Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What 2 Read Wednesday:
"None of you are going to die..."
Book Review: The Iron Trial
by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare


"None of you are going to die
and you're obviously not dead."

Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, The Iron Trial
Book #1 in the Magisterium series


Having recently reread the entire Harry Potter series with SC, I was slightly skeptical of how good another book about a boy who just finds out he is magic and goes off to a special school would actually be.  J.K. Rowling has set the bar pretty high.  However, other than a few similarities (which would probably be present in ANY book about magical kids going to magic school), this book is it's own story.  

Callum Hunt is a twelve-year-old boy with a physical disability who has to go through the "iron trial," an entrance exam of sorts to the school of magic called the Magisterium.  His father, who was a mage and went through the school, encourages Callum to do all that he can to fail, because he believes the Magisterium is a terrible place, fraught with death and war.  He points to the fact that Callum's mother died just after his birth, because of a war brought on by the mages, as proof of this idea.  Though Callum does his best to fail, he is still chosen to be an apprentice by the same master who taught his mother and father, along with an orphan boy, Aaron, and a girl, Tamara.  Callum's father fights to take him away before the mages can gather them to leave, but is hauled out of the building, and Callum is taken on to the school.

Black and Clare create their own world, with their own set of magical rules, and in some cases delve where Rowling does not dare, complicating the good vs. evil narrative in fascinating ways.  For example, one of my (and SC's) favorite parts of the story is when Callum finds a wolf puppy in the woods.  This is just after a huge battle with "chaos ridden" wolves, ones who have been infected (for lack of a better word) with chaos magic, the dark and potentially evil magic that "devours."  Callum cannot help himself in rescuing this potentially dangerous pup, because he knows what it is like to grow up without a mother, and the pup (later named Havoc) not only brings Callum and his fellow apprentices closer together, but shows them all that there may be more to the magical dark area than the simple dictate "chaos wants to devour."

All in all, this is the perfect series for us to follow up a reading of Harry Potter.  It is HP on steroids, and both SC and I are now firmly enveloped into the Magisterium world.  We cannot wait until the second book,  The Copper Gauntlet, comes out next September.


**This post contains affiliate links.  Please read my disclosure statement.





Tuesday, January 13, 2015

10 FOR 10: Trip #4
Grand Cayman

"The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein,
for He has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers."
Psalm 24:1-2


TRIP #4: GRAND CAYMAN

Our fourth 10 FOR 10 trip was one simply for family time and relaxation.  Over the past couple years we have been lucky enough to take a trip (though some through tagging along for AC's work) to an "exotic" beach location during the early winter months, and this year we planned one specifically to recuperate from the busyness that our life has recently become.  Even on our other beach trips, there has always been an agenda of adventure or work, and while this one did have an exciting learning experience with some aquatic wildlife, most of the time we sat on the beach or lounged in the water.  AC and I spent a ton of time talking about plans for 2015, while SC was in and out of the water all day, building sand structures, making friends with other vacationers, and looking at all the fish milling about with her scuba goggles.  It was the most easy, relaxing, do-nothing trip we have ever taken!  It is definitely on our list of places to go back to one day.


The one adventurous part of the trip was when we went to swim out in the ocean with semi-domesticated sting rays.  We went on a tour that included a stop at "Stingray City," a sandbar out from the north side of the island, plus two snorkel stops over the various barrier reef chunks.  The stingray swimming was interesting, though we will probably never do that part again.  The water at the sandbar came up to my chest, and there were hundreds of stingrays of all sizes swimming at various ocean depths in and around all the people.  I say they are semi-domesticated, because they are used to being fed, so they are curious and friendly, but they have not had their stingers removed, so your feet must stay firmly in the sand.  With the water level up so high, and the surf moving you around, it isn't very easy.  AC had an easier time staying in place because he is taller, except he was holding a squirming SC who was terrified of getting stung.  She was actually fine until some of the other women in the tour group started shrieking, and then she got it into her head that she had something to be afraid of.  The two snorkel stops were amazing, and we saw so many interesting fish. We saw a "stars and stripes" puffer fish, so many angel fish, schools of silver damselfish, bright blue tangs, a needle-nosed gar, and a "stoplight" parrotfish.  Luckily, we didn't see anything scary or dangerous like moray eels, barracuda, giant grouper or lionfish. We regretted our decision not to bring any cameras at this point, though we did it on purpose so as not to be constantly looking through a lens vs. experiencing and relaxing.  Oh, well!  We did get a few fun shots from the cameras on the phone while we were on the beach.



Finally, if you know me well, you know that I collect artisan pottery (mostly mugs) from each location we visit.  Usually I forget to do any research beforehand, which leaves us trying to cram in a last-minute unplanned trip to a local artist shop nowhere near where we are staying or going for the last day.  This time, however, I made a plan and found 3 Girls and a Kiln online, and was able to contact them about what they might have to offer and how to purchase.  They crafted this beautiful mug with coral on one side, and the Grand Cayman motto (from the Psalm listed above) on the other, and actually delivered it to me at the hotel since I was leaving before the next craft fair day.  



In case you missed the first post ...


WHAT IS THE 10 FOR 10?
Next July, AC and I will celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, and as such have been discussing what sort of big trip to take.  However, it occurred to me that we typically take some pretty big trips every year, sometimes as a tag-along when AC works, and sometimes just using all the points and miles he has amassed from his work travels.  I couldn't help but wonder if another trip would really be that special and different.  So, I came up with the idea that instead of just one more trip, we should take ten trips to celebrate our years together.  I told AC, and told him that it didn't have to be just him and me (because SC is also part of our lives, obviously), but that I wanted to take ten purposeful trips, that are focused on celebrating us (and our family) as much as we can.  I told him that they didn't all have to be long or complicated trips, though we had already talked about a few places that will be, and we can start now (in our tenth year) and run through the end of 2015 so that we didn't take too much time away from work.  So, hopefully, these ten trips will make this a celebratory year, one that will stand out for us as we look back (in another ten years).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

10 FOR 10: Trip #3
Panama City, Panama


"Todavía la lengua de Castilla
ensalza a Dios bajo tu limpio cielo
y en tus noches de seda y terciopelo
la misma estrella de la raza brilla."
-Ricardo Miró, 
"Patria de mis amores"


TRIP #3: PANAMA CITY, PANAMA

The third trip on our 10 FOR 10 was a tag-along trip for SC and I, while AC had some work to do.  We went a few days before his job started in order for us to tour the Panama Canal together, as well as some of the city.  Then, SC and I actually left to come home the day he started working, so that she would not miss Halloween and trick-or-treating.

We flew into Panama City, through Miami, on a Monday evening and had a delicious dinner at an Asian-themed restaurant (SC had the most expensive meal - shrimp scampi!).  From our hotel room we could see the lineup of ships waiting to go into the Canal, which was very exciting.  Tuesday morning we set out early with a local tour guide to first spend a few hours at the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal, and then touring the older portion of the city.  The locks and canal system was one of the most interesting and amazing things I have ever seen.  It was only more impressive to learn that none of the engineering and technology has changed in the one hundred years that the Canal has been in operation.  I could have stayed all day watching ships traverse the locks, and am so glad that we were able to experience the Canal this way.  


There is also a very impressive mini museum at the lock facility that gives a good history of the building of the Canal, as well as the history in the last one hundred years since the Canal opened.  For a country that has such a close relationship with the US, and one that could potentially have ended in oppression and hatred, the display (as well as the behavior of Panamanians we interacted with) was positive.  It was honest, though vague, about some of the past issues of protests to the US occupation and control of the Canal, but the fact that in 1999 via treaty the US handed over complete control to Panama seems to have wiped the slate clean and put the US back into the good graces of the Panamanian people.  It also helps that tolls paid on the Canal have helped to give Panama a top 100 economy (based on GDP) in the world. 

We had read online that at times tourists who are not fluent in Spanish can be taken advantage of or mugged, but having a tour guide who was obviously familiar to many of the people we walked past meant that no one bothered us.  He did an excellent job prompting us all to ask questions, and making sure everything was repeated in both Spanish and English.  The group was a mix of travelers from around the world, and it was interesting to hear the questions asked and what information other travelers were interested in learning. The guide was very well versed in the history of the country and city, and didn't seem to be worried when asked about some of the less savory parts of Panama's past.  

The old part of the city was beautiful, and we loved seeing the restored buildings, as well as the many empty shells waiting to be bought and restored.  The current custom is to purchase the old shells of buildings, and then renovate the inside to one's own liking (be it residential or commercial), while restoring the exterior to its original glory.  Below is an example of a shell, waiting to be purchased.


Tuesday afternoon and most of Wednesday SC and I spent relaxing, reading and hanging out at the pool at the hotel.  AC had some other work to do for other projects, but was able to do some from the poolside and spend that time with us.  We were not able to play in the ocean, mostly because the lineup of ships waiting for the Canal were probably making the water gross, but also because the Canal introduces fresh water into the ocean, creating a brackish area, which crocodiles love.  We didn't see any crocs, but were not going to take our chances.  Also, in spite of copious amounts of bug spray, I did manage to get bit by mosquitos a large number of times.  Luckily, I did not end up catching anything from those bites, but I was a worried, even though I had read that the "disease infecting" mosquitos were more prominent in the jungle areas, which we were not extremely close to.  

Thursday morning we spent a few last hours at the pool, and then SC and I headed to the airport to travel home, while AC went to work.  We didn't get home until around midnight, and SC was exhausted, but still managed to trick-or-treat the next day!  She was dressed as a Ravenclaw student (from Harry Potter).

In case you missed the first post ...
WHAT IS THE 10 FOR 10?
Next July, AC and I will celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, and as such have been discussing what sort of big trip to take.  However, it occurred to me that we typically take some pretty big trips every year, sometimes as a tag-along when AC works, and sometimes just using all the points and miles he has amassed from his work travels.  I couldn't help but wonder if another trip would really be that special and different.  So, I came up with the idea that instead of just one more trip, we should take ten trips to celebrate our years together.  I told AC, and told him that it didn't have to be just him and me (because SC is also part of our lives, obviously), but that I wanted to take ten purposeful trips, that are focused on celebrating us (and our family) as much as we can.  I told him that they didn't all have to be long or complicated trips, though we had already talked about a few places that will be, and we can start now (in our tenth year) and run through the end of 2015 so that we didn't take too much time away from work.  So, hopefully, these ten trips will make this a celebratory year, one that will stand out for us as we look back (in another ten years).

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

10 FOR 10: Trip #2
New York City

"So come let me love you ..."
-Damien Rice, "Colour Me In," 
My Favourite Faded Fantasy



TRIP # 2: NEW YORK CITY

Our second trip on the 10 FOR 10 was one for just AC and I, and came about rather quickly.  We are so lucky that, because of his work travels, we are able to utilize points for both airfare and hotels and can take advantage of things coming up like this one did.  

One of our favorite musicians is the Irish artist Damian Rice, and he has not published anything new, nor really toured (other than a few festivals) since 2007.  I was lucky enough to see him locally for my birthday that year, and the show was incredible.  Ever since, AC and I have kept tabs on him, and he has been on our "no matter what" list to see in concert whenever the next time was.  We even looked to see if he was doing something small locally when I was to be in Dublin last year.  Then, Rice's social media pages exploded in early September with both an album release date and a small tour schedule.  Unfortunately, he wasn't going to be coming to Texas, but NYC had a weekend date that was doable.  AC bought the concert tickets while we were at Walt Disney World, and we started to plan what else we might want to do while there for two days.  

We started the trip with a late brunch at this rooftop club called 230 Fifth.  AC had been there in the past for a work event and said the views were amazing.  As you can see from the picture, it was a beautiful Saturday.



After walking around through Central Park, attempting to get a picture of the Alice statue without other people's kids and failing, and a little shopping because I forgot to grab my coat and the temperature was to plummet overnight, we headed to the concert.

To say that seeing Damien Rice (and doing only that on this trip) would have been worth it would be a huge understatement.  We saw him at a crazy little club called The Box, and there were less than 300 people total.  I wish I had the exact numbers, because even 300 seems a bit high.  It was a very intimate concert, and almost everyone there was a fan of his, not just there for any show.  I was pleased and delighted that other than a few people calling out requests for their favorite songs, more people were shouting things like "just play."  The audience was starving to hear him, us included.

He played and sang beautifully, with a good mix of his older songs and some from the new album.  The most powerful part, to me, at least, was before singing "Trusty and True," he explained that the song "is about a million things," and specifically having some thing against someone else.  He talked about growing up in Ireland, and how the kids learn to hate the other religious groups just by the way their elders and those in authority act toward those who were not like them.  He shared as a child seeing an expensive car in the village, and he and his friends wanting to scratch it because "they must be Protestants...because Catholics didn't have money."  He said "you kind of grow up with ... this notion that you're supposed to hate that thing, and you think it's right, and ... it's totally innocent and it's not even yours; like, none of these thoughts really are any of ours, really if you look at them.  You think you are yourself, but you're not."  The song itself, when he played it, was beautiful and compelling.  He sang the lyrics "if all that you are is not all you desire, then come."  Then, he told the audience to sing along, repeating the words "come let yourself be wrong/ come, it's already begun" and I was hugely affected by it all.  I don't know if I would have felt the same had I not traveled to Ireland recently, seen where the horrors of the Irish fight for independence had happened within the last century, but I deeply understood the bridge he is trying to build with this song.  Here is a link to a video someone took of this song, plus the one before it.  All in all, it is in my top 3 of concert experiences.

Sunday morning we slept in, and then wandered through the street food near Harold Square, sampling from a variety of little shops.  We had afternoon tickets to see the show This is Our Youth, starring Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin.  It was be the first non-musical we had seen, and it was incredible.  I was amazed to learn that it was written in the 80s, because, based on my own experiences, the life of the "typical" slightly-affluent (read: middle to upper middle class) high school and early college student has changed very little.  And what was depicted in the play was not a good, happy life.  It was sad, comedically depressing, and unfocused on anything but the now.  Michael Cera did an excellent job playing the awkward kid he is always cast to play, but Kieran Culkin's performance of the minutely older, "wiser" 20-something was phenomenal.  The entire play takes place over the course of two days in Culkin's character's apartment (see picture below), and the only other character is Tavi Gevinson, who plays the attempted love-interest of Cera.  I was hesitant at seeing something that seemed so much smaller than the musicals we had seen in the past, but I shouldn't have been.  AC and I both walked away thinking, and appreciative of the job done on stage.


We finished up our short weekend dining at the Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Tamarind.  It was delicious.  I indulged on wheat naan that was the best I had ever had (and worth the allergic reaction afterward) and enjoyed a simple tikka masala that was splendid, anything but basic.  AC got something spicy, and we relaxed and enjoyed each other.  It was the perfect ending to our short trip.

In case you missed the first post ...
WHAT IS THE 10 FOR 10?
Next July, AC and I will celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, and as such have been discussing what sort of big trip to take.  However, it occurred to me that we typically take some pretty big trips every year, sometimes as a tag-along when AC works, and sometimes just using all the points and miles he has amassed from his work travels.  I couldn't help but wonder if another trip would really be that special and different.  So, I came up with the idea that instead of just one more trip, we should take ten trips to celebrate our years together.  I told AC, and told him that it didn't have to be just him and me (because SC is also part of our lives, obviously), but that I wanted to take ten purposeful trips, that are focused on celebrating us (and our family) as much as we can.  I told him that they didn't all have to be long or complicated trips, though we had already talked about a few places that will be, and we can start now (in our tenth year) and run through the end of 2015 so that we didn't take too much time away from work.  So, hopefully, these ten trips will make this a celebratory year, one that will stand out for us as we look back (in another ten years).

TRIP #1: Universal Studios Florida & Walt Disney World

What 2 Read Wednesday:
"...to find the brightest wisdom
one must pass through the darkest zones"
Book Review: A Tale Dark & Grimm
by Adam Gidwitz



"You see, to find the brightest wisdom one must pass through the darkest zones.  
And through the darkest zones there can be no guide.

No guide, that is, but courage."

Adam Gidwitz, A Tale Dark & Grimm



It should not come as a shock, dear reader, that SC is a huge fan of dark fantasy.  I believe I have also mentioned that it is not something I was interested in as a young reader, so it has been a learning journey as I attempt to find quality children's literature in that genre.  A few weeks ago, we stumbled across a Halloween-themed display at the bookstore, and having just finished the Elsewhere series and needing a new audiobook read-aloud, I told SC to take a look at the books on the display, read the back covers, and pick something a bit spooky.  Well, she did.  Not only is this book spooky, but creepy and grotesque as well.  And awesome and well written and wonderful.  

I was happily shocked by A Tale Dark & Grimm and Gidwitz's authorial style.  The novel is a retelling of a few of Grimm's fairytales, changed to interweave Hansel and Gretel as the main characters through each, juxtaposed with Gidwitz himself through authorial intrusion commenting on what is about to happen, or what has just happened, in the story he constantly reminds the reader he is retelling.  At first, this intrusion is comical, with Gidwitz warning the reader that the tales are "as violent and bloody as you can imagine" and stating that if that sort of thing bothers you "we should probably stop right now."  He also is constantly asking the reader to make sure there are no "little children" around because they will be scared and have nightmares.  To be sure, this book is scary, with blood and gore, death, untrustworthy and selfish kids and adults (including parents), and I would not recommend it for a child who scares easily or who might not be able to see through this to understand the intentional theme throughout.  

It is this intentional theme that eventually evolves from the comedy as the story progresses, and Gidwitz becomes a side-kick (not a guide, which he specifically points out would not bring about the desired result of wisdom and understanding), seeing the story with different eyes and bringing about the palpability of the theme.  For a children's book, there is an incredibly heavy theme, one that encompasses the brokenness of humanity, a recognition of that brokenness, purposeful change for the better, and finally a complete understanding of the brokenness in others, then forgiving and shouldering the burdens of said others in order to create a better world.  Halfway through the novel, having shown Hansel to be selfish in some of the worst ways, Gidwitz intrudes to explain:
"There is a certain kind of pain that can change you. Even the strongest sword, when placed in a raging fire, will soften and bend and change its form.  So it was with Hansel.  The fire of guilt and shame was just that hot. 
Trust me on this one. I know this from personal experience. I hope that you never will, but, since you're a person, and therefore prone to making horrible, soul-splitting mistakes, you probably will one day know what this kind of guilt and shame feels like. And when that time comes, I hope you have the strength, as Hansel had, to take advantage of the fire and reshape your own sword."
 Again, for a children's book, this is deep.  Gidwitz also writes in a way that there is no denying his intentions with his theme.  One cannot read this book and not come away with an understanding that people are broken, but people can rise above that brokenness, and that others should both forgive and help shoulder the burdens of brokenness out of love, no matter what.  He even creates a running conversation of this concept throughout the novel, breaking apart the term "understanding" and fashioning it into the concept of "under-standing...standing beneath them.  Supporting them.  Bearing their troubles and their pains on my shoulders."  It appears over and over, this concept of under-standing, and examples of what that looks like in various situations.

In the end, in spite of the gore, blood and disgust at a very accurate portrayal of humanity, this book is worth reading because of the message Gidwitz  successfully imparts.  As I said above, if your child is sensitive to these things, I would wait until he/she is a bit older, but I would definitely add this to a long list of to-be-read books for the future.  There are two other books in the series, and I have high hopes that they are just as excellent in terms of writing and intentionality.


   

**This post contains affiliate links.  Please read my disclosure statement.






Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What 2 Read Wednesday:
"...those people who seem the most 'normal' ..."
Book Review: The Books of Elsewhere series
by Jacqueline West


“It's been my experience 
that those people who seem the most 'normal' 
are in fact the most dangerous.” 
Jacqueline WestThe Second Spy




Once SC and I finished the listening to the audiobooks of the entire Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, after contemplating starting the Lord of the Rings series but decided not yet, I stumbled upon the first book in The Books of Elsewhere series by Jacqueline West.  This is another series that has a touch of magic and fantasy, and some horror-lite akin to Coraline by Neil Gaiman, which is SC's favorite genre.  We decided to give the audiobook a try, and I was not only not disappointed, but hugely impressed with the quality of writing in these stories.  After some research, I discovered that West has won awards for her poetry, which makes sense.  She utilizes words in the Elsewhere books in a way that I have not seen/read in most contemporary children's novels.  She is a true wordsmith.

The story of the Elsewhere series is about Olive Dunwoody, an eleven-year-old girl who, along with her math professor parents, moves into an historical home whose previous owner, Ms. McMartin, has recently deceased.  Quickly after moving in, Olive notices that things in the house, which they purchased fully furnished with all of old Ms. McMartin's stuff, is a little off.  For example, when the family attempts to move some of the paintings on the wall, it is found that the paintings are oddly stuck.  Then, Olive begins to think that the painting she can see from her bedroom is moving.  After an afternoon exploring the house, where Olive discovers an intriguing pair of spectacles, and learns that not only are the paintings moving, but while wearing the spectacles she can travel into the paintings to a place called Elsewhere.  However, Elsewhere isn't the quiet place it seems to be, and Olive realizes that something, or someone, is not pleased that her family has taken ownership of the McMartin house.  Each book in the series builds on Olive uncovering secrets of the house, and the McMartin family, as she tries to outwit and defeat an evil that has prevailed for too long on Linden Street. 

I would recommend these novels to older elementary children who are not easily spooked.  However, if purchasing the audiobooks read by Lexi Fridell, she has such a sweet voice that I think some of the spook is lost by her reading it, and a younger elementary child who has a firm grip on fantasy vs. reality would love it.

       
  

**This post contains affiliate links.  Please read my disclosure statement.



Sunday, October 5, 2014

10 FOR 10: Trip #1
Universal Studios Florida & Walt Disney World

"Laughter is timeless. 
Imagination has no age. 
And dreams are forever."
Walt Disney


WHAT IS THE 10 FOR 10?
Next July, AC and I will celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, and as such have been discussing what sort of big trip to take.  However, it occurred to me that we typically take some pretty big trips every year, sometimes as a tag-along when AC works, and sometimes just using all the points and miles he has amassed from his work travels.  I couldn't help but wonder if another trip would really be that special and different.  So, I came up with the idea that instead of just one more trip, we should take ten trips to celebrate our years together.  I told AC, and told him that it didn't have to be just him and me (because SC is also part of our lives, obviously), but that I wanted to take ten purposeful trips, that are focused on celebrating us (and our family) as much as we can.  I told him that they didn't all have to be long or complicated trips, though we had already talked about a few places that will be, and we can start now (in our tenth year) and run through the end of 2015 so that we didn't take too much time away from work.  So, hopefully, these ten trips will make this a celebratory year, one that will stand out for us as we look back (in another ten years).

TRIP # 1:  UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA & WALT DISNEY WORLD

For our first trip, we decided to count the family trip we had already planned, visiting Universal Studios Florida (Harry Potter World!) and Walt Disney World.  AC had visited both places when he was a child with his mom, but neither SC nor I had ever been.  AC loved seeing what had changed (and re-staging some pictures his mom had taken), so it was very exciting and entertaining for all of us.

We started the trip with Universal, and specifically the new Diagon Alley area of Harry Potter World.  It was absolutely incredible to see the creation of this fantasy world.  There was only one ride, the Escape from Gringotts, which is a 3D "multidimensional" ride that takes a group down to a vault, and then (with the help of the cast of the HP movies) back out, running from Death Eaters and Voldemort.  Even with only one ride, there is so much to do and see in Diagon Alley, and all the shops will be familiar to readers of the novels.  Parents can take their child into Ollivander's Wand Shop and experience a wand "choosing" them.


We had heard that the lines for this experience were incredibly long, and that they took a group of 30-40 people into the "theatre," where only one child would be chosen.  However, we got very lucky, and visiting these places just after public school started was great.  We were the only 3 people in the theatre, and so we did not have to worry about SC not getting chosen.  It was an incredible experience and fun to watch as she was handed three separate wands, given instructions to point and something and say a spell, and then to watch her face as the reaction happened.  Of course, after the "experience" the parents are then told that they now have the option to purchase the wand that chose their child.  We had heard about the new interactive wands, and the ability to locate spots in both sections that would then create a reaction when the wand is waved in the special "spell" way, so we decided to go ahead and purchase her chosen wand.  The interactive wand experience was really neat, and the amount of Universal staffers hovering around and helping make sure people are standing just so, and pointing the wands just the right way, meant that there were very few opportunities for frustration.

We also went into Madame Malkin's Robes shop, but decided on purchasing a Ravenclaw patch rather than the $100+ children's robes, and I know that Grammie will be thrilled to make highly authentic-looking robes.  We tried regular butterbeer and watched an amazing puppet show that told the Tale of the Three Brothers.  We had ice cream at Florean Fortescue's, and picked up some special candy and a purple pigmy puff at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.  We snuck into the dark Knockturn Alley and the spooky shop Borgin & Burkes.


Then we headed to King's Cross Station to take the Hogwart's Express to Hogsmeade.  It was very cool to see and compare this King's Cross Station to the actual one, where we visited when we were in London in the spring.  The ride was fun, with the windows playing video, and shadows of the characters showing up in the hall outside the carriages.  However, in order to experience this ride, tickets to both parks must be purchased for the same day, because the Diagon Alley area is in the Universal main park, and the Hogsmeade area is in the Islands of Adventure park.


This is where the original Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride is, where the line walks through Hogwarts Castle.  We had lunch at the Hog's Head Pub, tried frozen butterbeer from a stand while we watched "students" from the school sing, and then purchased some chocolate frogs and other treats from Honeyduke's.  This area also had the small roller coaster the Flight of the Hippogriff, and the much larger Dragon Challenge.  SC wasn't tall enough for the latter ride, but we rode the former quite a few times.  Again, coming when we did just after the public schools started, we rarely had to wait in line more than 20 or 30 minutes, which was very different than what we had prepared for!

We spent a total of two days at the two Universal parks, and not just in the Harry Potter area.  The other areas were neat, especially the Simpson's part, but definitely not as thoroughly done as the two HP sections.


For the next week we went to the various Disney parks.  Hollywood Studios was just okay, but we spent the least amount of time there, so we didn't get to see every show.  We went to the Frozen Sing-Along, and that was really fun.  I also liked the Toy Story arcade-style ride.

Epcot was very interesting.  I loved each of the different country areas, and we ate so much good food.  My favorite ride (and I think SC's also) was the Test Track, where each person/group designs a car, and then the ride runs through various testing conditions, finally giving a result on how well the design performed.  


We spent quite a bit of time at the Magic Kingdom, and I was pleasantly surprised that it was very different from the Disneyland park in California.  Even the rides that were supposedly the same, like It's a Small World, were different and interesting.  SC loves the fast roller coasters, so we rode Big Thunder Mountain Runaway Mine Train four times, and she took AC on Splash Mountain twice.


 The new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was a good combination of a new, faster roller coaster intermixed with some of the story elements of the older rides like Fantasyland at Disneyland.  We got to meet up with one of SC's good friends BB one day, and they did some rides in Adventureland together.  They also spent quite a bit of time playing pirates and swordfighting.  We attended Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party one evening, and got more candy than we cared to bring home.  The "villian" fireworks show and parade were awesome.


The final day we went to Animal Kingdom, but because we were staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, we were able to go on a special early-morning safari with one of the zookeepers.  It was an incredible experience, where we rode on the "safari" ride from the park, but without the audio track playing.  Instead, the zookeeper personally told us about the animals we saw, answered questions and told stories.  It was worth waking up early after a late night of fireworks!  The rest of the park was a bit disappointing, because they were doing so much construction work.  The entire center of the park, where a lake is supposed to be, was walled off from view, making everything feel very closed and cramped.  Nonetheless, we enjoyed our time there, and SC finally was able to get her face painted.


I am so glad we were able to take this trip, and we had a great time.  I think we had a better time because it was much less crowded than was expected.  I also think we did a good job not forcing ourselves to spend every single moment in the parks.  Universal closed at 6 or 7pm, so we were able to go out into Orlando those two nights for dinner, and we met up with a friend who lives locally for a meal once as well, having some delicious, authentic Colombian food.  We didn't push ourselves to stay for the fireworks shows every single night in the Disney parks, but made a big deal of the few we did see, and we allowed ourselves to sleep in, not worrying about being at the park as soon as it opened.  Overall, I think this helped us have the best time possible.  Even taking it "easy," we still managed to walk about 80 miles in the week and a half that we were in Florida!


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