UCF Homecoming 2013

Every year I always try to find an opportunity to get back down to Orlando for at least one UCF Football game and this year was no exception.  Despite the fact that it’s rather easy to get down to Orlando, due to work that kept me busy both in the office and on the road, the homecoming game was my first and really only opportunity to get back on campus for a weekend.  Like my last several trips this would be a road trip; ever since Southwest ended their Panama City to Orlando non-stop flights, the cost just doesn’t usually work out anymore.  Delta still sometimes has ECP-ATL-MCO roundtrips for around $200, but usually it takes some advance planning and even at that price it usually just isn’t worth it from a cost perspective.  So, instead I get behind the wheel of my BMW and spend the 5-6 hours wishing that I could still fly non-stop in 45 minutes.  Perhaps Silver Airways will expand service to Panama City Beach some day (after all, they do serve PNS, VPS, and TLH…so what’s another panhandle airport?).

I could write about the drive in both directions, but I have a feeling that it would bore just about anyone.  I mean really, the section of I-10 between Tallahassee and I-75 is probably the most boring, straight, highway that is anywhere near Florida.  There isn’t much in the way of cities or towns, and most exits are just a single gas station and restaurant.  Even on the radio, there isn’t much out there…unless you want Friday night high school football, country music or a religious station.  For about two hours it’s more or less the middle of nowhere.  Other than the boredom that is that stretch of highway, the drive wasn’t actually too bad, and having left Panama City later than I wanted to, I still made it to Orlando a little before midnight.  On the way back, the drive took a bit longer, but that’s because I stopped in Gainesville to visit a friend from college that now lives there.  Always good to catch up with friends that you haven’t seen in a long time!

Sheraton Orlando North Hotel
The Sheraton Orlando North Hotel in Maitland is my usual go-to hotel in Orlando because of ease of access off of I-4, relatively cheap rates, and usually pretty good treatment as an SPG Gold member.  I was only staying here for one night before switching to a different SPG property in Orlando, to help ensure that I would without a doubt qualify for Gold again for next year.  Checking in late, I didn’t expect much, but this hotel had been pretty good about upgrading me as a Gold to the club floor for my stays there.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t any such luck this time, but that didn’t matter so much when you consider that I was just using it as a crash pad for the night.  The only negative comment I have about this stay is that they put me in a room on a side of the hotel where they were doing some work (potentially pressure washing?) on the exterior.  As a result, I was startled up at 7AM by voices and equipment moving around.  Not exactly how I wanted to wake up after driving 400 miles and getting into town late, but once I was up there was no going back to sleep.  I just took it as a sign to get moving and just decided to check out and get on with my day.

Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard
Ever since I graduated from UCF and started making trips back down to Orlando for quick weekends I had always wanted to try this hotel. Unfortunately, it had more than often been priced at a point where it just didn’t make sense as a crash pad in between football games, visiting friends, and so on. This weekend though I finally lucked out and there were rates at about $100/night. Not much more than the Sheraton Orlando North, I figured this would be the time to try it out.

Since I wanted to ditch my bags before heading over to campus for the game, I quickly swung by the hotel to check-in.  The lobby wasn’t terribly busy, and you can tell that they definitely keep this hotel looking very clean in the public spaces.  The front desk agent who checked me in was also very quick and friendly and got me setup with my room on the 10th floor.

Now, as I’ve mentioned I have SPG Gold status, which usually entitles me to (on a space-available basis) an upgrade to a room with a better view, higher floor, etc.  Usually that does not mean a suite; in fact in the 2.5 years that I’ve been SPG Gold, I’ve never once have been upgraded to a suite from a standard room, but then it was never expected either.  Well, that changed that afternoon…they had upgraded me to a one-bedroom suite and I have to say, it was very nice.  With a kitchenette/bar area by the front door, a four-person table, couch, chairs, desk in the living room, a very large bathroom, bedroom with a king bed and a balcony overlooking Universal Boulevard and the Orange County Convention Center.  I was impressed…in fact impressed enough that if I can continue to find reasonable rates, I think that this may become my new Orlando hotel.

Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard – Suite Entry

Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard – Suite Living Room

Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard – Suite King Bed

Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard – Westin Weekend

Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard – Suite Bedroom

Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard – Suite Balcony View (Orange County Convention Center)

The Game: #19 UCF Knights vs. University of Houston Cougars

The whole reason I came to Orlando on this weekend: Homecoming weekend at the University of Central Florida.  Although it is always good to get back to campus (especially since every time I come back new buildings pop up – even since my visit in May for my younger brother’s graduation!), but really it’s an excuse to see a few friends and enjoy some college football.  This year, UCF had moved up to The American Athletic Conference (formerly Big East) from Conference USA, putting us in a BCS Automatic Qualifying (AQ) conference for the last season of the BCS structure.  On top of that, the Knights have been doing exceptionally well, having broken into the rankings after taking down conference foe Louisville and remaining undefeated in conference play.  An exciting time for students and alumni, so I knew I had to get down there.  Despite being ranked, I was able to score some very affordable lower bowl seats for about $25/each…not bad at all!

There are plenty of stories out there recapping the game on ESPN, Bleacher Report, the Orlando Sentinel and more, so I’m not going to go into detail about the game, but I will say that this was a tough game to watch.  Houston matched us pretty well, and when it got down to the final minutes I kept telling my friend that this was probably going to end very badly for us.  I was being pessimistic, because as a UCF fan now for 7 or so years, I’ve seen that all too often.  Much to my amazement, the UCF defense managed to keep Houston from scoring in the final seconds of the game and the Knights were the victors!  I was a happy fan the rest of the night and it looked like almost everyone else was too (well aside from the small contingent of Houston fans that looked oh-so-very disappointed).  Even better than the win, I think, was the fact that nearly everyone stayed until the end of the game.  UCF fans have a problem with showing up late and leaving early, making the stadium very empty even during some exciting last minute plays to win the game.

Tailgating on Memory Mall

Onwards to the Stadium

UCF Cheerleaders

Marching Knights Pre-Game

UCF Enters!

That’s Not Gone Well…

Every Day Is A Great Day!

UCF Wins! The Crowd Went Wild!

The Rest…
I drove back to Panama City Beach on Sunday, but before I could leave I was going to meet up with my friend again and grab breakfast and head over to Lake Eola Park in Downtown Orlando to test out my new Sony Alpha A65 DSLR (SLT); and the fact that in the 4 years I lived there, I never once went to the park. Anyways, we settled on a French bakery located on Magnolia near Church St, called Le Gourmet Break. It had some pretty decent reviews, and I wanted something different…which resulted in my getting an Omelette Croissant. What is that you ask? Well, it’s an omelette (in my case cheddar and ham), stuffed into a very light and tasty croissant. It’s like a hot pocket, but not. Was definitely a different way to present it and tasty.

After that it was off to Lake Eola Park, where we roamed with our cameras for a while before I decided I needed to head out on the road.  Without a circular polarizer, though most of my pictures of the swans on the water pretty much turned out terrible, but still managed a few decent ones.  After picking up a few things at Publix I said goodbye to my friend and off I went.  On the drive back I even managed to catch a friend/former roommate in Gainesville for a late lunch that I had not seen in over a year.

Lake Eola Fountain

That Guy Really Is Recording Video Of That Tree….

Only Picture Of A Swan That Turned Out Decent

Swan Boats

All things considered this was a great trip, even though short!  Although I don’t think that I will wait until next year’s football season to get back down there, as I found out my friend has a season pass to Disney, and I’m feeling the urge to nerd out at Epcot.  Yep. Epcot really is my favorite park in Orlando (although the lack of roller coasters do suck; but that’s what Universal Islands of Adventure is for).

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