Wednesday, June 22, 2016

It's Not Everyday Your Young Man and Woman Turn 11!

What a wonderful birthday trip we had!

So much fun, in fact, that we can barely move today.  Between walking up to 22,000 steps a day (that's 10 miles!!!!) in 90+F heat (over 100F heat index some days) and then not getting home until after 1 a.m. last night, we're just beat.  So we're watching the Harry Potter films in order and giving our poor, neglected cats some love.

Instead of writing about this trip in strictly chronological order, I'm breaking it down by themes.  

The Beginning
On the morning of the last day of school, the kiddos awoke to Snowy Owls in their rooms delivering Hogwarts letters, complete on parchment-esque paper.  They had been selected to attend an American Hogwarts program at Universal Studios in Florida for five days!!  Okay, yes, we made all that up, but they were thrilled to be going to Hogwarts for their 11th birthdays.  It's not everyday your young man and woman turn 11!  After school, we hastily packed and even got some sleep.  Mama and I were just amazed we had pulled the secret off.  We had slipped a few times--when Mama left the Universal Studios maps on the couch where Bud sat, when I mentioned needing something for a plane.  But they had no clue.  Woo-hoo!!

It was a very early morning--Mama and I were up by 4 a.m.  When I woke Sis up with "You're a wizard, Sis!" she replied sleepily and sweetly, "I'm a wizard, Harry!!!"  Amazingly, we were in Orlando before noon.  It was bittersweet to be heading to Orlando so soon after the massacre.  JetBlue flight attendants mentioned that there were family members of the deceased on board; they gave their condolences over the PA twice.  We saw other signs of support of the victims of Pulse--silver ribbons, rainbow stickers, headlines daily on the Orlando paper, a rainbow fountain, more LGBT pride shirts that you see on average.  It was sobering to find out that one of the ride attendants at the Wizarding World had died in the massacre.  No doubt had it been otherwise, we would have crossed paths with him.  It was surreal to be there with his friends and coworkers who carried on with smiling faces despite their loss.

Our view
We were staying at the Royal Pacific Hotel, the Universal version of the Polynesian (where we stayed at Disney World three years ago.)  It was an odd mixture of Southeast Asia (the Buddhas, the elephants, the dancer statues) and Oceanic cultures (leis, luaus, island resort decor.)  But, you just have to let your critical and analytical and liberal sides slide; otherwise, you'd worry about environmental costs, cultural appropriation, feminism, materialism, etc the whole time.  We ate lunch at Jake's American in the resort (see Food below) and checked into our room on the seventh floor.  It had a lovely view of the lush grounds (with a water feature, HUGE palm trees, bright orchids, and the sweet smell of jasmine flowers all around), with some of the park visible, though not Hogwarts.  I stared out that window quite a lot over the trip, especially when a thunderstorm moved across us.  I love a good storm, as you know--Connecticut rarely has them and still never like Texas or Florida or Louisiana.  I miss the scent of rain, the dark purple-gray skies, the ear-splitting thunder, lighting flashes, and sheets of big drops creating temporary eddies; I always get a funny drop in my stomach, like being on a rollercoaster or the like.  When a storm hit a few days into our trip, Mama and I actually went outside to sit in a covered walkway and watch.  It was even quite windy.  It was like the cherry on the whipped cream of the trip for me.  The hotel had nice touches--fruit-infused chilled water in the afternoon (strawberry lemonade, peach, lemon-lime, etc), leis upon arrival, also back scratchers, a nice little shop with iced tea and Ben & Jerry's ice cream.  Oh, and Zentangle patterns everywhere--on the floors, wallpapers, upholstery.  We would stay again (even though the water was extremely soft and we ended up having to double rinse all the time!)

Okay, back to the parks.  We went straight to the new HP park, Diagon Alley, which is in Universal Studios.  We got confused constantly between the two parks--Universal and Universal Islands of Adventure--and sometimes even forgot what was in Diagon Alley and what was in Hogsmeade.  So, if I confuse them, please forgive me.  It really should just be the Harry Potter park and everything else!

To get to the park, we took the water taxi all but once (when we took a pedi-cab/rickshaw.  Mercy, that cyclist could pedal--and she talked the whole time, too!!)  Mama and I couldn't help but wonder about alligators, even in this obviously dyed and human-made lake.  The staff said there weren't any gators; I'm sure the WDW staff had said the same thing.  What a tragedy the death of the toddler was!  So unexpected.  Just three years ago, our kids played on a beach at the same lagoon, though in a different part, several times.  Not even in the water.  And even though I know about gators, I never gave them any thought.  It's just such a freak accident.  But so awful.  This time, we didn't go near any beach or water's edge.  But I liked the boat ride, though not quite as fast as Pop's Grady White.  Pop, that's always a retirement option:  you could captain water taxis in Orlando!  I know you could "kiss the dock" quite as well as these guys.

One other thing:  the birthday buttons!  Sis and Button wore special big buttons announcing their 11th birthdays and Mama had one two, without her age, which they wore everyday as part of their birthday vacation.  Most of the staff and even some of the other tourists gave them birthday wishes.  They even got free cupcakes.  There was one belly dancer who kept calling loudly to them all in a funny voice. Sis and Bud were relatively shy about the extra attention; Mama eventually took hers off!  

What can I say about the heat?  Oh, I hate heat.  We wore loads of sunscreen and hats (most of us most of the time)--no one got a single sunburn!  I think that's quite an accomplishment, though we did  spend most of the mid-afternoon inside, from about 2-5 ish.  (The kids either played Nanograms or watched Food Network kids' competitions like Kids Baking Championship, Kids BBQ Championship, and also Chopped.  So much commercial tv that, once when I groaned about being stiff, Bud joked, "Will her legs work?  We'll find out after the break!!")  It was high 80s, low 90s with high humidity the whole time.  Very HIGH UV most of the time.  Ugh.  It was so hot that Mama wore shorts!  Let that sink in.  Even the kids have never seen her legs.  I know, I know, I'm a Texan and I should be able to manage, but a).  I left Texas 23 years ago and b). we weren't usually outside all day long.  And definitely not walking 22,000 steps a day--that's almost 10 miles on our highest day.  I had to handwash my back brace in the sink every night because it was just gross; and body gel isn't really laundry soap.  Ugh.  Thankfully, the whole place is beautifully air-conditioned; otherwise, it really is unbearable for me.

Diagon Alley
You enter this part of the Wizarding World through a mini-London, with a King's Cross Station (that leads to the Hogwarts Express), various London-esque buildings, the closed Leicester Place tube station, Grimmauld Place (where Sirius Black lived), past the Night Bus, past the Ministry of Magic phone box where you can dial "M-A-G-I-C" and hear a special recording (we had to teach Sis and Bud how to work a rotary phone!!!!), and then through a brick wall complete with the sound of grinding bricks, just like in the first movie.  

It's so cliche, but it's all so magical!  A view of the main street complete with a dragon on top of Gringotts Bank greets you.  And it looks just like the movies, but wider and with Muggle tourists instead of witches and wizards in robes (though, even in this heat, there were people in robes.)  Where to go first?  Actually, we stood there and watched the dragon, who growled loudly a few times before releasing a burst of fire.  You can feel the heat halfway down the street.  It happens about every 15 minutes and I caught photos of it from different angles each time.  Amazing.  

I think we went to Ollivander's for our wands first (after buying our first frozen Butterbeers!!!!  MMMmmmmmm, so good.  I think we had at least one a day.)  Mama stayed outside with the drinks (a mistake) and I took the kids in, hoping they would both be chosen.  I smiled at the wizard as he entered the wand room and . . . I was chosen!!!  "The wand chooses the wizard!"  It's just like the scene in the first movie.  The first wand I tried blew things up, the second caused lightning.  With the third--made of Ash with a unicorn core, which indicates caring and healing--a triumph played and I was lit from above.  I was thrilled, really, though I know it's all a marketing ploy (see suspending disbelief, above.)  But I bought it.  And the kids each got one as well.  They were so excited for me and about the wands.  Mama got one, too.  It's one of the extra features of the park because there are places throughout the Wizarding World where you can wave your interactive wand in a certain way and make displays work--float a feather (Bud's favorite), tip a cauldron of Cornish pixies, armor standing up, open a beautiful book, throw a shoot of water at someone, illuminating invisible ink, blow hissing air, set off a stinky plant, make an umbrella rain around you, turn on the numerous lights in a lighting window (my favorite!), a couple of dozen in all.  It was Bud's favorite part; he even found some of the hidden spells which were not on the map included with the wands.  At one point, my wand quit working and a very nice witch named Elizabeth helped me set it to rights; I actually had to have it fixed (all part of the service!)  And then I could work the lumos charm on the lights again.

Features of Diagon Alley
  • Ollivander's:  see above about interactive wands.
  • Honeydukes:  a sweet sweets shop, where we got sherbet lemons, pineapple marshmallows, Butterbeer fudge.  Delightful!!
  • Florian Fortescue's:  this ice cream was amazing!!!  The floral Earl Grey with Lavender was really special.  Clotted Cream ice cream was a thicker version of Froyo's original tart flavor.  But it melted very fast in the heat.
  • Weasley's Joke Shop:  Bud got lots of hilariously-named treats inspired by the film, like fainting fudge.  I detected the rose scent all around, which was from the love potion (rosewater and honey, yum.)  
  • Menagerie:  where you adopt critters.  Sis got a Crookshanks, which she carried everywhere and petted with great joy.  Mama got one too.  I have a small Barn Owl.  
  • The Arcade:  in the British sense, a covered urban walkway with shopping.  This is where all of the performances were.
  • Celestina Warbeck:  a magical jazz singer with her back up troop.
  • Three Princesses and Three Brothers puppet shows:  two highly-artistic shows based on the Beadle the Bard stories.  I loved the gorgeous puppets and the way they utilized simple props as settings for the fountain or hiding death
  • Gringotts money exchange:  you can talk to a realistic, interactive Goblin and exchange dollars for galleons, etc.  I asked him about the dragon and he shut me down!
  • Gringotts bank escape ride:  I could walk through this ride without going on it, seeing the main room with the chandeliers and goblins, some of the vaults.  Such attention to detail!  Sis and I didn't ride.  Apparently it was quite intense, with a dragon chasing you. 
  • Shutterbutton's Photos:  After donning robes, we had our photos taken for a moving-picture scrapbook with different scenes of us at Hogwarts, Honeydukes, etc.
  • Knockturn Alley:  ah, the dark, cold realm of the Death Eaters.  A great place to escape the heat.  But it wasn't scary; the park goes out of its way to avoid Voldemort, the Death Eaters, the Dementors, and the Dark Mark, except in a few select places.  The mirage of the night sky above was great.  And there was the nice detail of the Phoenix ad that appeared and then burned up.
Hogwarts Express
You can ride the Hogwarts Express train from London to Hogsmeade and back again, with the experience differing each way.  Just like in the books and movies, bad things happen on the way to school--in this case, some dementors.  I like the more idyllic ride back, with Hagrid waving goodbye, the buccolic countryside, Fred and George zipping about setting off fireworks, centaurs through the forest, and the Night Bus snaking through the streets.  The views of London outside King's Cross are spot on.  There is a sighting of Malfoy Manor and Voldemort with lightning (who then becomes a tree--a trick of the eye, blink and you'd miss it.)  Both have gorgeous views of Hogwarts castle.  (Though, the voice double for Emma Watson is not convincing at all.)  The train itself is a convincing replica (the prints in the car were exactly the same as the movie!) and the stations are perfect.  I really enjoyed the gentle, air-conditioned ride.  On one trip, we sat with some British tourists and compared notes between the Warner Brother Studios outside London and Universal--they preferred the theme park because it was immersive.  It just made me want to go back to England and see the places they filmed the movies, like the cloister walk (in Lincoln, was it?) and such.

We had been to this part of the park before, three years ago when we popped over from Disney just to see the Wizarding World.  They've changed a few things--we didn't see Hagrid's Hut hidden away this time, Honeydukes expanded and took over the joke shop, and some of the features were missing from the Three Broomsticks (like the shadow of a house elf)--we didn't notice the Owl Hoot-Hoot clock last time--but it's still fabulous.  

My favorite part, then and now, is Hogwarts Castle.  I love looking at it and imagining its real.  I know there are all manner of tricks of proportion and size relationships (a raven landed on a spire and almost looked as big as a hippogriff!), but it is rather convincing, especially at twilight as the lights come on.  I enjoyed taking pictures of it at all times of day from different angles.  Mama and I did walk through the interactive queue twice, while the kids were riding.  It's amazing.  You see the grand staircase with its talking frames, Griffyndor Common Room, Dumbledore's office, Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, the Herbology greenhouses, and little details like the statue of the founder of Hogwarts, a tapestry with a map of the classroom, the tunnels of the Basilisk, etc etc etc.  It's like being on the actual sets or in the movies themselves.  Mama and I walked through it very slowly, letting people pass us by, admiring all the detailing; what a great date night!

Mama loves the snowman with the snow owl.  We agreed that, in the heat, all the fake winter details were mocking us, though.

There was only one negative experience the whole time (especially because the two others were near misses--when Mama left her iPhone behind on the Minions ride and Bud left his wand on the water taxi; both were recovered.)  We let the kids do a lot of wandering in specific areas by themselves, meeting back with us at a specific place.  (This was a huge step, especially for Mama, but a very important one.)  But one time we got our wires crossed.  In the crowds, we missed each other.  Luckily, we had a plan all worked out if we got separated.  If any of us missed a designated meet up, we would gather at the emergency locale--in Hogsmeade it was the Owlery; in Diagon, it was in the Arcade near the stage--and if no one came, we would talk to staff.  Well, one night, in the dark, the kids made it to the exit of the Forbidden Journey ride before we did and thought we'd left so they made their way to the Owlery.  There, they set off their "tile" which was keyed to Mama's cell phone . . . except we didn't hear it.  Within about 5 minutes when we didn't show, they alerted a staff member.  I showed up right about then, as they were talking to a nice witch, and could see the panic in their faces.  They were so scared.  For my part, I was proud of them.  They followed the plan and did what they were supposed to.  And I actually think being lost or left behind and "fixing it" is a very important experience; I'm kinda surprised it took a decade for them to feel truly left behind anywhere.  I wasn't nervous, though, because I knew they were together and that the parks are really very safe.  But it took them a long time to calm down.  Ice cream helped!
  • Hogwarts Frog Chorus--I loved watching these "students" perform, complete with rumbling bullfrogs!  We sang "Double Trouble Boil and Bubble" with frog sounds throughout the park.  Just made me smile.  We had our picture taken with them.
  • Tri-Wizard Rally--the Durmstrang men performed a superficial approximation of some of Bud's kung fu moves (maybe he can have a college job here), while the women of Beaubaton danced with ribbons.  This was entertaining and we had our picture taken with them, too.
  • Forbidden Journey ride--this was the kids' favorite part of the whole trip.  Each night when the lines were very short, they rode this several times by themselves.  Total count:  18 times!  We got a great photo of them on it, with Bud making a funny face.  They loved the feeling of whisking through the air on broomsticks.  
  • Moaning Myrtle in the bathroom!!!

The Rest of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure
We did have to walk through the other parts of the park to get to the Wizarding World.  And we actually liked some of it, but HP was by far the best part.
  • Simpsons world:  the kids LOVED eating here at Krusty Burger!  Sis loved the fried chicken, which was pretty good with its cornflake crust.  Bud had a Krusty Burger; Mama liked the ribwich.  Nobody liked the average cupcakes.  But the specialty drinks were fun, especially the Flaming Moe, which smokes because of the dry ice.  Funniest of all were the HUGE pink doughnuts from Lard Lad.  We're not big doughnut heads, but these were hilarious and pretty tasty; we didn't get to try the sundae, though.  The kids rode one of the rides and thought it was okay.  They played some Arcade games, too.  Sis won a doughnut, Mama a "Santa's Little Helper" dog, and Bud got a dog (which he traded for a cute blue penguin Mama won later in a family challenge water pistol game.)  We also posed for a photo with Marge and Bart.
  • Minions ride:  I could ride this one!  With my sensitive back and weak core, I don't go on any but the gentlest of rides, which precludes most of the fun ones.  Luckily, I could walk through the interactive queues of the two main Hogwarts rides without riding.  And the Minions ride had a special non-shaking spot!!!  This was perfect.  Thank you, Universal!  It was such a funny 3-D ride that I laughed (and got a bit dizzy even) just from watching the screen.  I looked back at the kids a few times and they were bouncing around and squealing.  Such fun.  At some point, the kids posed for a photo with a couple of Minions.  There were unicorns from Despicable Me all over the park and on the first night I grabbed one and yelled the tagline, "It's so fluffy!!!!"  Later, Sis bought one and surprised me with it.
  • MIB, Spiderman--two more rides the kids took.  They liked shooting the aliens in MIB.  Mama had the highest score of the trio, with 200,000 points!
  • Marvel Superheroes (from the comics, not the movies)--I bought some Captain America comic book stuff for our favorite deli lady who loves all things Marvel
  • Jurassic Park:  We eschewed the water rides, but the kids did ride the gentle high-flying gondola of Pteranodon Flyer.  
  • Talking Fountain--this was just annoying.  While we were getting henna (more below), the fountain was talking to a birthday boy who loved Minecraft and sushi . . . and it wasn't Bud!  
  • Henna:  Sis and I wanted to do henna.  She chose a simple flower design and I chose a more elaborate free form design, which eventually had flowers and paisley.  The woman worked with these Nirja henna cones so quickly and intricately!  I was amazed and inspired.  We chatted about the history of henna, with its origins as a cooling tool in the heat of Africa.  I told her about the henna program I oversaw at the academic art museum and we agreed that lemon juice does darken the color (I poured lemonade on my arm later and it did the trick!)  She said to put vaseline or coconut oil on the design before going in the pool.  Sis picked her clumpy henna off as soon as it dried and wanted to do it at her birthday.  Mine stayed on longer, but I let them pick off the clumps later in the day.  We both love the look and it was fun to do together.  
  • Seuss land--it's like Egypt at the Met.  You always seem to walk through it.
  • Animal Actors show:  this was particularly for Sis.  They asked for volunteers and she raised her hand--but when they mentioned dog lovers, she put her hand back down!!!  There were trained pigeons, pigs, a variety of dogs, a parrot, otters, a porcupine, a skunk, a bird of prey (they never said what, but it looked like a falcon of some kind), even several cats!  Maybe she can be a Hollywood animal vet!
  • Optimus Prime:  the line was always too long, but Bud did pose for a picture with the statue on the roof.

We had several wonderful meals, in restaurants in our resort and in the parks.  We do love to eat out and try new things; it was a major part of our trip.  

Emeril's Tchoup Chop--we ate here twice, once for dinner and once for lunch.  We liked the lily pad fountain and loved the food.  It was some of the best we ate all trip and is probably in our top ten ever.
  • chicken egg rolls with orange dipping sauce
  • Big Kahuna drink with orange juice, pineapple, and almond syrup with a splash of gingerale
  • Hawaiian Watermelon "mocktail" with watermelon syrup and some Sprite
  • char-grilled beef "bulgogi" skewers
  • Robata char-grilled pork belly
  • Bud's rainbow with various sushi fish (ahi tuna, salmon, unagi, etc) roll in chili ginger sauce
  • yummy stir fried udon in garlic hoisin sauce
  • Sis and my favorite "KFC"-inspired Korean Fried Chicken, sweet and crispy
  • chicken Tchoup Chop salad with fried wontons, oranges, sesame seeds, in sesame soy dressing
  • Chirashi, salmon over rice with unagi glaze and spicy mayo
  • smoked pork ribs, also Sis's favorite
  • delicious Pancit Bihon noodles with lime 
  • fried rice

The Cowfish  This North Carolina-based restaurant features both beef and sushi, combining Southern and Japanese food.  It was a tie for our favorite place to eat.
  • fried pickles
  • parmesan truffle fries with bacon
  • "Cheeseburgushi," ground beef and cheese wrapped in bacon and rolled into string potatoes and fried
  • Pulled pork handroll, with pulled pork and barbecue sauce wrapped in potatoes and deep fried, with bacon coleslaw
  • the OMG roll with coconut shrimp
  • filet and lobster roll!
  • Lemon Yuzu Meringue

The "Leaky Broomsticks" aka both HP restaurants, the Leaky Cauldron and the Three Broomsticks--these two HP restaurants have wonderful movie-inspired HP decor and pretty good food for an amusement park.  We ate breakfast here twice, lunch once, and dinner once (and the kids and Mama grabbed at least one snack.)  

  • traditional English breakfast, with eggs, beans, tomato, blood pudding, mushrooms, bacon, and a croissant, 
  • mushroom leek tart
  • traditional American breakfast, with eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, and croissant
  • pancakes
  • apple oatmeal "flan"
  • toad in the hole (egg in Yorkshire pudding)
  • Cornish pasties
  • Cottage pie
  • Scotch eggs
  • fish and chips
  • turkey leg
  • Butter beer
  • Pumpkin juice and pumpkin fizz
  • "Fishy green ale" with black beads
  • Butter beer potted cream

Other HP treats
  • BUTTERBEER!!!!  regular and frozen with cream tops
  • Butterbeer ice cream
  • Butterbeer fudge
  • Earl Grey and Lavender ice cream
  • Clotted cream ice cream
  • Chocolate and raspberry ice cream
  • Sherbet lemon candy
  • Fever fudge candy
  • Jelly Slugs
  • Chocolate frogs
  • Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Bean
  • Pineapple marshmallows
  • Fainting Fancies chews
  • Love potion, aka rosewater with honey

Other Treats in Simpsons World
  • Krusty burger
  • Ribwich
  • Double batter fried chicken with fries
  • Flaming Moe drink with dry ice
  • Giant Lard Lad Donut
  • free cupcakes for birthday kids and Mama!
  • Groovy Grove juice, with orange juice, lemonade, and blood orange syrup
  • Mr. Teeny, with lemonade, pineapple juice, and blue Curacao syrup
  • Mt. Schwartzwelder, an apple juice, apple syrup, lemonade, and tea

Jake's All-American at the Hotel and Other Restaurants
  • Tahitian French toast, with orange syrup and bananas
  • salmon in the buffet, just for Bud!
  • grits
  • sausage gravy and biscuits
  • lovely sesame ginger dressing in salad
  • spinach and artichoke flatbread
  • skirt steak flatbread
  • charcuterie

But it was hard to get an iced coffee!!

Last Bits
We closed the park each of the four nights, staying until the last fireworks lit up the sky before leaving the HP world.  Sometimes we could barely get our legs to work on the way back. And then, surprising for us, we slept in til almost 9 a.m. every morning!   The last two mornings, I stayed back at the hotel, wanting some downtime and not wanting to ride the bouncy rides.  So while Mama took the kids through MIB, Spiderman, and Simpsons again, I sat by the elephant fountain in the central court sipping on an iced coffee (which I had to give instructions on how to make!  Is iced coffee not a thing in Florida?)  I made an Art Rock on one of those mornings and left it in the fountain.  Art Rocks are one of our summer activities--decorate a rock, include a quote, and leave it for someone to discover.  This one had a heart and the "Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love" quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda.  (Other times, Bud and I left Art Rocks near the walkway by the swimming pool.)  

On our last afternoon, following our second delicious meal at Tchoup Chop, we went swimming.  All of us!  It was so restorative and rejuvenating.  I was floating in the cool water, the sun beating down on my front, a cool breeze chilling the wet parts of me, and I kinda bobbed up and down.  Eyes closed, and I was in a different world.  Eyes opened and I saw palm trees and blue skies above.  No cares in the world.  The kids had fun, as did Mama.  And we finished off the day with a sweet, cold virgin Pina Colada.

As for souvenirs, we followed our usual habits.  Mama got several pins, including several HP ones and one Olympics one; I got a few magnets.  Sis had her stuffed Crookshanks.  Bud likes his pink doughnut pillow, a few pins, and a great black cap not unlike the one he wore in the play that he especially liked.  I also got a small model of the Hogwarts castle.

We took lots of pictures (including in front of the spinning Universal globe, which Mama and I had just seen in Sharknado 3 on a date night at home!!) and brought home lots of wonderful memories.  It's taken me three HP movies to write all of this up and we're not tired of it yet.

Happy birthday to our special witch and wizard!  

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