How To Conquer Universal Studios Orlando In Four Days

Diagon Alley - Universal Studios

Diagon Alley - Universal Studios

Because we have four kids who are old enough to trek miles upon miles (upon miles) through busy theme parks and we finally had enough accumulated travel points to fly all of us there, we just spent an exhausting and magical long weekend in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Whenever our bigger family travels anywhere, we tend to hear a lot of “How did you do it?” questions. So, although I’m not an expert on Universal Studios by any stretch (and there are plenty of people online who are), we did have a great experience, and I’m glad to share some behind-the-scenes tips.

Before anyone jumps in with the Disney questions, we didn’t go to any of those parks. From the very beginning of planning, this trip was all about Universal Studios, because of our family’s appreciation/obsession with all things Harry Potter. There are actually two huge parks that are part of the Universal experience and they have completely different vibes, so there was more than enough action to fill our four days. And, yes, I do think you can pull a Universal trip off in four days and still have time for relaxing at the pool. But we were clear with our kids before it began that it would mean setting daily alarms and they were game.

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First, let me address the most confusing aspect of visiting Universal Orlando: there are two SEPARATE Harry Potter areas. One side, known as Islands of Adventure, has the Hogwarts School (which houses a thrill ride) and the Hogsmeade walk-thru area. The other side, known as Universal Studios, has Gringotts Bank (which houses another thrill ride) and the walk-thru Diagon Alley area. And, of course, there are a lot of other great rides and attractions in each park to add to the fun.

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Technically, you need separate park tickets to enter each side; however, most ticket bundles will allow for the park-to-park option. If you are a Potter fan, make sure you upgrade and get a ticket that allows you to access both sides, as they are completely different and equally amazing. Further confusion now: there are two ways to travel back and forth. You can go by foot through a shopping and restaurant area known as CityWalk. Or you can ride the Hogwarts Express train (more about that below).

Cabana Bay Beach Resort

Cabana Bay Beach Resort

We’ve been to Orlando a couple of times before this recent trip. We’ve tried staying off-site and on-site and I’ll say—if you are travelling with young kids and the theme parks are the main reason for your trip—staying on-site is an advantage. Often, there will be incentives for park entry (we were given early admission every day to one of the Harry Potter areas and took full advantage of it) and any funds we might have saved by preparing our own meals in a condo don’t really make up for the cost of a rental vehicle, parking passes, and the time it takes to shop, meal prep and travel. Again, because we were only there for four days, it didn’t make sense for us but, If you’re staying in the area for a longer period, off-site housing is a great idea.

What if you’re staying off-site and don’t have the early admission option? There is another option called Express Passes that can be added as an upgrade to your tickets. On our previous trip, when I spent one day there with my three older kids, while my husband and youngest child stayed behind at our off-site accommodation, we splurged on it (there’s no other way to describe it than a splurge; it’s expensive). We had one day to see both parks and we had fewer family members to pay for. It’s very pricey, but it allows you to get into much shorter lineups for all the rides (which is a really great advantage for the high volume rides that can be lined up for over two hours).

One of the best on-site amenities, for a big family like ours, was access to the complimentary shuttle bus system. It’s something Disney and Universal do very well. We never had to wait more than five minutes and it’s door-to-door pick up and drop off. You need your walking feet for inside the parks, so being shuttled to the gates (which are quite a hike to the park anyway) is fantastic. The same applies for complimentary airport pick up and drop-off, if you are staying at an on-site resort. If you are driving, there are a lot of parking garage spaces available and you can also contract private shuttle services.

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We chose the Cabana Bay Beach Resort and absolutely loved the clean and modern layout, as well as the option for the six of us to be in one room (thanks to a pull-out couch). The resort has two sizeable pools, hot tubs, a water slide, and a lazy river, as well as a grown ups lounge, gift shop + tuck shop, bowling alley, arcade, gym, and a fantastic self-serve cafeteria with multiple hot food stations (more about that later, too). It has a really family-friendly vibe, and it was easy for us to keep our eyes on the kids while giving them a bit of leeway to explore.

We found our resort and secured four days worth of park tickets for the price of two days, by using a travel advisor who specializes in creating itineraries and booking reservations at Disney and Universal. We’ve used the same advisor, Kirsten, for two trips and have been so pleased with her services and knowledge (not to mention enthusiasm). It’s of no added cost to you and her expertise and tips help to alleviate a lot of planning anxiety. Click here to be directed to our fantastic advisor.

What are the best tips for getting around Universal?

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  • Get a brightly coloured backpack (choose one person to wear it and have that person walk through the crowds at the front of your group like a beacon) and bring comfortable walking shoes for everyone (I’m so serious!)

  • In the backpack: hats, sunscreen, bandaids for blisters, pain relievers (adult and child), reusable water bottles, and lightweight sweaters for the morning and evening.

  • Have a lanyard to hold your tickets (designate a ticket holder too). Each time you come to a park entry (including the Hogwarts Train), you are required to show your ticket and have your fingerprint scanned to prove the ticket is yours. To save time, hand out the tickets right before you get there and then collect them again. They’re made of paper and would be so easy to drop or misplace. Again, a lanyard is your friend!

  • Extra socks and rain ponchos (buy them at home before you leave on your trip) are a must if you plan to ride any of the water-themed rides (and you should!). We love the Popeye & Bluto’s ride (you’ll get soaked) and the Jurassic Park ride is epic (and surprisingly emotional).

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  • If your children are old enough to be out of strollers (though you can rent them at the park or bring your own, too) you can designate a family meeting place if they get lost, or give your kids clear instructions about how to enter a store and provide your cell phone number to a uniformed employee.

  • Have your meals at less busy, off-times. We committed to one sit-down meal inside the park each day and then relied on smaller snacks (like ice cream and donuts - HA!) to get us through the day. Our favourite onsite restaurant was the Cowfish Burger Sushi Bar in the CityWalk area with its $7.00 bento lunches. And most restaurants we checked out had fair pricing for their kids’ menu.

  • The first morning, we slept in a bit to recover from the 4 a.m. wake up on travel day, so we took our time and sat down to pancakes and coffee at our resort’s HUGE cafeteria. The next three mornings, we were up at 6 a.m. to get to the park for early admission. To save time, we shopped in the cafeteria the night before and brought everything to our room so we could get ready while we ate. There are mini-refrigerators in the rooms and every individualized cereal container comes with a complimentary milk. We added fresh fruit, muffins and croissants and we were more than fuelled for the start of a busy day. [We don’t opt in for the meal plan: it’s very pricey and we are more interested in exploring the rides/attractions than eating three times a day.] As far as staying hydrated, there is an option to buy refillable drink containers inside the park for bottomless pop (not the best idea for kids if you want to avoid a cycle of sugar crashes). We all filled up on ice water at our sit-down meals and you could pour some into a reusable container of your own.

How to get the most out of the Harry Potter areas in both parks:

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  • Do everything Harry Potter first!!! If you have early admission (it will only be to one side of the park) USE IT!! Yes, that means setting your alarms on vacation, but we were more than happy to give up sleep to save us from standing in two hour long line ups for a 10 minute ride. It’s so much less congested in the walk thru areas, too, which allows for awesome photos and time to appreciate the beautiful and ever-so-accurate details everywhere. Again, if you have super fans, it will be magical. We also lined up at the Hogwarts Express train before the other side of the park opened, so we would be the first ones to enter that park (versus all the other patrons who were lined up at the gates). We got to run through Hogwarts School (which is where you normally line up for the ride and don’t worry there’s lots to look at while you do) and got onto the ride in under 10 minutes. That never happens if you enter the park by foot. By the time we left the ride there was already a line up of more than an hour. If you buy Express Passes, you don’t need to worry as much, but some of the bigger Potter attractions will always have long lineups.

  • About that train: there are two different stations and journeys depending on which park you are starting in. It’s a lovely experience for true Potter fans, but I wouldn’t line up more than 30-40 minutes for it, personally, so pay attention to the lineup times before committing (there’s not as much to look at while you line up vs the other big Potter rides). We prefer leaving from the King’s Cross station on the Universal Studios side of the park, as you get the 9 and 3/4 platform experience, but try and go both ways if you can. It’s an exact replica of the book/movie and just stepping onto it is utterly magical (p.s. no photos or videos are allowed on the train or any of the rides, but don’t fret…they’re truly unforgettable for your kids).

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  • Try the Butterbeer: it’s a beverage referenced in all seven Harry Potter books, and it’s just something you need to try once (or a few times if you are like us). But you don’t need your own glass (it’s $6.99 per cup). It’s a very rich and filling drink. We asked for two straws and split with a partner. We prefer the icy version and on the last day we tried the ice cream, too. Put in on your list of to-dos—you won’t be sorry.

  • Make use of the knowledgable staff in the Harry Potter areas, who are in character at all times and so enthusiastic. They have a lot of fun tips and tricks to share. We bought a candied quill in Honeydukes and found out it could be dipped in water after the candy was eaten and used as an ink quill.

    We also picked up a Pygmy Puff and were told to bring it over to the Weasley's’ Wizard Wheezes joke shop where we could have its name announced, which was such a fun treat.

The wand she chose suited her personality

The wand she chose suited her personality

  • If you decide to buy a wand inside the park, you’ll notice long lineups for the wand choosing experience (wherein the wand chooses you) outside Ollivander’s wand shop on both the Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley sides of the park. It’s a very cool room, but honestly they only choose one child in the crowd to have the experience while the rest watch. It wasn’t worth the lineup, in our opinion. We opted to enter the store afterwards and found a delightful staff member who took her time explaining all the different wand personalities and helped our little one choose a wand for her birthday gift. It was still a very personal experience (and it didn’t have the lineup to go with it). You can pay more for an interactive wand that allows you to visit various places throughout both parks (using an ancient map) and make some magic happen. Was it worth the extra cost? Yes. But again, our wand was a birthday gift and the birthday girl was happy to let her siblings try it out, too.

hogwarts castle

hogwarts castle

  • Sometimes, you’ll have a kid who doesn’t want to go on one of the rides the rest of your group does, or they won’t be tall enough. There are two ways to handle that issue. When our older kids wanted to go on the Spiderman ride, I took our little one to the Seuss Zone and let her ride the more age-appropriate rides. She also wanted to get a souvenir for her best friend, so it was a good time to get that done. If it’s a ride that both adults want to ride, but it’s not age-appropriate or appealing to one of your kids, you can make use of the child swap program that allows you to line up as a family and then have parents take turns in a family waiting room near the loading area for the ride. When the first parent comes off the ride, you swap places allowing the other parent to have a turn. This is also a great option if you finally make it to the front of the line and one of you gets scared (that’s a real life story for our family).

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  • If you are staying on-site, choose an afternoon (when the weather is favourable) to hang out at your hotel and make use of the pools. It allows you to take advantage of those amenities and save money on food, too. We ordered poolside food from the outdoor grill and spent the day soaking up the sun and resting our feet. We walked over to a fancier resort and had a market style dinner there that saved money on the cost of a sit down meal. Always look at the kids’ menu options, even if you’re grown up sized, as they work well when paired with shared appetizers. On our pool day, we headed into the park for the evening and stayed until it closed. It’s a very different experience in the evening with amazing parades on the Universal Studios side and a stunning light show and fireworks display at Hogwart’s castle that’s worth putting on your list.

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  • If you have older kids (or even if you want to bring the whole family) that are looking for more non-theme park adventure, you can take a Lyft ride or public transit to International Drive where there are a lot more restaurants and fun entertainment options like Escape Rooms.

How to avoid long lineups:

  • Even if you have access to advantages like early admission and express passes, the most important thing to do before arriving at the parks is to download the Universal App for your devices. Luckily, the wifi inside the parks is fantastic. Using this app will allow you to access tips (like restaurants and show times) and information about the rides (like what category they are in 3D/4D/Thrill/Kids and what the height requirements are etc). BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT thing this app will tell you is what the real-time wait times are for each ride. Do not spend energy and time dragging your family from one side of the park to the other only to find out the wait time for the ride you want is 180 minutes (yes, that does happen!). You can also set alerts on the app so you are notified when the rides you really want to get on are less than 60 minutes (or whatever your tolerance is for line ups). Have a discussion before you hit the parks about what each person REALLY wants to ride and don’t be afraid to break into smaller groups so that less-than-enthusiastic riders can find something else to do. We had a family meeting place that had lots of seating and a view of the parks where we met after dividing and conquering.

Which rides are must-dos?

This is the list according to my kids (who range in age from nine to 16 years old) with the best at the top. We were lucky this time to get on all the rides we wanted to (though I never made it onto the E.T. ride) and many we rode more than once. There were also a lot of rides in Seuss Zone that we rode (multiple times) and they’re all perfect for the younger crowd with manageable wait times.

  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

  • Escape From Gringotts

  • Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon

  • The Amazing Adventures of SpiderMan

  • Skull Island: Reign of Kong

  • Hogwart’s Express (both ways)

  • Jurassic Park River Adventure

  • Flight of the Hippogriff

  • The Simpson’s 4D Ride

  • TRANSFORMERS: The 3D Ride

  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem

  • Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges

My last bit of advice has everything to do with the mindset we brought with us. We keep expectations open and bring our most flexible and resilient parenting to trips like this one. Take deep breaths, look up (there are so many beautiful details in the Potter areas) , move slowly through the moments as much as you can, eat the ice cream for lunch and donuts before dinner, get in the photos with your kids, really watch your kids’ faces (oh please do!), and don’t forget to let your inner kid come out to play, too.

If you have any questions, go ahead and leave them in the comments below. I’m happy to help.

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A Year Of Music 2018: One Concert A Month

What a year 2018 has been. I rode a roller coaster of hope and despair, as I kept my eyes on ears on the world. It would have been so easy to fall heavily into despair, and sometimes I did. But I’ve done my best to stay upright and focussed on the horizon. Music has always been such a comfort and a way to ease tension and release my emotions.

Our one-concert-a-month mission (in year five now!) became a lifeline for me in so many ways this past year. Being in a room filled with strangers that are drawn to the same songs as me, always helps to remedy any feelings I might have that we’re becoming too disconnected. I always come away feeling renewed and flush with optimism that there is a collective good—even when we have to go looking for it.

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Each year, when I put together my annual playlist of the artists we were so fortunate to see, I imagine my overseas and American friends (who tell me they look forward to this round-up each year). They are seeking new Canadian talent to explore, and I’m happy to share our abundance with them. To make things easier, I’ve highlighted the Canadian artists in my playlist.

My favourite shows this year were: First Aid Kit, Glen Hansard, Whitehorse, Massey Hall 125th Celebration (Whitehorse, Joel Plaskett, Jim Cuddy, Sam Roberts, Sarah Harmer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, July Talk), and Rufus Wainwright. My husband’s favourites were: Interpol and the Massey Hall show.

I also saw some amazing shows with friends, including Glen Hansard, Justin Timberlake, Pentatonix, and Mumford and Sons. Those are experiences that bring their own form of magic, and I’m so glad I have friends with whom I can dance and sing to music that falls outside the scope of what my monthly concert companion is keen to see. I hope this music moves you as much as it does me.

1) First Aid Kit * Nothing Has To Be True; 2) Whitehorse * Die Alone; 3) Nathaniel Rateliff * You Worry Me; 4) Yeah Yeah Yeahs * Maps; 5) Alvvays * Dreams Tonite; 6) Joel Plaskett * I Love This Town; 7) Jim Cuddy * Skyscraper Soul; 8) Sarah Harmer * Goin’ Out; 9) Buffy Sainte-Marie * The War Racket; 10) Sam Roberts * Hard Road; 11) July Talk * Beck + Call; 12) Beck * Lost Cause; 13) Interpol * NYC; 14) Ray Lamontagne * Let’s Make It Last; 15) Bahamas * No Wrong; 16) Andy Shauf * My Dear Helen; 17) Rufus Wainwright * The Tower Of Learning; 18) Hawksley Workman * Ice Age





A Space Of My Own: Motherhood & Creativity

The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt

~ Sylvia Plath

After seeing the success I was having with my writing and the positive changes in my self-worth that came with it, my husband surprised me one weekend by giving up a lot of sleep and time to disassemble and empty our walk-in closet and mark out a new space that would become a hidden office and writing hideaway for me. I came home from a weekend away and walked into a transformed room — it was the most beautiful gift he’s ever given me.

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As is the way when raising young kids, the ongoing renovation and steps to completing that space were long and drawn out. But every one of those steps, like when he chose the wood that would become my desk top and then sanded and stained it or the window he found someone to cut into the brick wall so I would have natural light, were tokens of love and appreciation extended to me by him, and I felt each one as a vote of confidence. I had every intention of showing him that it mattered to me and would make such a difference in my productivity and creativity.

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But for the past few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my fear that I’ve lost my creativity. I worry it’s been buried under my responsibilities and the grind of parenthood. And I don’t mean that in a way that implies resentment; I’ve made my choices, and I know they were right. But I do feel a sense of loss, and pretending otherwise is not fair to me or anyone one else who is trying to parent while finding the space to create.

I feel like I’m failing to show him how much it meant to me and that’s taking up a lot of space in my brain, too. What does motherhood do to creativity? It’s a different experience for everyone (read this article for a good start). For me, writing began as a justifiable way to escape and now it threatens to smother me with its expectations — and that’s the simple answer. I know there are a lot of factors playing tricks on me, and some may have nothing to do with being a mother.

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Right now, I’m stuck somewhere between guilt and frustration. It’s important for me to continue to do work that helps support our family, and because I’m doing that work at home, I feel responsible for all the other day-to-day business of family life. But it’s hard to do all those things with purpose when I don’t give myself time to focus on what inspires me as an individual, separate from those responsibilities.

Around and around I go, shaking my compass and willing it to show me which way to go.

I don’t know why it was easier for me when the kids were younger. I’d look forward to being relieved by their dad and taking a couple of hours to do some writing or explore others’ written words. Somehow, when the work of parenting shifted away from hands-on care to helping my kids find their way in the world outside our home, I got lost.

Two weeks ago, I had a pocket of time hidden in all the other things I needed to get done, and it happened to be in the neighbourhood where our town’s record shop is located. Knowing I wanted to get a gift for my husband’s birthday, I went in determined to check it off my to-do list. There was a long lineup at the cash, so I wandered over to the vintage record bins. Nothing is in order; records are placed there as they arrive. It takes time to flip through each one, lifting any that catch your eye. I found Tapestry by Carole King and knew I had to have it. When I got home and played it, it took me back to the girl who sat on her bed filling journals and notebooks with words. And I wondered why I let her get away.

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I have wanted (for a long while now) to share photos of this incredible gift, as both a thank you and reminder that I am deserving of my own space. Initially, I imagined it would come together as a feel good home decor post about a cluttered closet becoming a bright writing space — but that doesn’t feel right anymore.

It’s a story about a transformation that’s waiting to happen. And I’m the only one who can tell that story. It’s waiting for me.

And you have treasures hidden within you — extraordinary treasures — and so do I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small

~ Elizabeth Gilbert

So today, on the morning after my birthday, I looked at it with new eyes and I let my compass show me where I need to go: through the door, to my desk, and wherever the words take me.

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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

I don't want perfect or curated photos anymore. I want to look at these photos and remember who we were in that moment. I want to see what someone else saw when we tumbled and stumbled in front of their camera, like our family always does. I want to feel love and pride for the many ways we came through another year of struggles and triumphs together.  

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