Universal Studios – Islands of Adventure

Florida, Travel, United States

While the original Universal Studios is a fabulous trek down memory lane, Islands of Adventure offers a blast through additional fun and journeys. The second park opened in 1999, and is a bright and bold blend of 90s fun with futuristic excitement, the park is equally, if not more enjoyable than the main park.

For the Potterheads take the Hogwarts Express from Diagon Alley to Hogsmead and begin exploring the rest of the park from there. Hogsmead is home to several great rides including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff and my absolute new favorite ride EVER Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventures!

A side note on Hagrid’s, this ride opened in 2019 and has been a runaway hit, clocking in wait times of 10+ hours on opening week. I was a little cautious about all the hype, but I have to say it was well worth our wait of 70 minutes or so! The build up to the ride was taken with immense care to create a well-crafted and detailed line ride that tells the stories of Hagrid and brings more of the Hogwarts grounds to life. Massive pumpkin, Hagrid’s hut, carved building ruins, paintings, and much more bring the story to life and build on the excitement. Harry Potter fans can’t miss this ride if even for the build up. Beyond that, the ride itself is a fantastic high speed roller coaster experience that stretches almost a mile long! The coaster seamlessly blends story and speed bursts, with some amazing surprises, to make a fabulous experience for all. I have never been on a ride I loved so very much and I can’t wait to return to Universal to ride again!

Beyond the rides, the area is home to fan favorite locations from the stories including the Three Broomsticks and Hogshead. Shops sell things like Pumpkin Juice, and a treat shop is sure to please any sugar rush. There is even a wand shop for those that missed Olivander’s or need to replace one they left on the train (I know this from personal experience….12 year olds).

As an additional charm they have ample outdoor seating and wonderful views of the castle made with a distorted perspective, allowing guests to REALLY feel engrossed in the Wizarding World.

My last tip is to check if they are doing any light shows or events for the season you are visiting. When we were there they had their Halloween Death Eaters Show and it was phenomenal to watch and enjoy. My stepdaughter even had a showdown with a Death Eater!

Death Eater Show Hogsmeade

Now, if you must venture out of Hogsmead and Harry Potter world, the Islands of Adventure offers something for everyone! Exit by the castle and you can’t miss the Jurassic Park education zone, an exact replica from the 1993 movie! This family-friendly area brings to life moments from the movie’s work with DNA and eggs to create new-age dinos and it’s a blast for kiddos to get involved with. Even if they haven’t seen the movies.

Image result for islands of adventure map

Follow along that same path and you will see a raptor encounter, recently updated with Blue from the Jurassic World trilogy. A little further along you will see the River Adventure Ride that offers so much fun for kids of all ages (my 5-year-old cousin lovingly calls them water coasters). This log flume ride offers some thrills and nostalgia as it reflects the first movies in the series, and some animatronics that could use some love. Regardless, it is a lot of fun!

For thrill seekers, don’t miss the Kong ride they opened in early 2016 which celebrates the stories and thrills over King Kong. The ride is a bus simulated ride through the jungle, in 3-D, offering bumps and falls and much excitement for riders.

After Kong there are several options for fun, including toon land, and a superhero land. The Spiderman Ride is worth a spin, and my husband loved the Hulk Coaster! If you are a fan of 90s superhero cartoons and classic comic books, make sure you visit this area of the park. Rumors are around that the rights to the area may run out soon. Since Disney now owns all the Marvel characters, there is a good chance they will want to create their own Superhero world and they will need to get rid of the competition.

If you are traveling with little ones, exit Hogsmead by the Hogwarts Express and head along that route for some delightful theming and “islands” that are less intense for little adventurers. The Lost Continent is like a mysterious land of shops, shows, and a touch of Arabian Nights. Past that you will land in Suess Landing which is ultimately a “little kid land”. This area is purely delightful for Dr. Suess fans, and it is full of all your favorite characters, such as the Lorax, and Cat in the Hat. If you are a fan, simply walk through and enjoy a piece of your childhood in real life.

The Lorax in Suess Landing

Both sides will loop you back to the front of the park, which exists onto Universal City Walk.

All around, if you are visiting the parks, visit both of them. If you have more than one day, go twice. You will want to ride certain things twice, buy things you forgot, and overall make sure you have time to take it all in.

Swimming with Manatees- Crystal River, Florida

adventure of the week, Florida, History, outdoors, United States

A few years ago a co-worker informed me that you can swim with wild MANATEES in Florida! As you know, if you follow this blog, I adore animal encounters. Learning manatees are an option meant they went to the top of my list for my Florida vacation 2019.

Photo Courtesy of River Ventures

Manatees are a native species to Florida, and are considered an important part of the ecosystem and culture of the state. Before Europeans arrived the animals were a valuable part to the winter diets of Native populations in the Southeast. Early European explorers to the Southern United States thought they were some type of mermaid, and myths and legends abounded about the “sea cows”. They also hunted some types into extinction.

By the 20th century the animals were threatened due to pollution, boats, and loss of habitat. In 2019 though, the numbers have greatly increased and they are now a vulnerable versus an endangered species. However, the biggest threat to these animals continues to be humans, and impending climate change.

You are so lucky because you live on the west coast of Florida, where there are lots and lots of manatees, … Most of the kids in the country don’t know about manatees and how wonderful they are.

John Lithgow

My intrigue with manatees began when I was a little kid, an animal lover, and I learned about the oddly majestic water mammals. I was extremely concerned for their well-being regarding the damage boats were doing to them, and I have followed their bounce back over the last 20 years or so. Thus, having the chance to get dirty and go visit some of the critters was simply something I could not pass up!

Researching the trip, I learned that some the best viewing areas for manatees is in Crystal River, Florida, about two hours west of Orlando. Located on the gulf coast, the area has the perfect blend of warm waters fed by underground aquifers that the manatees adore. The beasts like things to be 70°F +, and can die in temperatures below 68°F. When the gulf coast gets cold, especially in the winter months, the animals move inland to the naturally warm fresh water.

I ended up selecting the company, River Ventures, as they vocally expressed their concern and work to protect the gentle giants, and they came highly rated in Trip Advisor and other locations. We selected their group tour, flight and early at 7:15 a.m. and waited with anticipation for our adventure.

A youth manatee at Crystal River

At 4:00 a.m. on a Saturday in October my sister and I carb loaded, drank some tea and coffee and drove the pitch black highways of western Florida to Crystal River. We wore swimsuits under our clothes, and made sure we were well equipped with towels and equipment to make the most of a three hour adventure. As a severely nearsighted person I purchased snorkel goggles with adjusted lenses, and as a video nerd I bought a small 4k camera to film our adventure. These investments proved to be priceless!

The company started before our scheduled time and offered coffee, bathrooms, and friendly rescue dog snuggles (a total bonus). Everyone was enthusiastic to participate in the adventure and we chatted happily with other travelers. Before long we were sat in to watch an educational video, discuss wet suits, and change into said suits before a short bus ride took us to the canal boats we were to sail on.

(c) Photo courtesy of River Ventures

It took a while to find some manatees in the canals, we were early for the season, but several manatees had come inland sensing a storm and cooling period on the horizon. The added bonus of sailing the canals for 40 minutes was that we could take in dozens of birds and the sunrise over the canals, offering a charming glimpse into the ecosystem of the area.

While the canals lay on ancient foundations fed by springs the area has been built up with houses and boating enthusiasts. However, with as many people as there are living in the area there was an active group participation in preservation and safety for the animals. Every few docks posted signs about manatees, people named their boats after the animals, and the tour companies that regularly operate in the area work together to tell people about manatee spotting, patterns they have seen, and other important details. This community spirit is vital in the preservation of the region and unique animals that inhabit the area.

(C) Photo by River Ventures

Once we had found a good manatee for visiting, and by good manatee they mean one that is docile and experienced with people, we got our goggles and snorkels ready to go, climbed into the cool waters, and let the wet suits and pool noodles do their jobs to keep us afloat.

Slowly we approached the 40+ year old manatee that we were meant to visit. The big girl was affectionately known as “Red Hot Poker” due to the red algae she grows on her back during certain times of the year. “Red” was not only an elder member of the manatee community, but she was also very pregnant and due to give birth at any time.

I expected the manatees to be large, one can not truly understand their size until you come upon them in murky waters. My experience was one of slowly swimming to the rest of my group with “Red” and coming upon a massive grey beast lurking in the water. For scale, imagine how disconcerting it would be to swim upon a car hood in a small and shallow canal. Her tail fin was in fact the size of a car hood, and showed her decades of swimming, boat encounters, and life in the canals and gulf.

Swimming upon any animal besides a fish is a truly remarkable experience, to visit with such an ancient queen of Florida was truly breathtaking. The guides referred to these beasts as Buddhas due to their calm relationship with their surroundings. The animals simply float, eat, experience, and interact with their world in a second by second manner. They take in the movement and landscape with nerves on their body that sense people and object undetected by their small eyes and poor eyesight. So calm about their existence “Red” simply went about her business grazing on sea grass and coming up for air every few minutes, even with fifteen nosy tourists sticking their nose in her business. “Red” was so calm that she would rise up under myself and other swimmers to get a breath, here she would swim against my hands and was totally unmoved by them being there. Her sense knew I was there all along, but she didn’t care that I touched her in a friendly reminder or hello.

(C) Photo by River Ventures
(C) Photo by River Ventures

Our interaction with “Red” was nothing short of amazing, in the taking breath ones away and wanting to cry it’s so profound, way. I could not believe how peaceful she floated about her day, obviously aware we were curious, and aware that we meant her only peace and friendship. To be face to face with a wild animal that was so calm was a fascinating glimpse into a world beyond our own comprehension and reactions. No wonder early settlers and native cultures were equally intrigued by these majestic animals.

Our time with “Red” came to an end, but before heading back we stopped to view an aquifer, known as Jurassic Spring, that fed the canals with warm water. It was there that a youth manatee swam through our group on the run from a larger group of snorkelers. We called it a day, and followed the directions to return to our boat and back to the tour beginnings.

(C) Photo by River Ventures

In support of the cause we bought our photos, some cute souvenirs, and with giant grins on our face we headed back to Orlando. Ending a truly magical morning in the fresh waters of Crystal River, Florida. With, as my husband calls them, sea potatoes.

Have you swam with manatees? What was your experience like?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Happy Travels!

Venice Travel Tips

italy, Travel

Venice is one of those places one dreams about visiting. It’s a bucket list destination full of legends, art, myths and plenty to explore!

If you are heading to Venice, here are a few things to remember before you hit the road…. I mean lagoon.

  1. There are no cars allowed on Venice. No cars. This means you need to take a train, or boat to the city. Trains arrive on the main island through Santa Lucia station. Planes are at the Marco Polo airport, where the train or a bit can be taken into the lagoon. If you have a car leave your car parked and take the ferry to Venice, Lido or other island.
  2. Take the Gondola ride! It’s expensive but worth every second. You wouldn’t go to Paris and miss the Eiffel Tower, don’t miss the Gondolas!
  3. Travel in the off season! Avoid the crowds and have a better time. Go in the fall or early spring to see more with less chaos.
  4. Learn a little. Pick up a book or two before you go and learn some about the rich history of Venice. This will bring everything you see more to life.
  5. Get off the main island. If you have time, get out and explore the Venice Lagoon islands such as Burano and Murano for charming villages and awesome art. If a beach is more your style, head to Lido.

Happy Travels!

Visiting Cinque Terre

History, italy, Travel

Located on the west coast of Italy, a part of the Italian Riviera is the ever increasingly popular National Park of Cinque Terre. Millions visit the area every year from Florence and Rome, making it a top destination for travelers.

The appeal of The “five lands” is its sweeping landscapes, rich views, and unique adventures.

Here are my tips for visiting this enchanting location.

  • Catch an early train
    • Most people start from Florence, catch a regional train from Santa Maria Novella to La Spezia. At La Spezia you can buy your day or multi-day pass to the National Park and access to the train network in the region
    • If you are renting a car, park in La Spezia, and buy your pass just the same.
    • A small train network links the five villages (lands) running approximately every 20 minutes in each direction (north or south). This is the easiest way to get from city to city.
    • Note that there are no cars allowed in the cities and that there is a bus line that also connects the region but it’s less consistent and requires more walking.
    • The earlier you go, the better! This will help you avoid crowds and heat.
  • Bring your hiking shoes
    • There are over 70 miles of trails that links the five villages are region. The views from these trails are magnificent and offer amazing photo opportunities.
    • The trails are tough, but you do escape the crowds and enjoy some fantastic nature along the way.
    • Check trail conditions before you go, as wash outs are common.
  • Check your trains
    • Train schedules are more of a guideline than a rule in Italy. Therefore, make sure you read the schedules and allow extra time to get back to La Spezia and then your “home base” if you’re doing a day trip.
    • Allow time
    • If you can, stay a couple nights and truly take in the cities!
  • Off season or bust
    • If you can, go right at the end of summer (September/October) or right at the beginning of summer (March) so that you can enjoy the region sans millions of tourists. This allows a local connections that is often missed in June and July!

Your Local Theme Park is as Good as you Remember

colorado, Colorado Events, Travel, United States

Many times we are reminded that theme parks are for kids. They are money sucks of candy and cartoons and memorable characters and wild rides that make many adults queasy. We are reminded to take our kids to this and that so they have fun and memories and pictures. But I say, hold up, theme parks are as much for adults as kids, and you damn well can have a great time.

This year, if anything, is becoming my year of theme parks. For a long time I shied away from the parks. Well, I didn’t actively shy away, but I didn’t try to go to theme parks. I had not been to anything since 2015 on my last trip to Florida, and I decided to change that.

The last eight months have been a stressful, but mostly positive experience in my family. My husband had a job change, I am having two surgeries this year (more on this later next week), I have had promotions and job trainings. It has been crazy, an emotional roller coaster (pun intended), and stressful. I decided that my stepdaughter and I needed some fun on a day we had free together and that’s what we did.

We took a whole Saturday, grabbed Lily’s friend Josiah, and spent a whole day eating junk food, riding rides, and weaving through crowds at Elitch Gardens in Denver, Colorado. It was silly, it was fun, we made goofy jokes, we laughed at the rides, we got dizzy on the tea cups and we had an overall great day.

We enjoyed it so much we are looking forward to going next week with our Girl Scout Troop! There is even a new ride based on Meow Wolf, the Kaleidescape, which is an amazing art installation! It’s classic fun, in a local setting, full of all the grease and Dippin’ Dots that made a 90s childhood amazing.

So, fellow adults, and adult adjacents, get off your ass and enjoy the insane stupid fun of your local theme park this year. You will blow off steam, you’ll get some sun, you’ll walk like five miles so don’t stress about the calories, and you will make some memories.

Happy Travels!

A Decade of Travel

Florida, France, italy, mexico, Scotland, Travel

It has been ten and a half years since I took my first trip without my parents. In that decade I have learned a lot about the world, people, cultures, identities, food, wine, and maybe most importantly, myself.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about being on the road, about depending on only myself, about sleeping in strange places, about navigating subways is that you learn so very much about the person that resides inside. It is the quiet moments waiting on a subway platform or walking around a city all alone that you get to listen to the internal voice. It is disconnecting the cell phones and emails and constant bombardment of your life that you can listen to yourself.

In a decade on the road, where most adventures have been solo, I have found more pieces of me on the road than I ever would have staying put. On my own two feet I have found that I am strong, a problem solver, great at meeting people, good at budgeting, amusing and kind, great at navigating, good at picking up social queues and much more. My favorite part is finding out that I am in fact a brave and capable person, in spite of a society that tells women they’re not.

Perhaps my travel is a rebellion, as is all the other women that travel alone, to all the people that told me not to go. It’s a rebellion to the other women that told me to be scared and to stay home. It’s a rebellion to the men that warned me, or assumed my actions were reckless, or would have preferred I stayed home and did nothing. It’s a fight against the men that have tried to intimidate me, or have groped me, or have threatened me. I am saying, none of these actions, big or small, will keep me from embracing and existing in this world.

A decade of travel has emboldened me to be more outgoing and more bold to apply for promotions. A decade of travel has pushed me into scared moments of education and risk, and to walk away from crappy people and situations. Ten years of traveling has meant that I have found a voice, and a purpose, and I left my home town and I have never looked back.

While I get to own decade of travel it has only been facilitated by the support and care of family and friends that encouraged my journey. My grandma talked me through the planning and shared books and art resources for me to find. My family friends pushed me to visit them, or to make sure I went. In my college years my partner, now husband, supported my study abroad and Master’s work internationally. My mother took her own travel dreams and wove them into my own by connecting me with friends, and buying me books. My Great-Aunt and Uncle took me on my first trip without my parents. And so many more have helped me along the way, from teachers to mentors, to total strangers.

It is these hands of support and love that have encouraged me to become the confident traveler and woman I have. While I always will have more to learn about myself and the world, I know I have crafted a framework for success.

So dear reader, I deeply encourage you and the others in your life to get out there and see the world. It’s one of the most profound and moving experience that anyone can have.

Ice Ice Baby – Dillon Ice Castle

adventure of the week, colorado, Colorado Events, History, outdoors, Photography, Travel

The city of Dillon, Colorado along with a handful of other cities around North America have welcomed the magic and whimsy of #IceCastles the last few years. The company creates elegant magic with their ice castles creating spires, spikes, fountains, slides, and other intriguing icy creations.

With our Dog Sledding trip in late January, it felt naturalto add on an adventure to an ice kingdom! We decided to visit the whimsy atnight where thousands of lights brighten the structure creating a surreallandscape.

1896 Leadville Ice Castle

The castle, much to my surprise, was less of a “brick andmortar” structure of castles in the past, such as the one that used to take up residence in 1896 in Leadville,Colorado.

Yet, through better methods, less work intensive, and moderntechnology the creators of Ice Castles has built a masterpiece of art that resemblesnature versus the palaces of old England. The Dillon castle is made of layersand layers of ice crystals that droop elegantly together to make a spindledfortress. Reminding the viewer of candle wax, the castle is almost haunting inits design, as if some fantasy’s Ice Queen had designed the elements.

Almost gothic, but celebrating natural artistry, the castlesoffer a glimpse into something otherworldly and full of inspiration. Elementsthroughout offer play in the form of slides and selfie spots.  While other details inspire wonder in roomswith fountains and thousands of icicles. Regardless of what you want from thetrip, bundle up, and enjoy yourself!

Memento Mori

Throwback Thursday, Travel, United Kingdom

I have a habit of seeking out odd things. By odd I mean things like mummified cats (not the Ancient Egyptian kind), Surgeon’s museums, and Operating theaters.

I like searching out the oddities in the world, the weird places that get missed by the tourist trail. Some of it’s a love for seeking out gems that no one else knows, and then it’s the dark little goth girl from high school.

Since I began exploring the world on my own I have made an effort to see the odd spots that delight my heart.

No doubt just about every castle has its own horror stories. It’s easy to forget that castles were often involved in wars, jailings, beheadings, affairs, murders… you get the idea. Needless to say, the fairytales and kid’s history lessons play down these facts.

Yet, beyond the subtly macabre I have visited some outright dark museums.

Edinburgh Surgeons’ Hall Museum

I visited the halls and spaces of this museum in 2010. I missed it in 2015 due to its renovation but from all accounts it’s still as glorious as ever and reopening this year. For more information, click here.

The museum is attached to the historic and vital University of Edinburgh’s Medical School. Not only does it celebrate almost three centuries of work and education, but also medical marvels and a collection of items for educational purposes.

My personal favorite pieces were the vast selection of body parts in formaldehyde and wax preserved pieces with vein and other details.

(C) Surgeons’ Hall Museum

Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret

This fantastic museum is hidden in the attic of St Thomas’ Church in Southwark. The location is home to years of medical institutes and knowledge such as the original site of St Thomas Hospital, which was found around 1100.

In the 19th century the attic was made into the Herd Garrett and Theatre that has been preserved until today. The theatre was in fact used for students to learn from. All of those that were operated on were women and no form of anesthesia was used due to the lack of its invention.

While the history is dark, and no doubt people suffered, it was this work and the study of medicine, that helped us get to a much better today. For that alone, it’s worth a visit. For the fact it’s one of only a few operating theatres left in the world, entices further.

The Garrett itself is a magnificent display of what prescriptions, lotions, and potions looked like in centuries past. Some of the gems I most particularly love were are their collection of “tools of the trade” and old prints on how they were used.

What are your favorite macabre locations?

Make Sure You’ve Got the Docs

adventure of the week, Allergen-free eating on the road, Caribbean, colorado, Colorado Events, europe, Florida, France, Iowa, Ireland, italy, mexico, Nebraska, new mexico, Scotland, Travel, United Kingdom, United States, wyoming

So many times I hear this classic “I didn’t know I needed a Visa”.

Here is the truth, you ALWAYS need a Visa.

“What?” You ask. Because in London they stamped your book and you were free to go as a US citizen. This is totally true, but that stamp, at customs and border, was your visa. No pre-registration and paperwork needed. Just the stamp.

Here is the thing though, sometimes the stamp doesn’t happen. And a big reason is that your passport may not have at least 6 months left on it for you to enter a specific country. Or more depending on where you are headed. In fact, many airlines won’t even let you board the plane if your passport is low on time. Meaning that week in Paris may be thrown away if you’re not prepared. This happens a lot.

Now for countries where you need advance permission, it’s vital to learn who needs what and what is needed. Meaning: countries like China may take longer and need you to buy plane tickets before you travel. Vietnam only takes a few days to process. Some countries only need a form when you land and a $50 fee. Just make sure you find out and find out at least a month or more in advance so you have time to plan.

Where do you find these details? Embassy websites and through the US state department’s website on travel: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages.html

Don’t forget to also check warnings on places you are traveling to. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories.html/

Even consider registering with the state department in case you go missing. https://step.state.gov/step/

Other needs? Check with a travel agent or specialist that can at least point you in the right direction. Read a travel guide on your preferred country and ask around to others that have been to such locations.

Most of all, plan ahead, and have fun!

Happy Travels!

Don’t Plan Too Much

Travel

As a follow up to my last post, Plan Ahead, Avoid the Headache, I wanted to share the opposite problem for travelers to ponder, planning too much.

Flash to January 2010 and I am a nervous 18, almost 19 year old, planning their first trip to Europe. I was working in a small gift shop in Manitou Springs, and while the day was slow I would plan out, step-by-step how my trip was going to go. I mean step-by-step. I had the time I woke up, map directions and times to get to the first spot I wanted to see, approximate times for a lunch break, and what area or grocery store, or park bench I thought I should stop at.

This was a classic case of a bored mind finding mazes to run, and a nervous first time (solo) traveler trying to figure out how to maximize time in other countries. I had no freakin’ clue.

I landed in Germany in April 2010 and within a week everything had gone to hell. I was luckily staying with friends outside of Stuttgart, but the next part of my trip was delayed an entire week as all flights were grounded due to a certain Icelandic Volcano. When I say everything was grounded, I mean this volcanic ash cloud left 10 million stranded, cost airlines 1.7 billion in revenues…etc. etc. Thank you Eyjafjallajokull volcano! 

On a personal level it meant my two months of planned travel was also interrupted and I played a fast game of cutting out places in England and Ireland that I had planned to see. I split London into two chunks. I cut out the Lake District. I spent less time with friends in Diss. Then I met a Scottish guy and changed my plans for matters of the heart (this was also a flop). 

However, the lesson was that all my hours and hours and days of planning meant that I had failed to see that life, especially in traveling, gets messy and disruptive, and REALLY hates strict rules. I learned hard and fast that on long journeys you often just don’t know how your desires may change and that your heart may find a new path. 

I learned this again in 2013, when my funding for my study abroad was late and I was staying with family with no money. That same trip meant I would catch whooping cough and be bedridden for a week instead of going to Istanbul. 

Since then I have become wise to these tricks, or so I pretend, and I try to find a happy medium. A set of “plans” maybe a few tours, maybe some reservations, but ultimately I let things happen and I stay open to opportunity. What I have learned more than anything is that it’s important to enjoy the journey, not just the destination. 

Happy Travels!