Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Snowy Days and Sandy beaches, Walt Disney World and The Wonderful Wizarding world of HP: one helluva Road Trip!

A week ago, I was back home with a bagful of laundry and a smile on my face. Holidays do that to me, specially good  great ones.

With wonky weather in Dallas ( as high as 75 a day and dropping to 30s the next and a snow shower to follow through) we were looking forward to the school Spring Break.

Plus, we had PLANS.
We planned an early birthday gift for Li'll S. We had plans to take him to Florida and go to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios ( well, that was mostly because I have an obsession with Harry Potter).

Now a trip to WDW and Universal studios needs a good deal of planning. I am just listing what I did and what worked for me. These are just tips. I may have forgotten some, but if there are questions, leave a comment or email me and I shall answer them as best I can.

I have read that people plan their WDW holidays a year in advance! Not possible in my case, we plan our holidays when M gets his leave worked out in office. 
We decided to do a road trip. About 1200 miles one way. This was the longest road trip for us and we knew we wanted to do this. 
We love our road trips, passing through different states and various cities.
The other option is to take a flight, quicker and convenient if you have small children.

We started Friday evening and reached Orlando on Saturday night. 
For the journey, this time, I stocked up on small snack portions and packed them in a small plastic caddy ( from Dollar Tree) 
Pic source: Google search
This helped me stock small snacks ( fruit cups, chips, milk tetra pack, juice, cookies, string cheese etc) and give them to S and for entertainment we had his portable DVD player and some movies, coloring books, craft activity set (ex: Minecraft).

Pic source: Google search

We bought tickets in Orlando. But if you have time and have planned the visit well in advance you can scout around for deals on tickets ( visit undercovertourist.com for ticket or tickets+hotel deals).
Sign up on Mousesavers.com for tips and tricks for WDW.
These are just suggestions, I am not advertising anything, no profit.

Get the Disney App on your smart phone. This allows you to add all people in the family under your account and you can get your FastPass+ as well as check wait times (more on that later).
You can get the Universal app too. 

We got a buy 2 days and get the third free at Universal Studio (we opted for a park-to-park ticket so as to go between the two Harry Potter themed parks) and a 3 day ticket for WDW.
This may seem excessive, but it worked very well for us.

We started our holiday with Universal Studios.
The trick is to reach the park well in time, that means early. Some people will go up to 30 mins early, so as to be the first inside. We went well in time, but not as early as the park opened. 
Luckily our hotel was close to the park and it did not take us long to reach.

One tip: please carry a stroller for your child (my son is 6 and I carried an umbrella stroller, the best $15 I spent). There is a LOT of walking to be done in the parks and it's tough on the little ones. Better ferry them around than have them cranky by mid-day and whining, dragging their feet or realizing that buying the stroller was better than renting it for $15 daily. Plus it comes handy in dumping the camera bag, water bottles you will be carrying.

I carried chilled bottles of water, small juice tetra packs, some dry snacks. The parks have expensive food and while eating out cannot be completely ruled out, you can cut down on it.

We went to Island of Adventure first ( the village of Hogsmeade), I have some pictures to share with you. 

The village is right from the sets of the movie or in my case, just as I had imagined it when reading the books. Potterheads will agree with me here, the world changes around you as you step into Hogsmeade, those who (like me) are die hard fans are easily distinguishable from the Muggles roaming the streets, liking everything, but not really understanding anything.
For example, in the simulated ride ( which is FANTASTIC, I might add) without spoiling your fun, when the dementor rises up, muggles are screaming 'Aarrgh' or 'eeeeeeeeeeeeee' or similar, and I was screaming 'Expecto Patronum'.... 
Don't just shake your head at me, feel the excitement!

The train ( the Hogwarts Express runs between Hogsmeade to Kings Cross) is right at the entrance. Walk into the stores selling (very expensive) HP themed goods. Ollivander's has a small demo, which is fun ( the wand chooses the wizard) after the demo, you can go buy a wand ( choose from character wands, prices ranging from $35 and up). Dervish and Banges has the monster book of Monsters on display, which displays its monstrosity every few minutes. S stood in front growling and pulling faces at the book and thought it was responding to him (LOL!)

Drink up on cold Butterbeer (the liquid form, not the frozen) or a Gilly water or Pumpkin Juice (I liked the bottle but the actual juice, not so much). Walk into Honeydukes and drool over familiar names like 'Bertie Botts every flavored beans' or ' Chocolate Frogs', 'Peppermint Toads' ( that is just regular candy in fancy packaging).

The other rides are fun too ( the Hippogriff ride is a small roller coaster, kids enjoy it too) There is another roller coaster ride, which was a bit too much for us and we skipped it. Walk thru Hogwarts castle (for the ride) and listen to the portraits talking to one another as you walk by.
There are lockers (free for upto 2 hours ) to keep your valuables in when you go or the HP ride.

The other rides in US are so much fun too. My son loved the Minion ride, we did too!  

The Spider man Simulated ride is awesome too.
The other stuff, I don't remember much, I was too dazed by the HP world visit. 

Our second visit to Universal studios was to Diagon Alley.
Absolutely fantastic! I loved loved everything here! 
Walk past Kings Cross Station, to the Telephone Booth, get in and dial 62442 to hear a message  from the Ministry of Magic. Stroll towards the Knight Bus and meet 'Stan Shunpike' ( Simon, actually) and chat with him and also hear the 'shrunken head' talk back. 
Knock on No. 13 Grimmauld Place and catch Kreacher peeking out at you from upstairs.

As you walk into Diagon Alley prepare yourself for Harry Potter everything! Even Knockturn Alley. It's dark and dingy and creepy. Walk into Borgin and Burkes to look at all the dark artifacts (the Hand of Glory, the Emerald Necklace which has claimed the lives of 19 muggles to date, Malfoy's Death Eater Mask etc) 
The biggest attractions are Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes. The shop is very colorful  and just what you would expect a shop owned by Fred and George to be! I could not stop grinning as I looked at all the stuff they had. The Skiving Snackboxes, The Puking Pastilles, the U-No-Poo( bwahahahahaha!!) M & M's and the Pygmy Puffs, the Dolores Umbridge doll ( there is a bigger version is  cycling from one end to the other ( just glance up) on a tight rope. There is Flourish and Blotts ( with Gilderoy Lockhart smiling at you in the picture frame), Madam Malkins displaying Hermione's gown ( Goblet of Fire) Florean Fortescu's Ice cream parlour.
And then you come to Gringotts! Where the Dragon is sitting atop the roof, snarling (he spouts flames every 20 minutes or so) and go indoors for the ride which is mind-blowing!

Striking off from Diagon alley to the right you can walk in the back to get refreshments and also hear Celestina Warbeck singing. There is a Mermaid fountain that spits at you ( I am not sure, but it has to do with buying a special wand that is programmed to trigger that action, upon saying the spell and waving the wand in the correct manner. There is also an umbrella soldered to an awning, which works the same way)..There's Gregorovitch's shop, selling wands. Take a ride in the Hogwarts Express ( pass thru the barrier to platform 9 3/4 , walk past the 'mirror' contraption and it looks like you are walking through the brick wall) and take the short ride on the school train with all the thrills ( scenes from the book / movie flash past)

Oh and there are other rides too, outside, The Transformers ride, Simpsons ride, MIB , Mummy ride all are wonderful and a must do.
We found our visit to Universal Studios very enjoyable, far less stressful than our visit to WDW. Shocked! I know, but it is true. The waiting lines are not too bad, the lines are covered and fans circulate making it not too bad) and they have small concession stands , while you wait in line. Smart marketing!

We spent 3 days in Walt Disney World, the first day was in Magic Kingdom, where we had booked 3 Fast Pass+ and the remaining rides had to be done waiting in long, long lines. Choose your Fast Pass+ well.Once you have exhausted the 3 FP+, you can go to a FP+ Kiosk and get an additional pass. By the way, you can book ( if you have planned and bought the tickets and made bookings ) you FP+ upto 6 months in advance or the night before, the only risk being, the night before may not give you the options you want. You can also get Magic Bands ( for an additional $13 or so) which you just need to touch and gain access  for rides FP+, or in restaurants- so it goes to your account.

There are 4 parks: Magical Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot.
We chose to to go MK, AK and HS.
There are Disney themed resorts to live within the park area and that has it's advantages  ( free shuttle, extra hours etc..), but getting a reasonable rate at the last minute is impossible. If you want to stay in a themed resort, plan well in advance. 
It isn't a cheap vacation, I can assure you of that! But it IS so much fun! 
Just make sure you plan and budget for all things.

We also chose to live outside the park. 
Our hotel ( like most, I believe) had a shuttle to take us to and bring us back from the park.

A small walk from the transport center leads to either the monorail or the ferry to the Magic Kingdom ( from where you go in or to  the bus lot to take you to other parks).

The main thing to remember in WDW is to take things easily, you are there to have fun, don't get worked up about that! 

Get to the park well in time ( again, people here  go upto 45-60 mins before the park opens to be the first in, we did not, we reached  in time and it was still crazy crowded) and make sure to carry chilled water bottles ( or pay $2.50 /$2.75 per bottle) and some snacks.

Don't rush about from ride-to-ride, line-to-line. Make sure you rest ( go to the quiet rides like the People Mover in Tomorrowland, Carousel of Progress for example where you are entertained and rested).

There are lines to meet and greet the characters ( take an autograph book if your child is a big fan). I have no idea about the princess greeting time ( the son does not care one hoot, except for crooning 'let it go...'- a boy version, yes! there is one and you will read about it here, later) 
Wear a lanyard with Disney Trading Pins and trade them with the staff there who will trade them happily. Let your child pick the pin they like and trade. The pins are rather expensive, about $6.50 per pin, or you can order them in a small or large lot on Amazon ( cheaper, but no choice of pins, you get a mixed lot of big and small and some not too popular characters).

Some very popular rides have long wait lines, be prepared, your child is bound to get cranky unless you have a FastPass+, keep something handy to keep him / her entertained ( popular choices, iPhone, a book- the wait is anything from 45-110 + mins) and hydrated.

Some very popular ( do not miss)  rides are: (in Magic Kingdom)

The 7 Dwarfs Mine Train Ride
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Space Mountain
Splash Mountain ( wet ride, carry an extra set of clothes)
Pirates of the Caribbean ( the ride was under maintenance when we were there) 

To relax and recover, go in for the Enchanted Tiki Room show, it's a small show with stuffed birds who have a song routine sitting on their perches. It feels a bit lame after the excitement of the rides. But (shrug) okay to relax.
We missed a few rides, it was a little overwhelming and felt no need to overdo something and get nauseated on day 1 of WDW. 

Then there are the parades. We missed the afternoon parade as we were in line ( I have seen the character parade in the California DisneyLand and its a fine one!) but got the Electric Parade at night. 
Then there is the 'Celebrate the Magic' show, after the Electric Parade, when ... how shall I describe it!?... when animations flit across the castle (check pictures in the second row below)with the songs playing, it is be-au-ti-ful!  And now we come to the Frozen, Let it go, 6 year old 'boy' version..."let it go, let it go... let the toilet overflow..." I heard S humming it as the castle lit up with Elsa's face. 

The firework display was fantastic. The grand finale. 
The day is VERY long, so be prepared for aching feet, tired body, a happy heart and your will to drop into bed as is, without shower, but the hot water hits your sore body and you forget all that and relax and relive the day in your mind, all over again and plan the next Disney park Adventure!

Our favorite rides in Hollywood Studios were:

The Hotel of Terror
Rock N Roller Coaster

The rides are thrilling and we wondered for a minute if Li'll S would go on them, well, he did and loved them! 
The  Tower of Terror is a lift / elevator that takes you up and bounces you up and down like a yo-yo. The rock n roller coaster is a high speed and LOUD rock music blaring ride that shoots at high speed and tumbles and turns you upside down. Thoroughly enjoyable. The loud music  made me swallow a headache relief pill, but totally worth it! 

Apart from the rides, we also met the Disney Stars, Mickey Mouse, Goofy and the rest. 
There was the fabulous Cinderella Carriage, all golden and intricate, but I could not get one clear shot at it, the girls just would not stop pouring in the line and posing, once this way, once the other, blowing kisses.... hummph! Color me Grumpy! 

This park can be covered easily and we went back in time to catch a fairly early ( 8:30 pm) shuttle back to the hotel, enjoy dinner and hit the sack.

The last Park was Animal Kingdom

Our favorite rides were:

Expedition Everest
Kali River Rapids
Primeval Whirl
Dino ride ( cannot remember the exact name)
Kilimanjaro Safari ( bumpy ride) 

Walk thru the Animal Kingdom and experience Asia, Africa displays. I was a little perturbed that everything from India was displayed as old, worn and dated.... in ruins. All of it.
There is also a bug habitat, which we did not explore.
Kids can become wilderness explorers and carry a sticker book around looking for  whatever is mentioned in the book and earn badges. 
Again, a park that can easily be covered in the day without too much stress. I carried an extra set of clothes for S. Wet clothes are no fun! There are lockers available ( free for about an hour ) when you go on the ride. 

We left Orlando happy and content.
Our next stop was Destin Beach. We woke up to this glorious view and went to the beach. It was the happiest of days. We did not want to leave. It reminded us of the years we spent in Los Angeles, We lived just a couple of miles away from the beach.
So beautiful! The sea, so alluring. It was perfect! 
Our last stop, on the way back was in New Orleans, we made a short stop of 2-3 hours and visited the French Quarter. It was brilliant! People were in the mood to celebrate the weekend. St. Patricks day was around the corner and people were sporting green everywhere. It was so unlike the wide and uncrowded streets of Dallas! VERY charming! The sidewalk cafes, the live music......dancing in the street! S joined in it all too.
There were horse drawn carriages, quaint shops with colorful wares and  a wedding procession can block the narrow streets and it was considered ok! 
And a visit to the French Quarters is incomplete without walking into Cafe Du Monde where everyone heads for Beignets and coffee. I had Cafe Au Lait and it was the best I have tasted in ever so long! 
 We thoroughly enjoyed the little time we had there!

 From here:


 It was one AMAZING road trip! 

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  1. Wow! It was fun reading about your trip, I used to be a Harry Potter fan many years ago so could relate to your excitement. Enjoyed seeing the photos and reading about your adventure.

    - Priti

  2. Great post, I felt like you took me on a virtual vacation!

  3. It sounds like a wonderful vacation. I have been waiting for my son to grow up a bit to take him to Disney World. Your detailed description will be very useful in planning our trip.

  4. Thanks for the wonderful visual treat.. How I wish I could visit the Disneyland.. One day perhaps, along with my kids :) Love every bit of it


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