This year, my daughter, Denise, wanted to be at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, for her 40th birthday. She invited us to go with the family, and although we didn’t think we’d care about seeing Harry Potter, we always love the idea of spending time with them. We take lots of vacations together and we all get along, so when someone has a good idea, we usually all go. I’m just sure that if we don’t go, we’ll really miss out on something!
While I love the ease of using a debit card and not having to carry large amounts of cash, I decided that on this trip, we would attempt to JUST use cash. Of course I carried the debit card and a credit card as backup, but my goal was not to spend more cash than I took with me. It made me much more conscious of what I was buying. On our very first stop for gas, the station offered a discount for cash, so I was happy to have the cash and to save a little money. On one occasion we did have to use the credit card, but I pulled that amount of money out of my available cash so I’d have it to pay the bill when we got home. I’m happy to report that we didn’t use the credit card for anything else, and I still came home with a few dollars in my pocket.
This was a driving vacation. While we originally had decided that each family would drive their own cars, we did the math and decided that we wouldn’t spend that much more money if we took the RV. At least that way, we could share in the gas, we could all be together, we wouldn’t have to pay for two hotels on each leg of the trip, and we could prepare and eat most of our meals on the road. We also would not have to stop every 3 hours to feed and change the baby. It worked out great, and the kids (ages 12, 8, and 6 months) were MUCH more comfortable than they would have been while strapped into seat belts. The RV is like driving down the road in your living room AND you don’t have to stop for the bathroom unless you’re the driver. All of these things save not only time, but money, even when you’re only getting about 7 miles to the gallon.
My daughter and I planned meals for the road. She made tuna salad at home and brought crackers and bread. We made sandwiches while my husband drove. I assumed flight attendant mode as I offered new and refreshed drinks for everyone. When we stopped at a rest stop to empty trash and let the driver stretch his legs, I put a meal in the slow cooker so our dinner could cook on the road. As a safety measure, I put the pot in the sink so it can’t move! That night when we pulled into our campsite, dinner was ready, and we didn’t have to worry about finding a place to eat.
The next morning, we all took turns showering, and I cooked breakfast tacos with pre-cooked bacon, scrambled eggs, cheese and salsa. We pulled out of the camp at 9:30 and into Vacation Village in Kissimmee about 3 pm.
For this trip, we used the RV as our vehicle to travel, and we towed our car so we wouldn’t have the expense of renting a car when we got there. This was our first time to tow it, and fortunately everything went very smoothly except that when we arrived, the car was dead. A quick jump from a nice man in the parking lot had us up and running in no time.
Once we got there, we stayed in condos that were a time share exchange. We’ve been timeshare owners since 1986, and while my husband and I would have been happy staying in the RV, seven people can’t sleep comfortably in it. We carried our things in (this is when extra people come in handy! Some filled and pushed luggage carts while another kept the baby) and went searching for a good restaurant. At Longhorn Steak House, I enjoyed a tasty filet topped with lobster and shrimp. Yummy! That ended up being the best meal of the week.
We spent Saturday at Universal Studios, Island of Adventure. We paid the extra $5 to get preferred parking, thinking that after spending a full day there, we wouldn’t want to take any more steps than we had to in finding our car. We were right. I used my camera phone to take a picture of the aisle we parked in. Cat In The Hat 385. It’s easy to forget where you started when you’ve been walking all day.
I put a lot of thought into what I wear so that it’ll be appropriate for the weather and activity. I slathered sunscreen on any skin that was exposed. I wore lightweight capris and my KEEN sandals. I like the KEENs because they are ventilated but have the protective toe. I figured with the crowds, there was a good chance I could get stepped on! They also recommended not wearing flip flops because of the rides. With a ball cap, sunglasses, and a lightweight shoulder bag that crossed in the front, I was ready for anything. Even getting wet! In fact, it was so hot, that I welcomed getting splashed by rides or even ornery kids with spray bottles.
We purchased our tickets online because we could save some money by doing so. We picked the tickets up at “will call,” but instead of live people, it was like an airline kiosk where all you had to do was insert a credit card as form of identification. Fortunately, I looked at what the machine spit out before I left the kiosk, because I was missing a ticket for the park entrance. After standing there looking confused, I finally stuck my finger in the hole where the tickets came out, and discovered that the ticket had gotten stuck inside! I’m sure glad I was paying attention, or the guy behind me might have gotten a free ticket and my poor husband would have had to stay outside and wait for me!
My creative daughter came up with the idea to decorate t-shirts for all of us. One of the nice things was that the men all had red shirts, and it was easier to find them in a crowd. Their white lettering said GRINGOTTS. For those of you who may not know, Gringotts is the name of the bank. We thought that name was appropriate, especially for Roger, who was spitting money out like an ATM machine! I was told I couldn’t have a pink t-shirt because it wasn’t a Harry Potter color! So, the girls had yellow shirts that said either, PEACE, WANDS AND HOGWARTS, or PEACE, BROOMS AND HOGWARTS. The baby had a blue shirt that said, CAST A SPELL, and his brother’s said MINISTER OF MAGIC. You’d be surprised how many people stopped us and asked where we got our shirts. I think Denise could start an eBay business with them.
We bought the $9 commemorative cup that can be refilled all day long with the soda of your choice. The cup was pretty lame and I can’t do more than one soda a day, so my refills were usually water. The park definitely made money on me that day.
We really enjoyed the Butterbeer at Harry Potter. http://www.mugglenet.com/misc/rosmertas/butterbeer.shtml This recipe is for a warm butterbeer, but we drank it ice cold at the park. It’s basically cream soda with a frothy, wonderful layer of butterscotch on the top. The butterbeer sold for $3.25 in a disposable cup and was available in two forms – liquid and icee. The icee machine broke down just before we were served, so we had the sweet, syrupy liquid. You had the option of another commemorative cup, and getting reduced prices on refills, or a disposable cup. We opted for the disposable cup, but the kids got the butterbeer cups.
We had fish and chips at the Three Broomsticks restaurant inside Harry Potter World. It was a pretty good meal for about $11 a plate – 3 pieces of fish and fries. I love the way Universal and Disney go all the way with their themes. Even the menu photos on the wall moved, like the portraits in the Harry Potter movies.
One of the things we loved about Universal this year was the “child exchange”! I’d been told that even if we weren’t riding, we needed to walk with the rest of our party through the “exhibit” because there was so much to see inside. With the child exchange, you can walk right up to the ride, and then sit in an area while the rest of your party rides. Denise rarely rides anything, so she sat with the baby, but when she wanted to ride, then we would take turns staying with him. If we timed it right, it was a nice place to stop for a feeding. Another advantage is that she didn’t have to go back through the line. She was already at the front. Having an infant gave us some special privileges because most of the nice people there pushed us through the express lane. Gotta love that. If you’re planning a trip yourself, see if you can’t borrow a baby before you go!
We already had our Harry Potter-themed t-shirts and really didn’t see any others that we liked as well, so we passed up on all of the tourist stuff. Roger, as Gringotts representative, spent plenty on wands, owls and chocolate frogs, so at least someone in our party was contributing to the profits of the park.
On Sunday we planned to relax. We went to the Waffle House for breakfast. There’s a standing joke about my husband being on vacation alert for Waffle House, so we always have to go there at least once. The food is good, reasonable, and I love to sit at the counter and watch the process of preparing my meal. We spent most of the afternoon at Downtown Disney. We enjoyed the Lego Store and the Little MissMatched store. We paid for socks that don’t match on purpose. We especially loved the life sized Buzz Lightyear made completely out of Legos, as well as Snow White and all Seven Dwarfs (shouldn’t that be dwarves?) My husband got a coffee mug with Grumpy on it. It matches the Grumpy t-shirt he brought from home. He agrees that it fits his personality. With his purchase, I got a special Mickey Mouse watch at a special price. That was enough for me.
On Monday we went to the other park at Universal. Again, it was worth it to get the preferred parking. We parked in the same aisle as last time. Right next to Spiderman.
We bought the $20 meal pass, and to be quite honest, we wouldn’t do it again. Park food is park food, and next time, I’d get out of the park in time to go have a nice dinner somewhere else! Only certain restaurants in the park honor the pass, and they stop serving 30 minutes before the park closes. We had a bad experience at Mel’s Diner where they served half of us while the others were saving a table with the baby. When they went in to order, they were told the restaurant was closed. It didn’t make for a good final experience. There was some yelling on the part of some hungry travelers and embarrassment on the part of those witnessing it!
The next day, my good son-in-law took the kids to the pool for most of the day while Denise, my husband and I did a little shopping. I’m not a shopper at home, but enjoy looking around on vacation. The only thing I bought was a pair of Mary Jane Crocs for $20. It was the best bargain in the store. Denise found a pair of Croc sandals she hadn’t been able to find at home, so she was happy, too.
With us, the whole “child exchange” thing works no matter where you are! Tuesday night I had to do some work, and they all wanted to go to a carnival. The baby was already asleep, so I stayed in their condo and worked while he slept. They got to do what they wanted, and I got to work in complete silence.
One of the best things about staying in a condo is that most of them have washers and dryers! I love to do laundry. Even for just the two of us, I do a load just about every day. Knowing that we had one in the room ahead of time, I packed accordingly. I didn’t have to bring as much because I could wash every night and be ready to go again. It worked out great and I came home with clean clothes.
We had been having such a good time that we didn’t want to leave, but Roger had to be back at work on Friday. We decided to take our time leaving on Wednesday so we could enjoy most of the day in Florida. We went back to Waffle House, went to a tourist gift shop, went to the pool, and packed up. We pulled out of the lot about 3 pm. Somewhere along the way, it sounded like a good idea to the passengers to just keep driving until we got home. Roger has a problem staying awake, so we didn’t want him driving a 40’ motor home with the entire family in it. Eddie wasn’t crazy about driving straight through, but he couldn’t give up control of the bus! That meant the rest of us had to take turns napping so we could sit in the passenger seat and make sure he was awake. If it got too bad, he promised to pull over and rest, but that never happened. He stays awake with a bottomless cup of Dr. Pepper and another cup filled with sunflower seeds. Unshelled sunflower seeds. Just the repetitive motion of grabbing one, cracking it in his mouth, spitting out the shell, and doing it all over again, seems to keep him awake.
On our way home, we opted not to cook. We figured one meal from McDonald’s wouldn’t kill us, and during other gas station breaks, food was purchased from Arby’s or whatever food chain was located there. We had plenty of water, soft drinks, snacks, and a bathroom. We could sleep on the bed, the couch, or in a chair. We were all pretty comfortable. Our biggest concern was making sure the driver didn’t decide to take a nap.
The three generation family vacation works great for us. It all started when Denise and Roger went to Cancun with their first child at six months. They realized they couldn’t get in the ocean together or do much else as a couple because someone needed to stay with the baby. When they decided to go to Hawaii, they invited us to go along and help out. We stayed together the entire time except when they decided to go horseback riding. We’ve cruised to Mexico with them, and met them in Cairo, Egypt when Roger had to go for a work assignment. We’ve spent lots of spring break and summer vacations together and really enjoy the mix of personalities and interests. We’re building memories and it reminds me of the times I spent with my own grandparents on summer vacations.
For now, the grandkids still enjoy having us around. I figure we might as well spend as much time with them as we can. There may come a day when they don’t think we’re quite as cool as they do now!