This photo has nothing to do with the app, just adding other photos where I can because I have so many!

The Magical Things That Improved Our Universal Trip

So much for a daily play-by-play! I can not believe how busy last week was. I did find time every day to do a small photo dump to Instagram, but I never checked my email, blogged, or did any other maintenance of my digital life which means today is going to be FAN-FREAKIN-TASTIC! 900 emails, here I come!

I think I’ll need to break down our trip into several blog posts so I’m really sorry to those of you who couldn’t give two flying craps about our trip. Hopefully by next week I’ll have it all out of my system if you just want to stay away another 7 days. But! If you’re curious about it or thinking about making your own similar trip (even to Disney, a lot of this would relate to that as well), you’ll love these next 7 days!

I’m going to start by telling you some of the things that “made” the trip, or at least made it significantly easier/better. Some of the things we planned, some we didn’t and just lucked upon. Also? I may add random photos throughout just to show them off since I can’t provide perfect context for everything. Like this great photo!

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The Hotel: Cabana Bay

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We decided early on to stay on site as many of you told us that and it was the best advice. It allowed us to get a package deal which, overall, definitely made the cost of the on-site hotel a lot less different that just comparing it’s per night to the cost of another per night elsewhere. But it gave us access to the shuttles to get us to/from and this turned out to be KEY because it allowed us to go early, take a mid-day break, and return again later. The days we did this we were able to miss the peak line times. If we had been in our own car and staying in a hotel a little further away, this would have been a headache and we would have just been stuck there all day. But this hotel also gave us that hour-early entrance to Hogsmeade and this was my FAVORITE part of the trip. That hour early meant we could A) Practice our spells without long lines or crowds at each spot, B) Ride the rides we loved without any wait, C) Get tons of pictures without crowds in them and D) Get on the earliest train over to Diagon Alley to be there when it opened to enjoy the same low-crowd benefits there.

But – on top of all of the conveniences it offered – the hotel itself was great. We had a suite which we really needed with 3 adults and 2 kids. There were two great pools, one with a water slide and one with a lazy river and EVERY NIGHT they showed movies by the pool. This turned out to be the perfect end to every day, letting the kids swim and watch part of a movie (we never finished them) while we swam some nights, and other nights just got took a beer (from our own fridge) in a plastic cup out to the pool to relax at the end of the day. If we go back again (our dream would be to go back again in 3 years) we’ll stay in the same place, we loved it.

The App

We would have not had as easy of a time planning moment to moment without the Universal Studios App. It was GREAT. It showed you wait times that were pretty accurate, show times, and gave you walking directions WITH PHOTOS to get from any point. My favorite thing was that you could make a restaurant or a show or a ride a “favorite” and then look at those all at once. After day 03 I made a list of favorites of all of the things everyone wanted to make sure they did the last few days and we just pulled up that list constantly to see what wait times were the shortest etc. I highly recommend the App!

This photo has nothing to do with the app, just adding other photos where I can because I have so many!

The Battery Pack

However, make sure you tell your phone to only keep the location services going when you’re using the app, and then make sure the close the app every time you’re done with it because it drains the HELL out of your iPhone battery. I was already draining batteries quickly with the constant taking of photos, so I had to really watch the app. But this is why I’m so grateful I had the battery pack I bought for Donnie’s Ironman in September. This is the one we used and it charges two phones at once. I carry it in a kind “hard” pencil pouch that I found during school supply season for $1. It’s not a box, but it’s not a bag, it provides some protection but isn’t too heavy. It’s big enough that you could even plug in the phone to charge and put it back in the container for awhile. Donnie and I would have been in trouble every day without that charging pack.

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The Wand Bag

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Wesley took this photo outside of the Leaky Cauldron and you’ll notice I’m carrying two bags. I planned this, but it turned out to be perfect for reasons I didn’t predict. I knew I wanted to carry my purse because it’s quick/easy access to my Nikon and my wallet and it has zipper pouches where I was able to keep things like the kids tickets at quick grab. (You have to have the tickets to get between the parks using the Hogwarts Express.) But the bag slung over my back, I mainly carried that for the battery pack. That battery pack wouldn’t fit in my purse with everything else, so I decided to bring this bag too. I stopped carrying that bag a long time ago because it’s not really easy access. It hangs over your packs so you basically have to take it off to get stuff out of it because the zippers are at a slant and if you try to do it while wearing it, stuff falls out. BUT! It would be perfect for the battery pack and I could just wear it and not think about it.

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You can see it a little better in this picture. But you know what it turned out to be perfect for? FIVE WANDS. You really only wanted/needed your wands in the HP parts of both parks, but throwing them in a backpack or a purse might cause them to get damaged. The tips are sensitive (although we took two to Olivander’s for “repair” and they “repair” them at no cost/trouble) so you don’t really want them getting slammed around too much. I was so grateful for that bag after we bought our wands! It was the perfect size and kept the wands safe and easy to retrieve when the need arose.

Lanyards

Universal gives you these flimsy tickets to use for every day of your trip and I knew on day 01 that they’d be worse for the wear by the end of the 7 days. So, Donnie and I bought lanyards to carry those and our room keys in because you have to have your room key for early access to Hogsmeade. I kept the kids stuff in my purse because it wouldn’t all fit in the lanyard, but for the most part, those lanyards made things much easier. You obviously wouldn’t have to buy them there, but I thought it was a great souvenir.

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You can see us both wearing them here, on the Hogwarts Express. He got Spiderman, I got Ravenclaw. Nikki ended up using her souvenir money to buy a Ravenclaw one too, but I only let her keep her souvenir gift card in there and her room key, those admission tickets were so flimsy and IMPORTANT I wanted to keep them on me at all times!

Souvenir Gift Cards

We gave the kids their souvenir money on Universal Gift Cards and didn’t give it to them until day 03. This way they were in charge of spending, keeping up with the money. And if it seemed like an impulse buy we thought they’d regret, we’d step in. We did that with Wes who insisted that he was DYING for this little Universal Studios Waist Bag – made him wait a whole day – and he still bought it and it’s his favorite thing from the trip! They both picked out an assortment of things from different places in the parks. The cards were perfect because it wasn’t cash, but it still kept them in budget without us having to think about it.

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That’s a good round-up of the things we did that made the trip a lot better in ways we might or might not have anticipated. I’ll do more round-ups throughout the week of things you don’t want to miss in the Wizarding Worlds (the secret treasures, so to speak) and hidden costs you don’t expect. I hope this isn’t too boring for most of you!

Now! To the grindstone!

First look at Hogsmeade!

So far, so awesome.

It is Day 03 of our trip and I have about 30 minutes before the gym opens which is basically the only “down” time I’ve had to update post about my travels in any lengthy detail other than photo dumps on Instagram. I want to try to get everything down before I forget things so I’m just going to do a stream-of-consciousness type entry and not fret about grammar or spelling. You know, basically like every other day I write anything else. I put a lot of pictures on Instagram but I also took some with my “real” camera and I’ll pick a few of those to show with each entry and do a bigger photo dump after we get back. However, if you want to check out some more photos – check out my instagram.

Day 01

We could get into the park with our early passes at 8am but we had breakfast at 3 broomsticks at 9am and because I’m terrified of being late, I basically buffered everything we did until breakfast so we spent a lot of time waiting. I made the kids wear their Hogwarts robes even though they felt dumb, I knew they wouldn’t once they got there. We got to the shuttle 10 minutes early but it arrived 5 minutes early. On the way to the park I started crying. THE FIRST TIME. We got to the park entrance like 40 minutes early and walked around City Walk for a bit, but then got in line for early entrance about 7:40am. As we were waiting in line and I started crying again but luckily bonded with the woman in front of me who was also excited. As the lines got longer the kids saw others in their robes and they started being REALLY glad they wore them.

They let us into the park and we headed straight for Hogsmeade. One the way there I just got so worked up, crying and gasping and the second we saw the sign I just started pointing and smiling and it was AMAZING. We walked in and I started just snapping pictures and trying to soak it all in. We decided to try to squeeze in a trip to Olivander’s for our interactive wands. We were the first “demo” group of the day. They brought us into the most AMAZING little replica of Olivander’s and the most amazing man posing as Olivander greeted us. Then, he noticed my kids in their robes and he used BOTH of them as the guinea pigs for the demo! This was why I made them wear their robes, I was told that could catch his attention. I didn’t tell them that though, because I didn’t want them to get their hopes up. I was also warned that the kids don’t get the wands they get in the demo for free, but we were planning on buying the anyway so it was fine. The whole thing was – basically – magical.

I bought Luna’s wand which is the one I wanted all along, Donnie bought Voldemort’s because it was the coolest looking, and E bought Narcissa’s because he’s Slytherin and wanted something from the Slytherin line. We tried a few spells before breakfast but they are VERY finicky. You have to do things a certain wait. Day 02 and none of us are still great at it.

We went to breakfast at 3 Broomsticks and it was lovely. It all looked exactly how I expected and it was a filling breakfast and a great relaxing start to the day. Then we went straight for the Hippogriff ride and Wesley fell in LOVE with Buckbeak just seeing her in line. It was really strange! AT this moment he’s ridden that coaster about 15 times so far. He loves it. Nikki, on the other hand, screamed in my shoulders the whole time, “I’m SCARED! MAKE IT STOP!” I made her get back on again because I know her and I knew she’d regret not trying to enjoy it since it is geared to kids. She has since ridden it about 5 times but still closes her eyes every time.

Donnie talked Nikki into doing the Dueling Dragons too because she was (barely) tall enough. I told her if she got scared to do what she did on the Hippogriff ride, just close her eyes. Donnie said the measured her like 3 times going in to make sure she was tall enough, she told me later she kept hoping she wouldn’t be. She said she kept her eyes closed the entire time so it was scary, but not awful. E and I went next. Neither one of us are coaster people and I get really motion sick but I wanted to experience everything so we headed in. E kept trying to talk me out of it! I was all, “DUDE. Stay strong or I’m backing out!” But we got on and basically he ended up loving it. I closed my eyes through about half of it and just said, “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD” over and over again. It was kinda great, kinda awful. I did it again Day 2, but I’ll tell about that later.

We decided it was time to leave Hogsmeade for a bit and we headed to Seuss land. We did the 1 Fish, 2 Fish spinning ride. Donnie sat that out because he doesn’t like spinning and E and I partnered with the kids. It was fun for the kids trying to position our fish to get the wettest (trick: stay in the middle) it’s actually a pretty good ride. They control the fish up/down and get to get wet. We did the Seuss train too, but at that point Wes had been to the dark side of thrill rides and found it boring.

Next was Jurassic Park where we rode the ride that has a raft and a bunch of animatronic dinosoaurs (I don’t have time to look up names as I realize I’m not even going to get to day 2 before my run!) and it was great. I’m glad Wes is tall enough to ride MOST rides. That one we all sat on one row together, it was nice finding a 5-person ride so no one had to go alone. It was definitely freaky/scary at parts,more than I thought it would be. And we got pretty wet. It was fun. Since our stuff was in a locker staying dry we headed over to Cartoon world to do the falls, another wet ride. That line was SUPER long. Longest wait of the day so far (that would be the pattern, great lines until about 12 every day) but the kids totally thought it was worth it. It was basically a log ride, another one we could all do together – 5 person friendly! I made Wes sit behind me and I held his legs the whole time though because I just felt like he was too small for the giant drop I knew was coming. It was scary and we got SOAKED. It was great.

After that we decided to get lunch and then headed back to the hotel (I think) and ended up letting E take a nap while the rest of us played in the lazy river at the hotel. Then we went to the OTHER pool where the kids rode the slide and Donnie and I kinda napped by the pool. Then dinner at the hotel and the kids swam some more while Men In Black played at the pool.

I’m not going to have time to get into Day 2! And I know this lacked personality but I’m trying to just get it all down and then do a proper dos/donts and actual thought about everything later. Just throwing the details out now!! Thanks for being tolerant with this horrible format/brain dump! Here’s 3 pictures!

First look at Hogsmeade!

First look at Hogsmeade!

Wesley being annoyed!

Wesley being annoyed!

3 Broomsticks

3 Broomsticks

Balance

Things Kim Does Before Taking A Family Trip

  • Find someone to take care of the dog
  • Find someone to take care of the cats
  • Find someone to take care of the house
  • Research food/entertainment at destination and make a budget
  • Buy food items so we can stay within that budget by not eating out every meal
  • Research entertainment options that don’t require nice weather in case of rain
  • Pack my clothes
  • Pack Wesley’s clothes
  • Make sure Nikki packs the right/enough clothes
  • Buy Wesley a new swimsuit because, in packing, I find his are all too small
  • Pack a separate bag of bath supplies because of the shampoo incident of ’02
  • Buy batteries for entertainment devices
  • Pack bag of electronics including ALL CHARGERS FOR SAID ELECTRONICS
  • Guide kids in packing “travel” bags to entertain them on the car ride
  • Clean out van
  • Get van serviced
  • Make sure there’s enough cat food/dog food/kitty litter so the housesitters/petsitters (Donnie’s parents) don’t run out
  • Make sure house is “show ready” in case the in-laws get the call while we’re gone
  • Settle for “decent” instead of “perfect” since there’s just TOO MANY OTHER THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT
  • Make sure to pack all medicines we may need in a week
  • Take out garbage, recycling and run dishwasher so nothing sits around stinking up the house
  • Shower

Things Donnie Does Before Taking A Family Trip

  • Pack his clothes
  • Shower

It’s a really good thing I’m naturally the planner/organizer in our family or this devision of labor might be something that bugged the shit out of me.

Final Book Release

#ZootGoesToHogwarts

Sometime early tomorrow morning, we will be starting our 10 hour trek to Florida to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hogsmeade AND Diagon Alley). I’m not driving so I don’t control the departure time, but if I had it my way we’d leave at 3am. This will be our first “real” family vacation in 6 years. You know – the whole family/whole week type of vacation all of our friends do every summer. Nope. Not us. Instead we spend our vacation money on long weekend trips surrounding races several times a year, so it takes us a little longer to save up for something extravagant like what we’re doing this week. Wesley doesn’t even remember the last vacation we took, so this feels like a first for him!

The in-laws are housesitting/dogsitting and being on call in case our house needs to be shown. It will crack me up if it’s shown while we’re gone since it has only shown once in the last 30 days.

We are staying at the on-site hotel – the Cabana Bay Beach Resort and it has a pool with a water slide AND a lazy river. This was perfect for us because we are not typically amusement park people so we knew we’d need to stay somewhere that the kids would find entertaining so we could come back for down time often over the next 7 days.

We have breakfast scheduled at the 3 Broomsticks Sunday and the Leaky Cauldron Wednesday.

I AM SO EXCITED I MIGHT ACTUALLY DIE.

I’ll be posting pictures all week but I’m also going to use Snapchat some. Why? Because an iPhone has two microphones and the main one on mine is dead. I can’t do videos with sound or facetime or speakerphone. BUT – for some reason – Snapchat uses the OTHER microphone (as does the “voice memo” tool) so I can actually record audio with Snapchat. Those blips will be lost to the universe after 24 hours, but that is probably a good thing since it will a whole lot of me acting like a fool.

GET SNAPCHAT! Find me! I’m MissZoot, obviously. Let’s send all of the teenagers away from Snapchat like we did Facebook!

I’ve got my 9 3/4 luggage tag on my suitcase packed with shirts from The Colorful Gleek and Karen Hallion. Wesley is using E’s old Harry Potter suitcase that is probably 15 years old and our stuffed owls are all making the trip. I’d like to pretend like this is for the kids, and it is, but we all know it’s mostly for me. Or at least me and E. Harry Potter was something we enjoyed together the entire span of his lifetime. He doesn’t remember a time before Harry Potter because I discovered it when he was 4. He remembers all of the midnight book releases and movie releases and this is basically going to be us geeking out together for 7 days.

In preparation, let’s relive some of our favorite Harry Potter moments.

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Sears Portrait Studio, the Glory Days.

Yes. We went to Sears and had our pictures made like this. WHAT?

First Movie Release

First Movie Release

They didn’t do a midnight showing in Huntsville for the first movie, but I did let E skip school so we could go see the first showing the day it opened. And then my brother came into town and we saw it again that night.

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Book 5 Midnight Release

My friend in this photo and I stayed up ALL NIGHT reading book 5 because I had a wedding shower the next day and we knew if we didn’t finish it before the shower we’d be awful trying to put it down and be social. I was still a smoker back then so we sat by the pool the next day and read and smoked until the shower. It was actually a pretty glorious day.

Second Movie? I believe?

Second Movie? I believe?

Our friends came in for the second movie release (I think that’s what this was) and let me tell you – everyone should have grown friends that are as fanatical about things as they are. Our friends moved to the Pacific Northwest eventually, but they were still very much a part of our Harry Potter history!

My  30th Birthday Party!

My 30th Birthday Party!

My friends threw me a surprise 30th birthday party before the midnight release of Book 6. We all wore matching shirts and I was pregnant with Nikki but I made it through the late night and finished the book the next day, sobbing my eyes and my heart out thinking that there was just no way I could have a child in a world without Dumbledore.

Final Book Release

Final Book Release

The final book release – where I met Hagrid. It was pretty awesome. But also awful because that meant the books were all over.

Certifications from the Party

Certifications from the Party

I had a Harry Potter party before the first part of the final movie release and it was phenomenal. I worked for days getting everything ready, with Moaning Myrtle signs in the bathroom and Horcruxes hidden around the house. It was pretty awesome.

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Bellatrix and E

And then I went to the movie dressed as Bellatrix but didn’t make it through the movie since I had been up all night prepping for the party and I was too old to do two all nighters in a row.

Not Pictured: Nikki reading the first three books so far and Wes is (hopefully) going to start the first one soon. Donnie has read them all too, in case you’re worried we’re leaving him out. He’s just not quite as in love with it all as I am.

I hope to post recaps every day, mainly because I want to document this trip forever as I’m just SO DAMN EXCITED. I want to savor every moment because it will be another 6 years before we can afford to do this again.

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So many thoughts. So little time.

If you made a list if A) Most fun weekends and B) Most exhausting weekends of my life – this past one would top BOTH lists…probably forever.

From the time I woke up Friday morning at 3:30am to the time I fell asleep last night about 10pm (about 67 hours) I spent 2.5 hours working, 14 hours running, 4 hours at the races NOT running, 10 hours at an art festival, 6 hours at social gatherings, and about 20 hours asleep. The rest of the 10 hours were divided sparsely between Friday, Saturday and Sunday trying my best to maintain things like the house by cleaning and my body by showering. I am exhausted.

But it was great. I have a lot to say about the race and the weekend and the awesomeness in my life but right now I have about 30 seconds before I have to wake up the kids for school and leave for work so what you get instead is one picture from Day 03 that my friend Chelsea took of me taking advantage of an ice cold stream to invigorate my tired legs. 10950688_10153748031763496_6806061783534837729_n