Tag Archive: travel


Nerd-cations

Get out your pocket protectors, folks! If it isn’t obvious yet, I would self-identify as a nerd. I enjoy superhero movies, Harry Potter, Doctor Who and a plethora of other geeky pursuits. You really wouldn’t associate travel with nerds and geeks, but there are places to go if you think about it. By definition of science fiction and fantasy, you may not be able to go to Tatooine, Middle Earth or Hogwarts, but you can go to sets and filming locations, among other things. Time for a rundown of geeky vacation destinations!

  • One of the newest “nerd” destination is the Doctor Who Experience. In case you haven’t heard of it, Doctor Who is a show on BBC, which has been on the air since 1963, landing it in the Guinness World Record books as the longest running science fiction show. It’s recently become very popular here in the United States. Anyone who’s watched the show long enough knows that they film in Cardiff, Wales and just last year the Doctor Who Experience opened up in Porth Teigr. It’s essentially a museum for Doctor Who. They have costumes and props from the show’s run. They even have the TARDIS (that’s Time And Relative Dimension In Space for you newbies) set from the David Tennant era. As of right now it seems they don’t have any Daleks or Weeping Angels, which are two of the show’s most iconic monsters. The “Experience” aspect of this is that you get to take part of an adventure and show exclusive to the Doctor Who Experience. Admission is timed and tickets cost £13, or a little over $20.

Doctor Who Experience Website

  • If you are lucky enough to be able to afford a trip to New Zealand, any self-respecting Tolkienite will want to go on a tour of sites where Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the soon-to-be-released The Hobbit trilogy. The scenery of this country was as much a star in the films as the actors, and as such a booming industry has sprung up for LotR tourism. On the North Island, you can visit some hobbit holes and sets for Hobbiton. Although it seems Hobbiton is only still intact because of the filming for The Hobbit, I certainly hope this is not the case and that I can still visit when I make my way to New Zealand. You can also see the locations where they filmed Helm’s Deep, Minis Tirith, Edoras, Pelennor Fields and a plethora of other scenes.

In-Depth 12 Day Tour

Hobbiton

Single/Half Day South Island Tours

  • Conventions are another popular nerd-cation. The mother of all sci-fi/fantasy conventions is Comic Con in San Diego. Held during the summer months, Comic Con is the biggest of the “nerd” conventions, hosting 130,000+ in 2012. I was at Dragon*Con this year and while attendance for Dragon*Con was less than half that at 50,000+ , I will confirm it is a great way to whet an appetite for conventions. There are niche conventions for a plethora of fandoms – Gallifrey One for Whovians, BronyCon for My Little Pony, etc. But Comic Con and Dragon*Con encompass them all. The selection of panels was excellent and there was something for pretty much every fandom. Conventions usually focus on panels – either panels run by fans or panels with celebrities to discuss the topic at hand. I wasn’t focusing on the panel aspect too much, but here is a quick rundown of the panels I attended to give you an idea of the wide variety of panel offerings: “A Wizard, a Dwarf, a Hobbit and an Elf, Oh My!” “The Muppets Screening with Peter Linz,” “Big Damn Heroes,” “Voice Actors” and “Why Actors Choose Their Roles.” And this was just a few of the panels I went to. You can focus on the panels that have the stars from your favorite fandoms or you can go to “fan” panels that are essentially discussions about your favorite fandoms. Either way, there is plenty for you to do see and do during the course of a convention. By far the highlights of my weekend was meeting Tara Strong, partying with Jewel Staite and meeting Lee Arenberg. I will say that usually conventions are essentially a giant party and an excuse to dress up in costumes. I had been drinking almost all weekend and I dressed up as River Song from “The Impossible Astronaut.” I would recommend a Camelbak – I spent $20 on a bottle of vodka and it lasted me all weekend. I think next year I will do amaretto sours in the Camelbak. If you enjoy costumes like I do, you’ll probably want one for every day. I know next year I’m bringing out my gender-swap Lucius Malfoy, returning with River and adding Princess Luna from My Little Pony. But that’s just me. You can wear whatever you want, no costume is out of reason.

ComicCon

Dragon*Con

Gallifrey One

  • Þingvellir is a national park located in Iceland. Historically speaking, Alþingi, or the Icelandic Parliament, met here first in 930 and continued to do so until 1799. But what draws me there as a nerd is it’s geological importance. If you were to take a look at a tectonic map of Earth, you would see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge running through the middle of the ocean and then through Iceland. This rift is what has caused Iceland to have earthquakes, volcanoes, hot springs and other geologic features. But wait, it gets better. Because Iceland sits on top of this rift, it is technically speaking part of both Europe and North America as it straddles both tectonic plates. You can hop between North America and Europe at the Almannagjá canyon without getting on a plane and suffering through the jet-lag!

Þingvellir

  • Kennedy Space Center is another nerd vacation destination. I covered this in a previous post (link). As a quick overview, this is the heart and soul of NASA. Home to the launch sites of their many forays into space, there are enough rockets and space-related memorabilia to send any science nerd into a tizzy.

Kennedy Space Center

Smithsonian Institution

  • CERN would be an ultimate destination for any physicist in their career, but they also have a visitor’s center for anyone curious enough to visit. CERN is located on the French-Swiss border and is home to many experiments. Birthplace of the world wide web, it is also where they recently found a particle consistent with the Higgs Boson, or God Particle. While the majority of the complex is devoted to science, there are areas visitors can go. There are guided tours as well as a couple of permanent exhibits that seek to educate visitors about the different types of matter and particles that make up the universe. Guided tours last about 3 hours and include the permanent exhibits and admission is free.

CERN Website

  • Matmâta is located in southern Tunisia. While all of the Tunisian items on the 1000 Places list are in Tunis, any self-respecting Star Wars fan will want to take a trip here. It’s an 8-hour drive from Tunis through the desert and it’s claim to fame are the troglodyte buildings. Their buildings are open pits in the ground with tunnels and rooms leading off from the center. While that’s not all that exciting, a trip to this town requires a visit to the Hotel Sidi Driss. Best known as Luke Skywalker’s home in A New Hope before leaving with Obi Wan Kenobi, the hotel has kept the set pieces from filming. A quick glance at the TripAdvisor page for this hotel suggests there are better hotels to stay in if you want to stay around town for the night. But how can you resist staying at Luke Skywalker’s house? Another 2 hours southeast of Matmâta is Tatouine, another spot for Star Wars fans to visit. While no filming took place there, if you make the trek you can tell your friends back home you went to Tatooine, as it is known in the films. A similar destination would be Oakley Court. Located near Windsor Castle in Berkshire, it will be easily recognized by any fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Most of the movie’s filming took place here and at a nearby studio. In 1981 it reopened as a hotel, so it doesn’t look the same on the inside. But the outside is still the same as it was in the movie.

Hotel Sidi Driss

Oakley Court

  • Along the same vein as Lord of the Rings, there are Harry Potter tours in England. You can go to Kings Cross Station in London to see if you can run onto Platform 9 3/4 and catch the Hogwarts Express. There’s also tours of the Leavesden studios where they filmed the movies. You can walk through the Great Hall and Dumbledore’s office and see props and costumes from the movies. If you want a Potter fix on this side of the Atlantic, you can visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. For more information, read my post about my trip there here. The original park in Orlando is supposedly being expanded, as well as a smaller version opening at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

Filming Locations

Studio Tour

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

So there you have it. Some of the nerdiest locations on the planet, ready to be explored! Have you been somewhere else that you’d consider nerdy? Share it in the comments!

 

Edit 1/4/14: New Zealand has really taken to the Middle Earth tourism since The Hobbit movies started coming out! This company is offering a few tours of their country, with stops at a few familiar locations. TravelScene

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The Sunshine State

Moving on in a similar tangent as the Disney World series, it’s time to cover all the glories that Florida has to offer. Time to break out my trusty copy of 1000 Places and go through where I have been.

-Daytona Speedway

-Kennedy Space Center

-The Everglades

-South Beach

-The Florida Keys

-Sanibel & Captiva Islands

I’ll include links to the Disney World series here since it is on the 1000 Places list.

When & Where to Stay

Magic Kingdom

Epcot

Hollywood Studios

Animal Kingdom

Miscellaneous

 

Daytona Speedway is on the Atlantic coast north of Orlando, located in the city it’s named after, Daytona. It’s the Indianapolis 500 of NASCAR. And for those completely out-of-the-loop when it comes to car races, that means they are the biggest races of the season. There is a museum called the Daytona 500 Experience, where you can ride simulators, catch an IMAX movie about the race and learn more about NASCAR. There is also a Richard Petty Driving Experience here if you want to take a spin around the track. I’m personally not a big fan of NASCAR, but my father is so we went there as a family when I was younger. Will I go back? Probably. There is also a great beach there that is heavily visited for Spring Break, as well as Bike Week. If you choose to go for either Spring Break or Bike Week, expect crowds. Bike Week in Daytona is second only to the Sturgis Bike Week in terms of attendance, with almost half a million bikers visiting Daytona Beach.

A little over an hour south of Daytona Beach on the Atlantic is the Kennedy Space Center. Named for JFK, the president who launched the Apollo program, it is the home of a plethora of space-related activities. With the space shuttle program a thing of the past now, it’s only used for satellite launches. I was young when I went with my family, so I don’t remember much about the visitor center. When we went we were however lucky enough to see one of the shuttles on the launch pad, an image that has remained with me ever since. If you want an idea about how massive the Vehicle Assembly Building is, FL-528 runs along the south side of Kennedy heading to and from Cocoa Beach, and I’d say it is a good 5 miles away. You can see it easily from that far away. Now, about the center itself. The visitor center has a collection of rockets from the very early days of NASA, including the ones that put the first US astronauts in space and other significant memorabilia from the 50 years of NASA’s existence. There is also the launch simulator and an IMAX theater. And while there won’t be any shuttle launches, they are flying the shuttles to their new homes around the country, from New York City to Los Angeles within the next few months. So you may want to see them take their final flight to their new homes. The highlight of any trip to the Kennedy Space Center is obviously the tour of the grounds. You load up on a bus which takes you around to see the launch sites of the Apollo program and the shuttles, the assembly area for the ISS and the Vehicle Assembly Building amongst other things. If you are planning on visiting, I would see if there are any upcoming satellite launches. If memory serves, certain areas of the center are blocked off for security reasons. I say this because I think we weren’t able to get close to the launch pad while we were there because of the upcoming launch. Both Daytona and Kennedy Space Center are excellent day trips if you are going on a trip to Orlando since they are about an hour away.

A further 3-4 hours south on the Atlantic coast (depending on your final destination) is the Florida wetlands known as The Everglades. Once covering most of southern Florida, the sawgrass prairie that defines the Everglades is now mostly confined to the area south of I-75 as it goes east-west across the peninsula. The quintessential Everglades experience is an airboat ride through the grass. Home to alligators, turtles, herons and a plethora of other animals, the airboats take you out into the Everglades to get up close and personal with the animals that call this land home. The best way to get to most of what the Everglades has to offer is to take Route 41 or via Homestead, south of Miami. Off Route 41 is Shark Valley, which offers 2-hour tram rides into the heart of the park as well as a hiking and biking trail. For a nominal fee, you can drive your car in a short distance to a parking lot and look through the surrounding wetlands for alligators. One of the most spectacular views of the park is from the observation deck at the south end of the trail loop. All along Route 41 you will see many places to take airboat rides as well, but probably the best place to find them are in Everglades City on the gulf coast. If you are truly an intrepid adventurer, there is also Flamingo. Currently a ghost town which serves as a base for the rangers of the Everglades National Park, there is also a marina and seasonal cafe, as well as a visitor center and campground. I’ve always enjoyed visiting the Everglades, even if it was just a drive through it on the way to Miami or the Keys.

Also on the Atlantic Coast is Miami, home to the hedonistic South Beach. Located on the Miami Beach barrier island, South Beach is a neighborhood that lies south of Indian Creek and Dade Blvd. South Beach is also home to Joe’s Stone Crab, which is also on the 1000 Places list, however I’ve never been there. Known for the LGBT community and art-deco architectural masterpieces, South Beach never sleeps. Between the beach during the day and the clubs at night, there is enough to keep you busy. Most of what you associate with the iconography of South Beach is on Ocean Dr. near Lummus Park – art deco hotels and cafes festooned with neon lights at night. The first time I was here was before my family left for a cruise when I was younger, so we just took a stroll on the beach and got lunch at a cafe. Perfectly harmless during the day. At night, South Beach is a different monster. The last time I was here was New Year’s Eve. Granted it was a special holiday, but Ocean Dr. was shut off because of the amount of people partying. Normally it is really difficult to get into the clubs on Ocean Dr. for tourists, but we had no problems getting into Mango’s Tropical Cafe, which was the hotspot that night. All we had to do was buy a $200 bottle of champagne to enjoy through the evening. I felt bad for the huddled masses in Times Square because we were having the time of our lives in South Beach. To help calm down, we went to the Keys a couple days later.

I could really devote a whole post to the Keys, that is how much I love them. If I were to win the lottery, I’d buy what land I could and buy a self-sustaining/hurricane-resistant house and would probably rarely leave. With that in mind, I will do a quick run-down. Driving down US-1 is one of the best drives I’ve ever done. You start off with Key Largo in the north and end with Key West in the south and are blessed with views of palm trees and turquoise waters. In between, you will pass an overabundance of hotels, marinas and roadside cafes as you drive through the islands that dot this archipelago. You will not find many beaches, as the wave activity needed to create sandy beaches is pretty much non-existent. Most beaches you find there are man-made to appease tourists staying at local hotels.

If you want beaches, travel to Sanibel and Captiva islands on the gulf coast near Fort Myers. My grandparents owned a home in Fort Myers, which they have left to their children and grandchildren, so I have been lucky enough to visit these islands multiple times. Home to some of the best seashell pickings in Florida (maybe even the world), the public beach by the lighthouse is a popular destination. There is a very small parking lot for access to this beach, so arrive early if you want to visit. There are other public beaches on the islands, but most have the same small parking lots, so they get crowded early. Another popular activity is the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. There’s a drive through the wildlife refuge with plenty of places to pull off and snap pictures of all the wildlife. There are herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, anhingas, storks and alligators – a lot of the animals you would hope to see in the Everglades. There are also sailing tours you can take around the islands, which are very relaxing. You may even spot a stray manatee or dolphin!

One thing I highly recommend doing while you are in Sanibel and Catpiva is lunch at Cheeburger Cheeburger. Aside from a Dairy Queen and Subway there aren’t any fast food or chain restaurants, thanks to a local law prohibiting them. And while Cheeburger Cheebuger is technically a chain restaurant now, the one on Sanibel is the first. They specialize in cheeseburgers, shakes and malts and is themed after 50’s era burger joints. The food is delicious and their list of toppings for the burgers and shake and malt flavors is HUGE. And if you are one of those “Man vs. Food” types that enjoy food challenges – their famous full-pound burgers. If you can finish it off, they will take your picture and add it to their Wall of Fame. My only relative who’s been successful in this challenge is one of my cousins. We usually only stick with the “Semi-Serious,” which is only a 1/3 of a pound. We always stop here whenever we visit the islands!

So there you have it – the Sunshine State in a nutshell. Check back later for a post on the Keys, my favorite place in the whole state. Yes, I like it even more than Orlando and Disney World!

Megabust

Lollapalooza 2012 is now a thing of the past. Time for a quick review of my mode of transportation – Megabus.

As an overview, Megabus is a bus company with low fares. It’s not as easy to navigate as Greyhound – from Cincinnati I can only go to Columbus, Chicago and Indianapolis. And if I wanted to take Megabus to somewhere on the East Coast, I’d have to travel 6 hours west to Chicago and hop on the bus back east to Cleveland, then take a bus to Pittsburgh and then take another bus to NYC or DC. And if I wanted to go to Orlando I’d have to take the bus to Indianapolis, from there to Louisville to Nashville to Atlanta to Orlando. Or I can just take a Greyhound. Their route map really needs to TLC if they want to really compete.

Now, onto the trip experience. It’s a double-decker bus, so there are loads of seating options, but the top deck did seem to fill up pretty quickly. There is also only 1 outlet per pair of seats on each side of the aisle, so be prepared to fight for that outlet if it’s a full bus.

The ride up to Chicago was uneventful. We loaded up our bags and grabbed our seats and the bus driver checked our tickets. We arrived at Union Station about 10 minutes or so late, so I can’t complain about that.

Coming back from a long weekend of sun and standing at Lollapalooza, the journey home was definitely less than desirable. The Megabus stop at Union Station is outside, so if you encounter inclement weather, you have no where to hide. With it being August, we only had the sun to compete with. We got to the stop about an hour before our scheduled departure, which it’s only recommended you arrive 30 minutes prior. But we weren’t sure what the traffic was going to be like, so we left early. Turns out we could have left about 2 hours later than we did because that’s how late our bus was. So we were left in the sun, standing around and waiting for our bus to hopefully show up. There was another guy waiting for our bus who took the initiative and called their customer service line to see what was going on. He was told there was something going on at their station where they cleaned and gassed the buses before they left and he would get a call when it was on it’s way. About an hour later, he got a call that it was on it’s way and it would be behind a bus heading elsewhere. Well, that bus showed up, and then about 5 more before our bus finally showed up. They really need to have an email system in place or something for when buses are getting held up like that. Airlines give you the courtesy of an email or phone call when they are running late. Why not Megabus? I would have much rather stayed in the air-conditioning of the hotel and slept in an extra hour than wait outside in the sun on a slab of concrete with the uncertainty of bus delays. Our driver, however made up for lost time. We were only late by about an hour when we arrived back in Cincinnati.

I will heed my own warning that I gave out for the dotcom hotel websites – you get what you pay for. Sure, the trip was shorter and cheaper than if I had taken a Greyhound bus. But given this experience, I will most likely go with Greyhound from here-on-out.

Bursting the dotcom Bubble

We all like to save money, right? Travel on a dime? I mean, who wouldn’t? That leaves us more money for tchotchkes and more trips, one would imagine. I’m going to go ahead and blow the lid off the conspiracy I’ll call the bargain sites.

With more families gearing up for summer vacations, they are increasingly going to sites like Expedia, Travelocity, et. al to book “deals” on hotel rooms to save some money. Let this serve as a warning if you are planning to go down a similar route.

Let’s use my place of work as an example. Tonight if you were to book directly through me, the rate would be $159.95. You would find similar rates at most of the travel deal websites. However, it’s currently going for $180 at Expedia, which they absurdly call the “Expedia Special Rate.” And this is before taxes! Once you figure those it, it comes out to $208.06 as opposed to the $185.55 you would be paying if you booked directly through the hotel.

These sites don’t look like such a great option now, do they? They suck you in under false pretenses. They say you are paying lower rates, which I can honestly say is true when compared to people who book their rooms directly with us. But remember how I said most of the sites are offering the same rate for rooms tonight? That’s because the difference between the rate you are paying to the site and what we are charging the site for your room is their profit. I’m not against anyone running their business like this, however if you are looking to save a few bucks I would strongly recommend against these sites as they don’t really save you money. If you really want to save money, look at the hotel’s website. More than likely they have a pre-pay rate that is lower than the usual rate for that evening.

A very, very strong word of warning, however. Once you book your room through these websites, you are essentially on your own. Here’s a secret for the readers to digest. When you book a room, you are really booking whatever room is available. If all that is left with us is a smoking king when you booked a nonsmoking double with the site, guess what room you’re really getting? The smoking king. They want your money, so they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear to get you to book. And once they have your money you’ll be hard-pressed to get it back if you want to cancel.

The way the contracts work with most of these sites is that we give them lower rates on the rooms, which they will then book with the general public. When they book rooms, they are guaranteeing us those rooms as being sold. If you are wanting to cancel your room because you didn’t get the room you thought you reserved, the people at the desk won’t issue a refund. You know why? We don’t have your money. You paid Expedia directly, and we turn around and charge them for these rooms. When people want to check out and get refunds, we tell them to talk to whatever site they booked through. The site will then have one of their customer service reps call us to see if there’s anything to be done. 99.99% of the time, nothing can be done because they were the ones providing false information to the guest since the guest has almost always had no contact with anyone at the hotel.

So about that refund? Well, Expedia will tell you that they will happily refund your money as long as the hotel doesn’t charge them. Guess what? Not gonna happen. You, Sir Travel-Site, promised us revenue from said room, so we look at it the same way we look at a cancellation. It’s not our fault the guest didn’t get the room they were promised. And since the site was the one who directly booked this room, they are the ones getting hit with the “cancellation” fees, not the guest. The sites are greedily holding on to your money, despite what they may tell you about the hotel stubbornly not issuing a refund. Like I said, the site has your money, not us at the hotel. They don’t want to be stuck giving you a refund and paying the “cancellation” penalty.

My honest advice? Call the hotel ahead of time. Check what their rate is vs. the “bargain” sites. See if the room you want is available if you are insistent on booking your room through those sites. And once you do book, call the hotel back to make sure they booked the right room for you. If there was an error, see if you can work it out with the hotel to make sure you are in the right room. If nothing can be done on the hotel’s side of the arrangement, ask the hotel about their cancellation policy. The hotel’s cancellation policy with dictate what happens when you call the site about canceling. For example, Expedia’s policy is that if there are any cancellation fees, you are responsible for them. By finding out what those fees are, if any, ahead of time you know how the conversation should go. If they try to fleece you and jack up the cancellation fees, call their bluff. Don’t trust these sites to make sure everything goes according to plan, because sometimes it doesn’t and it just leads to frustration.

So you’ve survived the theme parks. Hooray! You’ve been to the #1, #5, #7 and #8 most visited theme parks in the world. But let’s not rest on your laurels. There is much more to Disney World than the theme parks.

The biggest area outside of the theme parks is Downtown Disney. This is where you will find lots of shopping, restaurants and entertainment. World of Disney is here, which is the largest Disney store this side of the Mississippi. If you can’t find it there, chance are you can’t find it anywhere. There’s also a Christmas and LEGO shop. You will also find DisneyQuest here, which is filled with video and virtual reality games. My favorite thing at DisneyQuest is the roller coaster creator. You design your own roller coaster and then you ride inside a simulator. Also located in Downtown Disney is their Cirque du Soleil show – La Nouba. There is also a movie theater and a House of Blues. There is plenty of shopping and other things to do if the forecast calls for rain all day since most everything is indoors.

Similar to Downtown Disney is another area located at the Boardwalk resort, simply called Disney’s Boardwalk. As the name implies, it is a boardwalk that houses an entertainment district. It’s also very adult-friendly. There are 2 dance clubs for those 21+ as well as Disney’s only operating microbrewery.

Another destination within Disney World is ESPN Wide World of Sports. I’ve personally never been there, but from what I have gathered there isn’t much to it aside from some stadiums. As such, you won’t have any need to go there unless you are attending a sporting event. If sports is your thing, there is also a Richard Petty Driving Experience where you can ride-along with a professional driver for $100+. There are also numerous golf courses sprinkled throughout the resort – Magnolia Golf Course, Palm Golf Course, Osprey Ridge Gold Course, Lake Buena Vista Golf Course and Oak Trail Golf Course. Personally, golf bores me so I can’t say anything about the courses other than noting their existence.

There are two water parks within Disney World – Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Blizzard Beach is a “melting” ski resort, complete with a chair lift. Being a ski resort, most of the water slides are naturally modeled after ski runs down the side of a mountain, in this case Mount Gushmore. Summit Plummet is the most popular water slide in the park, sending riders straight down at speeds up to 60 MPH. There are also water park staples – Cross Country Creek (lazy river) and Melt-Away Bay (wave pool). Typhoon Lagoon, however is the more popular park. It boasts the world’s largest wave pool, Surf Pool, as well as a lazy river, Castaway Creek. It also has a fun feature – Shark Reef. You can snorkel with some sharks and rays in a saltwater tank. For an additional cost, you can do the scuba/snorkel hybrid – Supplied Air Snorkel, where you can stay down longer because they supply you with air.

Speaking of additional costs, all the parks have special tours and experiences aimed at just about every guest. You will probably have noticed little girls dressed up as their favorite princess or little boys dressed up like pirates. These makeovers come courtesy of Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and The Pirates League. You can also take an in-depth tour of Kilimanjaro Safaris in Animal Kingdom, go scuba-diving with the dolphins at EPCOT and take backstage tours to see what goes on behind-the-scenes. There are loads of ways to enhance your Disney vacation, so it’s worth looking into.

One last thing to touch on. Tickets are not cheap. Single-day passes without any extras is currently $89. The more days you add, the cheaper it gets per-day. Adding the Park-Hopper is an extra $35 per-day and adding the Water Park & More option is an extra $57 per-day. If you’re planning on getting the most out of your Disney vacation, I’d add both. Park-Hopper is great since it let’s you go between parks all day. The Water Park & More option gives you admission to either water park, DisneyQuest and a few other places. If you buy a 4-day pass, you get 4 admissions to any of those places, as an example.

And there you have it. Disney World in a nutshell. I’ve never had a bad time when I go and it really is magical, even for the kids-at-heart like me. There’s always something bigger and better coming down the line, which begs the question: How many times is too many times to have visited Disney World?

I was so excited about Harry Potter and my West Coast trip I forgot to finish this series of posts! Bad blogger, bad! Onwards, we go!

Animal Kingdom is the latest of the 4 Disney World parks, and while it is the largest of the parks, most of that land is associated with Kilimanjaro Safaris. As you’d imagine, this is Disney’s version of a zoo. It’s also accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which means they’re on top of their game in regards to animal education and conservation. So if you’re a PETA-type who think animals shouldn’t be kept in cages, save your time and energy and go elsewhere. While the focus is on the animals, the only time live animals are showcased in a ride is Kiliminjaro Safaris.

As mentioned before, each park has a hub. For this park, it’s the Tree of Life. It really is a beautiful “tree” to look at. It looks like a baobab tree from afar, but when you get close you’ll see animals carved into the surface. To get to the rest of the park’s areas you will walk onto Discovery Island where the tree is located and take off on the appropriate spoke to get to where you want.

Starting with the area on your right as you enter, you will now be in Dinoland, USA. Mostly home to kid-centric rides, it also has Dinosaur and Tricera Top Spin, both of which are lots of fun. Dinosaur takes you back in time to try and rescue a dinosaur and take it to the present for research purposes. It’s pretty fun, and I’ll admit…the first time I went on it I was scared when you get a certain visitor. Tricera Top Spin is a fun, quick ride, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you get motion sickness. Like the name implies, you spin a lot. As you leave Dinoland, the Finding Nemo musical will be your next stop before the next area. As a Nemo fan, it was loads of fun. Everyone was singing along with Dory, myself included. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim. But wait! Where are the animals? Well, since this is Dinoland, the only animals you’ll see are close relatives – alligators.

Next up is Asia, and the other landmark of Animal Kingdom – Everest. This coaster is entirely too much fun. You go up the mountain to hunt down a Yeti and you go down the track forwards and forwards. If you want to spoil it, there is a YouTube clip of track. Asia is also where you’ll find Kali River Rapids, which I’ll include the same warning for this that I have for Splash Mountain. If it’s an especially hot and humid day, you will have gigantic wait times. You’re best off getting a FastPass and doing something else while you wait. You’ll see more animals in this area than Dinoland. There’s the Flights of Wonder show, which showcases birds, and the Maharajah Jungle Trek, which is where you’ll find tigers, komodo dragons and more.

Following Asia is Africa. Really, the only thing to do in Africa is Kiliminjaro Safaris. This is probably the very first thing you will want to do when you get to Animal Kingdom as the animals are most active during the morning before the afternoon sun gets too hot. I’d recommend heading here first and then FastPassing either Expedition Everest or Kali River Rapids and then riding the one you didn’t get the FastPass for. You’ll also find the train back to Rafiki’s Planet Watch here if you want to learn more about conservation. There is also the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, which is home to the park’s troupe of gorillas. The safari takes you through their savannah, complete with lions, giraffes, elephants and more. It’s a lot of fun and you never get the same ride twice. You’re also on a rescue mission to save a baby elephant from poachers, so there’s more than animals to keep you entertained.

You are led back to Discovery Island after Africa, which is where you will find It’s A Bug’s Life. This is a 3D show similar to Muppetvision, only this time you are in the world of bugs from A Bug’s Life. There are also more animals to see on this island. I’ve personally never been back to Camp Minnie Mickey, but this is where The Lion King show is, as well as character meet-and-greets.

Since I last went in 2008 they’ve announced they are adding Avatar Land to Animal Kingdom, which will be completed a few years from now as construction will begin next year. As the name implies, it will explore the world of Pandora from the movie Avatar. If you think this seems an odd addition, if you look at the emblem for Animal Kingdom, you’ll notice a dragon. When they originally planned out Animal Kingdom they were going to have a land dedicated to mythological creatures. Well, the only mythological creature they have at the moment is the yeti. From what I’ve gathered, Avatar Land will be built in the land intended for the mythological creatures. All the more reason to go back, I suppose.

Next stop on the Disney tour: Downtown Disney and VIP experiences.

Viva Las Vegas!

Ah, the City of (Neon) Light. Where to begin? The casinos? The food? Hotels?

It seems logical to start with hotels. If you’re completely new to anything involving Las Vegas, 99% of what you’ll want to see is on a 4 mile part of Las Vegas Boulevard called The Strip. It begins in the south with Luxor, Excalibur, Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand and ends in the north with Stratosphere.

There really is no slow season in Vegas since there are always conventions going on, so when you go is totally dependent on whether or not you can handle the desert in the dead heat of summer. Since it was January when we went, it was actually pretty cold – around 50-60 degrees were the high temperatures. And since 18 of the 25 largest hotels in the world are located on the Strip, there really won’t be a shortage of hotel rooms. So where you stay is dependent on where in the Strip you want to be.

Personally I think anyone’s best option would be to stay somewhere towards the middle of the Strip – around the Las Vegas Boulevard/Flamingo Road intersection. This is where the bulk of the casinos are located anyways, so you can walk to most of them and take a cab to the outliers.

Speaking of cabs, every casino has a taxi stand to pick one up at. They can’t stop and pick you up on the street, so find the closest casino and get one there. There is also the monorail, but it’s not actually on the Strip and is a couple blocks away. I’d just stick with cabs, but that’s me. If you don’t mind the walk, they do offer unlimited 24-hr and 3-day passes on top of single fares.

I’d HIGHLY recommend using the foursquare app on your smartphone. Most, but not all, casinos have specials for checking in. Mostly it’s for free drinks or discounts on the buffets. But if you’re not much of a gambler like myself, cheap or free drinks are a plus. And yes, you can drink as long as you’re playing at a table. Just don’t forget to tip your waitress.

One thing I wish the casinos had more of were low limit tables. Even in old Vegas (Fremont Street) it was hard finding $5 tables. I only budgeted for $100 in case I was unlucky at the tables, and sticking to the low limit tables was my plan to keeping to that budget.

I’d also highly recommend learning about the games before you go if you’re a newbie to gambling. I was looking for a poker table and there are so many different versions of poker! And of course the one version I was looking for – Texas Hold ‘Em – was hard to locate and usually full. We mostly stuck to blackjack, roulette and the occasional slot machine.

One of the few things I had to do in Vegas was the rides at the top of the Stratosphere. I bummed I missed out on the roller coaster they had a few years ago, but the 3 rides they have now are still a lot of fun. It costs $16 to get up to the observation deck, then $12-$13 per ride, or they have packages for both the tower admission and rides. We got the 3 rides and tower admission for $31, so it’s a pretty good bargain. One spins you around on a pendulum off the side of the tower, one is a see-saw/roller coaster hybrid and the third shoots you up into the air. They also have a free-fall/zip-line ride that’s an extra $110. Also, as an aside, the Stratosphere observation deck is a great place to enjoy an evening because it has a great view of the Strip and the sun setting.

My friend that went with me had gotten there the previous evening and he was up $100 at that point, so he wanted to treat us to a really nice dinner. We decided on steaks, since if there’s one kind of food Vegas is famous for, it was steak. After a quick google search, we decided on Delmonico at The Venetian. Whoa baby was that some good steak. The only bummer to the nice restaurants, especially if you’ve never been to one of that caliber before, is that it’s all pretty much á-la-carte. If you want any kind of side to go with your big hunk of delicious beef, you gotta pay for it. My friend who had been there previously said we should get the potato gratin, and I would recommend the same to anyone eating there. We also got the sauteed mushrooms, which were quite yummy as well. Top it all with an excellent wine (we got a Malbec), and it was a very delicious dinner.

While at The Venetian, we did do the gondola ride. It was a fun trip through the shopping area of the casino. I have yet to go to Venice, so I can’t make any comparisons with the real deal, but the “scenery” along the Grand Canal is actually quite nice. The gondoliers enjoy a good song and try to keep things romantic for the couples. Kinda awkward since my travel buddy was a guy, but we weathered it. It was getting late at this point, so we called it a night.

The next day was our grand adventure. We started at the south end with the Luxor and slowly made our way north, stopping at Excalibur and New York New York. We got the buffet at Luxor just to get the experience. I mean, who goes to Vegas without going to a buffet? I’m sure there are bigger and better buffets, but we went with Luxor because it was lunchtime and we were hungry. We played a bit of roulette and moved on to Excalibur. We couldn’t find any tables that struck our fancy so we moved on to New York New York. Now here is where we blew a few hours on blackjack. We were successful finding a table!

I do admit I don’t see the thrill in gambling. To me I just see my money going down the drain, not the thrill of potentially winning more. Call me a realist, I suppose. But if I had to pick a game, it would be blackjack. It’s easy to figure out. I was bummed because we missed out on the roller coaster at New York New York, but there’s always next time.

We walked through almost all of the casinos and played at a few tables as we worked our way up the strip. The day is a wee bit of a blur thanks to those free drinks, but I do remember the show at Treasure Island, the fountain at the Bellagio and finding a pay phone at Caesar’s Palace. Yes, we found the pay-phone “bank” at Caesar’s so we could pretend to be Alan from The Hangover. It’s only one phone and we had to ask a few employees where it was. We finally found one that knew about it and he was just smiling when we asked. He knew what we were up to. The Strip kind of stops abruptly after Treasure Island and The Venetian. You’ve got the Wynn right there, but the next big casino is the last one – Stratosphere.

The next day was our day trip to the Grand Canyon. We purchased our tour from Grand Canyon Tours for $80. It’s pretty much an all-day thing. They have a shuttle that picks you up at your hotel and takes you to Planet Hollywood where the buses leave from. You pick up a breakfast item and a drink then board your bus. There a few tours that the company offers and we took the longest – the South Rim tour. After much deliberation on my behalf we went with the South Rim because I had heard that the South Rim has prettier views than the West Rim tour. With the West Rim tour, you’re not gone as long, but it only takes you to the Hualapai reservation and Skywalk, which is an additional $30 on top of what you paid to get out there. Anyways, the South Rim is absolutely gorgeous. And the bus ride out there isn’t too bad. You make a couple of pit stops for lunch and for gas, you take Route 66 for a bit and there’s lots of pretty scenery to look at along the way. You only spend 2 hours at the canyon, but it’s enough to whet your appetite if you’ve never been. And I learned a valuable tip for when I go back during the summer – the donkey rides are impossible to book. You need to call ahead 2 years before you want to go for reservations.

On the return trip from the canyon we did slow down for a view of the Hoover Dam. Alas, it was dark so you really only saw the lights. If you book through this company I would recommend getting something to eat when you stop for gas on the way back – there is a Subway in the gas station. You do get back into town at a decent hour, though. It was a little after 9, so the night was still young. Seeing as this was our last night in Vegas we hit up the last few casinos that we hadn’t been to yet, like the Flamingo. We also went to Fremont Street to check out “old” Las Vegas and tracked down the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign (hint: it’s south of Luxor). Just a tip – Fremont Street is way out of the way of the Strip. It was $30 one way to get out there!

Will I go back? Of course! I need to ride that roller coaster, after all. The City of Sin may not be as sinful as it was, but it is still a city of decadence. Whether it’s the hotel casinos, the gambling or the food, there is plenty of Vegas to go around. Pick what strikes you as fun and interesting and lose yourself in the City of Neon Lights.

I have slain the beast erstwhile known as jet-lag (and also been working more than usual). Now, to blog!

First off, I’m going to do a quick review of Delta’s mobile app. It’s something that I’ve used before and I love it. You don’t have to worry about printing and/or losing your boarding passes anymore since it’s all on your smartphone. You can find out if your flight has been delayed and all that jazz right there. A feature that has been added since the last time I used it is the luggage tracking feature. Since I was checking luggage, I was looking forward to trying this feature out. All you have to do is scan the bar code they give you at the check-in desk (or on Droids you have to type it in). The app saves your number so you can pull it up whenever you want during your trip. Using the inflight wifi is free when you’re accessing the app or the Delta website, so once you are on your flight, just pull up your claim number and it will tell you where your luggage is. If you’re lucky enough to have your luggage on-board, it will look like the image on the right. It really did give me peace-of-mind since I packed pretty much everything into my suitcase (find me a woman who can pack for 10 days into a carry-on and you’ll find yourself a saint). My only complaint is that on a couple of legs of my trip the info on the app wasn’t updated. Granted, my bags weren’t lost at the end of the day, but the only info I got on baggage tracking was that it was checked in at the desk. Overall, it is a wonderful tool for when you’re traveling.

Now, onto the fun stuff.

My first day there, my friends took me to Cabrillo National Monument, named for the first European to set foot on the west coast of the United States. I brought crummy, cloudy weather with me, but even with the weather, the park still has a spectacular views of San Diego Bay and the city on one side of you and the Pacific Ocean on the other. There are also some tide pools, which were fun to climb around. Apparently there are sea otters around there in the kelp forests, but we didn’t see any. I love those cute little guys. There is also the original lighthouse, where you can get a little taste of history and see what life was like the those stationed there over 100 years ago while playing Angry Birds on your smartphone. Overall, it was a great place to see the city from and those tide pools were fun to climb around and watch the waves crash against.

After Cabrillo, we went down to Coronado, home of the famous Hotel del Coronado. It’s mostly home to the Navy base, which I got to visit as well (my friend’s hubby works there). The hotel is gorgeous! It was on the list in the original 1000 Places to see Before You Die before it was updated, and you can clearly see why. I wish I had taken more pictures of the lobby area, but I only took one of the chandelier. I finally can say I’ve been from sea to shining sea, as well. We walked out onto the beach and I touched the Pacific Ocean. By this point, jet lag was catching up pretty harshly, so we called it a day.

Day #2 got off to a slow start, but we made our way up to Los Angeles. Originally we were going to spend that day at Disneyland, but it didn’t end up that way since we left so late. We ended up going to Hollywood instead. And Hollywood Blvd. is the tourist trap I thought it would be. For being such a movie fanatic, you would think I would’ve been more excited. I really only had 5 goals – Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a good shot of the Hollywood sign, Johnny Depp & Marilyn Monroe’s stars and a shot glass from a souvenir shop. Well, I got all 5 in and we were only there for maybe 2 hours tops. Luckily it’s very compact right there and pretty much everything is within a few blocks – unless you really want to see all of the Walk of Fame. The mall that is right by the Kodak Theater has a great vantage point for the Hollywood sign, the Chinese Theater is right there by the Kodak Theater and luckily Johnny and Marilyn’s stars weren’t too far off. A bit of advice for those interested in the Walk of Fame – save yourself the money on Hollywood Blvd.and check out the website. They have the addresses for the stars and you can just do a quick map check on the old smartphone when you get there to find the ones you are looking for. There are also a lot of interesting characters roaming the boulevard, literally. People in costumes tend to hang out in front of Grauman’s. Figuratively, there were certainly questionable fashion choices made by some natives, and I’m sure they thought they looked fabulous. I saw one guy in neon pink skinny jeans and a leather jacket. Really? Anyways, Hollywood Blvd. was fun and good way to spend a couple hours in LA.

Next up was Disneyland. I was excited to see if my theory about great times to visit Disney World would be similar at Disneyland. I was right. It was pretty slow around Disneyland both days we were there, which was great because we had a 4 month old with us, which meant frequent stops for feedings and diaper changes. I think the longest we waited for anything was maybe 20 minutes. And as an added bonus, I got on most everything twice with the Child Swap.

The most jarring difference between Disneyland and Disney World is size. I just looked at the numbers on Wikipedia. California Adventure and Disneyland combine for a measly 152 acres, which is only 10 acres more than Magic Kingdom down in WDW! But, that’s the price you pay when you’re developing a theme park in a very urban area. Orlando pretty much sprung up around WDW and it still have lots of land to grow on. But I digress. We’re here to talk Disneyland.

They were renovating the main entrance to California Adventure to make it look like Buena Vista Street in Burbank when Disney arrived and set up shop, which will be amazing I’m sure. But, regardless, we had to take the long way into the park, which spit us out by Soarin’. Now, this is one of my favorites down at Epcot, so it was nice to see the same thing. They also have a clone of The Tower of Terror, my favorite ride from Hollywood Studios, as well as Muppetvision 3D and Toy Story Mania. My top 3 California Adventure-specific rides would be California Screamin’, the Ferris wheel and Ariel’s Undersea Adventure (she’s my favorite princess).

California Screamin’ is your typical roller coaster. It shoots you off into a track of twists, turns and a loop. Overall, it’s pretty darn enjoyable. Of the Disney coasters I’ve been on, it’d be in the top 3 behind Expedition Everest and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.

Depending on your constitution in regards to motion sickness, there are two rides on the Ferris wheel. There is the standard, boring track around the outside, but then there is a track on the inside where the cars move back and forth. If you’re like me and love pushing your limits, take the swinging cars. Between the momentum of the swinging you would get naturally and our carefully-timed rocking, we made our car go vertical a couple of times.

And how can I forget Ariel’s Undersea Adventure? It’s nothing special, just a dark ride similar to Peter Pan/Alice in Wonderland/Snow White. But as an avid Ariel fan, we had to do it. I am not ashamed to admit that I was singing along most of the time with my friend. Her husband was luckily in another car with the baby, so he didn’t have to put up with us.

Also of note in California Adventure is Grizzly River Runs. As it was barely in the 60’s when we were there, we forewent the water ride. I am sure it is great in the middle of summer, but it was too chilly to walk around with wet clothes.

There is also an attraction called Blue Sky Cellar, which is essentially a preview of things that they are constructing at California Adventure. There were models and schematics of the Buena Vista Street and Cars Land construction projects, so it was neat to see what Disney Imagineering had up their sleeves for the park. As a side note, they could certainly use something like this at WDW.

There is also an attraction called Disney Animation, which was actually a lot of fun. They brought Turtle Talk with Crush to this building, as well as a couple of other interactive exhibits centered around the Disney animated movies. The lobby of this area is great – they focus on a certain movie and project images from that movie and play some of the music. It is also home to the Animation Academy where they’ll have an animator come out and show you how to draw certain characters. We went through twice and drew Pluto and Jack Skellington. If we waited for a third time, we would’ve learned how to draw Mickey, but it was getting late at that point.

Now, onto the original – Disneyland!

In terms of layout, it is pretty much a dead ringer forMagic Kingdom aside from the size of the park. You walk in and head down Main Street, with all the shops and food. On the right is Tomorrowland, which then loops back towards Fantasyland, Mickey’s Toon Town and then into Frontierland and Adventureland on the other side. Disneyland has the added lands of Critter Country and New Orleans Square, as well.

We skipped a whole lot of Disneyland, mostly because I wanted to do things that I’d never been on since it’s not in WDW. I did go on Star Tours because I wanted to see what they had changed. Since I last did Star Tours, they’ve changed the film and it is now 3D. And not only did they change the film – there’s different adventures that you go on. I had 2 different films, but I’m not sure how many they are using now. We also did the Nemo submarine ride. It’s nothing spectacular to be honest, but I do enjoy my Nemo.

In Fantasyland we rode the tea-cups. We got it spinning so fast it took me a long time to recuperate from the dizziness. One thing I was particularly sad about was the fact that Matterhorn was down for repairs. All the more reason to go back, I suppose. Also back in Fantasyland is where you will find most of your traditional Disney princesses. We hit the jackpot and got to meet all 6 of the traditional princesses, as well as Rapunzel from Tangled. Anyways, there’s a spot called Disney Princess Fantasy Faire. Of course you won’t know who you’ll meet until you actually enter, but we lucked out. Ariel, Cinderella and Belle were there for us. My friend told me that she’s also seen Mulan and Tianna from The Princess and the Frog there as well.

Mickey’s Toon Town is alright from an adult’s perspective. If you want to meet Mickey and Minnie, this is where you’ll want to go. There’s also a Roger Rabbit ride back here that’s pretty fun. It broke down on us just as we were reaching the exit, so we had to wait, but it was still fun. I’m sure the people who got stuck behind us got an eyeful of behind-the-scenes fun.

A small Disney Princess note for those who will look for them – we found Sleeping Beauty and Snow White around the castle. If you are looking at the castle from the park entrance/Main Street USA, we found Sleeping Beauty on the left. She was pretty obvious and easy to find. On the right side of the castle there is a small niche. You’ll probably think nothing of it, but Snow White is back there with her wishing well and a waterfall with the Seven Dwarves.

Frontierland and Adventureland are also pretty much the same as their counterparts in WDW. We only did Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean back in those areas. The Indiana Jones ride is pretty awesome. It reminds me of The Mummy ride in Universal Studios Orlando – you’re in a Jeep and they take you through an adventure, in this case with Indy. Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain are almost the same as the rides in WDW, but those are a couple of my favorites. New Orleans Square and Critter Country are also tucked back in this area of the park.

So, enough about Disneyland.

What else is there to do in San Diego? I’d highly recommend checking out Balboa Park, formerly the site of a couple of expositions back in 1915 and 1935. There are 16 museums which are housed in the buildings from the expositions and loads of gardens here. It’s also home of the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Time was limited so we only went to the Natural History Museum. Next time I will certainly be going to the zoo, the Museum of Man and the Museum of Art. Back in LA I’ll be wanting to hit up the rest of the places listed on the 1000 Places list, like Santa Monica and what not.

1000 Places to see Before You Die on this trip: 2 completed.

Next up: Vegas, baby!

Harry Potter-Mania!!

I’ve returned from my conquest of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and it was phenomenal! If you were to grade it, it would definitely receive an Outstanding! So, who’s ready for a photo-intensive run-down of the park?

If you’ve read my first DW post, you’ll know that avoiding crowds and kids is all about timing. Being there the last week of September, kids were in school mostly and adults were at work mostly. The crowd levels and lines were VERY manageable. I’d been reading about people going on The Forbidden Journey and waiting a couple of hours to ride just once. The lines were so short most of the time we just walked on a few times in a row. Same for the Dragon Challenge coasters. I’ve seen pictures of Hogsmeade during peak season and the lines just to enter the shops. No such problems for us. We even waited for the Ollivander’s show a few times, hoping we’d get picked (no such luck *sigh*). We did everything (except for Flight of the Hippogriff) at least 5 times and still had time to go through the rest of Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.

So, what’s the park like, you ask? The main entrance takes you to Hogsmeade Station, which is where you’ll find the Hogwarts Express. You can get your picture taken with the conductor, even. On the other side of the path is Zonko’s and Honeydukes. Zonko’s is where to go to buy Extendable Ears, Pygmy Puffs and more. Honeydukes is where you’ll go to satisfy your sweet tooth with Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Beans, amongst other treats. I got a Cauldron Cake as well, and those things are delicious. It’s chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate. Yum! Next door is The Three Broomsticks and The Hog’s Head pub. The Three Broomsticks is like a cafeteria – you’ll order your English-inspired meal and pick it up at the window. We had the Cornish Pasties and Shepard’s Pie, both of which were delicious. And that’s a vote of confidence from my friend since she’s a pretty picky eater. A word of warning, however – if you want sodas, bring it with you from somewhere else in the park. The only drinks they serve in Wizarding World are butterbeer, pumpkin juice, waters and teas. Butterbeer is liquid crack, let me tell you. They serve it either cold or frozen; it’s like a slushie. You can also get them in souvenir mugs, which of course I got. If you go the mug route, you do get discounted refills. The pumpkin juice is also delicious. If you don’t like pumpkin pies, however, just skip it. We killed a couple hours in The Hog’s Head to give our feet some time to recover from all the walking, and they have a specialty drink too. But it’s more adult. They have a micro-brew called Hog’s Head Brew, and it was a quite tasty Scottish ale. They of course also sell this is a souvenir mug.

Across from the food and drink is the entrance to the Dragon Challenge coasters. Fittingly, this is themed around The Goblet of Fire. Through the path are signs you’d imagine they would’ve had in the crowds at the tournament, then you enter a pavilion with the Goblet of Fire. You continue down a path and run into the Triwizard Cup and the eggs they are supposed to be retrieving from their dragons. You get to choose between the Chinese Fireball (red) and the Hungarian Horntail (blue). Personally I prefer the blue one because it has more twists, turns and loops than the red one.

Next up is the Owl Post, Dervish and Banges and Ollivander’s. The show inside Ollivander’s is quite fun. They shuffle you into a small room and Ollivander chooses someone from the crowd to find their wand. Usually it’s a child, much to the adults’ dismay. And by adults I mean those who are there that grew up reading the books, are avid HP fans and don’t have any kids. I understand they don’t want to discriminate, but it’s a real bummer when they pick someone who doesn’t speak English. There’s a lot of awkward pausing because the person doesn’t know what Ollivander wants them to do. The demonstration is pretty cool. Ollivander picks out a few wands, the person tries ringing bells and levitating objects to disastrous results. Then magically, Ollivander picks the right wand. Then you get spit out into Dervish and Banges and the Owl Post, where you can buy your own wand and other Hogwarts-related gear like robes, scarves and more. While in the Owl Post I got postcards for a lot of my friends. Outside there is a seating pavilion and a stand where you can get your postcards stamped from Hogsmeade and mail them off (they also sell collectible stamps inside).

Next up is the main attraction – Hogwarts Castle. On the right is the Flight of the Hippogriff, which is where you’ll catch a glimpse of Hagrid’s hut. Side note – for those who’ve been at Islands of Adventure before HP opened – the Dragon Challenge coasters were once Dueling Dragons and Flight of the Hippogriff was once Flying Unicorns. They retrofitted these rides to mesh with the new HP theme. You will have to store your belongings inside lockers for The Forbidden Journey and Dragon Challenge, but you’ll definitely want to keep your cameras in your pockets while in line for The Forbidden Journey. You’ll be passing through the dungeons, Herbology greenhouses, Dumbledore’s office, the Hall of Portraits, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom and Gryffindor’s common room before entering the Room of Requirement to enter the ride. Take a moment to look at the ceiling before you get seated – it looks like the ceiling of the Great Hall with floating candles. The ride itself is great. Hermione transports you through the Floo network to fly and meet up with Harry and Ron on their way to the Quidditch pitch. You’re taken through a series of twists and turns while avoiding a dragon, the Whomping Willow, dementors and spiders. Overall, it was a great dark ride. One thing that bugs me though is that the staff refer to everyone as muggles – but muggles can’t see dementors, only feel their presence. So I’m not a muggle since I can see them, right? A girl can dream… The Forbidden Journey spits you out into Filch’s Emporium, which is the biggest gift shop inside HP. It’s got a really wide selection of trinkets to take home with you.

A couple of things I learned:

– Buy all souvenirs, especially chocolate, at the end of the day. You’ll avoid carrying around a lot of unnecessary weight, and in the case of chocolate, it won’t melt in the Florida sun. I got a replica of Lucius Malfoy’s pimp cane and I would have been very encumbered trying to carry that around all day.

– If going during the slow season, there’s a cut-through in line for the Dragon Challenge. As you exit the castle, there’s a path up the hill on the right that will take you back up to the castle entrance and it cuts out a lot of the line.

– Keep an eye out at all times inside the shops, you never know when you’ll see something magical in the rafters of the buildings. They even have Moaning Myrtle haunting the bathroom.

– The secondary entrance is via Jurassic Park. The bridge crossing into HP gives you a spectacular view and photo spot with Hogwarts. There’s also another butterbeer cart here that is usually not as crowded as the main one outside The Three Broomsticks. I’ve also read that this is the entrance to use during the peak seasons since most people will be taking the main entrance.

I’ve heard rumors that they’re already planning on expanding HP and completely taking over The Lost Continent, and I couldn’t be happier. They need a Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley. As it stands now, The Lost Continent seems kind of off since there’s not much to it now aside from Mythos and a few shows and shops. And I definitely will be going back at some point in the future during December because I can only imagine the Christmas decorations around the holidays.

I can’t wait until next time!!

Once upon a time, this park was called MGM Studios, but Disney has since cut their ties with MGM and called it Hollywood Studios. This park is probably my second favorite after Magic Kingdom. It’s home to most of the adult-targeted rides in the whole of Disney World. It’s dedicated to the movies, as it’s name implies, which as a movie geek I love.

You enter the park on Hollywood Boulevard and are greeted by this park’s hub equivalent of Cinderella’s Castle or the geodesic sphere of Epcot – Mickey’s sorcerer hat from Fantasia. I will honestly tell you that I find Hollywood Studios to have the most confusing layout of all the Disney parks, so a map will probably be your best friend. It’s not impossible to navigate, it’s just not as simple as the hub-and-spoke setup in the other parks.

On your right will be Sunset Boulevard, which is where you will find two of the biggest thrills in all of Disney World – Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. If you skip both of these I will hunt you down and kill you. No, I’m just kidding. They really are great rides, so do yourself a favor and get to them first before the lines become impossible. Tower of Terror takes you up to the top of a “haunted” hotel and drops you 13 stories a few times. I have a fear of elevators and free-falling, so this one gives me the chills on a personal level because it’s my worst nightmare come true. Despite that, it’s one of my favorite amusement park rides ever. And Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster is your basic indoor roller coaster. They shoot you off at 60 mph into a series of loops and turns in a coaster car shaped like a vintage limousine, all the while having music from Aerosmith playing from speakers by your ears. Also located in this area of the park is a Beauty and the Beast stage show, which is nice if you have time to kill, but not a necessity. This is also where you’ll find Fantasmic, and I’ll come back to that later.

The next logical area is Animation Courtyard, which is dedicated to the Disney animation tradition. This is where you’ll find the stage show for The Little Mermaid. You’ll also find Toy Story Mania in the adjacent Pixar Place. This was only a couple months old when I was last there, so the lines were insane. We did a FastPass and went back and did The Great Movie Ride to bide our time. Toy Story Mania is entirely too much fun. It’s similar to the Buzz Lightyear ride at Magic Kingdom, but they added 3D to it. You board cars and play a bunch of midway games and you compete with those in your car to win. The Great Movie Ride is located inside the replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and is actually pretty fun. But this is also a statement coming from a movie buff. They take you through the Golden Age of the movies and show you reproduced sets from classics like Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz. Luckily Disney was able to keep the rights to do this when they split ways with MGM.

Streets of America should be your next stop in the loop around the park. You’ll find the Muppetvision 3D show, the Lights, Motors, Action Stunt Show and the Backlot Tour. Personally, I’d do all three. I grew up on the Muppets, and the show is great. The Backlot Tour is where they stash a lot of props from old movies. Since the 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean was released the year before there were loads of props from that series. As a GIGANTIC Pirates of the Caribbean fan, I squeed like a schoolgirl for quite a bit of the ride. The stunt show is a fun way to relax for a while because you’re sitting and they do a lot of really cool tricks and do a lot of explaining how they do it. Last on the loop around is Star Tours, which has gotten a facelift since I was last there. It now takes place between the old and new Star Wars trilogies. Any self-respecting nerd will not miss it, nor would they likely skip out on the Indiana Jones stunt show that’s nearby as well.

Now, back to Fantasmic. This is quite honestly the best show Disney World does. And in all seriousness, if you want good seats, you will be in the holding area before the 90 minutes they recommend getting there. There’s limited seating, so it’s obviously first-come, first-served. It’s a water/light/laser/fire spectacle. They project movie clips onto water spray, there’s floats with some of the Disney princesses and Mickey fights off the villains. It’s not to be missed.

As the smallest of the four Disney World parks, there isn’t much to it. But overall, it’s really enjoyable. If you’re only here for half of a day, do not miss Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours or Toy Story Mania. I’d recommend making it an evening half-day so that you can see the Fantasmic show.

And, now we’re onto the final park in Disney World, Animal Kingdom. Grab your safari gear!