Markel Family Summer Vacation–Wrap-Up

Sometimes, when I look back on our vacation, even though it was only just over a month ago, I can hardly believe it happened. For everything that went wrong on the first true summer vacation we took three years ago, something went right on this one. It was a dream come true…as close to a perfect vacation as I can imagine. Here’s one last look at all the fun we had:

  • Day One–The first day of our trip was mostly spent in the car. We drove through part of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia (for what seemed like an eternity!), and Florida to reach our destination of Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort in Orlando. We did have time for a swim in one of the hotel’s amazing pools after we got checked into our amazing room!
  • Day Two–On the second day of our trip, we made some dreams come true with a visit to Legoland! After a fun day at the park, we enjoyed more pool time when we got back to the hotel.
  • Day Three–The third day of our vacation was busy, busy, busy! We were up super early to view SpaceX launch from the roof of the hotel parking garage. We then spent the day at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure. We especially enjoyed visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter…both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. From start to finish, it was the most amazing day ever!
  • Day Four–After our busy day at Universal, we needed the fourth day of our trip to recover, so Ryan rented a cabana at the hotel, and we spent the day by the pool, playing games, building sandcastles, and swimming.
  • Day Five–The final day of our vacation meant more time in the car, but we also got to stop and talk a walk on the beach and visit Castillo de San Marcos before another seemingly never-ending drive back through Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

I am so thankful we had this opportunity as a family. I know that we don’t have too many chances like this left before the children venture forth and begin their adult lives, and I hope that we will all remember this trip together as one of the most fun times we’ve ever had!

Islands of Adventure

My favorite part of Universal Islands of Adventure was, again, the Harry Potter area…this time The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade. But there’s a lot of other things to see and do there…let’s take a look.

Because we entered the Universal parks through the Universal Studios entrance, we didn’t get see the landmark at Islands of Adventure (a giant lighthouse) up close, but we did see it, appropriately enough, from across the water:

This park is split up into different “islands.” We missed the Port of Entry, but there aren’t any rides there, just places to eat. Adjacent to the first area is Seuss Landing, one of our favorite parts of the park. Yes, the rides are tame, and yes, it’s designed for the younger set, but it’s bright and colorful and just plain FUN!

On the other side of the entrance is Marvel Super Hero Island, where Turkey and Ladybug rode the Incredible Hulk Coaster, which was terrifying to me on several levels.

We mostly just walked around the rest of the areas, including Toon Lagoon, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, Jurassic Park, and the Lost Continent. I think the only other ride we went on that wasn’t in Hogsmeade or Seuss Landing was the Storm Force Accelatron, a teacup-style ride in the Marvel area. We did enjoy seeing how each part of the park was different, though, and were impressed by all of the details!

That’s it for our time at Universal. I’ve never considered myself to be a big theme park person, but I will say that this was the most awesome vacation experience I’ve ever had, and if I had the opportunity to go back, I’d jump at the chance!

Universal Studios Florida

I already shared the details of my favorite part of Universal Studios Florida…The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley. But now it’s time to take a look at the rest of the park!

Even before you go through the gates, there are notable locations, starting with the globe…everyone wants to get a picture there!

There’s also the famous Universal arch:

Inside, the park is divided into different neighborhoods. On our way to the King’s Cross station, we walked through Production Central (which was home to the one roller coaster the children wanted to go on that we didn’t get to), New York, and San Francisco:

Other than Diagon Alley, our favorite part of the park was Springfield: Home of the Simpsons. It was easy to imagine we were actually there…you know, if an animated fictional location was a real place!

Other than the KidZone, the only area we didn’t walk through was Hollywood, which is too bad, because there were a couple of things we would have liked to see there, but there just wasn’t time to do everything before it got dark, and then darker, and then was finally time to leave!

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at Islands of Adventure!

Cabana Bay Beach Resort

In case I somehow haven’t made it clear, we took the best vacation ever last month (and we really needed it!). Part of what made it so perfect was the resort at which we stayed. We weren’t supposed to stay in Orlando, much less at a Universal property, but sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you plan…and every once in a while, the unexpected is far superior to what you had planned! That was definitely the case here, because we ended up staying at what is my dream hotel…the Cabana Bay Beach Resort!

The whole resort is done in a 1950s/1960s theme…perfect for me, right? From the first moment I stepped through the doors into the lobby, I was in love. And I cried. Literally cried. It was just how I dreamed it, from the vintage luggage to the mosaic behind the front desk to the retro bar. I was completely overwhelmed by how gorgeous everything is! And while I was crying, I was also smiling so hard my face hurt, because it’s so amazing!

Just across the circle drive from the lobby is the Bayliner Diner, a huge room that has cozy round booths and giant TV screens playing old TV clips and retro commercials. Ryan and I split a sandwich our last night there, and it was delicious!

There are different types of buildings named after famous hotels of yesteryear, done in three different themes. We stayed in the Continental, which is modeled after the glamorous type of hotel that stars like Frank Sinatra popularized in movies (again, perfect!).

Our room was beyond amazing. We stayed in a family suite which was actually big enough for all of us, and came with a kitchenette. I loved all the retro touches, from the furniture to the artwork, and even to the toiletries in the bathroom! Speaking of bathrooms, Cabana Bay has an ingenious set-up, which places the toilet behind one door, the shower and a sink behind another, with a sink and full counter in between the two, and open to the bedroom. It was so nice being able to have different people doing different things without always having to wait in line!

Cabana Bay has two pools. The one closest to our building includes a lazy river. The other pool, which is surrounded on three sides by buildings representing mom-and-pop motels that were popular beachside, has a water slide plus cabanas you can rent for the day (we did!). Both have other amenities, as well, including poolside bars, pavilions for rent, sand play areas, outdoor games like ping-pong and ladder ball, and fire pits. On Saturday, there was even a poolside D.J.!

There are also great vintage-style signs everywhere…seriously, you can see why I say it’s just like I dreamed it!

And so many other great details throughout the resort, from the furniture and decor to the vintage cars parked out front!

Staying at Cabana Bay was a dream come true for me. If the architects and designers had looked directly into my brain when it was built, they couldn’t have created something I would like more. I had such a great time there that I almost didn’t want to come home, and I will always be thankful for the four blissful nights we spent there!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Hogsmeade

I already shared how awesome the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley (located at Universal Studios Florida) is…today I’m taking a look at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade, located in Orlando’s other Universal theme park…Islands of Adventure.

Like its counterpart, Hogsmeade is a fantastic reproduction of the village from the books and movies. There is a train station which connects to Diagon Alley, familiar shops and restaurants, including Honeydukes and Three Broomsticks, an Owl Post, places to use your interactive wand, and just down the path, the crowning glory of the area…Hogwarts itself! You can meet students from Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang at the Triwizard Spirit Rally, and hear the frog choir sing (which sadly we missed). There are also two rides: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes place inside the school, and the Flight of the Hippogriff, which swoops past Hagrid’s hut.

After dark, Hogwarts lights up, and while we didn’t get to see it at the park, we could see it from our hotel room, and that’s also a fun attraction. This is another great way to get the experience of being a character from the Harry Potter story, and there’s plenty for the whole family to see and do (even Chickadee was able to ride the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster!).

Tasty Tuesday–Three Broomsticks

For the first time ever, I’m reviewing a restaurant in a theme park! This is very unusual for me, mostly because we haven’t really gone to a theme park before this summer (unless you count Six Flags, which I don’t). But while we were at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the Fab Five and I ate lunch at Three Broomsticks, which is in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade area of the park, and we enjoyed our meal so much, I thought it deserved to be shared!

The atmosphere, like everything else in both Wizarding World of Harry Potter areas, is perfect. You really feel like you’re in one of the books or movies, eating in a restaurant in an actual village called Hogsmeade. The place was crowded, and we did have to wait in line, but it moved efficiently, the staff was very friendly, and we had so much fun looking around, it made the time pass quickly.

On to the food. I had assumed that theme park food would be only ok, and the portions would be small, but I was wrong about both. The fish and chips, which Bunny and I both ordered, were excellent…among the best I’ve ever had, and they even had malt vinegar on the tables, which made it even better. Turkey ordered a smoked turkey leg, which he really enjoyed. Ladybug felt the same about the chicken legs she ordered from the children’s menu. And Moose and Chickadee both liked the mac ‘n’ cheese, and the serving was so generous, I could hardly believe it…I can’t think of another restaurant I’ve been to (aside from Red Robin and their bottomless mac ‘n’ cheese refills), that dishes out such a large portion…and there were grapes and applesauce to go with it! The butterbeer, a staple in Harry’s world, was pictured at the Leaky Cauldron, but is also available at Three Broomsticks, and was delicious. Very sweet, but also quite refreshing…we’ve already figured out how to make a copycat recipe at home!

I won’t lie…the prices were pretty high for us. But I don’t think they were unreasonable, given the experience, the quality of the meal, and the amount of food we received. If we ever find ourselves back at Universal, I would happily eat another meal at Three Broomsticks!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Diagon Alley

I’ve already shared a glimpse into our day at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Islands of Adventure, but now it’s time for a closer look at one of the best parts of our trip…visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida!

When you first arrive at that section of the park, you might think you’re in London (or is that just me?)…but you also run into some famous sights from the Harry Potter movies, including the Knight Bus!

There’s a “hidden” entrance, which leads you to Diagon Alley itself, and it looks just like it did in the movie, complete with shops, restaurants, plenty of places to do magic with your interactive wand, and even Sirius’ motorbike!

The big ride in this area of the park is Escape from Gringotts, and the walk through the bank is very impressive! The Bigs tell me the ride was also great, too!

Of course you can’t visit London without going to Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross (as long as you have tickets to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, where the Hogsmeade portion of the park is located), and again, you feel like you’ve stepped right onto to the set of the movie…or the streets of London!

Diagon Alley was my very favorite part of our day at Universal’s theme parks, but it was just one part of the experience…stay tuned for more Harry Potter fun!

Markel Family Summer Vacation–Day Four

The fourth day of our summer vacation was a much-needed day of rest and relaxation at our amazing hotel. Ryan rented us a poolside cabana for the day, and we enjoyed hanging out in the pool, going down the water slide, building sand castles, and playing ping-pong. A storm sent us to our room for a bit, but we had fun watching cable TV, and the children even got their first room service experience when we ordered a pizza!

After it got dark, we enjoyed one last walk around the property:

And then Ryan and I went down to the diner to share a sandwich:

Up next…the long drive home, with a few stops along the way!

Markel Family Summer Vacation–Day Three

Last Friday was a HUGE DAY for us. We started early in the morning, because the SpaceX Dragon was scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral at 5:42 a.m. I wasn’t sure if we’d actually be able to see anything, since Orlando is over an hour away from the launch pad, but we thought it was worth a shot…and our early morning efforts were rewarded! We not only saw the rocket go up, we also saw the separation stage, and Turkey and I even thought we heard a rumble during lift-off!

That wasn’t even the biggest moment of the day for us, though, because Friday was Universal theme parks day for the Fab Five and me (Ryan spent the day in Daytona Beach at the CEO fighting game tournament, which the reason we went to Florida in the first place)!

Our main goal at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure was seeing as much of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as possible. Our trip to Legoland was a dream come true for Turkey, but walking in the footsteps of Harry Potter was beyond Bunny’s wildest dreams! So once we were in the gates of Universal Studios Florida, we made a beeline for Diagon Alley. We got to see the shops just like we were in the movie, and our first stop was at Ollivander’s to buy a few interactive wands. We also got to see things like the Knight Bus, Sirius’ motorbike, and Platform 9 3/4 (which is where we headed next, to board the Hogwarts Express!).

After getting off the train (we had tickets that less us travel between both parks), we found ourselves in Hogsmeade (located in Islands of Adventure), where there were more shops, places to use our interactive wands, two fun rides (including Chickadee’s second roller coaster), and an opportunity to meet some of the participants in the the Triwizard Tournament (who told us we looked like a “proper wizarding family”).

While we were at the Islands of Adventure property, we also visited Seuss Landing, which was a fun and very colorful part of the park:

We walked back over to Hogsmeade (in the rain, of course) to eat lunch at Three Broomsticks:

Once the lightning stopped, Turkey and Ladybug tormented me by riding the Incredible Hulk coaster at Marvel Super Hero Island:

We then took the Hogwarts Express back to Diagon Alley, where we stopped at the Leaky Cauldron for Butterbeers:

After Chickadee and I waited for The Bigs to ride Escape from Gringotts, we visited Springfield: Home of the Simpsons, and went on a fun virtual reality roller coaster:

And got donuts at Lard Lad…they were ENORMOUS!

After walking through Diagon Alley a bit more, we took the Hogwarts Express back to Hogsmeade, where I finally remembered to ask someone to take a picture of all six of us. I can’t even begin to describe how much fun it was to share the experience with the Fab Five and see their reactions to everything! As for me, I already liked Harry Potter, but Universal made me fall in love with it in a way I didn’t expect, and I’d like nothing more than to go back someday!

After 12 hours at the parks, we finally boarded the shuttle bus back to our hotel. We were all exhausted but extremely happy…it was a fantastic day!

Up next…a relaxing day at the hotel, which we all needed!

Markel Family Summer Vacation–Day One

It’s been three years since our first real family summer vacation, so we were all very excited when things worked out for us to go on another road trip this year, this time to Florida. Actually, I was a little worried that the trip wouldn’t happen, because things fell apart Father’s Day weekend. We salvaged it, though, and even though it ended up being a slightly different trip than we were planning on taking, and we didn’t get to do everything we had originally planned, it ended being a far superior vacation than I had imagined!

We left very early in the morning from Bowling Green, KY,  a week ago to make the drive to Orlando. I was kind of dreading the drive, partly because of how long I knew it would be, but mostly because the Smoky Mountains were an inevitable part of the trip, and we did not have a good experience driving through them three years ago. Everything was fine, though, and even I had to admit it was a pretty drive!

After the mountains, we had to drive through Georgia for what seemed like an eternity. Did you know that Georgia is an incredibly boring state to drive through? Except for Atlanta, which is not boring, but does make me rage-y, because the traffic is always terrible! We were all unbelievably happy to see the “Florida Welcomes You” sign, even though we still had a few hours left in the car before reaching our destination!

Before we arrived at the hotel, we stopped at a Publix grocery store to pick up a few supplies. I love checking out new grocery chains when we travel, and Publix did not disappoint…it might be my new favorite grocery store, and I wish we had one closer to home!

We did finally arrive at the hotel, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort on Universal property, what seemed like several days later, and I’m not going to lie…I cried when I walked into the lobby for the first time. It was just like I dreamed it. The resort has a 50s/60s theme, and it was perfect for me. There was nothing I didn’t love about it!

We had just enough energy left for a swim and a walk around the pools after our very long day:

But then it was time for bed, because we had big plans for the following day!