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.