Posted in: Sightseeing

Universal Studios: Final Thoughts, Costs, and Was It Worth It

We ended up being glad we only did 1 park for the day, besides just the cost. We had 18,430 steps just from the time we got there (7:30am) to when we left (3:30pm)!

Our total costing was $795.68 for the day (Tickets $575.12, Parking $26, Food: $135.98, Wand: $58.58). We were trying to balance trying food and having fun with not going overboard. It was incredibly expensive for one day of fun.

The 3D imagery in all of the rides/show were incredible. The Harry Potter world of Diagon Alley was also amazing. The shops were really neat to see. Ollivander’s Wand Shop was pretty close to what I imaged in my head.

I wish we could have spent more time exploring the area. We were trying really hard to avoid the crowds as much as possible, so we didn’t get to see or ride everything. I would have spent a lot more time wandering around Diagon Alley.

Universal Studios had Mardi Gras floats around the park

I think Universal, in general, did a good job with dealing with COVID. Masks were required, hand sanitizer was around, spacing marked on the ground, rides left spacing and rows between riders. However, Revenge of the Mummy needed staff members who were willing to enforce the line markers/rules for social distancing. The Locker areas were also a free-for-all.

We love sending postcards to friends and family along our trip. We could not find postcards of Universal, except in Universal. Outside of the park it was just the mouse and general Florida/beach themed cards. We found some at the Studio Store in CityWalk for $12.95 for a set of 10. They were all prepackaged, either Universal in general or Harry Potter themed. I would love to have been able to pick out my own postcards to make up a set, or be able to find them outside of Universal.

We left early because the crowds were getting to be an uncomfortable size for us. Once we got to the truck, we sat and ate some snacks we had left in the cooler and watched the long line of cars still coming into the park.

Would I go back? Maybe. I would have liked to have taken a ride on Hogwarts Express, but you could only ride if you had a ticket to both parks (Studio and Island of Adventure), and to see Howarts in IOA. It just is so expensive to go for a day (or more). If you haven’t been to Universal yet and you love Harry Potter and rides, you should definitely check it out at least once. Diagon Alley was worth going for.

Other scenes around Universal
Posted in: Food, Sightseeing

Universal Studios: Food

We stopped at the Leaky Cauldron for some food after riding Escape from Gringotts. We ordered a butterbeer ($7.99), a frozen butterbeer ($7.99), sticky toffee pudding ($7.49), and a scotch egg ($4.50). The butterbeer tasted a lot like butterscotch. The frozen butterbeer was similar to a slushy, and 3/4 of us liked the frozen butterbeer the best. The sticky toffee pudding was pretty good and was presented warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The scotch egg was ok. It came with a side of tomato (pico de gallo maybe) and a dipping sauce (mustard based). The breading had a flavor to it that I hadn’t had with a scotch egg before. It was $29.79 for the four items.

The window display of food does not make the food look very appetizing, but most of what we had tasted pretty good.

Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor was our next treat in the day. We all shared a cone (they said they were out of cups). We got a waffle cone, which came with double scoops ($7.99). We got a scoop of the Earl Grey and Lavender and a scoop of the Chocolate and Raspberry. The Earl Grey and Lavender was a very delicate flavor, it wasn’t very strong. It was tasty though and different from what we would normally get. The chocolate and raspberry was also good, but it seemed like it was a chocolate ice cream with raspberry flavoring added in. I didn’t see any pieces of raspberry, and it had a slightly artificial taste to it.

We stopped in at Sugarplums and they had quite the candy/sweet collection of offerings. We went with the Cauldron Cake ($11+tax). It is a chocolate cake that comes in box and is served in a silicon cauldron (which you can keep and reuse to bake your own cauldron cake at home!). The cake wasn’t too bad, but the icing was a little fake tasting.

While the boys and I waited in line for the Twirl ‘n’ Hurl in the Simpsons area, Ben went to find the Flaming Moe ($11). The ride line wasn’t moving fast, so we left and joined Ben. The drink tasted like an orange soda and unlike the show’s version, is non-alcoholic. The cup had a bottom compartment with dry ice that creates the smokey effect once the drink is poured on top.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we stopped at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium. It is a really cool building on the outside. We bought a chocolate shot ($7.95, looks like a little chocolate cup), a Shamrock cocoa bomb ($10), and 3 candy bars ($4 each or 3/$10). We got the Cherry On Top, Dark Amaretto Coffee, and Mechanical Malt bars. The Chocolate shot was good and really cute with the gear base and handle. It was filled with a ganache. The whipped cream topping was not as good, and I didn’t eat all of it. The Cherry On Top chocolate bar had cherry jelly beans in it! Cherry and chocolate is always a good combo, and it was an ok texture combination once you got over the fact that there were jelly beans in your candy bar. The Dark Amaretto Coffee was one of my favorites, but it was grainier with small pieces of coffee beans. I would buy that one again. The Mechanical Malt bar was ok, not as strong of a malt taste as I was expecting. We tried to get a spot for dinner in Toothsome’s restaurant around 2:00pm and they were booked for the entire day. I did not see a way to make reservations on the app. However, there was a phone number listed on the app. I also found out later that if you went to the actual Universal website you could make reservations online.

We stopped at the Studio Store in CityWalk on our way out to pick up some Harry Potter Chocolate Frogs. They are solid chocolate, which makes for one heavy little frog! ($12 each or 3/$30)

In terms of amusement park food, it was good, although pricey.

Posted in: Sightseeing

Universal Studios: What We Rode, Waiting in Queues and Virtual Lines

We had made a Virtual Line time scheduled for Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. For the Virtual Line, you selected an assigned time for your ride. You could do this on the Universal Studios app or at a kiosk near the ride. We did the app, so I’m not sure what the kiosk looks like. When we were there, the only rides with Virtual Lines were Race Through New York (in Universal Studios) and Hagrid’s Motorbike (over in Island of Adventure).

On our way over, it started to downpour. We ducked under an awning and
pulled out the ponchos. Our feet were still soaked, but the rest of us was
pretty dry. We presented the QR code to scan for entrance, walked down a
corridor, were giving a colored ticket, and were directed to a waiting room.
The waiting room did not have social distancing markers on the floor, but
people were pretty good about staying to their own groups. The overhead lights changed to matching ticket colors to announce your group. It was a 3D ride and also had really neat graphics.

The outdoor roller coasters had stopped running due to the rain, so we headed over to The Revenge of the Mummy. The queue lines were also nice decorated for this ride. There were several things to keep your eyes busy and a lot of it was inside, so we were dry and in air conditioning. However, the employees stationed along the queue lines on this ride did not enforce the social distancing rule at all. We saw a few people pulling their masks down and I asked people to back up several times. The markers were clearly placed on the ground, there was just no one enforcing it. This was our worst feeling at Universal, which was too bad because it was a neat looking area. Ben and I did not ride, but the boys did and enjoyed it.

When we were done, the outdoor rides were still closed and the other rides had quite a long wait. We headed over to the Men In Black ride, which had the shortest line. Once again, the queue line was decorated like the movie and was lots of fun to look at. It was a fun ride, although I had to store the wand in a locker. You sat in car that moved along a track and shot at aliens. The seat was molded and a little tight for us. This ride was easy to socially distance at.

Our final event of the day wasn’t a ride, but a stunt show at Bourne Stuntacular. There were two waiting areas, one with queue lines and the other in a large room. The theater was pretty large and they were seating groups with empty rows in between and at least 2 seats apart. This show has a lot of potential. The graphics are incredible. It was really difficult to tell which people were just graphics and who was real. There was a track in the ceiling for additional stunts. The stage is completely smooth (although there are some trap doors in it), so the large set pieces are run on a WIFI type of program. It’s a really neat concept, but it is pretty new technology and they had to shut the show down twice while we were there to get the devices back up. One time “Jason” was hanging from a wrecking ball (update: Ben has since told me it’s called a headache ball) and had to be brought back around to the stage. I think once they get the bugs worked out, it will be an amazing show.

Posted in: Hiking, Sightseeing, YouTube Video Link

Universal Studios: Harry Potter Diagon Alley, Wands, and Escape From Gringotts

Once we finally made it to the correct park and had our tickets scanned, we scurried over to Diagon Alley. We saw the Knight Bus by a fountain and a white building with pillars. The entrance to Diagon Alley is through the white building! It was hidden and it was really neat to “find” the entrance.

Our first stop was the Gringotts Bank to ride Escape From Gringotts. The dragon on top of the building was amazing and shoots fire every 10 minutes.

Click to play

Even the ride’s queue lines were spectacular. We walked right through the
middle of the bank, with goblin tellers on either side. They moved, blinked,
and occasionally spoke. The line wrapped around to the back and traveled past bank vaults, offices, and record books. There were paintings and newspapers that spoke and moved.

The ride was a 3D adventure. There was a hill/drop towards the beginning, but it wasn’t too far. (If you know me, I hate rollercoasters but this one was ok as far as the drop went. It was totally worth it.) The graphics and interaction with the riders’ cars were impressive. Everyone agreed that it was our favorite ride of the day.

We stopped by Ollivanders to get a wand. We picked out our own wand, we did not do the experience/show. We bought one interactive wand for all of us to share. I picked a Willow Wand. There are spots around Diagon Alley that are for use with the interactive wands. (Think of Magi Quest if you have been to Great Wolf Lodge.) There are spots marked on the map you receive in your wand box and also by gold spots on the ground. We found that if you could find the sensors (black circle with red lights) it worked better. We explored the area and used our wand for a little bit.

Interactive wand map, trying out some spells

VIDEO CLIPS OF HARRY POTTER, ESCAPE FROM GRINGOTTS, WAND SPELLS, DRAGON FIRE

We had not eaten yet, so we stopped at the Leaky Cauldron. We ordered a
butterbeer, a frozen butterbeer, sticky toffee pudding, and a scotch egg. The
butterbeer tastes like butterscotch. The frozen butterbeer was similar to a slushy. We liked the frozen butterbeer the best.

We also stopped at the Gringotts Money Exchange. We only exchanged $10. The Gringotts money could be used in the Harry Potter area, changed back to US currency, or I think it would make a cute souvenir (if it was like $1).

We stopped at a souvenir store outside of Universal on our way back to the campground to get Nick a wand. It was about a huge difference in cost ($8.99+tax) compared to the non-interactive wands in the park ($49+tax) and was still labeled “Harry Potter”. The wands in Universal are made from resin. Nick’s wand seemed to be made of lighter weight plastic (it also was a pen and had a light at the tip). For smaller kids who don’t know the difference and will quickly loose interest, or even older kids who just wants it as a souvenir, it might be a good way to go.

Posted in: Hiking, Newbie Mistakes, Sightseeing

Conquering the Universe…Or Not: Universal Studios Orlando (Lockers, Fanny Packs, and COVID Restrictions)

So you probably guessed by the title, but we chose Universal, specifically Universal Studios!

Disney made a strong case for itself. Who doesn’t love the Mouse? However, we had been there already and the brochure didn’t sell the kids on it. Universal had the most appeal with the Harry Potter rides/decorations. We ended up choosing Universal Studios so that we could see Diagon Alley.

Spoiler Alert: The day started a little rough, as we got lost.

PREPARING FOR OUR VISIT:

I never thought this would happen. In my mind I had these firmly locked away back in the 80’s, but I bought fanny packs for me and the boys. While Disney and Universal allow you to bring a backpack/purse into the park, Universal only allows fanny packs on most of the rides. They do offer free lockers near the rides for other types of bags. These lockers are only free for a certain amount of time (park calculates time based on ride time and line wait time). There are lockers that you can pay to have longer time periods as well. Universal allowed bottled water and small snacks in the park, which was nice (click for rules). We kept a bottle of water, a poncho (there was a chance of rain), a bag of nuts, and a granola bar in each pack. I kept a tiny 1st aid kit in mine.

Locker locations per app, Locker sizing and pricing
Lockers near Men In Black

We also checked on how they were dealing with COVID, as we have been trying our best to be safe along our journey. I will say that in general they did a good job. Face masks were required, social distancing markers were placed on the ground and floors, limited capacity, temperature check before entering the park, and everyone got a squirt of hand sanitizer before getting on a ride. There were also a few other hand sanitizer stations for rides and in shops. They made announcements at each ride as well, reminding people of correct mask wearing and social distancing were required. If you failed to comply you could be asked to leave the park. We did see a few people get reminded on keeping the appropriate spacing.

Moving sidewalks from parking area into park, staff holding mask covering signs, putt putt course by entrance, CityWalk

We parked, went through the temperature station, and started walking into the park. It was our first time at Universal, so we followed the main street and the crowds. Newbie mistake!

GETTING LOST:

We kept on the main path and walked through CityWalk (shops/restaurants) and accidentally ended up in Islands of Adventure (IOA), which is not where we wanted to be since we wanted to see Diagon Alley. Luckily, Will noticed that the decorations did not match what we expected and we ran quickly to Guest Services and they were able to transfer our tickets to Studios since the park had just opened. NOTE: On our way out of the park, we saw a small directional sign. It was either faded or done in pastels and Universal Studios was the very last sign. Bigger signs would be helpful for first timers, especially when it is crowded and you can’t see the sign through the people.

We hurried over to the Universal Studios entrance and got there by 8:00am. We were a little sweaty, as it was warm already with really high humidity, but we were excited to have an adventure.

DETAILS:*

  • TICKETS: Starting at $109+plus tax/adults (ages 10+), Starting at $104+plus tax/child (ages 3-9). COVID Restrictions: masks required, limited capacity including on rides, temperature screening.
  • HOURS: 8:00am to 10:00 pm
  • PARKING: Pay parking for day guests (non-hotel), free after 6:00pm
  • BATHROOMS: Yes
  • TIME RECOMMENDED: At least a day
  • *Details correct at the time of posting, but please double check before you go.
Posted in: Sightseeing

Disney vs Universal: Which Park Should We Go To?

We wanted the kids to experience one of the big theme parks while we were in Orlando, Florida. The debate was which one?

I know die-hards on both sides of the fence.

We had been to Disney when the boys were younger, back in 2012. Nick doesn’t really remember much from our day in Disney. I remember we all had fun, although it was a long day with a melt-down followed by a nap and dinner, before we headed back into the park for the parade and fireworks.

When we went to compare the two parks, the pricing structure of each seemed to be about the same. I did notice that both had a “Starting At” price for the tickets, but there were very little dates for that lowest price.

We had the boys look at the brochures we had picked up from the Welcome Center to see which one they would prefer to go to. Disney’s brochure seemed to focus on images of younger kids, which was a bit of a turn off to my tween and teen. For us, a map would also have made the brochure better! However, they had heard about Disney trip from school friends at school about going to Disney, so that was a big appeal was well. Universal’s brochure seemed to focus on older kids and also had a map. A big appeal for us was the Harry Potter features.

Disney Brochure

Universal Brochure

We have a “fun” budget for things we want to do along the way (like surf lessons and amusement parks). We still have 5 months to go in our trip, so Ben and I decided that we were only going to go to 1 park for 1 day, as tickets were a little pricey.

Which park would you choose?

Posted in: Animal Sightings, Hiking, Sightseeing

Orlando: Lake Louisa State Park

We hadn’t really explored the area too much, so when the boys were off of school, we went to Lake Louisa State Park. This State Park is off of I-27 and was a neat park. Entrance was $5/car. There were a few primitive campsites, cabins for rent, and a campground.

The main lake, Lake Louisa, was a strange reddish color, which was attributed to high tannins in the water. There was a playground, bathrooms, and a beach at Lake Louisa. The sand was a nice soft sand, although there was an alligator warning sign there as well.

We didn’t do any swimming, but we did take a hike through the park. Although it was beautiful, the trailheads were not well marked. Some of them had names based on the map, but they were not labeled at the trailhead. I am really glad we chose a trail that was in our trail app (AllTrails), because there were several crossovers along the way. I would definitely recommend wearing sunscreen, maybe bug spray, and bringing water.

We didn’t see many animals along our hike, even though we were close to the water many times. We did see one bird, several animal prints, a couple of burrows, and several fire ant mounds. I had to teach the boys about fire ants, as we normally don’t have them in Ohio. Their mounds look like piles of sand, often in open places and without the telltale hole us Northerners are used to seeing in ant mounds.

It was a nice hike and had some pretty scenery. It wasn’t bad for a $5 admission!

Posted in: Food, Hiking

Enjoying The Campground

When we first started our journey, we were determined to fit everything in that we could while we were in an area. We saw so many new things. It was amazing…and exhausting.

Along the way we have slowly learned to enjoy the campground. After all, we are paying for any amenities offered in the cost of the site.

We’ve had a wide range of campground offerings from nothing to one with a pool/hot tub, putt putt, shuffleboard, horseshoes, pickleball, basketball courts, fishing, and outdoor checkers. Some of the campgrounds offered basketballs for use in the office, others you had to supply your own.

We’ve also had campgrounds that have had planned activities. We have gone to some of events that have allowed for social distancing. For example, in Chula Vista (San Diego) they had donuts for sale on Saturday mornings and had a Halloween event for the kids. At KOA Tucson, they had a breakfast event and a make a friendship bracelet event (make there or take-and-go kit). KOA San Antonio/Alamo had a Christmas Dinner (also eat there or take-and-go) and a bike/walking trail right next door.

I would definitely encourage you to use the campground as much as you can, both to enjoy activities that are there, but also to make the most of what you are paying for.

How to Change the World

Sitting on a folding chair, listening to yet another Zoom call and strategically muting my microphone to muffle the aftermath sounds of Taco Tuesday coming from a family member in the all too close bathroom, I had a revelation. It wasn’t about the bathroom. Hopefully it was a little more profound than that. The revelation was that I can change the world, and you can too!

Sounds crazy, right? I know. But most things I do lately are a little crazy. What’s crazier is that these outlier activities I have been doing are consistently making my life better.

When I started this trip I was worried. To be real, I was scared. Scared about losing my job, ruining my marriage, getting sick on the road, my kids falling behind in school, …. the list was long. The only way I could get past these fears was to name them, write them down and find mechanisms to minimize these fears. One of my biggest fears was missing out. Specifically, missing out on my connections with my friends and family. The mechanisms I wrote down for this fear were: Blogging, Making YouTube Videos, connecting with Facebook, making phone calls and sending postcards. All of these have helped me and my family. The one that resonated the most for me was sending postcards. So far along this trip I have sent over 200 postcards to friends and family. Not only has writing the postcards helped me feel connected, but the responses from those that received them have consistently delighted me.

Now, back to this Zoom meeting, and how we …can change the world. Not everyone chose my weird “isolation” that comes with traveling the country with your immediate family in a 400 square foot space. Most of the population has been thrust into isolation to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones from a once in a hundred-year pandemic. Some of the quotes I heard from my peers and friends on this Zoom call were:

“When will it get back to normal?”

“I miss connecting with friends.”

“I am an extrovert’s extrovert and this pandemic is so draining.”

“Really, I’m just bored as hell.”

The people on this call had unique situations and lives. But, these same common feelings are being experienced around the globe by many. 

So how can we change the world? CONNECT!

Call to action #1: Send me your name and address so I can connect with you. If you do, I commit to getting you a postcard.

Call to action #2: Connect with someone around you in a meaningful way.

Together I know we can change the world for the better. 

Safe travels!

Ben

Posted in: Sightseeing, YouTube Video Link

Happy Mardi Gras!: Virtual Parade

VIDEO: Floats In The Oaks, New Orleans Mardi Gras 2021

The usual Mardi Gras parades were cancelled this year due to COVID. NOLA kept the spirit of Mardi Gras alive by decorating their houses and yards (aka Float Houses and Yardi Gras. Click here for my Float House post.) In the great words of Ron Popeil, “But wait, there’s more!”

Someone came up with the idea of having the floats that had been made for parades all in one spot so people could drive through and see them. With that, Floats In The Oaks was born. The floats were placed in City Park and you could purchase tickets to drive through to see the them. Prices varied a little based on timed entrance and the package you picked. We went with the basic package to just see the floats. It cost us $11.99 and was worth every penny. At check-in, we even received a bead necklace.

It was amazing to see the floats. If you missed it, we have a video with some commentary on YouTube (see link above or below).

VIDEO: Floats In The Oaks, New Orleans Mardi Gras 2021