Thursday, November 12, 2015

7 Books that make Perfect Souvenirs

Books, Books, Everywhere

When I went to Boston, I found myself picking up books everywhere--one on John Quincy Adams after going on the John Adams house tour, one on Judge Sewall after seeing the famous mural in the state capital.  I even read Make Way for Ducklings to my children before visiting the statues in Boston Common.  I realized I was grabbing books from the library about the Revolutionary War, the Pilgrims at Plymouth, and the War of 1812 (thanks to a trip to the USS Constitution) for my children at different age levels.

Wait. . .I'd done this before?

When I got home, I realized that this was not the first time I had bought books from different places on different vacation.  Books made perfect souvenirs and enhanced the experience of the vacation.  Most of the books were educational (often science or history based) or historic fiction, but a few were just plain fun.  And for my toddler aged children, the books were powerful memory makers as I would read to them and say "remember when. . ."

Top 7 List

1--Good Night Boston--this series includes many major cities like New York and Washington DC as well as more generic destinations like the beach. This is my favorite "remember when we saw..." books to read to my toddlers.

2--Magic Treehouse--This series has a book for just about every destination including Earthquake in the Early Morning (San Francisco); Buffalo Before Breakfast (Native Americans); Civil War on Sunday including Clara Barton; Revolutionary War on Wednesday: Twister on Tuesday (Westward Expansion); Thanksgiving on Thursday; High Tide in Hawaii; A Good Night For Ghosts (New Orleans) just to name a few.  In addition to the fiction series, they also offer companion books that teach the history including Abraham Lincoln, the American Revolution, and Colonial Life of the Pilgrims.

3--The American Girls Felicity Series and A Haunting in Williamsburg by Lou Kassem--When visiting the historic triangle area of Virginia, these books enhance the experience and make a historic site a virtual playground.

4--Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth Speare and The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox. If you are bringing middle schoolers on your vacation, these Newbery Award books provide a teens view into colonial life including the dangers and hardships of life.

5--Capital Mysteries--If you are visiting Washington DC, these mystery books can add a dash of excitement and silly for kids around age 7. But beware, these are whacky and adventurous plot lines, not award winning literature.

6--Curious George and the Hot Air Balloon--In this classic book, Curious George inadvertently flies over Mt. Rushmore. For a family with younger kids, this is a must pick up souvenir when visiting the famous monument.

7--Wonders of America Series--From the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls and everything in between this series offers a book on dozens of famous sights at a beginning reading level. Geared for ages 4-6, these book give the educational background easy enough for a preschooler to understand. You can pick up a book before you go to prepare your child or afterward to preserve the memory. These are the preschool version of the Good Night books featured earlier in this post.

To Deepen and Remember

Books can deepen the experience of many vacation destinations and help preserve memories. They can help kids prepare for a destination. They can be educational. They can add a bit of whimsy or mystery to the vacation. And they can provide a memory to be shared every time they read that book again including to their own kids decades from now.

My list includes books we read on our cross country trip. What books would you recommend?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cleft Baby at Disneyland--7 Steps to a Happy Baby Disney Vacation

Taking a 7-month-old baby to Disneyland requires extra planning and at least a little bit of an adventurous spirit. Taking that same baby with a cleft palate requires a lot of extra planning and gutsy parents (bordering on daredevil recklessness). But with an extended family vacation planned for over a year, we didn't have a choice but to pack up and make it work. And we are so GLAD we did. Here are 7 tips that made our Disney vacation with baby so much easier:

1--The Shows Are Equal to the Rides--this is true whether you have a baby or not. Planning on a few shows and street performances not only gives you a break from the rides but allows you access to Disney quality productions. We watched the electrical parade (thanks for blowing a kiss our way, Elsa), the fireworks, World of Color at DCA (my boys went crazy when BB8 came on), and my favorite, Aladdin. The Genie was a stand up comedian with zingy one liners that even my teens were quoting all week. Add to that the incredible costuming and special effects and we just saw a performance equal to the price of admission. The theater was air conditioned (did I mention it was 95 when we went) and gave everyone a much needed break in the day.

2--Pumping in the Park--in previous blog posts I've mentioned breastfeeding throughout the parks (its not hard). But with my cleft affected baby, I exclusively pump. I found trying to find an outlet when it was pumping time to be difficult (probably because I was chasing toddlers). My backpack pump has a battery operated adapter, which was a life saver. That meant I could pump in the middle of a playground (we love Redwood Creek Challenge and Goofy's house) or even when standing in line. The 10 minute wait to get into the park became a prime pumping opportunity. I just recommend wearing your easiest pumping shirts. For those a little more timid, both parks have amazing child care facilities where you can pump or feed baby including an assortment of baby food and formulas for sale. I did pump at DCA's baby center while my kids indulged with Dad at Ghiradelli's. It was kind of a win-win.

3--Cover those Ears--many of the rides are too loud for baby. We just put our hands over baby's ears and let her enjoy the moving parts at half the volume. Parents with sensitive toddlers might want to consider bringing ear plugs.

4--Bring a Sling and a Stroller--Disney without a stroller isn't adventurous, its just plain crazy. But in addition to a stroller, a good baby carrier can make life much easier. Strollers don't go in lines and baby may want to be held from time to time (they are funny like that). With younger babies, I use a bjorn but I've heard positives about lots of wraps. For a 5+ month baby, I use a seven sling ( It folds into my diaper bag and costs around $12 with a coupon code. My baby probably averaged 6-7 hours in the sling. The sling also kept me be hands free.

5--Lower Your Expectations--Disneyland is suppose to be the happiest place on earth but based on some people's faces, they need to add xanax into the drinking fountains. The problem is unrealistic expectations. We managed not only to have near record heat, but also near record crowds for a late September Wednesday. On a day the park should have been empty, it was packed and humid hot. It was so busy, Disney extended park hours (I didn't know they would even do that). Did this ruin our vacation--of course, not. We had a general plan and changed it up as necessary. With a baby in tow (and we had 3 kids age 4 and under), you have to be flexible and not try to see and do everything in one trip. Relax, enjoy it. Go on a few rides, watch a few shows, take a break and come back or sit at a playground.

6--Extra Outfit--With any baby this is a possibility, but our little cleft cutie has a way of spitting food out her nose. Between that and the unpredictable diaper region, an extra onesie (or two) in the diaper bag is just common sense.

7--Shade Oriented--Whether it is hot or not, Disney is almost always sunny and younger babies can't wear sunblock. I found myself constantly positioning baby to be in the shade (fortunately plenty of shade abounds). This included where I parked my stroller and how I stood in line. Some babies do great in a hat (mine yanks one off and screams). And don't forget to watch for little toes that stick out of baby carriers and strollers--those little piggies could get sunburn. With a good afternoon nap, we were able to stay up late (who wants to miss fireworks anyway) knowing baby was safe with the sun already set.

Do you have any baby tips?

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.