A Day in Hogsmeade

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After a few days of enjoying Disney Magic, we were ready to re-enter the magical world of Harry Potter.

This time, Islands of Adventure was our portkey into the storybook world of JK Rowling.

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This particular portkey brought us to Hogsmeade, the wizarding village where upperclassman at Hogwarts go to enjoy some time away from their studies and do a little shopping for candy at Honeydukes or toys at Zonko’s Joke Shop.

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Our first trip into Hogsmeade occurred at the end of our Universal Studios day in Diagon Alley, when we decided to take the Hogwart’s Express over to Hogsmeade in the last 15 minutes before the park closed. When wanted to make sure we rode the train in both directions, having heard that each journey has a different storyline that plays out in the train car, depending on which direction guests are traveling.

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The Hogwarts Express connects Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure, allowing guests with park-to-park admission to enjoy a real journey aboard the iconic locomotive.  The Hogwarts Express experience combines powerful storytelling, live special effects, lifelike animation and state-of-the-art technology to take riders on the journey of a lifetime.

Once seated in the cabin, guests can look out their windows as an incredibly authentic and magical adventure unfolds before them.  They’ll see Hagrid alongside the train on his flying motorbike, Buckbeak the Hippogriff swoop over the black lake, the Weasley twins on brooms and up to their usual antics, the Knight Bus swerving through London traffic – and other special surprises.

Universal’s Creative team worked closely with Warner Bros. to create a sensational Hogwarts Express experience that the entire family can enjoy.  The creative team went to great lengths to ensure the experience is true to the books and films.  Everything about the train is authentic – from the paint and the materials used to build it and all the way down to the whistle.

We found the Hogwarts Express to be one of the most amazing experiences that Universal Studios had to offer. I can’t even tell you how magical it was to see Hagrid, Harry and a few others so “close.” It felt as though we had stepped into the film. It was truly an immersive experience and one worth doing.

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There are two train stations, one in “London” and one in “Hogsmeade,” each authentic to the story.

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King’s Cross Station is the muggle station. So, guests will see lots of typical transportation signs, the billboard as seen in the movie, a snack counter and platform 9 3/4.

While in King’s Cross Station, guests can walk through the wall at 9 ¾.

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In King’s Cross Station we also spotted a feathered friend.

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Once on board, guests are placed in a train car that seats 8 people.

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The train serves the dual purpose of transporting guests, with park hopper tickets, between parks, while also providing guests with a magical wizarding experience.

As we rode, there were things to see out the window and also through the frosted glass doors on the side.

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Once we arrived in Hogsmeade, we were greeted with a breath-taking view of the village. The sight of the snow-covered shops, and the sound of the movie soundtrack playing over loud speakers, gave me goosebumps. It is something you must experience firsthand!

Along the streets of Hogsmeade, guests will find a variety of shops selling all sorts of magical wares.

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The details were amazing!

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 My favorite was the Owlery, which was connected to Dervish and Banges.

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Here we saw the caged biting book and the owls resting overhead.

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 Bring a stamp from home and purchase a postcard.

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Outside the Owlery, they’ll stamp it with Hogsmeade station.

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Honeydukes has all the favorite wizard treats like chocolate frogs and Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans.

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We enjoyed spending time walking through Hogsmeade and finding all the spots where we could use our wands to do a little magic.

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For lunch we ate at The Three Broomsticks. Here guests can find traditional English fare.

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We chose to order two of the family platters. It was one of the best meals we have enjoyed on this vacation.

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It came with roasted chicken, ribs, corn on the cob, potato slices and vegetables and was AMAZING!

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After lunch we made a quick stop at the “public facilities” and enjoyed listening for Moaning Myrtle, who haunts the public restrooms when she isn’t hanging out in Hogwart’s bathrooms.

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From there we walked up the street to Hogwarts Castle, the shining star of Hogsmeade.

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It is crazy how much it looks like the real deal and guests will feel as though they are first year’s heading in to get sorted into their houses.

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Located inside the castle walls is the most popular ride in the park: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

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“Enter through the towering castle gates and make your way down the familiar passageways and corridors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Visit iconic locations such as Dumbledore’s office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, the Gryffindor common room, the Room of Requirement, and more.

Then get ready to soar above the castle grounds as you join Harry Potter and his friends on an unforgettably thrilling adventure, coming face-to-face with an array of magical creatures. This amazing attraction uses groundbreaking, state-of-the-art technology (and a little magic) to create a one-of-a-kind ride.”

We found the queue to be one of the most magical aspects of this ride with its talking portraits and touches of magic.  Guests will enjoy exploring Dumbledore’s Office and listening to Ron, Harry and Hermoine’s plan for getting you to the Quidditch pitch. Even if you have no interest in actually riding this ride, it is worth walking through the queue and experiencing the magic inside the walls of Hogwarts.

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 The attraction itself is pretty intense and is a combination of simulator and ride.

Some of the kids were fans, others…not so much.

But we all enjoyed the Wizarding magic of our Hogsmeade experience,

Ending our day as all good wizards should, with a little wizarding mischief and a cold drink of Butterbeer…cheers!

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Around the World in… 8 hours!

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Yesterday we were back at Epcot for round two.

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This time, rather than spending time in future world, we spent our entire day in the World Showcase. It took us 8 hours to travel from Canada to Mexico, taking the most indirect way possible through China, Morocco, France, and a few other countries along the way.

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Knowing we were going to spend our day at the World Showcase we took advantage of the fact that it didn’t open until 11:00 am and we slept in. It was needed.

When we arrived at the park, we began our adventure on the right side of the lagoon in Canada.

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Our first stop was the Kidcot Fun Stop.

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This activity had changed since our last visit, and instead of decorating a Duffy Bear fan to be stamped at each nation, each kid received a “suitcase” to collect stamped postcards at each nation.

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By visiting each nation, and collecting stamped postcards, the kids got to interact with cast members from each nation and walk away with a cool (FREE) souvenir at the end of the day.

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I knew this would be a harder day for my kiddos with ADHD. The idea of just walking, shopping and watching educational videos about different cultures is my idea of an AMAZING day, but for my thrill seeking, high energy kiddos, I predicted it to be a bit painful. I was hoping the interactive nature of the Kidcot experience, paired with our plan to snack our way around the world, would help everyone to make it through the day with smiles…

And my plan worked!

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Rusty was the mastermind behind our dining experience. He researched the most popular or culturally unique snacks to be found in each nation, balancing sweet and savory dishes through our journey around the world. This snacking experience became our lunch/dinner for the day as we purchased two or three treats at each country and split them eight ways, allowing everyone to enjoy the unique tastes of each nation without filling up halfway around the world.

Our first stop was Canada, where watched “O Canada,” a 360-circle vision film about Canada.

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This was also our first food stop of the day.

In Canada we had maple sugar candy,

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And Poutine.

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Poutine was a Canadian dish we were introduced to on our exciting Canadian adventure over the border to pick up an elevator. Poutine is a savory dish of french fries topped with squeaky cheese and brown gravy. It sounds crazy and looks even less appealing, but is actually pretty delicious!

Our next stop was the United Kingdom.

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Our food was fish and chips, which was enjoyed by everyone…Yum!

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The next nation in our trip around the world was France.

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This was Miss Molly’s favorite stop. She dreams of visiting Paris, so this was a good practice run.

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In France we enjoyed one of our tastiest treats of the day: strawberries and cream macaron ice cream sandwiches.

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While enjoying our taste of heaven we enjoyed watching the comedic antics of Seveur Amusant street performers.

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Morocco was the next stop on our tour.

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Morocco is one of the most visually immersive areas of the World Showcase, offering lots of fun photo opportunities.

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Here we feasted on baklava. Toby ordered four different types: walnut, cashew, pistachio, and chocolate…

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Each was more amazing than the last…Yum!!

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While we were enjoying our baclava, the skies opened up in typical Florida fashion, dowsing Morocco with a downpouring of rain. Brandon, my rain-loving boy, was in heaven and refused to come in out of the storm, soaking it all in with a smile as big as his heart.

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Japan was our next stop.

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Here, at the Japan pavilion, they offer a “pick a pearl” experience. On our last visit Toby treated each of us girls to a pearl. Grace enjoyed it so much that she decided to pay to do it again and have her pearl made into a necklace as a special souvenir of this trip.

Grace let her little brothers pick the oyster,

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And then we all enjoyed watching the big reveal of what treasure it held within.

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In Japan we decided to pick out two candy treats as our tasting experience in Japan.

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One was a pillowy sort of jelly candy,

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The other was a sweet potato biscuit.

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Both were yummy and gave us just the sugar kick we needed to keep pushing through our travels around the world.

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Our next nation was the United States.

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This marked the halfway point in our journey.

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Here we watched a show called, “The American Adventure.”

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Since we are well accustomed to all the American fare offered, we passed on the food offered at this pavilion, choosing, instead, to meander on to Italy.

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In Italy we purchased gelato and lemon ice for a cold treat.

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The next stop was…Germany!

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This is my personal favorite nation in the World Showcase. Walking through this pavilion brings back so many sweet memories of the time I spent in Germany as a young child, when my dad was stationed there.

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In Germany we feasted on pretzels.

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Next stop was China.

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We knew we wanted to watch the Jeweled Dragon Acrobats so we found a seat before the show began while Toby and Rusty went to pick up our snack for China- eggrolls and dumplings.

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By this point in our journey we had two nations left. We sat and enjoyed our treat while waiting for the show to begin.

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Unfortunately, due to high winds the show was canceled for the safety of the acrobats, so instead we strolled around the pavilion, soaking up the culture.

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Then we headed on to Norway.

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In Norway we stopped in the bakery to try the school bread.

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It was a delicious pastry with a cream filling.

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The big hit at this nation was the new Frozen Ever After ride that replaced the Maelstrom ride.

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 We weren’t sure how we would feel about this change, but actually found the new boat ride in Norway, revolving around the characters from “Frozen,” to be charming.

 We were pleasantly surprised.

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And our final stop in our trip around the world was…drumroll please…Mexico!

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By the time we had made it to Mexico the sun had long since fallen below the horizon.

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Inside we found ourselves fully immersed in a Mexican plaza,

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boasting all sorts of cultural wares for sale.

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It was here we rode “Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros,”

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 And concluded our 11-course meal with nachos.

By this time, it was almost 9:00 pm and we got into position to watch “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth.” It was a perfect conclusion to a day full of food, fun, and culture.

By the time the last firework exploded above our heads, everyone was ready to go home and put their feet up.

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Every wonder how many miles it is from Canada to Mexico…10.3 miles. You thought it would be more, didn’t you?!

       Well it felt like more.

But despite our sore feet and aching legs, it was a good day…

One of my favorite days of the trip!

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“I want to travel the world with you: go to every country, every city, take pictures and be happy.”

Epcot- Day 1

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Like Magic Kingdom, we had 3 days planned for Epcot. The plan was to spend the first day in Future World, the second visit taking our time touring the nations and snacking our way around the world in the World Showcase, and then on our final visit we would revisit all our favorite rides and experiences.

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This plan worked out well, because during day 1 in Epcot, Brandon still wasn’t feeling great. Knowing we would be returning two more times allowed us to take things slow and leave a little bit early when he had had enough for the day.

It was a beautiful day in Orlando. The sun was shining and the temperature was 75 degrees. The warm sun felt so good on our faces!

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Our first fast pass of the day was for Spaceship Earth, the ride inside the iconic Epcot ball, that takes guests on journey through the history of communication from the Stone Age all the way into the future.

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From there we made a stop at Club Cool. This little oasis, located near the fountains, allows visitors to sample popular Coca Cola sodas from around the world.

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It was fun trying the flavors of popular sodas from other nations.

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Our personal favorites were the sodas from Zimbabwe and Peru.

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We discovered that our taste buds had not become any more sophisticated in the last five years, as the nasty drink so popular in Italy, called the Beverly, still tastes like an aspirin dissolved in seltzer water.

We warned Brandon not to try it (especially feeling like he was) but he wanted to experience the Beverly for himself:

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On that first day we spent our time hitting some of our favorite Epcot rides, like Test Track and Mission Space:

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Then we headed over to The Lands to ride my personal favorite ride, Soarin’. While there we also rode “Living with the Land.”

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Sunshine Seasons was our lunch spot for the day, and also the place we returned to prior to leaving, to choose our daily treat.

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The had beautiful desserts on display, and we each chose one of the fancy cupcakes for our snack.

They were as delicious as they were pretty.

Tomorrow we return to Epcot to spend the day pretending to be world travelers as we eat our way around the nations of Epcot. Now that Brandon is feeling better he will be able to enjoy the experience much more.

Magic Kingdom- Some MAGICAL experiences

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We had 3 days scheduled in Magic Kingdom. The plan was to spend day 1 hitting the park hard, riding all the rides and introducing Bandon to the magic of Disney.

Our plan for day 2 in Magic Kingdom was to focus less on the rides and more on the experiences of Magic Kingdom. This plan was ideal for our second day in Magic Kingdom, as it fell on Saturday and the crowds were much larger than the ones we were encountering on weekdays.

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We started the day by hitting two of the “Big 3” rides in Magic Kingdom…

Splash Mountain:

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And Big Thunder Mountain:

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Since we had fast passes that allowed us to move to the front of the line.

Grace fit in beautifully in this area of Magic Kingdom. She was “Disney bounding” as Stinky Pete and looked right at home in Frontier land.

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Once that was done, we headed over to Tom Sawyer’s island, our first planned “experience” of the day.

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Tom Sawyer’s island is one of those Magic Kingdom experiences that you either love or hate. It lacks the fast-paced excitement of the rest of the park, isolated from the hustle and bustle of the crowds. It is for this very reason I love this area of the park, and my kids do too.

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The island is covered in trees and therefore shady, a needed respite from the Florida sun.  Benches in thoughtful spots are plentiful.  The quiet of the island allows visitors to sit back and watch the world.  After the constant novelty of the rest of the Magic Kingdom, this quiet oasis offered familiarity.

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My younger kids are wanderers.  Explorers.  Haters of lines.  Aside from the boat queue, Tom Sawyer Island affords freedom from any kind of lines or even orderly behavior.  There are trails,  caves, a playground, and a wild west fort with a secret passageway.  

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If your kids have HAD IT with lines and crowds, get thyself to Tom Sawyer Island.  It’s a place that lets them be the kids they are and burn off some energy, while allowing parents to catch their breath.  

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We had fun taking our time and exploring the island at a leisurely pace.

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Once sufficiently renewed, we were ready to reenter the fray, and we headed to Main Street to play “Sorcerers of Magic Kingdom.” This activity was per Rusty’s request.

Even after two trips to Walt Disney World, we had never played Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, so during this trip we decided we were going to make time to play.

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Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is a card-based scavenger hunt style game set in the Magic Kingdom Park. There are 9 different quests to play led by Merlin the Magician as he aims to stop Hades, the Greek God of the Underworld.

With plenty of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom villains to combat along the way, the goal is to stop Hades from taking over the Magic Kingdom. Guests will find game portals all over Magic Kingdom Park except in Tomorrowland.

To begin our quest, we walked to the Fire station at the front of Magic Kingdom. You can’t miss it, as there is a large banner outside.

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Once inside we let the cast member know we wanted to play and they talked us through the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom maps and gave us our first set of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom spell cards.

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Once we had met Merlin inside the fire station and listened to his tale, he directed us to which portal to visit next. This is an important bit of information. The portals are easily spotted with discs on the ground and a magic key which is activated with your magic band.

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The map had different symbols on them helping us to identify which portal we needed to visit next.

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Each villain took around 4-5 portals to defeat. This allows guests to make their game experience as long or as short as they want to during the day. We also found out you can pick up your current game on your next visit if you like, as all progress is saved via your portal card.

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There are 20 different portals across the Magic Kingdom, and your job is to find them all and unlock them to defeat the Disney villains with your playing cards. Each card acts as a spell to defeat the villains you have unlocked.

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There are 70 different Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom cards to collect plus special even cards that can be collected when attending special events. You can collect a set of cards each time you visit Magic Kingdom which allows visitors to grow their collection.

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As we worked our way through Frontier land, we suddenly found ourselves assisted by an unexpected furry friend. As we stood in front of one of the portals, battling a Disney villain, Liver lips came up behind us, eager to check out what was happening.

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He gave Toby quite a start, when Toby suddenly felt someone’s hand on his shoulder.

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Liver lips was eager to help and led our team of 8 to the next hidden portal. He wanted to keep playing with us but was called away for the parade that was beginning.

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It was one of those unexpected, unplanned, magical moments that only happen at Disney World.

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We paused the game to stop and watch the Festival of Fantasy parade,

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And grab some lunch at Pecos Bill Tall  Tale Cafe.

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After lunch we headed over to Adventureland for our final planned experience of the day.

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In Adventureland there is another scavenger hunt activity offered. Pirate’s Adventure ~ Treasures of the Seven Seas. 

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Located in Adventureland, A Pirate’s Adventure allows guests to become pirates by going on a scavenger hunt for hidden treasure throughout the park.

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In this adventure, Captain Jack Sparrow needs help to find secret treasures in Adventureland. To begin this interactive quest, we needed to sign up at the Crow’s Nest in Adventureland which is just by the entrance to Adventureland near Pecos Bills.

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There are five missions to complete with “A Pirate’s Adventure,” all taking place in Adventureland. Each mission took around 20 minutes to complete, but we were rewarded with something very special when we completed 2 missions…a fast pass for each member of the team to ride Pirates of the Caribbean.

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We began this experience by entering the Pirate’s Adventure building, and were greeted by a fellow pirate who explained the raid we were about to undergo. We were asked to swipe our magic bands and then were given paper map to take with us on our adventure.  

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Our maps (which could be kept as  FREE Disney souvenirs) showed us where to go first. Once we made it to our first destination, we were given challenges and clues as to where to proceed next.

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What was really cool about Pirate Adventure is that it was totally interactive. We never knew exactly what would0 happen until we scanned our magic bands.

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After each successful mission we each received a treasure finder card. Guests can take as long as they want with each mission and start and stop throughout the day, which was a nice bonus.

It was an “untraditional” sort of day at Disney, but it was a magical…

Simply magical.

The rest of Universal Studios

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Our first day at Universal Studios was spent primarily in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Once I entered, I didn’t want to leave…EVER!

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But near the end of the day I gave into the reality that I’d have to re-enter the muggle world sooner or later, so we exited that part of the park and headed off to explore the remainder of Universal Studios.

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The following day we returned to finishing riding the rides we missed the first day, as well as taking the time to enjoy some of the shows offered in the park.

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Universal Studios is divided into different “lands” that house rides and attractions inspired by that land.

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Upon first entering the park, visitors will find themselves in “Production Central.” This main street area is home to 3-D rides: Despicable Me minion Mayhem, Shrek, and Transformers.

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It is also home to this parks largest, most thrilling coaster: Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. This was a favorite ride of some of the older kids.

The next area visitors walk through, when moving clockwise through the park, is New York. The building facades of this area of the park make you feel as though you are in New York City. Some of our favorite rides in Universal are located in the New York area.

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This includes Jimmy Fallon: Race through New York, a fun-filled 3-D race through New York City with the Tonight Show’s host, and Revenge of the Mummy, in which visitors plunge into the dark and face an army of mummies on this indoor coaster. This ride was the hands-down favorite of the entire family.

The next area of the park gusts will find themselves in is the San Francisco area of the park. Once again, Universal Studios did an amazing job of making visitors feel as though they had stepped into this beloved city with its attention to detail.

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It is in this area of the park that guests will find the Fast and Furious- Supercharged ride. This was Ozzie’s favorite ride of the day. My car-loving boy couldn’t get enough of this supercharged ride in which visitors join Dom, Letty and the rest of Fast and Furious family as they face off against an unforeseen enemy.

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Even more than the ride itself, Ozzie loved the queue and gift shop that boasted all sorts of sports cars and car memorabilia.

On the other side of the park visitors will find the areas more geared to a younger audience including:

Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone,

Home of Curious George Goes to Town water play area:

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Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster:

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Fievel’s Playland, a playground with a mouse-eye view of the world,

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And E.T. adventure:

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It is also on this side of the park that visitors will find themselves in Springfield: Home of the Simpsons. We didn’t spend any time here, having never watch the Simpsons and not getting any of the references that delighted other visitors. We did stop for one of the huge donuts for sale, however, when we saw another park guest carrying it.

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The huge donuts sold in Springfield: Home of the Simpsons sales for $8.00 and was big enough to be split eight ways. It was the perfect mid-day pick-me-up…Yum!

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As fun as the rides in Universal Studios were, I found the best part to be the shows sprinkled throughout the park.

We stopped to watch the Fear Factor show.

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This show is modeled after the television show but allows visitors to audition to appear in the live show in from of a park audience. If chosen, guests will have to compete in various challenges including eating gross foods, being shut in a glass box with various creepy crawlies, and extreme physical challenges.

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We enjoyed watching as audience members, but were happy to not be in the show!

We also really enjoyed the Animal Actors on Location show. Led by a professional animal trainer, this interactive show allows guests to see how animals are trained for the movies. As a family of animal lovers, we loved this funny show starring dogs, cats, birds, porcupines, skunks, otters, and even a pot belly pig…all of whom have been trained to perform their part in the show.

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This was my personal favorite, non-Harry Potter experience of Universal Studios.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is still the showcase piece of this park, but found there were other experienced to be enjoyed if guests can pull themselves away from the magic of Harry Potter’s world of magical experiences.

 

Pandora: The World of Avatar

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Of all the Disney parks, Animal Kingdom is my all-time favorite.

There is a different feel to this park than its sister parks. The lush vegetation, and hundreds of hidden trails that wind their way throughout the park, make visitors forget they are at an amusement park. There is so much I love about Animal Kingdom, but for this post I am going to focus on its newest area- Pandora.

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All I can say is WOW.

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When I say that the World of Avatar is going to blow your mind, that is an understatement.

As we entered the park, we followed the hordes of visitors headed straight for Pandora. Everyone was eager to see what all the hype was about. This is what we discovered:

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As you enter Pandora: The World of Avatar, you will definitely notice that you have left the rest of Animal Kingdom behind and entered a whole new world. The first thing you will notice about this new environment is the floating mountains.

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After marveling at these gravity-defying beauties, you will notice the lush plant life that surrounds you.

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The creators did a wonderful job of mixing real plants with ones that would exist on the planet of Pandora.

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 At times, it is difficult to determine which plants are real and which ones are make-believe.

Pandora the World of Avatar has the most beautiful walking areas I have seen at Walt Disney World.

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Everywhere you turn is a perfect shot filled with bioluminescence plants and animals.

In typical Disney fashion, you will discover entertainment throughout the land. The Pandora drummers establish a lively feel in the area as they delight the crowds with their festive sets, and kids and adults alike will be amazed by the researcher operating the 10-foot-tall Pandora Utility Suit.

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But the best part of Pandora World of Avatar at the Animal Kingdom…the one thing that actually left me breathless…the Avatar Flight of Passage ride!

It reminded me a lot of Soarin’ at Epcot, but was far more astonishing, stunning, and breathtaking!

The ride takes visitors through an elaborate queue which sets up the backstory of the ride, before you mount a motorcycle-like ride vehicle to take a flight on the back of a banshee.

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All of your five senses will come alive while experiencing Avatar Flight of Passage. If you have seen the movie, then imagine riding on the back of a banshee flying over the mountains, rivers, and of course, the Great Leonopteryx just like the Na’vi did in the James Cameron movie.

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Hands down the best ride I have ever been on!!

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We weren’t the only ones who felt that way. It is, by far, the most popular ride at any of the Disney parks, boating an average waiting time of 3-4 hours on the day we went. Luckily, we had a fast pass that allowed us to walk right on.

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Now onto the second ride at Pandora. This is where you really get to experience the Na’vi culture and sit back for a chance to be a part of it all. On the Na’vi River Journey you will float down the sacred river deep into the bioluminescent rainforest where the Na’vi live.

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The landscape comes alive with creatures, plants, and even the Na’vi themselves. This is the perfect ride to take it all in. Listen carefully and you just might hear an Avatar calling!

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One of our favorite parts of the Pandora experience, however, was simply strolling around this area and soaking in the environment. Disney truly has created a world that is fully immersive and makes you forget where you really are.

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The pictures are a poor representation of the depth and details of Pandora’s beauty.

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We returned to this area once again after dark to experience Pandora a night. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more magical, we walked into this:

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At nighttime all the flora and crystals that adorn the vegetation are lit, creating a bioluminescent world that glows. Even the pathways have been marked with imprints of ferns and foliage that glow in the dark as well.

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It is magical and will take your breath away!

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When Disney added Pandora: World of Avatar to Animal Kingdom, they truly created an out-of-this-world experience fitting for this other worldly location. The immersive environment will transport you to a place you have never been before. Even if you are not a fan of the movie Avatar, you will be impressed by this new land…

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I know we were!

‘Ohana means Family

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“Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”

Such a simple quote from a charming Disney movie, but for one of my kids, one that lives in fear of being left behind or forgotten, the message is profound and promising.

The fear never leaves. Even in the middle of a fairy tale vacation he worries that this will all end if he messes up. This belief is well founded, because it has been his reality for the last 17 years.

The lesson of ‘Ohana is one that will be hoped for until it is believed. And for Brandon, believing that this is forever, and that family never gets left behind or forgotten, is going to take time and testing.

As his adoption day nears, his anxiety increases with worries that all this will suddenly be snatched away. There will be such feelings of relief when we finally get to stand before the judge and declare our commitment to love him and hold tight to him forever.

Yesterday we had dinner at ‘Ohana.

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This was the one Disney table-service dinner we had booked for the trip. It was an exorbitant treat and we were thrilled to get a reservation at this beloved restaurant that is often booked to capacity months in advance.

We lucked out when another guest canceled in early January, allowing us to take their place and dine at our favorite Disney restaurant. The reservation was for 9:30pm…a late dinner hour for our crew, but we weren’t going to complain. We were feasting at ‘Ohana!!!

Last time we visited Disney World I missed out on dinner at my favorite restaurant when I suddenly got sick just before our family was seated for dinner. That night my only experience with ‘Ohana was spending time up close with the toilets in the bathroom. Toby ended up having to drive me back to the hotel, returning to finish the feast without me.

I was so disappointed by that experience that I was doubly excited to get a do-over this time around.

We arrived at the Polynesian Resort after dark and enjoyed stepping into the magic of the islands with the resort’s décor and island music.

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We were seated quickly and then the fun began!

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Dinner at ‘Ohana is served family style which means they bring you big platters of the food to share.

Dinner started off with ‘Ohana Pineapple-coconut bread. It was my favorite part of the meal…amazing!

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Next came the mixed green salad with a lilikoi dressing.

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With the salad, other sides were delivered to the table including: pork dumplings tossed in garlic-ginger sauce, honey-coriander wings, noodles tossed in teriyaki sauce, and stir-fried vegetables. All of the food served is unlimited. Once a platter of food is cleaned out, the server returns with another helping.

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Then the skewers of meats began to arrive at the table. The proteins, all prepared over an oak fire that could be seen in the middle of the restaurant, began to arrive at the table. First came the sweet and sour chicken, then the Szechuan sirloin steak,

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Followed by Toby’s personal favorite…

Spicy, grilled, peel-n-eat shrimp.

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Then came the best part- dessert! The ‘Ohana bread pudding was served a’ la mode with banana-caramel sauce. They delivered dessert to the table and then poured the sauce on to of the ice cream, right before our very eyes. Yum!!

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Near the end of the meal Brandon began looking a little worse for wear and informed us that he had been feeling nauseous for a few hours. He didn’t mention it earlier, not wanting to miss out on dinner, but the more he ate the worse he felt. By the end of the meal he joined the ranks of McCleerys who have spent a ‘Ohana dinner in the restaurant’s bathroom throwing up.

Poor thing felt miserable.

We arrived home at 11:30 pm and tucked Brandon into bed. Here’s hoping it is a short-lived bug that doesn’t spread through the ranks, but until then we will care for and love on our sick boy, showing him the real meaning of ‘Ohana.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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On Day 3 we switched things up and headed to Universal Studios for a different sort of magic…

Yes, I’m talking about wizard magic!

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As a HUGE Harry Potter fan, this was the place I was most excited to visit on this trip. We have never taken our kids to Universal before, being die-hard Disney fans through and through. There wasn’t really any reason to consider a visit to this park until the Magical World of Harry Potter arrived. Knowing that Universal offered guests the opportunity to step into this beloved book series, and finally get that invitation to join other wizards at Hogwarts that were never received by owl post, made it worth a trip.

The experience didn’t disappoint!

I can’t imagine a better first impression of the theme park than stepping foot into Diagon Alley for the first time. I was immediately struck by the significant amount of attention to detail they obviously put into creating this world. No sign, window, or brick was too small to have a magical touch.

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I know it sounds silly, but I found myself tearing up a bit as I step into such a realistic portrayal  of a book series that I love like a good friend.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is spread out across both of Universal’s theme parks: Diagon Alley is in the Universal Studios park, while Hogsmeade is in the Islands of Adventure park. You will need a park-to-park ticket (as opposed to a single-park ticket) if you want to visit both parks in the same day. You will also need a park-to-park ticket to ride the Hogwarts Express between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.

We chose to spend our first day in the park in Diagon Alley.

Hidden behind the façade of a London Street, Diagon Alley could easily go unnoticed if you aren’t on the lookout for it. You know you are close when you see the iconic Knight Bus.

The Knight Bus is a purple triple-decker bus that serves as emergency transportation for wizards and witches. We made sure we stopped to peek inside, take some photos and say hello to Stan and Ernie, the creepy shrunken head that keeps him company.

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Another clue you are getting close is the red phone booth found in the “London” area outside of Diagon Alley. Its cheery red exterior makes for a great photo op, but did you know you can actually go inside and use the phone? Dial MAGIC (62442) and you will be patched through to the Ministry of Magic!

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A stroll a little further down the streets of London offers visitors a glimpse of Kreacher peeking out the window of Grimmauld Place.

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Our first task as muggle turned wizards was to purchase our wands, and like Harry, we opted to get our wands at Ollivander’s wand shop. We had four people in our family who chose to use their money to purchase a wand at Ollivander’s. The younger three had no interest, but the older three and I all wanted our own wands. My older three were raised on the magic of Harry Potter. They accompanied Toby and I to each midnight book release when the next installment of the story was released, and each movie premier when another book was turned into a movie.

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We got in line for the adorable show where Ollivander himself helps one audience member to select their wand like Harry does in the first movie. Molly was chosen from the audience and was thrilled to get to participate in this interactive experience where Ollivander pulled different wands off the shelf for Molly to try, in search of the wand that would choose her.

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It was funny to watch the theatrics of Molly’s spells gone wrong before the right wand was placed in Molly’s hand.

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Like the effect that happened to Harry when his wand chose him, a light shining from above and the magical tinkling of chimes made it clear that the right wand had been chosen.

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After the show the rest of our group had the opportunity to purchase our own wands.

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There were two different types of wands for sale: regular and interactive. The interactive wands are a few dollars more but allow you to interact with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in magical ways.

Both interactive wands and regular wands come in character and wood-based wands. By wood based, I mean they are modeled after the tree, ivy, rowan, oak and so forth. There are 12 different kinds of wood to choose from and nearly every character you can imagine.

Our crew all chose wood-based wands that were chosen by appearance and the characteristic of the wizard that matches that wand.

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Grace chose an ivy wood wand:

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Rusty chose an oak wand:

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I picked the ash wood wand:

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And Molly’s wand that chose her was made of holly:

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With our interactive wands we received a map, that guided us to the different locations where we could do magic.  Each location was activated by a different wand movement notated on the map and on the medallion.

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There were 11 magical locations in Diagon Alley, 5 in Knockturn Alley and 9 in Hogsmeade.

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There were also a few “hidden” locations, that didn’t require a specific spell. Look for the eyes near Gringotts, the skeleton in Knockturn Alley and the parchment near Wingardium Leviosa feather, to name a few.

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Professor Flitwick would tell you that casting spells are more in the movement than in the words. Your swish and flick are more important than saying Wingardium LeviOsa, not LevioSA. We discovered it was important to use smaller moves than you think you should. Often, the location doesn’t easily detect the grandiose swishes. Stand straight, point your wand directly ahead of you and if you still find you struggle with spell casting, there are witches and wizards placed around the Wizarding World that can help you.

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It was this search for magical locations to use our wands that led us down the dark street of Knockturn Alley.

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In Diagon Alley, there is another alley that’s easy to miss. If you are standing right in front of Gringotts, go left and walk all the way down to what looks like a dead end. Then you will see an entrance to Knockturn Alley, where wizards who practice the Dark Arts go to do their shopping. Knockturn Alley is a good place to go to get out of the sun as it’s nice and cool inside. Don’t miss the creepy Borgin and Burkes store while you’re there!

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Diagon Alley truly is a recreation of the magic found in the books and movies, with all the same stores ready to be experienced and enjoyed by guests of all ages. Some of the stops we made in our stroll through Diagon Alley include:

A stop at Gringott’s bank.

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The large bank building houses the “Escape from Gringott’s” ride. The que is a perfect recreation of the guilded bank lobby from the movie, complete with snarling goblins.

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The ride itself takes riders on an action-packed escape from the depths of Gringott’s bank.

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“Enter Gringotts™ bank beneath the massive fire-breathing dragon at the far end of Diagon Alley™. Inside, walk through the bank’s grand marble lobby and see goblins hard at work. Then, get ready to take a journey through cavernous passageways that lead deep underground as you climb aboard this mind-blowing, multi-dimensional thrill ride.

You’ll face the bank’s stringent security measures while navigating perilous subterranean vaults. Along the way you’ll encounter Harry, Ron, and Hermione. But you’ll have to evade the wrath of malicious villains Voldemort™ and Bellatrix, as well as trolls and other creatures that stand between you and a safe return to Diagon Alley”

At another bank building in Diagon Alley, visitors can exchange their muggle money for Gringotts bank notes. It’s a $1 to $1 exchange and you can use your Gringotts bank notes to buy food and souvenirs in the park! And don’t worry, any of your unused wizard money can be changed back to real dollars before you re-enter the Muggle world.

Here you can also interact with the goblin bank teller. He will respond to questions guests ask him.

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One of the first store fronts you pass when you enter Diagon Alley is Fred and George’s store: Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. The exterior of this building is on point. It looks just like the store in the movie.

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The interior is equally magical and offers a variety of joke gifts we’ve read about in the books.

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After a few hours of “wizarding” we found ourselves having lunch at The Leaky Cauldron. This quick service restaurant was the perfect spot for a break.

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At this eatery, visitors stand in line to place their order, are given a number and LEAD to their seat by the staff. After a few days of having to hunt down tables for our family of 8 to sit together and eat, it was wonderful to relax while the food was prepared and wait for our meals to be brought out to us..

The menu offered a realistic variety of English inspired foods.

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We picked a variety of tasty fares including Bangers and Mash, Toad in the Hole and a Ploughman’s Platter for two, which the girls and I ordered to share.

The sampling of cheeses with spicy mustard, hard rolls, spring greens, Scottish eggs, apple and beet salad, chutney and pickles were delicious.

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It was SO fun to sit in there and dine and soak in the atmosphere of the Leaky Cauldron.

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Later in the day we returned to Diagon Alley to enjoy our snack for the day. This was a park where there was no debate at all as to what we would use our budgeted snack allowance on. Everyone we know, who had visited Universal previously, told us the one thing we had to do at this park was to try a Butterbeer. The consensus was that it would be the most delicious thing we’d try over the course of our vacation. We couldn’t wait!

We decided to align snack time to the showing of “Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees” on stage. We opted to watch this particular show because it was listed to offer ASL interpreting. By attending and then getting the ASL interpreter to sign off after the show, Grace was able to get one of her observation credits marked off for class. It was a double win!

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While we settled in close to the stage, the boys left to purchase our Butterbeers. The Butterbeers were offered in three different forms: a cold, carbonated drink, a hot version and a frozen version. We were told that the frozen version was the best so that is what we chose.

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It did not disappoint!

It was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G…

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I’m not sure how to even describe its heavenly deliciousness other than to say it was a bit like a frozen cream soda (minus the carbonation) with a hint of butterscotch and a white, marshmallow fluff-like topping.

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We enjoyed our Butterbeers while listening to the musical stylings of Celestina Warbeck, Mrs. Weasley’s favorite singer.

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It was a magical day!

On our next visit to Universal (in a few days) we will be boarding the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade…

Stay tuned as our wizarding adventure continues!

Hanging Out in Andy’s Backyard

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Day 2 of our Disney adventure was spent at Hollywood Studios. The excitement was palpable, as we prepared for the day, because we were off to play in Andy’s backyard!!

 Toy Story Land is the latest addition to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and is stirring up quite the buzz, (Pun intended) and we couldn’t wait to check it out!

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We were not disappointed.

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From the moment we walked in, we realized this land is like no other! It felt a little like the immersion we experienced when we entered Cars Land on our visit to Disneyland. You literally feel as though you have entered the Toy Story movie!

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It’s a bright, cheery, fun and a fantastic representation of what it would be like to be one of Andy’s Toys.

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The goal in the design of Toy Story Land is to make those who visit feel as if they are a size of a toy, in Andy’s back yard. As we took a look around, we loved all the special touches and attention to detail.

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 It was fun just walking around this land to see all the extras.

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Disney didn’t leave anything out!

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In addition to simply strolling around Andy’s backyard and taking in all the magical touches, we also enjoyed riding the three rides found in Toy Story Land:

Alien Swirling Saucers

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“The cutest extraterrestrials in the galaxy have landed, and they’re taking you for a ride. Power up the saucers for an interstellar romp through space, while futuristic tunes set the mood.”

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This ride was a fun ride, that was less nausea inducing than say the tea cups in the Magic Kingdom. It reminded me of the classic ride that you see at pop up carnivals called the scrambler. The path that the cars make is a large looping one rather than a tight spinning motion.

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This fan favorite ride has gotten a face lift in the form of a new entrance to the ride within Toy Story Land and a 3rd track has been added to challenge veteran riders and…to make the line move more quickly. Zip through a virtual gallery of exciting carnival games based on the hit animated film series.

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Step inside Andy’s room and wind your way through a toy treasure chest of classic playthings. Pass a Candyland game box, Viewmaster discs, crayon drawings and a Scrabble board before picking up a pair of special 3D glasses for the fun to come.

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Climb aboard an early 20th-century-inspired Carnival Ride Tram and grab your spring-action shooter. With 3D glasses on, glide into the Toy Story Midway Games Play Set and take aim at stationary and moving 3D objects in a variety of fast-paced games.

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Slinky Dog Dash

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Andy’s assembled his Mega Coaster Play Kit—and Slinky Dog is gonna take you on a wild, toy-filled adventure.

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“Get a glimpse of everything Toy Story Land has to offer as you stretch Slinky Dog’s coils to the limit across Andy’s backyard! Come along for a roller-coaster-style ride as he bends and twists and stretches his way all throughout this new land.”

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This new roller coaster has made it firmly to the top of my favorite Disney ride list. Slinky Dog Dash is the perfect combo of tameness that you would expect for kids and thrills for the coaster lovers.

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For lunch we ate at Woody’s Lunch Box!

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The charming, nostalgic details we loved through this land continue in this quick service eatery.

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Disney couldn’t have come up with a better idea for a restaurant located in Andy’s backyard. It’s as if Andy just dropped his lunchbox on his way home from school to play.

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The details don’t stop at the restaurant, of course.

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The best part about Toy Story Land is that everywhere you look, every glance you take, you will notice some nod to the Toy Story movies, your childhood memories, or both.

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Take this area (above) within Woody’s Lunch Box seating area. You spy the Green Army Men looking out over the area keeping watch.

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For lunch some enjoyed the BBQ Brisket Melt – Sliced Smoked Brisket, Pickles and tangy BBQ Sauce between melted Cheddar and Monterey Jack Cheeses on Grilled Sourdough, while others chose the “Totchos” – Potato Barrels coated with Beef and Bean Chili, Shredded Cheese and signature Queso with Tomatoes and Corn Chips finished with Sour Cream and a sprinkle of Green Onions.

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The food was amazing! The only challenge at this eatery was the limited amount of tables. We lucked out! Be sure to take a close look at the some of the chairs in this area. They are made to look like a babybel cheese cut in half.

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We eventually pulled ourselves away from Andy’s backyard to enjoy the rest of the fun at Hollywood Studios (more on that in a future post) but then returned in the evening to experience Andy’s backyard at night.

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All of the hanging strings of Christmas bulbs turn on at night, illuminating Andy’s backyard.

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Having visiting Toy Story Land in both the day and the night time, there is something truly magical about seeing it in the evening.

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Whether visited in the day or enjoyed at night, Toy Story Land is AMAZING!

First Stop: Magic Kingdom

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Let the magic begin!!

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Our first day in the parks began with everyone being woken from a deep sleep at 6:30 am. This early hour was so everyone had plenty of time to shake off their sleepiness and work through their morning “to-do” list. In each bedroom I placed a list of tasks that needed to be accomplished each morning before we could leave for the parks.

My hope was that by having visual instructions written out for each family member, I wouldn’t have to micromanage the preparations of the day. The kids just needed to work their way down the list and have all tasks completed by 7:30, for us to leave.

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For our time in the parks we coordinate our colors. This serves the dual purpose of being able to more easily spot each other in the crowd but also makes for better photo layouts in the scrapbooks later. (Yes, I’m that mom…don’t judge.)

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Disney bounding as Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Our first day we were wearing the matching shirts we bought to announce out trip to Disney World when we surprised them at Christmas.

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This visit we made an adjustment from how we did things previously in that, instead of Toby carrying a single backpack with all our gear, we are having each child carry their own pack. Part of their morning responsibilities is to pack their bag with water bottles, snacks for the day, fidget toys and anything they need to have on hand for a coping strategy.

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Once everyone was ready, we were out the door at our goal time of 7:30 am.

The parks officially opened at 9:00, but the task of getting into the park takes a solid hour. From our rental we have a 23-minute drive to the parking area of Magic Kingdom. From there guests walk to the Ferry or Monorail station to be transported across the lagoon to the front entrance of Magic Kingdom. Once guest work their way through security and scan their magic bands, then they can say they have officially arrived in the park.

Once inside, we had 30 minutes until rope drop. Until that 9:00 hour guests are confined to Main street and the area in front of the castle.

Our first stop was to get Brandon his button that announced to all the world that this is his first visit.

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The rest of the family got celebration buttons announcing that we were celebrating the upcoming adoption of Brandon.

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From there we worked our way up to the front of the castle so we could watch the opening show, welcoming visitors to Disney World!!

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As guests counted down with Mickey and Minnie the excitement and energy were palpable.

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And then the ropes dropped and guests headed to their various destinations.

Our first stop was Snow White’s mine train, knowing that ride was likely to have the longest wait the remainder of the day.

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From there we worked our way through the most popular rides, hoping to take advantage of the early hours before the big crowds arrive. Because it was a Sunday, we were expecting higher than normal crowds, so our plan was to hit the BIG 3 early, before the wait exceeded 60 minutes…

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The BIG 3 being: Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain.

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From there we worked our way through the park, hitting rides whose wait time fell below the 20-minute mark.

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Using the “my Disney” app Toby was able to look at a map of the park and see current wait times on all the rides and decide where to head next.

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One of the ugly step sisters telling Ozzie she wanted a diamond as big as his eyeball. 🙂

By doing this we were able to ride almost all the rides in the park (with the exception of some of the rides geared toward smaller kids that we weren’t interested in), even with the higher amount of visitors.

This only works if you are willing to do the foot work of traveling back and forth across the park chasing down low wait times. This is what my fit bit was reading when we pulled out of the parking lot last night:

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In addition to the rides, we loved the attractions that were more show based. One of our favorites was the Monster’s Inc. Laugh Floor.

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This interactive comedy show has been a family favorite since Toby was picked as “that guy” on our last visit. As part of the comedy show guests can text in jokes to be read during the show.

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Rusty’s joke was one of the ones chosen:

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“What do you call a bear with no teeth?”

“A Gummy Bear!”

Food can be a huge expense at Disney so you have to be careful to not fall trap to exceeding your food budget with impulse purchases. It is an easy trap to fall prey to with the intoxicating smells that permeate the park. Our solution to managing our food expenses on this trip (our first visit without free Disney dining) was to budget money for one meal and one snack at the park with breakfast and dinner being eaten at home.

Our lunch on day one was hot dogs from Casey’s Corner.

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These were no ordinary dogs. Some chose mac and cheese dogs with bacon:

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While others picked the buffalo chicken dogs:

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And for our snack of the day we chose the iconic dole whip. This is a family favorite and a perfect cold and refreshing treat to enjoy while people watching. This cold concoction was just what we needed in the late afternoon to get us through the rest of the day…Yum!

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Day one was MAGICAL!

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Next Stop: Hollywood Studios!