Can this trip be saved? “We feel cheated as tourists”

Before Steven Barlow returned his rental car at Orlando International Airport in December, he did what most rental customers do who are trying to avoid a fuel surcharge: He found a gas station and topped off his tank.

Then he looked at the digital display on the pump at the Suncoast Energies station, which seemed to be moving faster than normal. Then he looked up and saw the prices were nearly twice the going rate for gas in Florida — an incredible $4.89 per gallon.

We could see no signs advertising the price. The clerk told me that they could charge this price as the station was close to the airport, and offered no other reason as to why they didn’t need to advertise. Basically, too bad you stopped and thanks for being stupid and giving us your money.

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Do they hate us?

When I lived in the Florida Keys, an area heavily dependent on tourism, I remember seeing a bumper sticker a time or two: “If it’s tourist season,” it asked, “why can’t we shoot them?”

The men officiating a sham wedding at Vilu Reef resort in the Maldives (video above) may have been asking themselves the same question. In the ceremony, conducted in the Dhivehi language for a Swiss couple, an officiator curses at the visitors and calls them infidels. (Warning: The clip contains explicit language.)

The Maldivian prime minister, Mohammed Nasheed, condemned the video and ordered the men responsible for the ceremony arrested.

Still, it makes you wonder if people hate us when we’re on vacation.
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A reservation and a charge — but no room

Question: My family is a member of Marriott Vacation Club International and we have a timeshare with them. As part of that purchase, we were told that we have the ability to purchase “getaways” for either a week or a weekend. (A getaway is simply a low-cost way to rent an unsold timeshare condo like a hotel room.)

My wife contacted Interval Travel, which handles reservations for Marriott, to purchase a getaway at a Marriott Vacation Club resort in Orlando. Interval told her that there were no Marriott properties available for getaways at that time, but instead suggested another property called Westgate Vacation Villas in Kissimmee, Fla.

We paid $339 for four nights at Westgate. We received a booking confirmation by mail the day before the getaway was to begin and it appeared to be in order. It wasn’t. When I reached the front desk, they advised me that they had no record whatsoever of our reservation. Eventually, they offered us a “spare” room but only after sitting through a sales presentation.

Once I opened the room, a strong smell of mold and mildew blew out at us. The room had clearly not been maintained, the air conditioning was not on and the air quality was intolerable. With the added complication of severe allergies in our family, there was no way that we could possibly stay in this room.

I was told that there were no other rooms available and that nothing could be done. I told the desk agent that we could not stay in that room due to its condition, and she apologized and said that the only option would be to leave the resort. She then printed me a “zero balance” receipt to show that I had not stayed, and told me that I needed to seek refund from Interval for this experience. I’ve called Interval repeatedly since then, but it has told me there are no refunds for its getaways. Can you help? — Mike Ray, Bradenton, Fla.

Answer: If you had a confirmation, you should have had a room. It’s as simple as that.
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Virgin America’s Cush: Passengers “should not have to ask” for customer service

Virgin America begins service to Orlando tomorrow. Remarkably, the three-year-old airline has stayed off my radar, when it comes to customer complaints. I asked David Cush, Virgin America’s chief executive, how he’s done it.

First of all, congratulations on adding service to Orlando. I live here, so I’m pretty excited about having a new airline in town. At the same time, I’m curious about your reasons for coming here. Orlando isn’t exactly a lucrative business travel destination. What’s the appeal?

Orlando has an incredibly strong year-round tourism economy and a great deal of convention traffic. The addition of Orlando also helps us address seasonality in our still growing network. As we grow we do have to balance out our network for seasonal traffic patterns – adding a sunny warm weather destination like Orlando helps us balance our winter schedules.
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Weekend adventure: At Leu Gardens without a map

Leu Gardens is one of Central Florida’s cultural centers. At this 50-acre enclave near downtown Orlando, we found America’s largest Camellia collection outside California, a museum, and several impressive botanical gardens, including a butterfly garden.

Although the stated mission of Leu Gardens is to inspire people to appreciate and understand plants, we discovered that the facility offered a lot more, including art exhibits, special events and and an 1880s home that has been restored.
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Losing my faith on Shamu’s first weekend back on the job

For the same reason people go to a car race (to see a fiery crash) or a hockey game (bare-knuckled fight) Shamu Stadium was packed to the gills for the 12:30 p.m. show Sunday, on Shamu’s second day on the job after the unfortunate incident in which he killed his trainer. Everyone wanted to see if something would happen.

Nothing happened.

But then, if it did, you wouldn’t be reading about it here. The news would be splattered across the front page of CNN.com.
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What the heck is going on with the TSA in Orlando?

Maybe there’s something in the water in Orlando, but the Transportation Security Administration just can’t stay out of the news there.

Earlier this week, a TSA officer at Orlando International Airport was arrested on charges of molesting a minor. Turns out he was reportedly a fan of bondage and sadomasochism.

Charles Henry Bennett’s MySpace profile identifies him as “Master Charles or Sir.” The online page shows the 57-year-old airport security guard has “many years experience” as a bondage and sadomasochism master and is looking to meet people, especially “submissive females.” The TSA’s blog said the agency was “deeply saddened and disgusted” by its employees actions. Bennett resigned on Monday.
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An ice time at the Gaylord Palms

When I asked my kids if they wanted to see ICE at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando, I heard a groan from the back of the car.

“It’s too long,” said Aren, my oldest.

“Too cold,” complained his younger brother, Iden.

I got my way. But the kids are glad I did.
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‘Keystroke error’ turns $289 rate into $28

keyQuestion: I recently found a $28 per night rate at the Westin Imagine in Orlando. I was amazed. I booked the room, and several days later I called the hotel to ensure that it was a legitimate rate. They confirmed this, so I booked nonrefundable airfare, and have been happily anticipating my getaway weekend ever since.

That is, until this past Monday morning, when I received an e-mail from the hotel’s director of revenue management saying that the rate was caused by a “keystroke error” during data entry. The actual rate was $289. The Westin offered a rate of $99 per night as an apology, but refused to honor the original rate.

I contacted Westin at the corporate level, and the hotel offered to waive its mandatory valet parking charge of $18 per night, but insisted it couldn’t honor the $28 rate. Then the manager of the hotel responded, offering to throw in an extra 5,000 loyalty points.

I’m writing because I don’t think I’m getting fair treatment by this Westin hotel. If there is anything you can do to help, I would be extremely appreciative. — Terry Capps, San Diego

Answer: If you book a rate that you know is an error, then you shouldn’t expect the hotel to honor the price. But $28 per night wasn’t an obvious “fat finger” rate, and the fact that Westin confirmed it certainly didn’t help.

If the hotel had offered rooms at $0, then this would be a different story. Actually, it wouldn’t be a story at all. If a business mistakenly prices something at a rate no reasonable customer believes is valid, it shouldn’t be required to honor that price. But you can find hotel rooms at $28 a night.
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Orlando theme parks prepare for fireworks fury


Heads up! Orlando’s theme parks are preparing for their Independence Day fireworks extravaganzas.

Pyrotechnics expert Andrew Hage checks the connections of several fireworks at the top of SeaWorld’s 400-foot-tall Sky Tower. In the distance is Manta, the park’s new roller coaster. SeaWorld has special fireworks displays this July 4th weekend. The sky-filling displays can be seen at 10:30 p.m. today and tomorrow. Our friend John Frost over at the Disney Blog has a roundup of all the other Fourth of July shows.

And speaking of Manta, as you read in this morning’s interview with Robert Niles, his readers named the new coaster their top pick for best coaster of the summer. Here’s a video we recently shot of the ride.

What we did this weekend: golfing with pirates in Orlando and exploring Maitland’s Mayan Courtyard

Golf and pirates! Who can imagine a better combination? Not Aren, Iden or Erysse, who tried their hand at minigolf.

Aren, Iden and Erysse visited the Mayan Courtyard at the Maitland Art Center. Not shown is Iden falling into the fountain. We decided to keep that out of this video. After all, he has an image to uphold.

You can see more pictures here and view archived videos at our travel video site.