Travel Diary : Universal Studios

Ever since Lucy began reading the Harry Potter books a few years ago, she has dreamed of going to Hogwarts. Her love of reading, and specifically her love of the Harry Potter series, is one of my favorite parts of being her mother. I always loved reading growing up, and I still find my greatest happiness between the pages of a book. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was one of those weirdos who waited in line at midnight to get the newest Harry Potter book as it was released. When I introduced Lucy to the series when she was about 8-years-old, I was giddy with excitement. And her enthusiasm hasn’t let me down!

About two years ago, I overheard Lucy tell a friend that she was pumped for her 11th birthday, because we would be going to Universal Studios to visit Harry Potter World….um, what? Turns out, she assumed based on some of the plot from the books themselves. When Harry turns 11-years-old, he gets a letter saying he is a wizard and he has been invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. So OF COURSE Lucy thought she’d be getting something similar on her own birthday. I told Trent about what I heard, and we began to hatch a plan for an epic family trip!

Lucy Harry Potter World

Lucy Harry Potter World

This June, Lucy turned 11, and was surprised with a letter on our doorstop from Hogwarts, inviting her to school (aka Universal Studios)! It was incredibly fun pulling off this present for her, but there was a caveat…she had to wait four months for the trip. We did Disney a few years back in the summer, and it was pretty hot and miserable, not to mention crowded and extremely expensive. Instead, we decided to plan our trip around the kids’ school fall break in October. Flights and hotels were way cheaper, the weather was beautiful, and the crowds were totally manageable.

We had the most amazing time on this trip! I can’t state it enough…parents of preschoolers and younger: It gets better!!! I love how easy my kids are to travel with these days, and they were the perfect age to do most of the activities on the trip. We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel on site at Universal, and I highly recommend it. Not only were we only 5 minutes walking distance from the parks, the hotel itself was perfect for a family. My husband was sold when we checked in and the concierge asked him to pick an electric guitar to be sent up to the room from the “Guitar Menu.” Once the kids saw the pool, they were thrilled! The hotel has a ton of activities, including movies every night poolside. They also have “Camp Little Rock,” where parents can drop off the kids for a few hours to play. Trent and I took advantage of this by dropping the kids and the heading back to the park to do the giant roller coasters that the kids refused to try!

Universal Studios

Universal Studios - Hard Rock Hotel

But the main objective of the trip was to get to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, the two areas of the parks that are Harry Potter-themed. And can I just say how incredibly impressed I was with the attention to detail in these parks. I mean, I’m a bit of a Potter-head, and I was amazed every time we turned the corner! I mean, Trent went into the men’s bathroom and came out laughing, “Moaning Myrtle is in there!” You Potter-heads will know how hilarious that is!

When we turned on to Diagon Alley, Lucy’s face made the whole trip worth it. This kid was so very happy. Watching her take it all in was a highlight of the trip for me. I love having a kid that loves reading as much as I do, so for her to be so excited to be in the world she’d read about for years was a gift. She is such an awesome child, it felt so good to do something that made her so happy.

Universal Studios

There are definitely a few things we learned on our trip, which I thought might be helpful to share, just in case you are planning a trip to Universal with your family of die-hard Harry Potter fans. We were lucky to have chatted with a few friends who had been before us, and it helped so much to be prepared.

1. Stay on site if you can! Universal isn’t huge like Disney, so you can walk everywhere if you stay onsite. You also get passes to get into the park early (which is huge) and to skip the lines on the big rides. Both of these were lifesavers for us! I don’t think we waited more than 20 minutes for any ride, and most were a 5 to 10 minute wait, if at all.

Universal Studios

2. Buy park hopper passes. Trust me. Universal is split among two parks (Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure), but they are so close to each other, you’ll probably want to go back and forth. They also just opened a water park called Volcano Bay, which is incredibly fun! In fact, Tate said going to the water park was his favorite part of the entire trip!

Universal Studios - Volcano Bay

3. If you have early entry passes, use them to go directly to Ollivander’s in Diagon Alley. Getting a wand at Ollivanders is a huge part of the experience, and if your kid is a Harry Potter fan, it is a MUST. But the lines can get extremely long, so if you go early, you can get one-on-one attention from the wand sellers. They will talk to your kid and ask them specific questions about their personality and what they like to do, then find the perfect wand for them. The attention to detail is amazing! My kids loved the entire experience. Make sure you ask for an interactive wand, which you can use throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade to cast spells! They will also give you a map of where the spell spots are located, so you can find them easily. If you’d rather just get a character wand, you can do that too. Both of the kids got personalized wands, while Trent and I got Harry and Hermione’s wands.

Universal Studios

 

4. The two major rides in the Harry Potter areas are Escape from Gringotts and The Forbidden Journey. These were much scarier than anticipated! We actually didn’t even end up doing Escape from Gringotts because my kids were too freaked out. The Forbidden Journey was fun, but it was definitely more intense than we were anticipating. If you have sensitive kids, like mine, maybe skip it!

Universal Studios

5. Make sure to take the Hogwarts Express train! This was one of the coolest parts of the trip, and it was a super mellow ride. The train actually takes you from Diagon Alley (in the Universal Orlando Park) to Hogsmeade (in Island of Adventure), so if you don’t have a park hopper pass, you will have to buy an additional ticket. When we went into King’s Cross Station, all of the workers were so in character, it was the best! They were “muggle train workers” so they kept asking Lucy why she was wearing a bathrobe (she was wearing her brand new Ravenclaw Hogwarts robes). She was so giddy and delighted! The train has a cool, interactive component, and the ride is different coming and going, so make sure to take it in both directions!

6. BUTTERBEER! Okay, this is definitely a personal preference thing, but I was obsessed with frozen butterbeer. You can also get it unfrozen, but I wasn’t as much of a fan. My kids and Trent all thought it was gross…but that just meant more for me! We also had breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron, which was better for us than a traditional English lunch there. Pancakes and pumpkin juice!

Universal Studios

7. Go get some treats at Honeydukes! Our favorites were the chocolate frogs and the sugar quills (which really write on paper if you get them wet).

Universal Studios

8. Go see a show! We took the kids to see the Blue Man Group, and it was a total highlight! Neither of the kids had been to a concert before, and this one was perfect for them. There were lots of kids and families in the audience, so we fit right in!

Universal Studios - Blue Man Group

9. We also spent a lot of time at other areas of the park, not just in the Harry Potter section! In totally random order, here are a few other things we did and loved:

– Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York (this was the kids’ favorite ride in the whole place!)
– Getting a caricature drawn of entire family (I totally think I’m gonna make it our 2017 holiday card)
– The Hulk Coaster (we dared Lucy to try this one…she barely met the height requirement and was so scared, but she loved it and actually went twice!)
– The Jurassic Park Playground (perfect place to wind down after waiting in lines)
– The Animal Actors Show was a total favorite in our crowd and was a nice chance to sit down and chill after a few hours of rides. Bonus: Lucy and Trent met “Frank” from Men In Black in the bathroom line!

All in all, this was one of the best vacations we’ve ever taken as a family! I love these nerds, and I’m so glad I get to do life (and roller coasters) with them!

(All photos in this post were taking with our cell phones – an iPhone 6 and Galaxy Note – or with my Fuji x30…I didn’t take our big camera because traveling light on trips like this is extremely important to me, as the designated camera carrier! I’d rather have lower quality images, and better memories, than lugging my gear around a theme park!)

Universal Studios

Farm Sunset October 2016

October at the Farm

Autumn is like an extended marathon around here. As the leaves start to change and the weather cools off a bit, our schedules and lives go into overdrive. Work and school and deadlines and sports and events and choir practice and class parties and all of the things start to meld together into one giant pile of “things to do.” Don’t get me wrong, I love fall. It’s by far my favorite season, but sometimes the pace can be a little much.

Farm October 2016

Farm October 2016

So when we had an unexpected open weekend, a part of me wanted to stay in my PJs all day and never leave my house. But the other side (the louder side) was craving clean air and open skies…so I packed up the kids and we headed to the family farm for the weekend. My mother-in-law, who doesn’t usually get visits from us to the farm this time of year, was so excited to have the kids there a few days before Halloween. She organized the cutest activities, from a Halloween scavenger hunt to bobbing for apples and an egg toss.

Farm October 2016

Farm October 2016

The grandparents had evening plans, so the kids and I ended up hanging out together and picking veggies from the garden they helped plant earlier this year. At dusk I somehow convinced them to go on a long walk around the property, and we were rewarded with the most gorgeous sunset! Kansas, I think I like you.

Farm October 2016

Greece 2016

Greece 2016 : Part 1

Greece 2016

How do I even begin…I’ve gone over the details again and again in my mind, and yet I still can’t remember how my friend Theresa and I decided to try and go to Greece together. We know there must have been a conversation at some point where we talked about it, but neither of us can really recall. So instead, I’ve made it up.

Theresa: I’m going to Greece for work, and am planning on visiting a Syrian refugee camp while I’m there to continue my research on education opportunities for refugee children. Wanna come with me?

Me: Sure, why not!

In all truth, we had discussed her trip several times in many conversations before it seemed like it could actually happen. But once the decision was made, things moved VERY quickly. I am so grateful to my family, especially my sweet husband, who not only supported me in this effort, but held down the fort at home while I was gone. I know it wasn’t easy for him to send his wife off to a foreign country on a mission like this one, but he was behind me the whole way, and that made a huge difference.

While I can’t wait to share stories and photos from the refugee camp, those must be approved in order to protect the safety of all the children and adults living there. Until then, you can follow the Bê Sînor – Sinatex Cultural Center on Facebook to learn more about the camp and all the magic that is happening there. The people truly touched my heart in ways I can’t describe, so I’m actually pretty lucky I have a bit more time to ruminate and get that experience put down into words.

Greece 2016

Until then, I am pumped to be able to share my images from the rest of our time in Greece. In reality, we weren’t in the country very long. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and I left at 6 a.m. the following Friday morning. We spent Sunday through Tuesday in Thessaloniki, in the Macedonia region of Greece. Thessaloniki is a huge tourist destination, especially for other Europeans and Greeks. We didn’t see many Americans or others from English-speaking countries, but it didn’t matter, since every Greek in Thessaloniki spoke English. It always shocks me to travel to another country and see how hard they work to learn several languages and accommodate tourists of different backgrounds. Americans could learn something from this! I certainly thought a lot about how I can get quickly frustrated when I can’t understand someone’s accent or broken English…this is something I am committed to working on, and I hope I can have as much compassion as those who nodded and smiled at me when I attempted to speak Greek!

Greece 2016

On Wednesday we took a train from Thessaloniki to Athens, and during the five hour trip, we got to see the incredible Greek countryside. To say that it was breathtaking is a complete understatement. This was also the day after we visited the refugee camp, so the train ride provided a perfect time to rest, reflect and process some of what we’d seen.

Greece 2016

I was only in Athens for one day, but we made the most of it! We stayed in Air BNB’s in both cities, and our spot in Athens was right near the Acropolis. I visited the Acropolis Museum, got very lost, drank too many frappes, ate my weight in Greek cuisine and bought some trinkets for family. I tried to travel fairly light, with my camera gear on my back and a small duffle bag to carry on the airplane, so finding souvenirs that fit was a bit of a challenge! After Theresa got off work, we hiked up the Acropolis to see the Parthenon and visited the original Olympic Temple as well.

Greece 2016

Greece 2016

The best part of this whole trip was getting to share it with one of my best friends. So many of my favorite moments were the quiet ones…long dinners out late at night, quiet coffee breaks, long conversations before we turned out the lights for bed…those were the times that made this hectic, busy, exhausting trip feel refreshing and fulfilling. I’m so grateful that Theresa asked me to come on this adventure with her. What a gift to have friends that are committed to doing big things to change the world…and it’s even better when they invite you along for the ride!

Greece 2016

Greece 2016

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I’ve shared before on the blog how much I love Snapchat, and I have to say, traveling and being able to share via Snapchat was one of my favorite things to do during this trip. For those of you who don’t follow me on Snapchat, I put together this compilation video of my snaps from the trip. This will give you a little more of a behind the scenes look at our trip, including our lodging, and shows a bit more of the friendship between Theresa and I. Man, that girl has put up with a LOT the past 25 years! Also, her yogurt spoon trick is AMAZING.

Gove Roadtrip 2016

Roadtripping : Gove 2016

Gove Roadtrip 2016

Every year our little family packs up the ole’ minivan and heads out to Western Kansas for a week of peace and time with our family. I always have the best time during this week away from the city. While living in an urban area is a lot of fun, after a few months of our hectic schedule, it feels pretty nice to head to the country for a few days.

Gove Roadtrip 2016

Gove Roadtrip 2016

Gove Roadtrip 2016

Our main purpose for heading west is for my daughter to attend dance camp at my sister-in-law’s dance school. Since we’ve been doing this for a while now, it’s pretty nice for the kids to see their friends that they made in years past. This year my son decided he also wanted to participate in dance camp, and I was so proud of him! He was the first boy to ever join camp, and while I may be biased, he was pretty darn talented! It was a joy to watch him on stage…he was having such a good time! And my daughter did wonderful as well, performing a more sophisticated routine than in years past, which was really fun to watch. My sister-in-law, Ashley, does such a wonderful job with all the kids, and we feel pretty lucky to be invited to participate each year!

Gove Roadtrip 2016

Along with dance camp, we spent much of the week enjoying the simple pleasures of country life. We went to the small town pool, got old fashioned ice cream sundaes at the soda fountain, chased frogs, helped run the sprayer out in the fields, and even got to go on a few open air private airplane rides with Uncle Ace! It was an awesome week, and I can’t wait to go back!

Gove Roadtrip 2016

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Photos + Tips + Tricks : Spring Break 2016

Clearwater Beach Sunset

I’m still in Spring Break Recovery Mode (Defcon 10). There is something to be said about traveling to a different time zone AND traveling on daylight savings time. Yikes. But was it worth it…? Um, yes, it was definitely worth it!

Clearwater Beach 2016

We spent the first few days staying at my parents’ condo in Dunedin, Florida (right outside of Clearwater) and visiting some of our favorite spots. This was a great way to save a little money, and we were so grateful for the option. We hadn’t been to Honeymoon Island in years, probably since Lucy was a baby, so I was really excited to spend the day there. It’s a Florida State National Park, so the wildlife and landscape are gorgeous! The kids loved the big waves and learning to body surf. They also made approximately 1 million sand castles. They are officially sand castle architects, and don’t you tell them otherwise! Sand castle making is apparently serious business. My parents have a yearly membership to the park, but you can get a day pass for $8 per car.

Honeymoon Island

We also spent a day at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, one of my absolute favorite places in Clearwater. If you’re ever in the area, this is a must-see. Before you visit, go watch the movie Dolphin Tale (available on Amazon) which tells the story of one of the aquarium’s stars, Winter the dolphin, who lost her tail in a crab trap incident. The CMA is a full time animal hospital, with a mission to rescue hurt or sick marine life, rehab them, and then release them back into the wild. When the animals are unable to be released due to medical issues, the CMA houses them and the public can enjoy them. I love the CMA because of it’s mission and because of how my daughter lights up whenever we visit. For some extra fun (and shorter ticket lines) try visiting the Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure exhibition, which is located just across the water from the aquarium. You can buy your aquarium tickets there, and then take either a trolley or the water ferry to the aquarium (for free!), skipping long lines and traffic. They also have tons of fun artifacts from the movie, and my kids got a kick out of seeing props from the movie in person.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

We decided to get a hotel on the beach for our last few days in the area, and we were so thankful the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach offered to host us! We adore the Hyatt for it’s beautiful amenities and awesome kids programs, and we were so pumped to stay there again. Clearwater Beach is busy this time of year, and buzzing with lots of activity. We had a beautiful room overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, but the kids rarely wanted to stay in the room! We spent most of our time outside, either at the beach or the incredible hotel pool. We also walked down to our favorite mini golf spot, rented a family bike, and spent some time at the Sunset on Pier 60 celebration, where we bought some local art and knick knacks to remember our trip (and if you’re following me on Snapchat, you saw some hilarious video of Tate dancing with a busker dressed as a transformer!). We were also lucky enough to have a kid-free afternoon, thanks to the Camp Hyatt program. We dropped the kids off for a few hours of crafts, pool time and fun, while Trent and I had lunch on the beach, read by the pool, and then topped it off with a massage at the Sandava Spa.

Clearwater Beach 2016

Clearwater Beach 2016

All in all, it was the perfect family vacation! A few random tips…if you’re staying at Clearwater Beach for your entire trip, there is a lot of public transportation, but since we were splitting our trip into two parts, we did end up renting a car. And we flew United for the first time in years, and I can’t say enough good things about them! Usually flying with the whole family can be a bit of a pain, but United did an awesome job. They actually sat us all together (which never happens) and the service was awesome. Yay for easy traveling!

Clearwater Beach 2016

(You can see our past tips and tricks for traveling to Clearwater with younger kids here.)

Clearwater Beach 2016

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