Most kids dream of one day going to Orlando and visiting the theme parks, be it Disney World, Universal Studios or both. From the UK, this type of holiday doesn’t come cheap and there wasn’t a cat in hells chance that my mum could afford to take me when I was little. The same was true for the other half but we knew that we’d have to go before we got too old to enjoy the magic. It was all about timing.
Fortunately for us, Virgin Atlantic were having a seat sale and some cheap fares to Orlando caught my eye (the joy of working in travel, there’s always something to catch your eye!). When doing a bit of research, I came across a deal on Expedia giving the hotel for free when you book a flight. Expedia’s hotel + flight deals can be pretty decent and this one certainly ticked some boxes for us. Every which way I looked, I couldn’t get a better price than what I could find with Expedia. Their flight + hotel deal was even cheaper than the best deal I could get on the flight alone, so I knew I had to do some persuading to get the other half to agree!
Resistance is usually futile wherever holidays are concerned and the booking was made, months ahead of the date of travel. I was happy with my bargain deal and I was even able to score some of the best seats in economy class for the outbound flight. Virgin were operating one of their 747s and I managed to snaffle the exit seats upstairs, otherwise known as The Bubble.
Anyone who’s really in to flying will know what a treat it is to get a seat in this exclusive section of the aircraft. Most airlines keep The Bubble for first and business Class passengers, but Virgin do have some economy and premium economy seats up there. We’d experienced The Bubble on a flight to Miami a few years earlier and it’s like being on a private plane. The service is excellent, it’s nice and quiet and there’s no massive queue for the loo. I was really excited to be flying in The Bubble again, especially in exit row seats. We had to pay extra to reserve them, but it was a price I was willing to pay for the best seats in economy.
About a month before departure, Virgin changed the aircraft type for our flight. Nothing major, it happens all the time. The issue was, that Virgin didn’t reallocate the seats that we’d booked and paid extra for. They plumped us in standard economy seats on the main deck of the aircraft. Although our booking had been changed a month before, they hadn’t even refunded the extra fee we’d paid for emergency exit seats or notified us of any change.
When I raised this with Virgin and asked them to change our seats back to the ones we’d paid extra for, I was told no and tough. Someone else had now booked those seats and we’d have to stay where we were. Their customer service was some of the worst I’ve ever experienced from any company, and that’s unusual for Virgin as I’ve always been very happy with them in the past. There was no explanation as to why they hadn’t refunded the exit seat supplement.
Unfortunately, I had to escalate the complaint as high as it could go before I got a reasonable explanation as to what happened. As it turned out, they’d had to switch the aircraft type and the specific seats we’d picked had a known fault with their entertainment systems. As such, those seats were blocked for reservation until check-in. Why that wasn’t explained in the beginning, I’ll never know. I was assured that no one else had booked those seats and, if they were confident that the entertainment system would be working on the day of departure, we would be allocated those seats. We were refunded the exit row supplement and would be put on standby for an upgrade to Premium Economy, should enough seats be available. I’ve worked in travel a long time and I know how rare upgrades are, so I wasn’t going to hold my breath on the last part but I was happy to have an explanation and a refund of the supplement.
On the day before departure, I’m checking in online when I notice that the seat numbers have changed back to the ones I’d paid for! I was over the moon! I still wasn’t going to hold my breath about the upgrade but as the new aircraft type was a Heathrow configuration 747 rather than a Manchester/Gatwick configuration, I knew that there would be a lot less seats in economy but more in Premium and Upper Class. The flight had been completely full when I checked availability on the systems at work so I was quite worried that some passengers, ourselves included, might find ourselves offloaded and unable to travel.
The next morning, I wake up in my hotel bed happy in the knowledge that I’m going to Orlando today! I’ve got my favourite seats back! Life is good! I stay in bed whilst the other half gets in the shower. I load the Virgin app on my phone to check the status of the flight. I’ll just check the seat numbers whilst I’m at it, make sure they haven’t changed again.
“WHERE’S YOUR PHONE?”, I shout at the other half. Virgin have changed my seat again and I need to check if his has changed too. I’m actually shaking as I look at my seat number on the screen. I check the other half’s seat number and his has changed too. I know exactly where these seats are but I check Seat Guru just to be sure. When the other half gets out of the shower, I show him the new seats and we both stare at each other in disbelief.
We try and gulp down some breakfast but I’m too tense to eat. I just want to get to the airport and check what’s happening with the seats. Despite having checked in online, I bypass the bag drop and head to one of the manned desks. The guy on the desk goes through all the motions but mentions nothing about the change in seat numbers. I can see the seat numbers on his screen so I know they’ve changed. Once we’re about done, I ask him to check our allocated seats as they’re different to the ones I picked during check in. He looks at his screen and calls his manager over. He rips up our boarding passes and reprints them.
I look at the boarding pass, thank the nice man and his manager and we head up the escalator to the departure gates. As soon as we’re out of sight of the check-in desks, we both jump around with our hands flailing in the air. I look at the boarding pass again to make sure I haven’t misread it, but there’s no mistaking the massive letters down the left side – UPPER CLASS.
It’s a shame that the lounge at the airport is closed for refurbishment but I wouldn’t have remembered to go in anyway. I was still in shock. When they called the flight for boarding, I was at the front of the queue, right next to the red velvet rope. The other half was quite embarrassed. I was like a kid waiting for a sweet shop to open!
For my whole adult life, I’d dreamed of flying Business Class and here I was, in seat 3A on the upper deck of a 747. And I’m here for free! This can’t be happening! I make a really bad job of playing it cool. I take selfies in my seat, snap a picture of every meal and drink and even drag the other half to the bar for a glass of champagne. I have to keep sneaking off to the loo to pinch myself awake. The whole experience is amazing. The crew are lovely, but they always are on Virgin, the food is gorgeous and well-presented and I even manage a few hours’ sleep in the fully flat bed. This is it, I can never fly economy again!
It’s a shame to come back down to earth but Orlando is calling and I’m looking forward to Universal Studios and Kennedy Space Centre. We’ve decided not to go to Disney World as we’re only here for 1 week and we’d rather spend time really experiencing Universal. We know we’ll come back to Orlando in the future so we’ll go to Disney then.
I’m totally blown away by Universal Studios anyway! From the moment we arrive and see the spinning globe, my inner child starts running riot and I want to run from ride to ride and soak it all up. The rides are spectacular and not at all what I expected. They’re so immersive and deeper than just being thrown about on a roller-coaster, although I did love them too!
My favourite rides had to be Revenge of the Mummy and Escape from Gringotts, but The Transformers ride was pretty epic too. Overall, I was most impressed with Diagon Alley and Hogsmead. The level of detail put in to making these 2 worlds come to life is phenomenal. The Kings Cross station is uncanny, how they’ve matched the colour of the brick and the feel of the station brilliant. It was like being transported back to London!
Fortunately, the parks were fairly quiet when we were there and we waited no more than 45 minutes for a ride. Our average wait time was probably 15 minutes and in some cases, we walked straight on to the ride. The fact that the place wasn’t busy really gave us the opportunity to explore and enjoy all the little touches hidden around the place, especially in the Harry Potter worlds. Some of the rides were closed whilst we were there, which was a shame, but they were also building some new ones like Skull Island and Race Through New York. We really fell in love with the place and can’t wait to go back.
You’ll probably notice that I haven’t mentioned the hotel in Orlando. That’s because it was a dive, probably the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in! But hey, it was free so I’m not going to moan. It was just off International Drive and less than 15 minutes from Universal on the free hopper bus. We were out of the place for 12 hours every day and it was a place to sleep and shower. But I wouldn’t stay there again!
Date of trip: February 2016
Price paid: £525.00pp for 7 nights RO just off International Drive booked through Expedia. Plus £125.00pp + 12,500 Virgin Flying Club points to upgrade return flight to Premium Economy. £160.00pp for 7-day pass to both Universal Studio theme parks.
Points earned: 8448 Flying Club miles for flying with Virgin Atlantic. 3000 Flying Club miles for booking a hotel + flight package with Expedia. 2000 Flying Club miles for paying with the Flying Club Black American Express credit card. 1000 Nectar Points for booking through Expedia.