could catch that to the city center.
I guess a few weren’t close enough to just walk everywhere, but our coach always took us out at night if we had dinner or were going to some event. You’re in a group anyways so Taxi’s end up being super cheap (Even cheaper if you take an Uber) which is perfect if you’re dying to head down to the clubs.

“The whole journey is full of alcoholics, the tour manager was arranging partying and drinking nearly every night”
Whoever wrote this obviously went on some type of High Energy Trip and didn’t read that this is usually what happens on them.
If you’ve got some party places on your map of destinations, you’ll most likely be going out! However, never EVER are you forced to go out with the group if you 100% don’t want to.
In reference to one of the girls on my trip who was a bit of a physco, when we were in Las Vegas she yelled at me for drinking a big bucket of margarita in the street (by the way, this is legal and expected in Las Vegas) and whenever someone got drunk she’d tell them how irresponsible and awful they were. We were all baffled as to WHY she was even on the trip.
If you don’t drink, that’s fine, just don’t criticize other people for doing what they want to do on their trip that they’ve also looked forward to for months.
There were about 3 girls on our trip who very rarely drunk alcohol so when they came out dancing with us they’d stick to juices or sodas but still had a great time.
Our Tour Manager had been doing Contiki’s for ages so he knew the best clubs to go to and how to get us some VIP tickets which was great. I never saw him wasted off his face though. If any of us got too drunk while he was out with us, he’d make sure they got back to the hotel safely. I guess some Tour Managers get a little bit crazy, but you have to remember they’re allowed some free time too. If you’re even on a Contiki, you’ll be over 18 years of age and probably don’t need to be baby-sat on your night out.

Top Deck

I had 15 days in Europe before I had to head off to Croatia to start my 1 week sailing trip. I decided on doing a Top Deck tour called ‘European ExpressNZ$ 1,494 which was for 11 days starting in London and finishing in London.

  • Day 1: London, UK to Paris, France

  • Day 2: Paris

  • Day 3: Paris to Swiss Alps, Switzerland

  • Day 4: Swiss Alps

  • Day 5: Swiss Alps to Venice, Italy

  • Day 6: Venice

  • Day 7: Venice to Munich, Germany

  • Day 8: Munich to Rhine Valley

  • Day 9: Rhine Valley to Amsterdam, Netherlands

  • Day 10: Amsterdam

  • Day 11: Amsterdam to London, UK

I chose this tour purely for the fact I only had a short space of time in Europe and all of the other tours Top Deck offered were longer than 15 days.
I also got to quickly see France, Germany and Amsterdam before I headed to Croatia which I was really excited to see 🙂

I guess I didn’t start my Top Deck tour off very well.
I stayed at the hostel that Top Deck recommends you stay at as the tour leaves from there. It’s called Wombats Hostel and you can read my review on it here 
If you can’t be bothered reading my review, in brief, the hostel was amazing and probably the cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed at.
But that’s not why my experience started off badly. On the very first day when I woke up at 5am to board the bus by 6am I had the flu!!
My whole body was aching, I had a temperature, I had barely slept and just wanted to curl up into a ball and be taken care of. Instead I had to board a bus to the Ferry Terminal and take the Ferry across to France with all my new Tour mates.
I probably wasn’t the most social person at the beginning of the trip either because all I wanted to do was sleep. 😦

The first thing that bothered me about the Tour was our first driver. When we got picked up from the Hostel, we were greeted by a ‘larger man’ who spoke in a thick British accent and smoked like a chimney and just seemed angry about having to even take us to the Ferry Terminal in the first place. Just the way he spoke came across grumpy and it felt like he was complaining about every little thing. I’m not sure if it was his sense of humor and maybe he was trying to be funny but all I remember thinking was ‘Oh god, please don’t let him be our driver these whole 2 weeks’

Thankfully he wasn’t our permanent driver. He dropped us off at the ferry and went back to central London on the Top Deck Coach. We were met with another driver when we arrived in France.

With my particular tour, we stayed in Hostels that had been pre-arranged. Unlike Contiki where we where partnered up with someone for the whole trip, Top Deck allowed us to choose who we’d share a room with.
Every day before our new destination, a sheet was passed around the coach with 5-6 different dorm rooms written down (Usually each with 4-6 beds) and we could write down who we wanted to room with that night.
It’s good if you get sick of someone and want to change to hang out with different people.
Also if you’re hooking up with someone on Top Deck I guess it’s a good way to stay in the same room as them as our Tour Guide didn’t actually care if Males & Females roomed together.

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I roomed with 2 girls the first night – Kara & Kelly – and ended up having a blast with them the whole time on Top Deck.

My Thoughts on Top Deck

The trip on the website promised:

  • Optional Activities
    I understand that this trip was considerably shorter than my Contiki so there wasn’t a whole bunch of activities over the 2 weeks, but the activities I did do I didn’t actually overall enjoy.
    I did the Seine River cruise in Paris and thought it was a bit average.
    I actually ended up listening to my iPod the whole time because the audio over the speakers (which explained all the landmarks) on the cruise spoke about the same thing 4 times in 4 different languages. It just got a bit boring to listen to when it was repeated so often.
    Also you got given your ticket to do the cruise at your own time that day which meant if you hadn’t made friends yet you’d just go by yourself and compete against all the other tourists trying to board the boat at the same time.
    I actually ended up going by myself as the girls I made friends with were doing the Bike-Ride around Paris tour and I didn’t sign up for it (I wasn’t sure how I’d be feeling as I still was a bit sick)
    We all attended the Traditional cabaret show in Paris and again, this wasn’t anything to brag about. It maybe went on for a little bit too long and one of the guys on our trip even fell asleep. Eek!
    However, in their defense, I’d seen the Cirque du soleil in Las Vegas on my Contiki Tour and that was bloody amazing. You could see how much they practiced because everything was done so over the top and was really made to ‘wow’ the audience. I  admit I think I ‘compared’ the two shows to one another and kept noticing the dancers in Paris not being ‘in time’ with one another and to be 100% truthful, a little boring. It didn’t capture my attention for long that I was actually looking at my phone some of the time so that was a bit disappointing.
    20150926_152444.jpgWe did however get the chance to go up to the highest point on the European continent when we were in Switzerland- the top of Jungfrau Mountain via the Jungfraubahn railway. I was keen on this as the pictures looked amazing but it was so bloody expensive I didn’t end up doing it. I think it ended up being nearly NZD$250 just to get the train and look from the top. I know to some people that’s such an amazing experience, but I was travelling for 3 months and didn’t have that kind of budget to spend on a view.
  • Oktoberfest
    Now this annoyed me a bit. I booked my Top Deck Tour at a Travel Expo back home in New Zealand. While I was looking at the ‘Top Deck Display’ I remembered talking to the Promoter about being in Europe in October and him getting really excited because I’d be in Germany at Oktoberfest time. Yay!
    I booked the Top Deck tour that very day because they were having 15% off all tours and also I didn’t want to miss out on Oktoberfest because he made it seem like Top Deck specifically went out of their way to make it an amazing time for us all.Anyways, when I was on the tour, our Top Deck Leader didn’t have any plans for Oktoberfest! Here I was imagining we’d all go out and buy those cool Bavarian Wench Costumes and the boys would dress up in Beer Man Costumes and we’d all pre-drink beforehand and arrive at Oktoberfest partially off our faces.
    But instead our leader said we could leave Venice early on our travel day to Germany and hopefully get there around 6pm so we could attend Oktoberfest. But if we where to do that, we had to go and ask our driver really nicely and it was only a ‘maybe’ as the driver had to get adequate sleep time. (Which I understand but…what!? I thought this would have been organised)Me and some others were a bit confused because I felt like I was sold on this tour because I got to do Oktoberfest. Instead we ended up arriving in Germany at 5.30pm and had only half an hour to get ready and then all set off to Oktoberfest.
    Grrr. Sharing a room with 5 other girls and getting ready for Oktoberfest was so stressful. 1 Bathroom to share and only 2 mirrors to do our make-up in.Not to mention, only a few of us on our Top Deck had the traditional outfits to dress up in for Oktoberfest. We had no where to buy them before we arrived in Germany. No stop-offs anywhere so people could buy outfits, no suggestion on where to go, no option for anyone to even think about getting an outfit.
    Luckily, me and a few other girls bought some from a supermarket in Switzerland while everyone else was out doing the Jungfrau Mountain trip that I didn’t attend.

    Oktoberfest was fun but as I don’t drink Beer I didn’t get that drunk. If we’d had the day in Germany I would have pre-drunk or something beforehand and had a blast but oh well. The food was amazing and the atmosphere was great so I’d defiantly do it again another year but be so much more organised. As we only had that night in Munich, we couldn’t go back the next day to do it all again.
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  • 8 nights in hostels & 2 nights in bungalows at European campsites
    The hostels were fun. The hostel we stayed at in Paris seemed to be in a slightly dodgy area with people always hanging around outside but it had it’s own bar and everything which was cool.
    It did however have the weirdest smell in the bathroom, yuck!The ‘Top Deck Campsite‘ they use in Venice called Camp Jolly was horrible.
    We stayed in cabins with 1 other person which was fine but when we turned up at 6pm half of the rooms hadn’t even been serviced.
    Pretty much all the driers were broken for when I went to do my washing and in the midst of my shower our cabin’s power went out for ages.
    In the Summer Time I can imagine it to be much better as they have a big pool and a bar etc… But I just found the staff there so rude and un-helpful. I needed coins for the Laundry so went to Reception, who then told me to go to the Camp Supermarket next door, where I stood at the counter for 3 minutes while the cashiers could finish gossiping and then serve me. But not without rolling their eyes because I needed some special ‘laundry coins’
    Good news was, the Top Deck Staff in the ‘Top Deck’ Dinner Tent were awesome and the food was great!
    The bar the campsite had was probably the only other great thing about it. There was another Top Deck Tour there at the same time so we all got drunk and danced away drinking the bar’s cheap drinks.
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  • Trip Leader + Driver + Topdeck On-Site Chefs
    Our leader was great, maybe a bit less organised than our Contiki leader but he was still a nice guy who was really informative about all the places that we went to. Plus he sung some songs on the bus for us which was pretty entertaining!
    Our driver was a bit hit and miss haha, I say that because half the time he was nice and then we had an argument half way through the trip where he yelled at me because we were stuck in traffic and I was busting to pee but he wouldn’t let me use the on-board toilet. I don’t want to be overly appreciative about him because of that incident, but that was just my experience. Not to say that every driver is like that, I don’t think anyone else had a problem with him!

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    Me and our Top Deck Guide
  • Modern air-conditioned coach, including power points for charging electronics.
    We only had a couple of power points to use in the middle of the bus. The Coach was clean and air conditioned. They advertise having Wi-Fi but you have to pay so I’d just get a UK SIM card to use overseas if you want Internet.
  • The Food
    Top-Deck provides a lot of food so as to ‘save you money’ but I wasn’t a fan of much of it. We always stopped for ‘picnics’ but it was always the same stuff.
    Bread, cold meats, salads and some slices. By the second week I was so over eating cold food all the time I just wanted to eat a burger!! Plus if we did have an included dinner, we didn’t even get to choose what to eat which was a bit disappointing.

It sucks that it seems like I wrote alot of bad things about my Top Deck tour and that could have been because I started off my trip being sick.
Obviously on my Contiki I was with my group for nearly a month so we all got to know each other really well and made great friendships.
On my Top Deck I was only on it for about 2 weeks so I didn’t make any close-close friendships (apart from with a couple of girls).
Also I did Contiki in the Summer time so Summer Weather = Happiness!

There were obviously some great moments on my Top Deck. Hanging out in Amsterdam was awesome, meeting people from lots of different countries on my trip was sweet! Drinking and dancing together in the underground bar in Switzerland was a fun time 🙂

Conclusion

Contiki was the best.
Top Deck was good but comparing the time’s I had on my Contiki – it just didn’t quite measure up.
I think even if I didn’t do my Contiki I’d still maybe have been a bit disappointed with the Top Deck Tour.
The food on Contiki was better. The activities were funner. The drinking and nights out were more crazy.

I read online that people are put-off from Contiki because it seems like such a party atmosphere. When I read negative reviews online it’s usually from someone who doesn’t like to drink, or is more of a quieter reserved person which is fine, but maybe Contiki isn’t quite for you. (Or it could bring you out of your shell like a few people on my tour!)

I drink, but even I was nervous doing the tour. I imagined waking up to shots of Vodka in my face every morning and spewing on the bus every second day.
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But I was absolutely fine!!! You honestly don’t have to go out if you don’t want to. Everyone is really accepting and if you don’t want to drink, no one will force you. We had a few girls on our trip who didn’t drink but they still came out with us and had a great time.
The only problem we had was with one girl because she criticized the rest of us all the time for drinking. Even in Las Vegas she looked at me in disgust because I was drinking from a bucket. People like that just ruin it for themselves because while we all ended up having a great bond she was always excluded because she just didn’t want to accept any of our personalities and we had to always do things ‘her way’

I didn’t spend my days too hungover to appreciate America though! It wasn’t all just drinking. We’d have dinners together even if it wasn’t included on our trip, we took group photos and played games on the coach together. We had nights out bowling and did our optional activities together. We even had a few couples on the trip and they had a great time! They still joined in on our nights out but still had the opportunities to go and have private dinners together or just spend the night in their room together if they couldn’t be bothered going out. No one ever made anyone feel bad for not going out.

Breakdown

Contiki is aimed at customers who are students and young travellers between the ages of 18 and 35. They operate in North & South America, Europe, Asia, New Zealand and Australia. They frequently put up last minute deals on certain destinations and offer major discounts to solo travellers.
Lunch is always up to you. A lot of times you eat at rest stops because you’re usually on the bus during lunch time. Some trips include 1-2 lunches.
Dinner is provided about half the time.
Some budget hotels that Contiki uses are slowly declining because past Contiki groups have partied too hard and the hotels won’t allow the company to return (We got warned  beforehand at some hotels to keep it down a little bit)

Topdeck is another major international tour operator providing tours throughout, Europe, North America, Africa, Egypt, East-Asia, Latin American, Middle-East, Australia and New Zealand.
Breakfast is provided everyday and Lunch is usually up to you, most tours will include a few lunches where you stop and have a picnic.
Accommodation varies depending on destinations. They have Hostels, guest houses and bungalows with selected free hotel upgrades. They also have special stop overs such as flotilla sailing in Greece. Rooms are single sex and multi-share, usually 4-6
people per room.

If anyone has any questions about Contiki or Top Deck, let me know in the comments! I love talking about my trip 🙂
And if you’ve done one of their tours, let me know how it went, everyone has different experiences depending on the people they’re with and the things they see so it’ll be interesting to read.

Day 34 New York! Feat. Philadelphia

Today was the final day of Contiki 😥
Everyone boarded the bus one last morning with all their bags and we all sung the morning song one last time.

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The morning on the bus was spent sleeping for me.
We stopped in Philadelphia for a look around and some lunch just before 12pm.

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A little Philadelphia information for you:
It’s the largest city in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania and the fifth-most-populous in the United States.
They have apparently like one and a half million people living there.

Philadelphia played a major role in the American Revolution as a meeting place for the Founding Fathers of the United States.

There’s a few ‘history’ type things to see there but we only really went and saw The Liberty Bell which is an icon symbol of American independence.

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The bell was commissioned from the London firm of Lester and Pack (today the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) in 1752, and was cast with the lettering “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” a Biblical reference from the Book of Leviticus

After seeing the bell, we went and got some street food. The others got one of the iconic Philly Cheese Steaks – a long roll with thin pieces of steak and melted cheese – but I ended up getting a falafel sandwich from a street cart. (Very vegetarian of me I know)
I’m a bit funny about eating meat in America let alone on the side of the road haha.

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Once back on the bus (and me with my magnet I have to get in every state) we headed off to NYC.
I got a bit of shut eye on the bus then before I knew it we could see the New York City skyline. Eeek!

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My phone was about to die so I had it on charge on the bus (so didn’t take any photos) not that they would have been very good coming from the bus window anyways.
However – to give you an idea, I’ve attached a picture above from Mr Google.

Anyone who knows me knows that New York City has been the one very place I’ve dreamed about visiting since I was young. I used to talk about going there “one day” for soo many years so this was such a big moment for me.

When our driver eventually maneuvered the coach to the hotel we were finishing at, we all unloaded our bags for the final time and started to say our goodbyes.
Reflecting back on the past month. I’ve had so much fun with this bunch of people on my Contiki! I thought our driver Ricky was fantastic. He always got us everywhere on time, if not earlier and obviously got us everywhere safely.
Our tour manager was awesome as well. Blake always went out of his way to make sure everyone was okay and knew info about all the places we went to so it wasn’t all just drinking at cool bars and getting drunk. We actually saw so many historic places.
I’ll probably write a different blog on my overall Contiki experience when I get home.
Edit: Check out my Contiki Vs. TopDeck Blog Here

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Once I’d said my goodbyes, I got my bag on my back (I’ve been wheeling it around this whole time) and pondered about getting a Taxi or catching an Uber to my Hostel.
I decided I was gonna get the Subway instead to really do the whole New York experience.

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And i’m glad I did!
The Subway was really easy to use when you have Google maps as it tells you exactly what station to get on at and where to walk.
I bought a unlimited metro card for the whole week and hopped onto the next train.
I was the only obvious tourist on the train with my big bag but no one really took any notice, there was a guy busking on the train though which was pretty cool.

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I got off at 103 street and walked up the road to my hostel. Which was super easy to find! Signing in was quick and the reception people where pretty helpful.

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The rooms here are pretty basic but they’re clean and tidy and you have your own locker.
I’m rooming with 3 other girls who I’ve barely talked to because they’re always out exploring.
(The people will probably change like 5 times this week though as new people come and go all the time)

It feels weird being by myself again and having to go up to people and talk to them compared to having instant friends on my Contiki.

When I eventually got settled in my room, I went in search of Central Park. I obviously didn’t read my Google maps very well and ended up at a park that I thought was the beginning of Central Park but was actually a park called Riverside Park. Ahh!
And here I was wondering why the Houston River was like right there in front of me.
Turns out I just looked at my map wrong and walked in the opposite direction.

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There were so many people out for a run that I ended up running as well.
Can you see all the good-looking shirtless guys above? Hahaha.
I called my best friend Michelle on the way back to my hostel through Facebook Messenger. I didn’t really know my way back to the hostel but I just kept walking and figured it out in the end. (And got myself a fresh smoothie on the way)

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On Monday Nights the hostel has a big band play live outside and free alcohol (which is beer and red wine – my 2 hated beverages haha)
It’s more of a night where you can meet all the new people and there’s a $7 BBQ which I ate.

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I ended up sitting with a group of Aussies/British people and then heading out to a pub with lots of other people from the Hostel.
One of the guys from Australia pre-drunk a little bit with me before we left and then we all took the subway to this bar called Jacks Dilemma.

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Jacks Dilemma turned into Sarah ‘s Dilemma when she was bought too many drinks and shots from Auzzie, NZ and British. Auzzie ended up having to take me home (no idea what time, but it was after we lost at beer pong) and I had far too many shots.
I’m gutted my first experience in a NYC cab was the driver pulling over so I could spew on the road haha.
(Again, sorry mother)

On a nicer note, I woke up this morning feeling alllll good!
Xx