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Iceland with the kids

We’re back from a 2-week trip to Iceland + Norway with the big kids and I’ve got lots to update!!

As with most of our adventures, this particular one began with the discovery of an excellent airfare to Oslo. Norway has been on my travel list after watching Frozen and turns out, Qatar Airways was flying to Oslo for a sweet $660 per person. After some research (that the airfare onwards to Reykjavík was $90 each), we decided it was gonna be Iceland -> Bergen -> Oslo -> Trysil with Tru, Kirsten and Finn.

We went back and forth on whether we could bring the 2 babies along but 5 kids in unfamiliar territory did seem a little reckless, plus the minimum age for most of the activities like snowmobiling and ice cave exploration was 6 years old so the babies stayed home for this one :(

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You guys, Iceland is like a dream.

I still have difficulty wrapping my head around the fact that a place like this exists in the world. There are waterfalls and geysers and volcanic rocks and black sand and ice caves and floating ice diamonds and the sky is painted in pink and purple and orange and the prettiest shade of blue. I can’t say that I’m a fan of rocks but I spent a lot of time looking out on the horizon feeling like “wow ok, these rocks are something else.

Most places, you drive several hours to get to one magnificent spot but in Iceland, every spot is trying to outdo the last one like it’s a competition for how we can make nature more breathtaking. Like “Oh you liked the waterfall? Here are a couple more, and here’s some boiling water shooting out of the ground, and look at these giant ice diamonds in a glacial lake and how about a solid blue ice cave right here?

In 6 days, we went to the Golden Circle, drove along the south coast all the way to Jokulsarlon and then back again to Reykjavík.

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Okay I love trip planning and I have the most fun putting together all our trips but planning this one was by far the most challenging ever. This was largely caused by the decision to make the drive in an Icelandic winter. According to most of the forums, Icelandic winters are brutal, with insane snow storms, whiteouts with basically zero visibility and winds that can blow your car door right off. The dude at the car rental made it a point to repeat that many car doors have been blown off and the insurance does not cover missing car doors so if there’s a storm, sit tight and whatever you do, do not open the car door.

The consensus on the forums were mostly “unless you’re an expert at this, you must be insane to self drive in an Icelandic winter” and yes, we are just about insane enough to try because we find tour groups insufferable and there’s nothing like an exciting road trip where your life might be in a tiny bit of danger.

J/k, we are very responsible parents so I had planned for several contingencies. There were plans A to E with multiple backups in case of bad weather, which meant having to keep the itinerary fluid. I usually have everything planned and booked way in advance but for this trip, I was booking some of the hotels 12 hours prior, after we decided it was safe to make the drive for that day.

Thankfully, we had the most beautiful weather for all 6 days so it turned out to be plan A all the way, which is this:

Day 1: Reykjavík (explore the city, try to get over jet lag). We stayed at Fosshotel Baron – nice location, decent rooms, excellent breakfast.

Day 2: 1-hour drive to the Golden Circle, starting at Thingvellir, to Geysir, Gullfoss, then back to Laugarvatn for a night swim at Fontana Spa, a geothermal lagoon. We stayed at an Airbnb cabin in the middle of nowhere and it was amazing.

Day 3: 2.5-hour drive to Vik, visiting Skogafoss and the black sand beach along the way. We stayed 2 nights at Icelandair Hotel Vik – fab rooms, not so great breakfast. Go grab a croissant from the cafe across the street for breakfast instead.

Day 4: 2.5-hour drive to Jokulsarlon to look at floaty ice diamonds + ice cave expedition. Drove back to Vik for the night. We wouldn’t have done this 5-hour drive to and fro if the weather had been rough but it turned out to be a beautiful sunny day and this was probably my favourite day in Iceland.

Day 5: Back to Gullfoss for another ice cave tour + snowmobiling, nose-nuzzled some horses along the way. Spent the night at Bjork Guesthouse at Laugarvatn – superb rooms and only for $150 a night. My second favourite day.

Day 6: Back to Reykjavík. We went shopping at Kringlan, grabbed hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, hung out at the old harbour and Seltjarnarnes, then went swimming at Laugardalslaug. Spent our final night at 41 A Townhouse Hotel – gorgeous rooms, amazing location.

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These are some of the things you might want to know if you’re planning a trip to Iceland.

1. Iceland is beautiful. If you’re sort of sitting on the fence about this, I’m here to tell you that it is absolutely worth the trip.

2. It’s very kid friendly. The only thing you’d want to consider is that some of the activities have a minimum age requirement of 6-12, so if you’re bringing young kids, one adult will have to sit out on them.

3. Food is pricey. The mains at an average restaurant costs about $35-50 and a straight up black coffee from a cart is $5. Even at food trucks, it will cost $25 for a box of fish and chips. Only hot dogs are okayish, at $5.50 each. Also, they’re deliciously lamby (yeahhh meat!!) and pretty perfect topped with a mountain of crispy onions.

4. Kronan and Bonus supermarkets are your best friends. Considering the cost of food in Iceland, the supermarkets are surprisingly reasonable. Stock up on fruits, milk, beverages, snacks, sandwiches – your wallet will thank you.

5. Pack your swimsuits. Icelanders love their pools and I can totally see why. There’s nothing quite like being dressed in your swimwear in -2 degree weather and then jumping into a delightfully warm geothermal pool.

At Laugardalslaug, the kids went up on a slide multiple times and the pool with the slide was considerably colder than the hot tub I was in. Like unacceptable level of cold in the winter and I had to follow them to make sure they were ok.

It was cold, hot, cold, hot, cold, COLD, COLD COOOLDDDD I’M DYING OF HYPOTHERMIA GUYS I LOVE YOU BUT I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN PLEASE DON’T DROWN!!

6. Dress warm. As they say in Norway, there’s no bad such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. With good thermals, fleece or wool layers, a water-resistant coat, proper gloves and snow boots, you’ll be warm and toasty.

7. Go see the ice caves. If you can only make it for one activity, this is the one to go for. This phenomenon only happens in winter when the water freezes over and it is out of this world.

8. Snowmobiling is the most fun and terrifying thing I’ve ever tried. I love that in Iceland, they don’t coddle you with watered down, overly safe activities. Like you want to ride a snowmobile? We’ll take you out for an hour into the wilderness of snow and you’ll have to keep up.

We took a 30 minute ride out to the ice cave deep in the mountain and Finn was behind me so I went slower at first. But too slow is not good because the group ahead had disappeared into the mountain and some stretches, I could see nothing but empty white snow everywhere. If we got lost and had to Revenent our way out like Leonardo Di Caprio, we would 100% not make it. I do not possess those life skills.

On the way back, I decided to speed it up to keep up and that was more terrifying because we hit several patches of uneven snow and flew up from the seat. It was buttocks off the seat legit hang time kind of flew and I gripped the handles so hard my hands started cramping. On the last bump, Finn fell right off the snowmobile and was dangling off the side. He’s ok thanks to the helmet and padding but my heart stopped for a moment.

When we got back to base camp, I realised that Finn fell because he was holding on to a piece of ice from the cave the whole time, which by then had started to melt. “I fell off the snowmobile for nothing, it’s all water now,” he said sadly. This sweet little boy just wanted to bring it home for Theo and Hayley 😭

9. One of the things we wanted to see was the Aurora Borealis but after 6 days in Iceland, we didn’t get to see it once. Some of the remote locations we were in were great spots for finding the northern lights but it required one to step out of the cabin to look at the sky at various times throughout the night. I had planned to wake up every hour to check the sky but when the alarm went off, I considered suiting up and hauling my bottom out into the cold, but I took a deep breath, snuggled deeper into the warm blankets around me and thought “urgh, it’s only lights in the sky”, then went back to sleep. So that’s the story of our northern lights adventure.

Oh wait, there’s part 2. On our last night, we figured we’d join one of those northern lights tours to go hunt for the Aurora Borealis because c’mon! we’re committed to this. We made the kids suit up at 10pm and took them on a tour back out towards Laugarvartn. Except there was very little hunting and a whole lot of standing around. There were about 40 people on the bus and they dropped us all off at a remote carpark somewhere in the wilderness and told us to stand around to wait for the lights to appear for the next 90 minutes. Eventually, 6 other tour buses full of people showed up and we were all just clustered around waiting.

The guide was like “you have to be patient and if you have no luck tonight, you can join the tour for free again tomorrow” and we were like “we paid actual money for this?? I could have done this from my apartment for free and we’re spending 3 hours on a cramped bus to look at a sky of black.” I thought they would have some inside intel on where the lights were going to appear and there would be some actual hunting instead of a “here, stand around and wait” situation.

On the bright side, they kept the heat on in the bus so the kids could sleep while the husband and I shared waffles and a coffee in the cold, dark night, making jokes about our unusual predicament. I know I’ve got it good because this man makes me laugh when we’re standing among some bushes for 90 minutes in the cold, looking at nothing but black sky.

10. On our next trip back, we’d probably still drive but then again, we were extremely blessed with beautiful weather. We could just as easily have been stuck in Reykjavík the whole time or snowed in for days in the middle of nowhere or blown off a cliff by freakishly strong winds.

travel

Back to the big apple

We were in New York + DC for 10 days to celebrate the husband’s birthday (no kids!) and it was such a treat to have him all to myself for all that time.

This trip was planned this way back in January when I spotted an error fare from Hong Kong to Washington on Air Canada for $170 USD. Where did I spot this magical fare? Ah, let me introduce you to one of my favourite FB pages for travel planning: secret flying. Most of the flight deals posted depart from North America and Europe but once in a while, a gem pops up and one has to act fast.

It was the sort of decision that took us 2 minutes to make. Actually it took us no time at all to decide and the 2 minutes were spent scrambling to secure the booking. It required positioning in Hong Kong (which we redeemed using miles during the Singapore Airlines Spontaneous Escapes promo last month) plus a connecting flight from IAD to JFK on Delta for $68 USD. On the way back, it was an easy drive to DC, where we spent 2 nights before flying home.

The next step was to convince our parents to watch all 5 kids for 10 days. Turns out, it took no convincing at all because we have the best parents in the world.

They were all “go have fun, don’t worry about the kids” and we were like “SAY NO MORE! WE’RE OUTTA HERE!!

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The plan was to do the things we normally wouldn’t be able to do with the kids, like watch all the shows on Broadway and go for concerts and comedy clubs and late night drinks. The only way we could do Broadway during the last trip was to take turns to watch it alone while the other person watched babies.

So this time, we went all the way with Broadway. We went for Mean Girls…

We had a long discussion about whether to schedule a musical on the night of arrival in New York, mistakenly being all gungho like “the adrenaline should keep us awake, we’ll beat the jet lag for sure” but no, the jet lag always wins. After over 20 hours in transit, we were basically dead on arrival. I managed to catch like 65% of the show in my dazed stupor but the parts I was awake for were hilarious.

There was also Frozen…

I know the reviews for Frozen are sort of meh but our experience with Disney musicals have been very positive. Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast were all very fun productions so Frozen was definitely on the list.

Well, I loved it! They nailed all my favourite songs from the animation and the couple of new songs were great. It’s also very kid friendly so I’m definitely penciling in a revisit with my 2 girls once Hayley gets bigger.

And Dear Evan Hansen…

A story about a kid with social anxiety who writes letters to himself may not seem like the most compelling narrative but as a musical, it was very well done.

We also made it for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child…

This was so. much. fun. The set was incredible, the cast was stellar and it was like watching a live magic show together with the play. We did both parts in a day, which was a long commitment of almost 6 hours but those 6 hours were very well spent indeed.

And the best one of all, Hamilton.

We’ve been waiting to watch Hamilton ever since watching the opening number on youtube. I’ve since rewatched the clip another 40-50 times and listened to the soundtrack on repeat so let’s just say that there was no way we would not be watching Hamilton this trip.

Before the show, we were like “maybe we should manage our expectations for this” because our expectations were about bursting at the seams but I’m very pleased to tell you that you should go in with all of the expectations for this show. You will not be disappointed.

TL;DR: If you only have time for one show, that’s the one you want to watch. Solid 10/10, no question.

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In between all the shows, we switched gears a bit and went for a bike tour around Brooklyn.

We expected it to be a relaxing ride with many breaks for food and stuff but it was hardcore. We covered 15 miles around Brooklyn riding uphill, weaving in and out of traffic, blitzing through Prospect Park, cruising across DUMBO, all the while listening to interesting nuggets of information about these places from our guide. In short, it was fantastic. It was exactly the sort of thing we wouldn’t be able to do with the kids around and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

And you know what’s another really fun activity? Eating. At Smorgasburg.

It’s an open-air food market sort of like artbox, except with a different selection of food. I wouldn’t ever say better food because there is nowhere in the world with food as good as we have back home but Smorgasburg had a few very decent options.

So if you know me, you’ll know that meat makes me happy. I love beef, lamb, pork, venison, chicken, duck, goose, and I eat them in all manner of ways: grilled, smoked, seared, fried, baked, broiled, stewed, all of it. I can satisfy most of my meat cravings back home except for one: smoked short ribs with a beautiful dry rub (if you know of any good places in Singapore, let me know!!). And I found it here at Smorgasburg at a little food stand called Carnal.

I can tell you that this piece of meat made me a very, very happy girl. I still dream of that lovely afternoon by the East River with my fall-off-the-bone-tender short ribs and that delicious dry rub.

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From New York, we rented a Mustang Convertible and took a slow drive to Washington, DC. We only needed the car for a day and it didn’t cost much more than a compact car ($76 USD including the one-way drop off fee) so of course we went for the Mustang.

First stop was some outlet shopping at Jersey Shore Premium Outlets, then lunch at Jersey Shore, where we stopped for the most amazing coffee milkshake in the history of milkshakes. See, this is exactly why I like road trips, because it is on road trips where I’ve discovered unexpected tasty delights that made my mouth and tummy very happy.

We drove past an ice cream shop spelled with an extra “pe” as in “shoppe” and yes, this is one of the things that influence my decision making in life. I told the husband to pull over for a milkshake and tbh, I would have been happy to enjoy a totally average milkshake from a quaint little ice cream shoppe but instead, I had the most delightful coffee milkshake that was rich and subtle and full-flavoured but not too sweet and basically perfect.

After lunch, we wanted to swing by Atlantic City for a stroll on the Boardwalk and then stop in Philly for a cheesesteak but we are Singaporeans after all, so we traded that for more outlet shopping at Arundel Mills in Maryland before getting in to DC. #priorities

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Okay during the planning, DC was a bit of a throwaway stop because of the flight situation. We got in late the first night so all we had was one full day in the city in case all the monument-looking got a bit boring.

Well, I’m a little sad to have scheduled so little time for DC because we really enjoyed that one DC day. We did a segway tour around the National Mall, covering the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the White House, the US Capitol, and the Smithsonian museums. I had just watched Daniel Day Lewis in Spielberg’s Lincoln and it was quite something reading the Gettysburg address at the Lincoln Memorial.

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On this trip, I learnt that 10 days without the kids does crazy things to the brain. By the time we boarded the flight home, I was so happy to see babies on the plane, which for some reason, there were a lot of. There was like a record number of babies on that flight and it felt strangely comforting. I know most people are like “so many babies on the flight? Urgh, kill me now” but I was like “yay babies everywhere!! this feels like home.

I will admit to spending a large portion of that flight ogling at chubby babies and thinking of ways I could attempt to munch on someone else’s baby’s cheeks without being creepy. If you must know, there are none. At the end of the flight, I had munched on zero babies but on the bright side, I was home and free to munch on all the baby cheeks I wanted.

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Also, happy birthday to my favourite person in the world!

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A week in Melbourne

So we finally did it – we brought all 5 of our little ones on an adventure to Melbourne.

When I was planning this, I told the husband that it was nuts to even attempt it and he was like, “yeah it’s definitely nuts but it’s going to be so fun!” and the man has a point. In deciding if one should attempt something crazy in life, always consider how fun the endeavour would be and in this case, totally worth it level of fun.

If there’s one place to attempt a first trip with 5 kids, Melbourne would be it. It’s incredibly kid friendly and everything was very seamless and fuss free.

After a red eye flight in to the city (the two babies slept almost the entire way there), we picked up a minivan from the airport and drove to our Airbnb in Docklands. So far, so good.

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We spent our 6 days in Melbourne doing a lot of this.

Feeding sheep.

Feeding deer.

Holding a bag of food near the deer and making him wait because we know how important it is to take photos of food before eating it.

Walking next to what appears to be the hind legs of a deer.

Feeding camels.

Feeding guinea pigs.

Patting bunnies.

Patting crocodiles. Yeah, no, there’s no way this baby is patting the crocodile even though it’s clearly not a real crocodile. She was all “haha, I’m just going to pretend to want to touch it and then run away because eww so gross.

Patting more bunnies.

Okay why in the world is bunny fur so ridiculously soft?? These kids could pat bunnies all day.

And also just casually standing around looking all dapper next to bunnies; so dapper, in fact, that the dude at the back was shocked like “I had no idea one could look this dapper standing next to a bunny.

Talking to sheep.

Learning to count sheep.

Having to explain to the alpacas why the hay was all gone.

The alpacas weren’t pleased. They were like “there are three of us against the three of you and I like our odds” and the boys were smart enough to make a hasty retreat after a quick discussion. They know not to take on annoyed alpacas unless you’re prepared to get spit in the face. Nobody pfffttss like an alpaca pfffttsss, I mean, these guys know how to make their displeasure known.

Although alpacas are so adorable. Look at that fluffy, cuddly face. I’d risk getting spit on any day.

And this little fawn? It was totally giving me bambi eyes the whole time and I might have thought about bringing it home.

Looking at the kids having so much fun with all the animals was such a treat, and for a brief moment, I considered it. Maybe having a different life, one with wide open spaces and farm animals and bundles of hay and little bunnies. I told the husband about it and as the words were coming out of my mouth, I started to laugh because who am I kidding? I wouldn’t last a week as a farm girl.

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Apart from spending time with all the animals at the farm and the zoo and the parks, we also sat on our favourite steam train, dear old Puffing Billy.

This little daredevil baby loved having her head dangle out of the window as the train was rumbling down the tracks. For days after that, she was still talking about how “Hayley sit train and put the head outside SO FUN!!

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There were also some tree climbing adventures, some museum adventures, some penguin adventures, some playground action adventures, and a little bit of walking around the city but mom this is so boring adventures.

All in all, this trip went as well as we could have hoped, which is to say, very well indeed.

And my most favourite part of all was having a whole week just doing fun stuff together with all these babies and watching them love on each other.

travel

Part V: DISNEY WORLD!!

If life is a collection of memories, then some of the very best ones I’ve collected are from Disney World.

Being in Disney World is like walking into a bubble; every small part from the resorts to the theme parks to the classic Disney music to the aroma of freshly made waffle cones on main street to the characters who play their parts to perfection, it all comes together to create some incredible magic. Strictly on a fun per minute basis, Disney is so far ahead that any comparison just wouldn’t even be fair. It’s 24 hours of amazing experiences non-stop every single day that we’re there.

I know there’s a whole world out there to explore and hopefully one day we’ll get to it, but now while the kids are still little, there is no place that lights up their tiny faces with such delight as the happiest place on earth.

We typically do Disney at the end of the trip because no matter how fun all the other parts get, you always know that there’s something better waiting for you at the end. And man, those last 8 Disney days were some pretty epic days.

Okay I’m going to attempt to put it all into one post.

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#1. Oh hello, Beach Club!

Choosing a Disney resort depends on several factors: how much time will you be spending at the parks/rooms? what’s your favourite park? how many people are there in your party? are you going to be spending any time at the pool? what kind of theming do you like? what discounts are available?

This trip, it was a toss up between one of the monorail resorts (Grand Floridian, Polynesian, Contemporary) for easy access to Magic Kingdom or the Epcot resorts (Beach Club, Yacht Club, Boardwalk Inn) for a short walk to Epcot and Hollywood Studios.

I’ve heard a lot about the legendary Beach Club pool but all our previous Disney trips were all commando style park touring, which left very little time for chilling out at the pool. I mean, look at all the roller coasters! carousels! train rides! character meet and greets! It was always rope drop at the parks all the way till they shut the doors on us.

After some extensive research and a ton of rave reviews, we decided to go for the Beach Club resort and turns out, it was the perfect choice because yeah, we ended up doing a lot of this.

So every morning, we would ask them if they wanted to hang out at the pool or head straight to the parks and it would be like the most difficult decision they’ve ever had to make. They would huddle up and discuss the merits of each option and grab their heads and take a poll and finally decide to do 2 hours swimming followed by roller coasters for the rest of the day.

I’ve never seen them change and get ready at double speed like this ever. The big kids would be hustling the boys and helping them put on floaties and goggles, the whole time being all, “We need to hurry, if not there won’t be enough time for rides!!

2. Lovely to meet you, Pandora – the world of Avatar!!

I’m not a huge Avatar fan, but I was really excited to experience the new addition to Animal Kingdom, which has always been sort of an underrated park for me. Compared to Magic Kingdom or Epcot or Hollywood Studios, it’s definitely more of a slow burner.

But that all changed with the opening of Pandora. This place is stunning; the Disney Imagineers hit a solid home run with this.

photo credit: Disney

Both the new rides at Pandora are insanely popular and the only way to not queue 2-3 hours for them are to book fastpasses 60 days out (these go fast!).

Na’vi River Journey is a slow boat ride that’s visually mind-blowing, but it’s probably not worth a 2-hour queue. Avatar Flight of Passage (a simulator where you get to fly a banshee in Pandora), on the other hand, is possibly the best ride in Disney World right now. It’s a very difficult choice to make because TEST TRACK!! and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad!! but okay, this one is nuts.

It’s been a while since I stepped off a ride feeling completely blown away and this ride? It was full on goosebumps, jaw hitting the floor insanity. This is Disney magic at its finest.

3. What’s up, Animal Kingdom?

Maybe because of Pandora, Animal Kingdom became one of my favourite parks (can all 4 parks be my favourite?).

The kids were very enthusiastic about side quests this trip and one of the best ones was making like Russel from Up and learning to be a Widnerness Explorer. It’s an interactive experience where they could collect badges at over 30 stations around the park. All the cast members at the different stations were excellent, they made it super fun for the kids to learn about spiders and flamingos and goats and dinosaur bones.

4. I really like you, Epcot.

Thinking of Epcot gives me some serious withdrawal. This place is everything I want in a theme park – solid rides, beautiful theming, the best shows, somewhere to sit by a bench and share an ice-cream brioche with my babies.

The new addition to Epcot since we last visited was the Frozen ride, which took the place of Maelstrom in Norway. It’s definitely a major upgrade because now the boat ride takes you around Arendelle to hang out with Elsa and Anna and Olaf and Sven and the poofy Marshmallow thing.

Here’s Finn trying really hard to be a viking in Norway. Poor boy is good at a lot of stuff but clearly, being a viking isn’t one of them. He’ll have to take lessons from baby Theo on how to muster a proper angry viking face.

5. You’ll always have my heart, Magic Kingdom. 

If what you’re looking for is a good time, then Magic Kingdom is the place to be. Nobody knows how to party like Magic Kingdom does. Street parties, dance parties, sing-a-long parties, parade parties, there’s always a party to be had when you’re here.

The bigger kids kind of knew what to expect but this was a first for Theo, who was in a bit of shock when he saw all the parties. He was quite stunned for a while as he tried to process all this information, and then suddenly he was all like, “WOOOO PARTYYYYY!!!” and started running around dancing everywhere.

6. You’ve got a friend in me.

I’m of the opinion that one can never be too old to have a good time meeting Disney characters, but I think the big kids were starting to feel a little self-conscious about the meet and greets. Truett was like “but those are real people inside, isn’t it a little weird to be queueing up to meet them?” which ok, point taken. Although I’m 35 and I would take a hug from dude-wearing-mickey costume any day.

The kid who enjoyed it the most was Theo, who was also in shock (in a good way!) at seeing all his favourite characters walking around.

This is the longest Minnie hug ever and also baby Theo’s “I cannot deal with this level of awesomeness” face. This face makes me swoon.

 

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TL;DR? Here’s a video instead.

Disney World 2017 from Daphne Ling on Vimeo.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.