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

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).


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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