Wednesday, August 7, 2013

7 Ways Disney World is Better than Disneyland

A "Tail" of Two Disney's


I love Disneyland--love it.  I can't wait to see the new Cars land with my 4-year-old boy.  I love how intimate and compact Disneyland and California Adventures are and the number of kid rides in Fantasyland, Toon Town, and throughout the DCA park.  I like the weather in California and the less crowded, more laid back atmosphere.


But Disney World is quite different.  It offers four main parks to California's two.  It covers significantly more acreage and is practically it's own city with multiple resorts and a ginormous Downtown Disney, not to mention two water parks.  Disney World is grandeur.  Not everything at Disney World is bigger and better than it's Californian brother (or sister?), but some things definitely are.


#1--Epcot--really this should be reasons 1-3.  If Disneyland had Epcot, I would never travel to Florida again (at least not for Disney parks).  Epcot has two innoventions where families can explore and create all sorts of technology including designing and then riding their own roller coaster.  It offers rides/shows on imagination, hydroponic farming (my husband was so inspired he experiments in our backyard as seen at geekgreens), energy, space (you might want to ride Mission: Space before lunch), and history.  There are plenty of hidden, interactive playgrounds (anyone want to try their hand at virtual surgery?) largely found at the end of major rides. The rest of the park exhibits countries from around the world including native street vendors and acts demonstrating each culture. Not to mention the sheer number of characters including Mexico Donald Duck (our 8-year-old's favorite). Our family loved eating our way around the countries--cheese and bread in France, sushi in Japan, dumplings in China, and don't forget you can try FREE soda flavors from these countries at Club Cool located in the West Pavilion.  On our trip, we spent two days at Epcot and still didn't see everything.  One note: many blogs rave about the passport stamps little ones can collect from the Epcot countries. We did not see the fun in that as it was just a cardboard bear with stamps and was just another thing to carry around.

#2--Water Parks--My children's favorite part is usually the motel swimming pool.  And frankly, after a few days in the parks, I'm ready for a day of swimming and relaxing pool side.  The Water Parks offer the relaxing experience and so much more.  Typhoon Lagoon has an incredible kiddie area and monster wave pool, not to mention the shark snorkel tank for older kids/adults and endless sand for the younger crowd.  Blizzard Beach is an older elementary child's dream with plenty of slides, a ski lift, a family raft ride, and a long lazy river.  Add to that the bucket of ice cream (large enough to feed an entire family) and you have the perfect break.

#3--Hollywood Studios--For movie buffs, this is a must and combines some of the best of Disneyland and DCA.  Rides include the famous Rock n Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, Star Tours, Pixar rides, and hollywood movie making shows and rides.  The Car Stunt Show is legendary and breathtaking.  The evening show, Fantasmics, is my personal favorite.  Plus they have Star Wars weekends in May which is one of the few times adults are allowed to come in costume to the park.  The good (and bad) of this park is the shows are amazing so your plans revolve around show times with rides and character greets as secondary.  Another hidden gem is the Bug's Life playground which encourages exploration and is a needed break from sitting through shows or waiting in lines.

#4--Surrounding Parks--both Southern California and Central Florida boast an extensive list of non-Disney parks (some are at both locations some are at only one) including Sea World, Universal Studios, Knotts Berry Farms, Legoland, Busch Gardens, San Diego Zoo, Kennedy Space Center, etc.  For many families (especially those with animal lovers or teens) will want to spend some time at these other locations.  Why does Florida win this round?  Primarily because of Universal's Islands of Adventures (Harry Potter World and Marvel Island), Sea World's Discovery Cove, and the Kennedy Space Center (though pricey is unlike anything in California).

#5--Dining--My biggest complaint about Disneyland is that it does not have a dining plan.  It also has vastly fewer dining options that Disney World.  Disney World's dining plan (which is often free in September) takes a lot of the hassle out of eating in an expensive amusement park.  Instead of sweating the cost of a character dining (14 options in Florida compared to 5 in California), the table service dining plan covers it as well as a plethora of other options.  The real highlight is dining inside the iconic castle with all the princesses!  Setting aside the dining plan, the options at Disney World are incredible.  Epcot in particular features food from around the world and a large food court called Sunshine Seasons (one of our favorite spots).  Tusker House at Animal Kingdom (which is not well rated but our family enjoyed it) offered a mix of American food and African specialties. However, for those who like to eat off property, Disneyland's smaller size and proximity to Anaheim restaurants make it easier to dine elsewhere especially since a large number of motels offer a complimentary breakfast (mediocre food but good on a budget).

#6--Character Experiences--My biggest surprise at Disney World compared to Disneyland was the sheer number of characters signing autographs and posing for pictures.  Our family places rides and shows (and even shopping) above meeting characters, so our son only had a couple of autographs outside of a character dining at Disneyland.  However, he collected several signatures with little effort at Disney World.  Aside from Star Wars characters we saw on Star Wars weekend, our favorite was Balloo and King Louie from the Jungle Book found at Animal Kingdom.



#7--Shows--Part of the magic of Disney is that they are more than just rides, they have plenty of excellent shows.  While at Disneyland, we enjoyed the afternoon parade and evening show and Jedi Training.  There were also a couple of other shows that we passed on. But at Disney World, we had to schedule some of our days around the shows, especially Hollywood Studios, because the quality and number of shows were too amazing to pass up.  My personal favorite was the Lion King show at Animal Kingdom (think circus acts).  Hollywood Studios is know for the Car Stunt Show, Indiana Jones Stunt Show, a broadway style play--Beauty and the Beast when we visited, and Fantasmics at night (not including two parades and an evening Star Wars dance show).  The other parks were similarly filled with show options that had to be weighed against dining options, rides, shopping, pin trading, and bathroom breaks.

Even for those who live on the west coast, a trip to Florida is well worth it especially when Disney World is offering deeply discounted rates.  Just don't make the mistake of comparing Magic Kingdom to Disneyland. The real magic in Florida (compared to California) is found in the other parks.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Unofficial Guide to Disney World and Disneyland--A Review

Any serious Disney vacation requires planning and there is no better place than the Unofficial Guides series.  Don't let the size of these books scare you (close to 400 pages for Disneyland and over 800 for Disney World).  Instead, let their size inspire you.  They provide a comprehensive look at every ride, show, restaurant, shop, and more in amazing detail.  The first chapters include powerful insights on when to take a vacation (beat the crowds and the heat), how to prepare (start walking now), and how to make your vacation enjoyable (so everyone's not crying at the parks).  Later chapters explain how to plan your touring schedule (i.e. your rides, parades, and shows) to maximize your time and minimize your line waits and provides exhaustive detail about each ride to help you determine if you should add it or skip it on your family's itinerary (including reasons why you might want to skip the Snow White ride).  And because these books are unofficial, they have no agenda in promoting a specific part of Disney.  They even include chapters on the competition.  

When I planned my family vacations, I heavily skimmed these books, but did not read every word (I'm not even crazy enough to read 800 pages).  The obvious boast of the books is the touring plans that help you avoid crowds so you go on far more rides than the average line-waiting tourists.  Even for those who have been to Disney before, these touring plans will change the way you look at the parks.  They offer quick maps with the order of rides easily listed as well as long explanations in the chapters on how they created their tours and ways to adapt them.  Because they offer more than one touring plan, it is easy to find one that works for your family.  They even have a late start plan for Disney World for those of us who suffer from the time zone (its impossible to wake up earlier than the European vacationers but easy to stay up later).  

The touring plans alone are worth the read but are really only half the value of the book.  The tips on food, motels, and time of the year can significantly change the outcome of a Disney vacation.  Many of my friends see Disney as an overpriced, overstressed vacation because they go mid-Summer with no plan for rides which means long lines, hot and tired children, constant arguments over the map as to where to go next, and poor motel accommodations or dining options. A simple read of this book would avoid most if not all of those problems. Especially for those who go to Disney World on the Dining Plan, you need to read through your meal options and make at least some reservations, especially character dining.  Otherwise, you will miss some of the best experiences the parks have to offer.  

The authors also include candid complaints about their books from readers.  The most common is that families with small children cannot possibly follow the touring plans--too many bathroom breaks and the time required to parent swap which means going on large rides twice. I found the complaints to be helpful in my own planning as I saw how real people felt about different parts of the advice and then better decide what would work for my family.  Also, they recognize that not everyone can take advantage of their ideas and try to offer tips on how to still have an enjoyable vacation.

And you must get the latest edition!  I cannot stress this point enough.  Disney is constantly changing with new rides and new rules--especially for fastpass.  That means last year's book is already outdated and will only give you a general idea of how to navigate the park better than your fellow mouse enthusiasts.    Frankly, with the addition of a new Fantasy Land at Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Cars Land at Disneyland's California Adventures, the latest edition is more necessary than ever.

Finally, this series does more than merely cover the parks themselves.  They also provide incredible insight into the surrounding area.  For Disneyland, most guests stay off property, so the chapter comparing and reviewing motels is significant.  Once again, the latest edition will best guide you in what motels are under new management or have undergone a remodel in the last year.  For Disney World, the surrounding parks (including Universal) are covered extensively.  For my family, Universal's Islands of Adventures (think Harry Potter World) was more important than Disney properties and I found this Unofficial Guide to be invaluable.  

You cannot beat this book in planning your next Disney vacation.  Even if you only grab one the night before and look at the map with the rides in a suggested order you will have a more enjoyable vacation. But to plan a successful Disney trip, grab a book a few months in advance and enjoy reading it while you plan and anticipate your upcoming trip.    

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Taking Kids to Yellowstone--10 things to see and do

My husband loves Yellowstone National Park, it's probably his favorite national park.  I have to admit, it offers a stunning variety of things to see and do.  But it is a lot of driving (which can be hard on little ones).  It also takes several days making it a vacation in itself rather than a weekend or a stop along the way (I think that is why my husband likes it so much).  National reviews frequently pit Yellowstone against the Grand Canyon as the two best parks in the states and possibly the world.  The argument is always the one hit breathtaking grandeur versus the multiple unique features Yellowstone offers.  And Yellowstone offers a staggering number of things to see and do.  Here are some of our favorites.

#1--Mammoth--ever changing, these hot springs sculpt step like formations into the soft limestone.  The hot springs flow differently from moment to moment much less year to year, so you will never see the same formation twice.  Even the colors change.

#2--Old Faithful--Erupting every 60-90 minutes (be sure to check the schedule in the visitor center), this is the most famous of the geysers at Yellowstone.  Along the boardwalk are several other geysers, many of which erupt most days.  Down the road is my husband's favorite, Grand Primatic Spring.  The sheer size of this geyser is incredible with plenty of colored and boiling pools to see as you explore this area (little ones should be strapped in strollers, tightly tethered, or in a sling as this area is very dangerous for those who wander a few steps off the boardwalk). Yellowstone has roughly 60% of the world's geysers with miles of boardwalks to wander.

#3--Upper and Lower Falls--with multiple viewing areas, these grand falls with incredible elevation drops have inspired artists and tourists alike.  Keep your eyes open for large birds (such as eagles) and their nests.

#4--Swimming at the rivers--Yellowstone boasts two swimming holes which quickly became our kids' favorites.  The first is by Mammoth and is where the Boiling River meets the icy Gardner.  Parking is near the 45th parallel sign (a fun fact in itself).  The walk is close to a mile but is more of a nature stroll than a hike.  The fun of this place is finding the spot where the two meet to form warm water.  The other spot is along the Madison River in western Yellowstone.  Though a little chilly (even in July), this spot offers a large stretch to play with plenty of shallow shoreline.  There are changing rooms in the bathrooms and be sure to bring your own towels.

#5--Wildlife--Buffalo, elk, and deer are frequent sights with bears, moose, and eagles (or other large preying birds) a possibility.  And, of course, the baby animals are adorable.  The Lamar Valley (in the northeast) and Hayden Valley (in the east) are great areas to see the elusive bears.  Watch for people with scopes set up (many of them will let you take a peek).  The Madison River and Yellowstone Lake also offer good wildlife viewing opportunities.  Did I mention elk love the Mammoth area?  Frankly, it is hard to visit Yellowstone without seeing wildlife.

#6--Visitor Centers--The fact that Yellowstone offers 3 major visitor centers (each with a different emphasis) shows how varied and large this park really is.  For museum kids (like mine) that like to learn, explore, and touch, these visitor centers provide an incredible education and an air conditioned break from walking along boardwalks or riding in the car.  Some even feature a junior area for younger children with plenty of hands-on opportunities.  Ambitious families can do the junior ranger program (which is more difficult to earn here because of the vast park size) including attending a ranger program (which can be highly enjoyable).

#7--Chief Joseph Plaque--this is one of the many hidden gems of Yellowstone (the petrified trees, horseback riding, the obsidian cliffs, the 45th parallel line sign are other great ones).  This particular plaque made my list because it highlights the peoples of Yellowstone.  Learning of Native Americans growing up, I had heard the story of Chief Joseph but as an adult I could better appreciate the cat-and-mouse game between the army and his people through the canyons and geysers of Yellowstone (with 2000 horses).  As you drive through, be sure to stop at a few of the signs to learn what most people miss.

#8--Firehole Drive--Another of my husband's favorites, this loop is located in the geyser basin and takes you to some of the lesser seen geysers.  Many are small with plenty of variations in color and size.  The sheer number of geysers you pass as you drive (and you are welcome to stop and stroll along the boardwalks) is impressive.  This is also a nice way to stay in an air conditioned car, not waking the sleeping toddler, and still enjoy Yellowstone.

#9--Hiking/Nature Walking--Like most national parks, a few hikes allows a more intense exploration of nature.  Yellowstone offers plenty of family friendly hikes including the miles of boardwalk along the geyser basins, Norris, and mammoth, hiking to observation points of upper and lower falls, the mud pots, the artist paint pots, the boiling river walk (with swimming at the end), and too many to list.

#10--Mud Pots--As if geysers, grizzly bears, and waterfalls were not enough, watching boiling mud that smells like a boys locker room is truly something else.






Saturday, July 21, 2012

Top 10 Attractions at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter

Though most blogs will tell you to visit Harry Potter at the end of the day when crowds have died down, I knew I wanted to be there for several hours, so that meant rushing early in the morning.  Because we went in May (off-season), we only had moderate crowds (around 20 minute waits for most major rides).  And I am glad I didn't wait until the end of the day because we were there for 5 hours including lunch.  There is just too much to see and do to try to rush through the last two hours before park close.  Afterwards, I practically wanted to frame my receipts--The Three Broomsticks, Dervish and Banges, Honeydukes, Filch's Emporium.  It was the best commercial day of my life which is why I have a top 10 list for this park within a park.

#1--The Castle-- I forced myself to walk to the castle past the enticing shops, into Filch's emporium, through the locker room and right into the inside line for the castle (the outside line is technically for the lockers though sometimes employees force everyone to wait in it).  Why didn't I need a locker?  With a baby, we were always using the parent swap, so all our bags just hung from the stroller throughout the day with one parent or the other (everyone else will need to store their bags and with too few lockers, that can add to your wait times).  If you think the castle looks extraordinary from the outside, wait until you see the inside.  Knowing I wouldn't have time to do it twice, I took my time moving through the tour, allowing impatient groups to go ahead.  There are mandrakes in the greenhouse, potions in Snape's dungeon, a sorting hat, and more.  And then there is the ride at the end of the tour.  Shaped like a broomstick, you fly through various of intense adventures from the book (I only screamed when the giant spider moved).  My only disappointments is the ride is very jerky (more than one patron has lost his butterbeer on the ride) and the interior castle is dark enough that it is difficult to make out all the fine detail or take good pictures.  As for the mom swap room--air conditioned with a continual loop of Potter movies.

#2--The Hogs Head--this is my Potter hack.  No need to stand in the blistering heat in a 45 minute butterbeer line.  Simply waltz into the Hogs Head and order at the counter from a "gruff" barman.  It comes chilled or frozen and you will probably want to sample both to see which you like more (I prefer frozen).  Normally we drink water at amusement parks to save money, but  here we splurged and let each child order their own (twice, once at the beginning of our Potter day and once at the end 5 hours later).  Well worth the money.  If you have bags on the stroller, go ahead and order one in a souvenir cup as a special memory (since storing it the rest of the day won't be an issue).   Fortunately, our daughter found a recipe to replicate it at home.  We also tried pumpkin juice (from an outdoor cart) which was only okay.  Soda is not served at Potter World, but milk, juice (besides just pumpkin), and other approved Potter beverages like butterbeer are available.

#3--Ollivander's--a demonstration (show) rather than a ride, this magical shop allows one lucky participant to test out wands.  The actor is extraordinary and sweetly spoke to my son (who had not been chosen for the demonstration) and helped him pick a wand as well.  At $30, the wands are pricey but good quality with a staggering variety (both named wands like Hermione or Bellatrix as well as generic wands).  Both my sons picked generic wands and my only complaint is that they do not sell a Mrs. Weasley wand.  This shop is connected to the owl post which will stamp and actually mail your postcards from Hogsmeade.

#4--Shopping--I spent over an hour going through the different shops looking at the shirts, toys (sneakascopes and the monster book of monsters are both big sellers), stuffed animals, wands, cups, movies, quidditch supplies, books, scarves, robes, and more.  The stuffed animal collection had my son enchanted--Buckbeak, Scabbers, Hedwig, Pigwidgeon, Fluffy, Fawkes.  There were plenty of items for each of the houses at Hogwarts and my favorite shirts--muggle and wizard ones (since I married a muggle).  Outside the shops were dazzling animated window displays.  The only problem is that the shops are small (authentic to the books) which makes them hard to navigate especially with a stroller and easily overcrowded.  Filch's Emporium, which is the only exit to the castle ride is constantly wall-to-wall people.  Also note, the stores along Universal's Citywalk carry many Potter items like wands for those wishing to pick up their items at the end of the day.

#5-- The Three Broomsticks--with the triangle symbol of three brooms, this cafeteria style restaurant is the obvious lunch stop.  On a nice day, eat outside with a spectacular view of the lake and other islands.  Kid meals (and frankly adults meals as well) are reasonably priced and the menu reflects a British diner--fish and chips, shepherd's pie, cornish pasties.  This is not fast food with fairly large portions (I couldn't finish mine but then again I had already had two butterbeers).  And you can't eat at The Three Broomsticks anywhere else. For Potter nuts, this is a must-do for lunch.


#6--Honeydukes--We spent a good deal of money here (in part because my daughter has a cooking blog with a review of Potter foods).  We were full from our Three Broomsticks lunch so with the exception of a cauldron cake we packed these items into our suitcases.  The Chocolate Frogs are gigantic and the most fun item to open and collect the cards but the chocolate is low quality and they are so large you can only buy one or two (let the fight for the cards begin).  The Sugar Quills were gigantic lollipops (perfect a week later, at home).  Every Flavor Beans were probably the crowd favorite with a good mix of delicious and disgusting flavors (ear wax flavor, anyone?).  And Peppermint Imps were surprisingly delicious (wish we had bought an extra box of those).  Our only real disappointment was the cauldron cake which was like an okay cupcake.  They also sell a wide variety of other sweets including non-Potter related goodies like fudge.  Though butterbeer was my favorite Potter treat, a few purchases in Honeydukes is a must (did I mention how much we liked the Every Flavor Beans and the Peppermint Imps?).

#7--Flight of the Hipogriff (Hagrid's Roller Coaster)--Meant to simulate Buckbeak's flight, this junior roller coaster was my 4-year-old's favorite ride in Orlando (including all of Disney World).  In addition to being a great junior coaster, the line loops past Hagrid's Hut and Buckbeak's nest.  This is also the only ride younger children (but no toddlers) can go on at Potter World and there is no playground.  I recommended the talking at Lost Continent or Seuss Island to entertain little ones while older children experience the rest of Potter World.

#8--Twin Dragons--These full sized roller coasters (must be 55 inches to ride) are different from each other so both should be ridden. Unlike the fairly tame flight of a hippogriff, these coasters represent the power of two dragons--one Hungarian, one Chinese. Though they are no longer synchronized with the illusion of crashing into each other, these roller coasters still offer full sized thrills (the fireball was our favorite).

#9--The Hogwarts Express--at the entrance is the engine of the train with its own platform--9 3/4.  Be sure to grab you photo with the conductor at this iconic scene.  Lockers are also located here if you want to store your luggage.

#10--Moaning Mrytle (and other little touches)--Potter World is magical with incredible attention to details including snow on the rooftops, animated wanted posters of Sirius Black, and a famous ghost in the bathroom--Moaning Mrytle.  Not only girls can hear her complaints as she splashes in and out of her toilet, but the boys get enjoy this ghost as well.


A Note for Muggles

Those who are sadly not Potter fans will probably find this island overcrowded and easily completed in a couple of hours (I recommend the twin dragon coasters, castle ride, and a butterbeer to anyone visiting Universal even if they have never read a Potter book or watched a Potter movie).  These guests (known as muggles) should visit this island at the end of the day when crowds have likely thinned.


As for the rest of us, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a well designed amusement park that quickly fills up and provides hours of enjoyment.  From rides, to shopping, to food, this is one of the most amazing and magical places ever created allowing fans to step into the books in an extraordinary way.  You will not want to miss it on your Orlando vacation.



Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fire Knife Dancers--Hawaii's Best Secret

When you think of Hawaii, you think of white sand beaches, surfing, hula girls, and a luau.  But the best part of any show is the fire knife dancers (as seen in this youtube video).  And no one knows fire knife dancing better than the Polynesian Cultural Center.

At their evening production of Ha Breath of Life, the PCC pulls out all the stops with world class dancers (including Tahitian dancers who are often a bigger crowd pleaser than the hula), music, and fire knife dancers (!!!).  These men are daring as they sit on a bonfire wearing long grass skirts, twirl double ended fire batons, balance the fire on their feet, swallow it, and "play tricks" on the other dancers.  Highly entertaining pyrotechnics that will leave you gasping and wishing for more.

And for a 2 day engagement, you don't have to go to Hawaii to see the show.  It is coming to Utah at the West Valley Cultural Celebration Center.  And tickets are only $10 (far cheaper than the Hawaiian price).  Many of these dancers are students at BYU Hawaii and are trained and costumed better than anywhere else in the world.  

My only complaint is the plot only exists as a segue between dance numbers (though some audience members may appreciate a storyline rather than a dancing variety show).  Frankly, fewer dance numbers and double the fire knife exhibition would be perfect (but probably overly taxing on the fire dancers).

Regardless, the fire knife dancers are worth the ticket price alone.



Monday, July 9, 2012

Universal Islands of Adventures--My #1 Orlando Park

Disney World was amazing--a-maze-ing.  But it is NOT my favorite park in Orlando.  That honor goes to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter inside Universal's Islands of Adventures.  I consider the mere 5 hours I spent at Wizarding World to be the happiest commercial time of my life.  And the rest of the day wasn't too shabby either--Seuss, the Hulk Coaster, river rafts, playgrounds, and a little shopping.

The Experience


Universal has all the magic of Disney (one of only a few theme parks that can make that claim).  And frankly, Harry Potter World is so engrossing it outstrips Disney--which I didn't believe was possible. The attention to detail is amazing from the Hogwarts train, to Moaning Mrytle in the bathroom, to the window displays, to every flavor bean, to room after room in the castle.  From the moment we stepped into Suess Island on our way to Potter and through the rest of the park, I was continually immersed into the experience each island offers (with 4 boys, superhero and dinosaur islands were also impressive).  Another big advantage is Universal's appeal to families with a wider range of ages.  With larger coasters and more intense rides for older kids (like Spiderman), to several deluxe playgrounds and Seuss Island for little ones (and most toddlers prefer playgrounds to rides anyway), your entire family can be happily entertained (a major complaint of Disney World is teens are bored at the Magic Kingdom and younger children are uninterested in Epcot and few families feel good about the money they spent to see Animal Kingdom).

The Pricing

Another advantage of Universal is the pricing--not only are park tickets cheaper, but so are meals.  Whether you want an all day meal pass (not valid at Harry Potter), or just want to dine where you like, meal prices are often cheaper and kids meals are much cheaper compared to Disney (though portion sizes may also be smaller).  On the other hand, Universal is not know for fine dining (outside of Mythos) and Harry Potter treats including chocolate frogs, butterbeer, and pumpkin juice are expensive necessities.  All in all, we spent the same at both parks but only because we heavily indulged in Potter foods including several candy items we took home.  Fortunately, we learned how to make butterbeer at home.

The Shopping

I also enjoyed the shopping along CityWalk which remarkably resembles California's Downtown Disney (a more intimate shopping experience than the Orlando equivalent).  Open later than the park, it offers all the shopping with plenty of specialty stores including Potter merchandise without the hassle of carrying your purchases through the park. It also is a manageable size so you can shop as part of your day.  For those who want to shop within the park, there are plenty of specialty shops.  I wanted to frame my credit card bill after vacation because it listed such shops as Honeydukes, Filch's Emporium, Zonko's Joke Shop, and Cats, Hats, & Things.

My Big Complaint

My biggest complaints was the lack of a free fastpass system.  Unless you stay at their resort, fastpass costs the same as the park ticket (making it much cheaper to stay on-site).  After much debate, we decided this was not an option for our family and had to plan our day around the lines.  One of the obvious problems with this is that the water raft rides (there are 3 of them) are best in the middle of the afternoon, when you want to get wet and take a break from the heat. That is also when those lines are longest.  Other lines were relatively long throughout the day including most of Seuss World and the Pteranodon Flyers, though we generally waited less than 30 minutes for most attractions.

And though this should be obvious, for those who are not familiar with the characters/movies/books/comics that inspire the islands, this theme park will not be very magical.  So those who have never read a Harry Potter book or watched a Marvel superhero movie, this may not be your thing.  And though my husband has watched all the Potter movies, he spent his time entertaining our toddler by the talking fountain in Lost Continent and in Seuss Island because he did not want to spend more than an hour in the somewhat claustrophobic Potter World (the poor muggle).

Future Wizards

This park was so amazing that I have a top 10 list for the entire park as well as a top 10 list just for Harry Potter.  And as my younger children grow and begin to read the Potter series, I have a feeling, we will plan another visit to this incredible place.





Monday, July 2, 2012

10 Favorite Family Books on Vacation

Tell me what you read and I'll tell you who you are

Maybe it was the way I was raised.  At the end of most vacation days and while on long road trips, my mom (or brother, because he didn't get car sick) would read a book aloud.  Several genres were covered, but most memorable was my mother reading every Little House on the Prairie book aloud (Farmer Boy is still my favorite).

So it isn't really a surprise that books are a big part of our vacations--though we often prefer to get the audio version for car rides instead of having me (the mom) read out loud.  On our vacations, each child packs a reading book, an activity book (with puzzles, mazes, games, etc.), the diaper bag is filled with board books, my husband packs his kindle, and I always have a book for myself, and, when possible, an audiobook for the family to enjoy.

When it comes to road trips, a good book can make the miles pass far more quickly and create an amazing time together.  A bad book could makes those same miles unendurable (think Dora).  The trick is finding a book that both kids and parents will enjoy.

#1--Harry Potter--With seven books in the series, you can drive cross country more than once and never run out of story.  Even our preschool aged children have listened to the first few books while our elementary aged children were enchanted.  I have read the entire series three times and just finished the third book with my third child.  I am still captured by the story and love watching my younger children hear each book for the first time.  The audiobooks are well done and the reader uses multiple voices to add more magic to the story.  Hands down, this is my first choice to keep everyone happy on a road trip.

#2--Rand McNally's Backseat Books--these activity books are wonderful to keep kids busy, happy, and learning.  Younger kids (ages 4-7) will enjoy the Best Travel Activity Book Ever with simple mazes, dot-to-dots, and other puzzles in this black-and-white coloring book.  Older kids (ages 7-12) will love the full color Are We There Yet? book with complicated games, silly songs, interesting factoids, and puzzles.  Coast to Coast Games is also excellent, but I would avoid the Kids' Road Atlas which has far fewer games and puzzles than the other books in the series.

#3--How to Eat Fried Worms and Freckle Juice--for families with younger children (ages 4-8), these books are shorter, simpler, and silly but still give parents a good laugh along with their kids.  Be sure to pack some gummy worms or a little freckle juice in the car and your kids will never forget this road trip.

#4--Little House on the Prairie Series--based on the opening paragraph of the post, you knew this would make the list.  My favorite two books in the series are the first one, Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy (the story of Laura's husband's childhood).  From Pa staring down a bear to Ma churning butter to Christmas being only a stick of candy and a doll, your whole family will discover how families survived in the frontier.  This series is especially good when driving through America's heartland.

#5--Dr. Seuss--On a recent trip, we had The Lorax on our iPad.  This made the book interactive--almost like an electronic pop-up book.  iTunes also offers other classics like Green Eggs and Ham and the Cat in the Hat. After finishing listening to the iPad story, my children begged me to read Fox in Socks (a tongue twister book that gets the whole family laughing).  My personal favorite is the 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and what is more fitting for vacation than Oh, The Places You'll Go.


#6--The Great Brain and Indian in the Cupboard--aimed at school aged kids, these books teach about ingenuity, daring, and making tough decisions. The characters are often mischievous (that's part of their charm) and the stories are fast paced.  These are two classics from my childhood.

#7--Percy Jackson and the Olympians--another fantasy book mixing modern times with ancient Greek legends.  This adventure series follows a less-than-perfect boy on his quest with frightening monsters and impossible opposition.

#8--Fablehaven--this fantasy series is about a brother and sister and their adventures on a magical preserve.  With plenty of mystery and magical creatures, this book has plenty of imagination as well as the ups and downs of sibling relationships.  Both children make mistakes and have to pay the consequences as well as decide what is really important.

#9--Snow Treasure--this adventure book is about a group of children outsmarting the Nazi's. Though not a holocaust book, this story depicts another ugly truth of an invading foreign army. Who wouldn't be rooting for the children through all the twists and turns right up until the unexpected ending? And though hard to prove, the story may actually be based on true events.  

#10--The Giver--a Newberry Winner, this negative utopia book will keep your kids guessing and provide an incredible teaching moment to discuss the value of individual human life, the role we play in our communities, and the role of government.

Of course, families with older children can enjoy more mature books like The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, or Ender's Game.  Because we still have preschoolers in the car, those books will just have to wait.

So in addition to a few electronic devices and a snack, grab a good book on your next family vacation.