travel

Part IV: Universal Orlando

Ever since our last visit to Universal Orlando, we were certain of two things: 1. that one day our kids would become proper potterheads and 2. we would be back to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter with them.

We just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

To be honest, during our last trip to Universal, we had sort of decided that it would be the last visit for a while. It was a fab time for us adults but we were touring with two kids who were visibly bored while interacting with the animatronic goblins at Gringotts bank(?!) and having lunch at Three Broomsticks(??!!). But understandably so because the magic of Diagon Alley isn’t immediately clear if one hasn’t read Harry Potter 1 through 7.

The kids couldn’t understand why their parents were fascinated by pointy wooden sticks and boring train stations so we ended up rushing through the park instead of soaking it in like one is supposed to. Okay, they did enjoy Honeydukes but I suspect it was mostly because of the candy.

Turns out that 2017 was the year that Truett and Kirsten got acquainted with Hogwarts and they loved it. I had planned to ease them in with books 1-3, then let them pick up on books 4-7 when they got a little older, like maybe 12? When Tru finished book 3, he made it clear that it was impossible for him to wait 2 more years before reading the next book and he presented a pretty good case. I remember having to wait an entire year for the next book to drop and it was excruciating; I couldn’t be this cruel to my kids so he has since devoured the entire series.

Kirsten got up to book 4 before deciding that her brain couldn’t handle this amount of darkness and it was a good call because I was 18 when book 4 dropped and I was terrified by the opening Frank Bryce scene with Voldemort + Nagini. This kid is so mature it makes me incredibly proud.

The point is, Truett and Kirsten have been suitably introduced to the magic and they were ready for a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

//

Universal Orlando is made up of 2 parks: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. There are some decent rides for older kids scattered around both parks but the headliners are clearly the Harry Potter sections (Hogsmeade in Universal Studios and Diagon Alley in Islands of Adventure).

As far as theming goes, both areas are amazing. The level of detail is staggering and there are enough easter eggs for any hardcore potterhead to go crazy over. Like meeting Stan Shunpike and the Knight Bus complete with interactive shrunken head was such a treat. The kids were so thrilled to have a hilarious conversation with the shrunken head even though Theo ran away once the head started talking back.

And what about the dragon on top of Gringott’s bank that breathes real fire periodically throughout the day? Let’s just say that it still takes my breath away.

 

First off, when you’re visiting Universal Orlando, you want to get the park-to-park pass that allows you to visit both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in the same day. That’s the only way to ride the Hogwarts Express, which is an actual train connecting both parks.

I’d recommend riding it in both directions because each experience is different, although if you only have time for one direction (haha!), do it from King’s Cross station at Universal Studios because that’s where you get to see platform 9 3/4.

The new addition since our last visit was the wand-activated side quests one could find at various corners marked with medallions on the pavement. One has to purchase a special interactive wand in order to perform spells at these designated areas but if you ask me, it is the one merch item in the whole park that is worth purchasing.

Some of the quests were straightforward, like using Wingardium Leviosa to levitate a quill or Silencio to make a bird stop chirping. Others were very elaborate and super fun, like one where you could activate a moving skeleton on a screen to mirror your movements.

Then there are the rides. There aren’t many rides at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter but it’s clear that a lot of thought has been put into creating an excellent experience for each ride. Escape from Gringotts is easily the best ride in all of Universal Orlando, combining a thrilling track roller coaster with insane 4D effects. The queue for this is consistently 2 hours long but for good reason (because it’s magnificent!!) and there’s a single rider queue if you don’t mind riding alone (no, we do not mind at all!).

And as if all of that is not enough, the thing to top it off was the Christmas fireworks light show that lit up Hogwarts castle every evening.

Right, I think that about covers it. I’ll wrap it all up with this video. :)

travel

Part III: Legoland Florida

As usual, we saved the best for last and this next leg of the trip was all about the theme parks.

It was an easy flight in to Orlando from Buffalo airport and the kids were practically high from excitement the moment we landed; they were singing and dancing their way through TSA clearance, which I suppose is the best way one could clear TSA checks.

//

Another first for this trip was a visit to Legoland Florida. We had considered checking it out during the past few visits but it’s about an hour’s drive out from the main Disney/Universal cluster and it was always a “let’s do it next time” sort of situation.

Well, this time was finally the next time and now we’re like, we totally should have done it earlier.

Legoland is a dream come true for any Lego fan because there’s Lego everywhere: Lego castles, Lego dragons, Lego trees, Lego coasters, Lego farm animals, hands on Lego building stations, Lego robotics, basically anything one could want to see made of Lego can be found there.

Incidentally, this was Theo’s first proper experience of a theme park and this boy was in absolute heaven. It was full on wide eyed wonder at everything, like “YOU MEAN I SPENT 3 YEARS OF MY LIFE NOT KNOWING SUCH AN AWESOME PLACE EXISTS??!!! Is this made of Lego?? How about this? And this??? And I can ride as many times as I want??!! NO WAY!!! 

He was dragging us everywhere making us go on every single ride multiple times, it was like experiencing a theme park for the first time all over again and I loved it. :)

If you’ve been to Legoland Malaysia, most of the areas + rides are pretty similar. It’s a very toddler friendly park with a handful of big kid type thrill coasters. Which is to say that it was perfect for these two boys, who were having the time of their lives.

And unlike the insane crowds that can be found in Legoland Malaysia, the one in Florida was so quiet it was like having the whole park to ourselves. It was such a treat to basically walk on for every ride.

Usually, after every ride, they’ll be like “That was awesome, let’s do it again!!” and we’ll look at the queue and be like “Ummm, maybe later” which is code for “OH HELL NO.” But with a quiet park, they rode all the rides again and again and again and it’s totally an obnoxious first world problem but by the afternoon, the husband and I were having to rock, paper, scissors to see who would get to go on the spinning ride with the kids one more time.

By unanimous agreement, the best ride in the whole park was Lego Ninjago The Ride.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the kids have been crazy about Lego Ninjago, such that Theo has been telling me not to call him by his actual name. Instead, the only name that he will henceforth be responding to is Green Ninja. I told him that Green Ninja is a ridiculous name for a boy and I will not be calling him that. He was adamant, like “Yes mom, you are calling me Green Ninja.” And ok yes, as of this morning, I’m still calling him Green Ninja.

Back to the ride. This ride is amazing, it’s so much fun. You get to be one of the Lego Ninjago characters to go on an interactive mission to defeat bad guys via some advanced motion detection technology. The way to activate your powers was to wave your hands around wildly and you can be sure that there was some nerd level hand waving going down while we were riding.

travel

Part II: Niagara Falls

From New York, we drove 8 hours up towards Niagara Falls where we spent the next 4 days.

Niagara Falls has been on my bucket list for a long time and I’m glad we finally did it because WOAH IT IS GORGEOUS.

We had initially planned to fly in to Buffalo airport but it was Thanksgiving weekend and the flight prices were out of control. It would have cost about $2,000 instead of the usual $450 to fly all 6 of us so we decided to make a road trip out of it. It only cost us $150 for a one-way minivan rental from La Guardia to Buffalo and as a bonus, we were able to make a nice stopover at Woodbury Common Premium Outlets for some shopping.

Pro tip: Instead of doing a one-way minivan rental from LGA to BUF for all 5 days (which would cost $800+), we split it into 2 separate rentals: a 1-day from LGA to BUF ($150), followed by 4 days in BUF ($330). This meant that we had to make a 20-minute pit stop in Buffalo Airport to do the paperwork but it was very painless and they let us keep the same car so we didn’t even need to swap it out.

//

You guys, Niagara Falls is unreal.

I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I know it’s just water and rocks but when you put them together like that, it’s nothing short of magnificent. It’s like standing in a huge cloud of mist and you hear the thundering roar of rushing water and you look out and there are all these rainbows all around and it’s beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.

Every time the kids got too close to the edge, my heart would drop and I’d be like “3 steps back, guys!! Don’t make me have to go in after you, I’m not that good a swimmer.” They thought it was hilarious to see me this nervous so they took turns to get as close to the edge as possible and after a while, the only way to make them stop was to be all “You know what, going in after you would be futile anyway so hey, it’s been nice knowing you!!

And did they buy it? Not for a second.

It’s impossible to not visibly flinch when a piece of your heart is a small barricade away from plunging down the Niagara Falls.

//

Here are some of the highlights:

1. Looking at the falls

I’ve always been a city girl but this made me question everything I knew about myself. I loved standing next to the falls and looking out at the rushing water. We couldn’t get enough of it.

We looked at it from the top of Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Terrapin Point, from the boat at the bottom of the falls, from behind the falls, and I still can’t decide which view I liked best. They were all spectacular.

2. Niagara-on-the-Lake

I love me some small town charm and Niagara-on-the-Lake is as charming as they come. We spent a whole day browsing quaint bookstores and looking at trinkets and having coffee, it was delightful.

3. Hiking

Again, I’m not really the hiking sort and unless you count the one time I walked around Coney Island, I don’t think I’ve gone on a proper hike in my life. I certainly didn’t think I’d enjoy it this much.

The weather was beautiful and we kind of just took a leisurely walk into some woods for a bit to hang out with some dogs and squirrels and ducks. It was an excellent way to spend an afternoon.

//

4 days turned out to be the perfect amount of time to spend at Niagara Falls and those turned out to be some of my favourite memories of the trip; we could take things slow and I woke up to the best mornings ever.