Universal Studios – Dining with Allergies

Allergen-free eating on the road, Florida, food, geek, Travel, United States

It is so unbelievably hard traveling with food allergies. Living in the western United States with food allergies is Russian Roulette on where you go, with who, and how sick you might become. The biggest issue overall is that people don’t understand that allergies are serious, and that eating said food means hours, if not days, of discomfort and upset!

When I travel abroad I usually can find items without issue, it is taken pretty seriously in most establishments (if you can cross the language barrier). While in the United States, half the people you work with don’t care, or don’t understand. I am not picking on servers who are underpaid, overworked, and often undertrained, but rather a system that doesn’t always take it seriously. For instance, I have celiac, that means that if you make me a dish after someone else, you need to either use a CLEAN pan or CLEAN the pan to remove any residue from the last order. Sometimes the care is taken, sometimes it is not.

Therefore, when I went to Universal Studios this time around, I was really nervous about what I could eat and what would be offered. When I visited in 2015, I found it hard to find enough to eat that was worth the money and worth the sit-down meal time. Four years later I was worried I would be faced with similar issues. I even packed emergency food because I had no idea if I could eat all day.

My fears were actually overhyped. Completely overhyped. What I found on the food landscape at Universal in late 2019 was a complete overhaul of their menus, offering a vast and delicious variety of food for people like me. Not only am I celiac, but I don’t eat any meat but fish (pescatarian), and I try really hard to avoid dairy and soy. The true key to the success of their grab and go menus was the use of one magic little patty, the Beyond Burger. For those not in the know, the Beyond Burger is a protein packed veggie patty that is gluten, soy, and dairy free. It is also vegan, and the thing is really tasty when prepared right. Universal now offers this burger at most quick eat burger-type locations AND they offer a gluten-free bun.

This meant that I could go to Mel’s Drive-In with the rest of my group and eat a burger with everyone. To top it off they even had a gluten-free french fry fryer. This meant I could sit down in a burger joint and eat with my family. I almost cried with joy, I had not been able to do something like this EVER with my husband (we have been together 9 years) and stepdaughter. To top it off, it was soooooo tasty.

AND the better part is it wasn’t just Mel’s that worked hard to make our time great. We went to the Three Broomsticks for dinner that same night, and we ordered their Great Feast platter which is full of veggies, potatoes, and chicken. It feeds like four to six people. All of us but my husband and stepdaughter had allergies, so the chef came out and discussed our options. So wonderful was he that he made individual plates for my sister’s and I (the most common allergies) and made sure no one got sick. This was equally delicious, and we practically rolled everyone out of the pub after dinner we were all so full. This care and concern MADE the trip really magical.

Did I mention that Butterbeer is also GLUTEN FREE (not vegan/dairy free) and extremely tasty hot or frozen!

It didn’t stop there either, we ate at the cafeteria at Cabana Bay the nights we were there, and we had the same care and precision with our burgers there. We ate at Cowfish at City Walk and they were equally cautious and thorough. Then we ate at Toothsome, also at City Walk, and the gentleman there was so good that he had every menu item memorized and could tell us when we could and could not eat at the drop of a hat. He also did it without flinching, without checking with a chef, and without concerning anyone!

This meant many things, including that we all had a much easier and enjoyable time on vacation, and that we all left the restaurants without stomach aches, needing an Epi-pen, or days of discomfort. This precision made our vacation an elevated and magical experience, which I have only ever seen in the contained workings of a cruise ship kitchen.

This comes down to offering a variety of food at each location and well-trained EXPERT staff that do their job with love and dedication. Without the people that have the knowledge of ingredients, cooking, and allergies, none of this would work.

Therefore, I write this as a thank you to the fantastic employees of Universal Studios Orlando!

Happy EATS (and Travels)!

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.

Universal Studios (the 1990 classic)

Florida, Travel, United States

2019 has been my year of theme parks. I revisited a childhood favorite, added a new one, and revisited an adult favorite. Regardless of how many different ones I go to, or ones I remember from the past I still absolutely adore Universal Studios in Orlando.

While Universal is spread over three different parks at this point, the 1990 classic theme park still offers a phenomenal experience for visitors. The park is full of wonderful rides, character engagements, and theming that create a truly family-oriented adventure for children of all ages.

While the park has seen a few different manifestations, rides, and themes through the years, it still retains a healthy sense of 19th century movie nostalgia (Blues Brothers) and a new generations’ love (Diagon Alley). For geeks of all ages it is well worth a visit. Diagon Alley will always be my favorite, but I found some new delights this visit!

Blues Brothers – While only a show, this delightful show runs hourly in the late morning and afternoon and features some extremely talented acts that really embody the classic film. No it’s not Dan Ackroyd and resurrected Aretha Franklin and John Belushi, but it is people that make the skit truly a joy and worth watching.

Blues Brothers Block Party – Universal Studios, Florida

Minion Mayhem & Other Kid Rides offer a chance for littles to escape into their favorite movies and adventures. Even my 12-year-old stepdaughter enjoyed Minions for the enjoyable “little kid” elements. I was lucky enough to skip a lot of the more kid-engineered rides, I had plenty of family to take Lily to enjoy them!

Diagon Alley – The starting point for many a Potterhead, Diagon offers a jumping off point where one “enters into London”, greets the Knight Bus, and then “finds” Diagon (through a winding entry way). It is there that one can find the excitement of everything described in the Harry Potter books including shops, Knockturn Alley and other surprises one has to experience first hand. For the supreme experience, visit Olivander’s and watch the wand ceremony (or get selected) and make sure someone picks up an interactive wand. Finally, don’t miss the Escape from Gringott’s ride, a Butterbeer in the Leaky Cauldron, and nom some candy at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes.

Diagon Alley – Universal Studios, Florida

My other favorite, favorite, ride in the park is the Revenge of the Mummy, based on one of my favorite thriller/adventure movies from the 90s, the Mummy (circa 1999)! While the movie turned 20 this year, and the ride is 16 in 2020, it hold strong as one of the most popular in the park. It’s a frightening coaster-themed ride with fire, monsters, Egyptian lore, and hidden gems that make it a legendary ride. While some leave the ride in tears (my poor stepdaughter) my husband and I find it wonderfully thrilling.

Finally, for some nostalgia and Americana, don’t miss the “streets” that are portrayed throughout the park. A little bit of Chicago, some New York, and 1950s charm and sprinkled throughout the park. The entire park expresses a walk through memory lane, and if you are in the mood, stop at the 1950s themed diner, Mel’s Diner, for a milkshake or Gluten Free and Vegan eats.

Mel’s Drive-In

Most importantly, take time to be silly, take photos, be spontaneous, and celebrate being a 90s kid (or 80s kid or 70s kid or…you know).

Mount Dora, Florida

adventure of the week, Florida, Travel, United States

A few years ago my baby sister took on the challenge of buying her first home with her fiancé. While staying in Orlando proper would have kept their commute down, they decided they needed a break from their lives in the tourism industry and they selected something further afield. Thus, they selected a cute little suburb of Orlando to create a home in.

Along with their three (yes three) cats they moved to the small and quaint town of Mount Dora, Florida. Known as the highest point in Florida, the township is affectionately understood as a “mountain”, in the closest form of “mountain” Florida can get. (Mind you I may have a slanted view being a Colorado girl, also my sister is a Colorado girl and we can’t understand why she ran away to live in the heat).

Their home was built in 1924 and is full of old-growth trees! The entire city blooms and is covered with a mist of Spanish Moss.

Anyway, mountain or hill, Mount Dora is well known as an artistic and charming community of retirees and hippies, offering up art festivals, weekly farmers markets, and some of the best antiquing in central Florida. It is also considered the most Christmas-filled town in America (I don’t get this because HEAT), and thousands flock to the city to celebrate the holidays, lights, and find some old town American charm.

While they purchased the home in 2017, I was not able to visit this beloved community, until this fall, where I had the pleasure to attend my sister’s wedding and find some fun. I was pleasantly surprised and revived visiting the little city! Here are some of my favorites in the town and why it is worth a stop on your journey through the area.

Where to Eat

WAVE (Sushi) – This was by far my favorite dinner place for the trip. The food was phenomenal, well-priced, and absolutely delicious (landlocked states lack in fresh seafood). The restaurant has gained a following for their Sushi Donuts, Sushi Burritos, and Sushi Burgers all which seem to defy physics. All of which are delicious and enjoyable, if hard to eat! They offered phenomenal options for Gluten Free food, and the staff was considerate, aware, and caring about our needs. I would recommend this place for any visitor to Mount Dora!

HIGHLAND STREET CAFE – This sweet little charmer is about a block away from my sister’s and while it is bordering on the “too cute” spectrum, they offer humble and satisfying eats for a fair price. The staff is super sweet and well versed in food needs. If you need a fast, homemade meal, this is a perfect breakfast and lunch spot.

FESTIVALS

The town is affectionately known as the “Festival City” with events and activities going on almost every week, or at least a couple times a month. While we were there in late October, the city was doing an art festival. At Halloween they had a downtown event for kids and families and soon after they were hosting holiday lightings and events. Check out events on your vacation here.

WALKS

The city is home to a small lighthouse, celebrating Florida’s nautical history. Photo by: Daniel Piraino

Unlike most American towns, Mount Dora is extremely walkable and offers a lot of opportunities for exploration and enjoyment. The downtown is full of small inns and bed and breakfasts which only need to be parked at. Then it’s extremely easy to walk to everything you might need including shopping, dining, nightlife, the main lake of the city, and some trails. If you are brave enough to exercise in the heat, the city is home to many nature trails that are ideal for hiking, biking, and exploring the Florida wilds, click here.

Overall Mount Dora is a great place to stop in Central Florida. If you have an extra day and want to get out of the chaos of Orlando, or if you need an escape to some charm, Mount Dora is sure to please!

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!

Over Tourism in Wild Places

adventure of the week, Caribbean, colorado, europe, Florida, United Kingdom, United States, wyoming

While we had started the day as one of maybe three or four boats in the canal system doing tours, numbers quickly increased about an hour and a half into the tour. Not only did the additional boats make the canal more crowded, but larger groups of snorkelers, with what seemed like less instruction, swarmed the area. To add insult to injury, a large group of kayakers also flooded the scene trying to catch a glimpse of the now frightened young manatee.

We were snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River, Florida in what had been established as a nature preserve among the outskirts of the city. We had showed up at 6:30 a.m. so we could truly enjoy the animals at a calm and less-crowded time. We were lucky until 9:00 a.m. when the crowds arrived.

My group was instructed to return to our boat at this time, trying to allow others to see the animal, which we had been lucky enough to encounter, but back on the ship we saw the problems with popularity.

Much like the rest of tourism sites the world over, manatees and other wildlife encounters are having a moment in the limelight, that also means that areas get overused. While our selected tour company has been working for decades to create a more sustainable experience, even pairing with the University of Florida to restore sea grass in the canals due to climate change, they can’t control the populations of tourists that come into the area. While most companies will limit sizes of groups, a lot do not, and that means more money for the company, but not the best situation for the animals or natural areas.

While manatees and their habitats are cared for and many of the springs have been closed in the past, there often isn’t a way to monitor or control the use in an area in times that are open to the public. Even the boat captain informed us that when other canals close to public use more people descend on Crystal River and other areas for things like kayaking, snorkeling, and paddle boarding. This makes already operating tours more crowded, and the animals are more consistently with people.

Florida is not alone in their wild tourism boom. Many National Parks in the United States, State Parks, reserves, and other areas of the world are feeling overwhelmed with tourism. The animals that rely on natural areas are no doubt losing habitat and safe areas to exist. We lose wetlands and hidden areas for animals to escape into. While traveling opens our eyes to so much, are we also killing that which we love?

As humans we have developed around 75-80% of the land in the world, with a large portion of that happening in the last century. Blame overpopulation of humans, and development, and consumerism. All of those things have tipped the scales. In the last 50 years or so travel has began to greatly impact the story as well.

My grandparents would lament trips to Yellowstone in the 1970s and how crowded it was. Today they would be shocked that the 2.5 million visitors they were part of then have swelled to over 4.1 million annually since 2015. On one hand it’s great that more and more people are in love with the wild open and stunning landscapes that lucky people have known and loved since childhood, on the other hand, the droves have a negative impact on the landscape. Sometimes it is misinformed tourists “rescuing” a baby bison, other times it is litter that kills animals who eat it, sometimes the amount of people alone are the problem.

As in so much of what I write, and my actions, I attempt to be mindful of what my actions and words do to those places and people around me. In caring for the natural world I love, I think it’s important to acknowledge my own negative impact in the environment. I love visiting wild places and animals in a way to better appreciate and love the world I live in, but my existence changes the landscape. However, I know there are ways to help.

  • Go in the off or shoulder seasons – I despise heavy crowds at Disney, the beach, and anywhere else. Living next to Rocky Mountain National Park, I avoid the park from May to October because of the swarms of tourists that are in the area. I follow this practice elsewhere, and I make a heavy effort only to visit places when numbers are lower. This decreases the day to day pressure of areas, city or wild, to make it better for every living thing.
  • Research companies and their values – For any animal or wild tour I do a lot of research before selecting a company. This is rooted in concern for animal welfare and concern for the environment. For example, when we went dog sledding, I selected a company that adopts dogs for their tourism work, and then finds home for the dogs when they retire. All the dogs we met were well fed, happy, and totally goofy. However amazing the experience was, their welfare was absolutely vital for our selection. I have also learned bag things about companies and will not visit them again after a visit, such as the Cayman Turtle Farm. Mistakes will happen, learn from them, vow to do better.
  • Talk to experts, read work from experts – Signs in National Parks are there for YOUR safety as much as for the animals. Listen to rangers and experts when they tell you not to leave toothpaste in your tent, or to stay on the trails. There is method to the madness and it keeps things nice for everyone else.
  • Vow to Fight Animal Cruelty – do your research on this, and ask a lot of questions. While it may seem like dolphins are happy with swimming excursions in a pool, the truth is that the industry is soaked in blood (I don’t say that jokingly). Elephants are a prime example, and there is a lot of debate on what are acceptable versus cruel interactions. You won’t be perfect at this, just ask questions, do research, try to understand the complexities.

Happy Travels!

Disney Discount Shopping – Is it Worth it?

musings

Disney is notoriously expensive, and adding on souvenirs can make everything that much more! My family isn’t particularly materialistic, but we do like fun items to remember our adventures and that includes Disney. All of us at my house have some favorite characters, and all of us have fandoms that we collect from. So, the question when we were headed to Disney World was how much should we budget and how can we save money?

When I visited Disney Springs in 2015, I was surprised at how affordable a lot of options were for visitors. There were a lot of two for one deals on stuffed animals, affordable bags, and other items that made the cost a little more bearable. I also LOVED the pins and lanyards, and inevitably bought about $100 worth of goodies for myself and to share with my stepdaughter.

Planning for our trip in 2019, I am surprised to hear that overall, Disney has increased in price, and that hasn’t skipped souvenirs. From my research on their online shop even, many items seem more expensive than they did previously. Some of the sales are not as good etc. I think a few things have happened with this, including a moving away from so many steep discounts in retail, and general inflation on goods. Thus, being the budget-minded traveler that I am, I have researched and found a few suggestions on getting souvenirs, including visiting the Disney Outlet(s) in Orlando.

Naturally curious, I had to stop at one of these stores for my own take on if it’s worth the time, or if it is a waste. Here is what I learned, bought and decided overall.

plan on it being busy!

  • Start early if you can
    • By the time I arrived in the stores Th e shelved we’re looking kind of bare. I imagine this had to do with the time of year (big family holiday season from Europe and the USA). And that it was a Friday.
  • Make a list
    • In order to keep my spending in check I watched some current videos of locals on YouTube to see what might be available. This allowed me to know what to budget and what to plan to buy.
  • Budget
    • With the prices so much lower than the theme parks it’s easy to want to buy buy buy. However, before you know it you may have spent $100 and bought more than you planned. This is where the list of options/planned purchases are worth the time before you go.
  • Visit both Orlando locations
    • Often I have heard of people just visiting one location, and skipping the other. My advice is to take some extra time and do both. This is because one store may be out of an item, or may have better sizes left (I experienced this directly).
  • Just pay to park!
    • These outlet malls in Orlando have LIMITED parking. This can meat circling the lot for 30 min and still not getting anywhere. Instead, plan ahead and download the MYPARK app, set up your spot when you pull up. Pay your $3, and be on your way. Why eat into vacation for $3?
  • Plan on crowds and lines
    • The closest location to Disney (Vineland) was WAY busier, but it is a bigger store. This made it hard to shop and look around. I was literally bumping into people just trying to walk through the store. I would suggest to be courteous to others and your family, leave the kids elsewhere and just send in an adult to dodge and weave.
    • As a side note, the check out line was long and FAST moving! And the staff was Sooooooo nice and patient and kind. Gold ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • My preference was the International Drive location:
    • While parking was harder at this MASSIVE mall, this store was better. It was less busy, not as picked over, and the feeling was much nicer. Pricing was as good, selection was basically the same. If you only go to one, go to International Drive!

Purchases

  • I can’t post specifics as some are presents for the upcoming holiday season. However, I did get some awesome (and expensive) shirts for about 75% off their original prices. I got my stepdaughter an ornament for our tree (an annual tradition). And I got myself a patch for my travel denim jacket (my thing).
  • If you have littles, there were MANY toys to choose from that would make great surprise souvenirs for before or after the park (leaving more money in your pocket.

Have you shopped the Disney outlet?

If so, what have you found and enjoyed?

Happy Travels!

Universal Studios – What are we riding?

Florida, Travel

Start by reviewing what you want out of the vacation. Universal Orlando has two separate theme parks (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios) and a water park (Volcano Bay). The theme parks are manageable in a day, depending on how old your kids are, and what all you want to ride. If you are going to try for both theme parks, I suggest starting at open, and not leaving until closing and only going on a weekday, not a weekend. If you have little ones, just do a park a day, or those little feet may not quite make it.

Volcano Bay is the water park at Universal Orlando, and from all reviews, it is a great park for a day visit. The park has most of the important water park features, and has some fantastic tech to reduce ride waits, make reservations and more. Having a nice water park is extremely helpful for HOT days in Orlando, and for your mermaid/merman littles.

Universal Hollywood is one theme park, and is theoretically comfortable to visit in one day. However, if you want to get the most of the activities and fun, a second day may be worth the extra cash.

Much like with Disney, I suggest you read over all of the rides and make sure that your kiddos are all tall enough to ride. Make sure your big people are comfortable, and make sure people are actually interested in such and such ride. For more information on rides that may be uncomfortable, click here and here. Also, for you tall folks, my husband (6’ 4”) had a miserable time on the Rip Ride Rocket as it literally smashed some sensitive areas (it wasn’t so bad that ice was needed, but bad enough that there was awkward walking the rest of the day).

UNIVERSAL FLORIDA RIDES
Kid – Friendly (40″ and less)“Grown-up” Rides
Minion MayhemRevenge of the Mummy
Shrek 4-DMen in Black
Simpsons RideHarry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster 
Hogwarts Express 
Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl 

For instance, we are traveling with my five-year-old cousin, but there is plenty she can ride at Universal that we can either split up to enjoy, or that we can use a kid swap option for.

If you are going with older kids and/or adults, talk about what the top priorities for the day are. For instance, we are taking my stepdaughter to Olivander’s and to avoid the crowds we are planning on doing that part of the park first thing. Then we can spend the morning in the busiest part of the park (Wizarding World) before the majority of crowds show up.

If your group has been there, done that, then head to other parts of the parks and skip it. There is no point in visiting a super crowded part of a theme park if no one actually wants to be there.

For families with littles there are endless opportunities with cartoons, movies like Shrek and Despicable Me. For classic story lovers, the Dr. Suess land can’t be missed. For my family, we LOVE the Jurassic Park ride and mini attractions.

If you are planning trips in the near future (2020, 2021) you can expect even better options for families, and fanatics of a variety of fandoms. My number one suggestion is to pick your favorite characters or movies, and make an effort to experience interactions with them.

Universal is different in that many of their classic rides and activities go away when they lose popularity, so there are not as many popular “classics” as exist in Disney. That being said, Universal is little kid friendly, but really geared to older kids, in the 8+ range. It’s not that littles won’t have a great time, but some of the activities and events may just go over their heads.

Regardless, I do feel like it’s an easy place to have fun and escape from reality. Seeing their Diagon Alley in Orlando was truly a magical experience for me. I was practically skipping I was so excited. Meaning, if you just love fun, movies, and some whimsy, you are sure to enjoy the parks!

Happy Travels

Planning for Magic at Universal Studios

Florida, Travel, United States

Universal Studios is the competitive edge to Disney’s theme park empire. While the Universal Studios experience has existed since 1961, the theme park magic that we know today is a more recent concoction. While some attractions existed at their Hollywood Studio in the 1960s and 1970s, the theme park lands really expanded in the 1990s with the opening of Universal Orlando in Florida. Over the last 50+ years Universal has brought its own version of movie magic to kids young and old, offering imaginative and exciting adventures.

Disney Planning – Getting Started

family, Florida, Travel, United States

I have never been to a Disney Park. A weird admission from a travel and media geek like myself.

See my parents didn’t really love theme parks. I don’t think my dad went to a single one with us as kids. And the biggest theme park I had been to before 2015 (I was 24) was Elitch Gardens in Denver, Colorado.

It wasn’t that my dad didn’t like fun, or even Disney movies. In fact he adores the music from quite a few of them, it was the crowds and the noise and the heat, and most importantly, the cost.

When you’re living below the poverty most of your childhood, a Disney vacation is at the bottom of the list.

Therefore, at the age of 28 I am taking on the work of planning a day at the Magic Kingdom at Disney World!

What I thought would be a simple planning of a day or two has turned into months of opening dates and reservations and hourly details. It’s insane.

Therefore, what has been a deep dive into planning a Disney World vacation, and at times a headache, has lead me to thinking that other people could use some guidance. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my tips and tricks to figuring it all out, saving money, and having the best time possible! I look forward to helping others along the journey.

Happy Travels!

Part 2