Saturday, May 06, 2017

Toe-tapping in the Windy City (cont.)

Sunday - Day 3
The show room at Lincoln Park Conservatory
On Sunday morning, we decided to wake up with the flowers at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. After a filling breakfast, it was off to see what Chicago's green thumbs had wrought. We arrived shortly after they opened at 9 a.m. Admission is free, and there's plenty to see! The first large,  interior space is warm and humid, suitable for tropical plants. There's a nearly obscene-looking sausage tree there, in addition to tons of cycads (some older than the city of Chicago itself). We strolled through ferns and koi ponds, hunting for the tiny plastic dinosaurs placed strategically among flora that might have been around during prehistoric times.

After enjoying the lovely orchid room, we gasped at the giant blooms in the show room. This large, light-filled space boasted mounds of colorful hydrangeas, azaleas, hyacinth, lilies, and other flowering plants, nested amongst paths and small pools. Giant hanging baskets dripped flowers from the ceilings, as well. Loved, loved this space.

Amazing entryway at the Driehaus Museum
Still jonesing for more to do, we decided to check out the Richard Driehaus Museum, a private home that was purchased by a wealthy art collector, restored, and then opened as a museum to showcase some of his collection. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! Ok, Richard Driehaus is a very successful investor who has obviously amassed an incredible fortune. He's also a passionate arts and architecture  enthusiast. He MUST have more money than God, because this place is exquisite. Heavily ornamented and fully restored, much of the house features gorgeous surviving furnishings. Some of Driehaus' personal art collection of extremely fragile French posters (think Toulouse-Lautrec), hang in exhibits on the second floor, in what would have been the family bedrooms.

Amazing sculpture, fixtures, art, furniture, and architecture are on display throughout the house. This place reminded me a bit of the Frick in NYC. If you want to stroll around airily, pretending to be a rich, 19th-century banker, this is the place. As is so often the case, my only regret is that I wasn't wearing a sequined evening gown in which to be photographed on the marble stairs in the glimmering entryway. Tragic.

In the room where it happened . . . 
By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch. We decided to grab a bite at Cochon Volant, which was about a block from the PrivateBank Theatre (where we had tickets for the 2 p.m. matinee). As it was the weekend, the day called for brunch! I had the avocado toast and eggs, and I couldn't have been more happy with them! Large serving, delightful flavor, and completely satisfying! We savored our coffees before settling up and walking the block or so to the theatre.

Having purchased our tickets in advance, it was a quick trip to get into the PrivateBank Theatre lobby, then seated. I cannot tell you how giddy the audience was to see this show. I've been to a lot of shows. I've been to a lot of Broadway shows. But never have I seen the selfie madness that was the 20 minutes or so in the house before Hamilton! began. Everyone seemed to want to get a photo of themselves with the set in the background. Everyone was instagramming the program, the stage, themselves. In other words, folks, I had found my tribe.

The lights went down, the music came up, and for the next 3 hours or so, we all forgot every petty thing we'd been worrying about and lost ourselves in this production. It's as good as everyone says it is. The lighting is genius. The way the production uses minimal set and set pieces to greatest advantage is smart and tight. Performances are amazing. (Daniel Breaker as Aaron Burr is the deft hand that guides the whole show. Alexander Gemignani as King George is an absolute SCREAM! Chris De'Sean Lee as Lafayette/Jefferson worked the crowd. There isn't a weak link in the cast. Incredible, incredible work is being done here.) I paid more for this theatre ticket than I've ever paid for any theatre ticket. And it was worth every. red. cent. Cathartic.
The lacy light court at The Rookery

After the show, we stopped back at the hotel a bit to get off our feet. Then, it was dinner at Remington's! We trekked a bit through the chill to get there, then slid into a cozy booth. I chose the delicious branzino with a glass of red wine. Then, we *may have* split the skillet cookie for dessert.  Perhaps. Then, bed!! Aaaahhhh!!!

Monday - Day 4
On our last full day in the city, we took our time getting ready in the morning. We had a late breakfast at the hotel, then made our way to The Rookery for an 11 a.m. tour. I'd been wanting to tour this space ever since I read Devil in the White City, a riveting book by Erik Larson about the Chicago World's Fair and the calculating serial killer who worked its edges. If you do much touring around Chicago, you'll see this book pop up in all sorts of gift shops, and I highly recommend it. Fascinating. (FYI - I read a while back that Scorcese and DiCaprio have optioned the tome's film rights. We shall see . . . )

The offices of Burnham and Root
At 11 floors, The Rookery was one of the first skyscrapers in Chicago. Its architects, Burnham and Root, put their office space on the top floor to demonstrate that it was safe. The two architects went on to design and build all of the buildings for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. During the tour, you learn about the building's history, including Frank Lloyd Wright's renovation of the building's light court entryway in the early 1900s. The knowledgeable guide talks you through subsequent renovations and restorations, and the tour ends in a restored office space of Burnham and Root's on the 11th floor. I loved this building and our tour, and you could tell our guide did, too! Such an amazing piece of Chicago history. The Rookery is still being used as an office and commercial space today, and I'm glad it's being preserved and enjoyed all these years after its construction.

We decided to go old-school for lunch, stopping at The Berghoff for weiner schnitzel! Service was quick, prices were reasonable, and we left with full, satisfied tummies! And we were going to need the fuel. Our next stop was the Art Institute of Chicago, and it takes stamina to explore a museum of such size.

After paying admission, we had about four hours to devote to it. Because we enjoy different types of art, we split up to maximize our time. I headed straight for the Thorne Miniature Rooms on the lower level. Such detail! Such craft! So unbelievable! While there, I also explored the shimmering paperweight collection.

Chagall's America Windows
(the theatre panel)
Then, it was off the the first floor, where I took in the Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan collections before tracking down Chagall's America Windows and testing out the acoustics in the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room (which I had all to myself). I admired the Greek, Roman and Byzantine art spaced around McKinlock Court (Hellooooo, Bust of Antinous as Osiris!) and tried to be really, really quiet in the Ando gallery before heading to the second floor.

Must-sees for me on this trip were Hopper's Nighthawks (contrasted with Motley's Nightlife, which hangs nearby), Whistler's Mother (which wasn't here the last time I visited), and Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. There was a new armory since my last visit (and you know how I love fancy weapons), so I checked that out, and I also spent time in the medieval and Renaissance galleries.

I'm not much for modern art, but I did swing by there for Mitchell's City Landscape. And somewhere in here, I accidentally stumbled across a special exhibit - Helio Oiticica. There's an Eden installation there in which you take off your shoes and then walk through a series of created rooms, over sand, water, rocks, straw, all kinds of things. You encounter small, private spaces, You brush against flora. You hear birds. This is totally NOT the kind of thing I'd normally do, but I threw myself into it and LOVED it. Immersive. Unique. Interactive. Genius.

Whistler's Mother! New since my last visit!
After spending all afternoon at the museum, we were POOPED! We decided to rest our barking dogs at Russian Tea Time, where I had the lovely fruited quail (served with mashed potatoes and garlicky spinach) with a nice glass of red. I finished up with a napoleon for dessert, then we called it a day!

The next morning, it was shower/breakfast/pack/fly, and I was home! What a great trip in a great town! I can't wait to come back to Chicago (though I WILL hope for better weather next time)!

Toe-tapping in the Windy City

The gorgeous lobby at the Palmer House Hilton. 
So, anyone who knows me knows I am a HUGE theatre nerd. I love, love, love live theatre. I love being entertained and letting shows wash over me. I love thinking about the choices the director, technicians, and actors made to produce the show I'm watching.

As you can imagine, I've been swept up in the Hamilton  mania. Now, I've had NO problem waiting to get a chance to see the show. Let's face it - Broadway shows rarely make the leap off the arts page and into more widespread popular culture. I was more than happy to wait and let people who rarely go to live theatre file through, in hopes that they might become theatre devotees and help keep the arts alive.

But frankly, it was time. Around the first of the year, a work colleague reached out to me, inquiring if I'd like to make a quick trip to Chicago to see the show there. Happiness! I'd been to Chicago before and love the city, so it was an easy choice.

We added a few days to make a mini-vacation of it. Here's what we did:

Friday - Day 1
Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park
I got into town just before lunch and headed to the hotel we booked - The Palmer House Hilton. We chose this hotel because it's in a fantastic location (heart of the tourist district, nearly across the street from the PrivateBank Theatre, where Hamilton is playing) but also because my traveling companion loves history. In addition to being a lovely property, the hotel has a long and storied history that is tied tightly to the story of Chicago. The famed peacock doors and opulent lobby are a sight to behold, and the rooms are comfortable. (We chose a room with two double beds and two bathrooms, a genius selection for two women traveling together. Plenty of space for getting ready in the morning.)

I had a lovely lunch in the hotel restaurant, the Lockwood, as I waited for my friend to arrive (mushroom pasta, with creme brûlée to finish). We routinely ate breakfast at the Lockwood during our stay, as the weather was chilly and rainy. (Morning is a tender time. I'm not traditionally up for cold rain until I've got something delicious in my belly in the a.m.)

Once she arrived, we settled our things at the hotel and then headed out for a quick walk. She'd not been to Chicago as a tourist, so we had some basic sights to see. We started at Millennium Park and Cloud Gate, otherwise known as "the bean" for obvious reasons. Like every other tourist, we walked up to the bean, observed how it reflected us, the city, other people. We walked underneath it into a fun house of reflections. I've experienced the bean before, but it never gets old!

Thirsting for knowledge at the Chicago Cultural Center
We also checked out the concert pavilion and Crown Fountain. To keep our history vibe going, we took a turn through the Chicago Cultural Center to admire the Tiffany dome. After stopping for a quick drink at Tavern at the Park (We tried the CloudGate cocktail, minus the expensive jewelry surprise!), we headed down Michigan Avenue. We took in the bridge, the really cool base of the Chicago Trib building, the Wrigley building, and all of the lovely spring plantings along the Mag Mile.

We ended our short hop at the historic Water Tower, one of the only structures in Chicago to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Then, it was back to the hotel for a break before dinner. That night, we had a quick dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant - Vapiano. You go in, get a card, then order pizza, pasta, salads, or antipasti at the front. Then, they cook your food and bring it to you. It's like a deli, but more substantial food. Portions are HUGE, and prices are low. The only tough thing - it's loud and crowded in here! Nevertheless, we enjoyed our pasta (I chose a delicious, creamy chicken carbonara.) and wine and then hit the hay.

Saturday - Day 2
GIANT sculpture from Middle Eastern temples at
the Oriental Institute Museum
After another delicious breakfast at the Lockwood (spendy, but yummy, and so comfortable and easy - I chose an omelette this time), we hopped in a cab to check out the Oriental Institute Museum. I'd never been to this museum before, and indeed, I'd never even been to this part of Chicago before. It's gorgeous! The museum is on the campus of the University of Chicago, a lovely place full of brick and stone buildings, climbing ivy, and pedestrian paths. Flowering trees were already in bloom, and if the day hadn't been so gray, drippy, and chilly, I would have loved to explore this part of the city more on foot. As it was, we hustled into the museum for some interior discovering.

The museum owes much of its collection to the scholarly partnership is shares with historic sites throughout the Middle East. Students and scholars from the university participate in excavations in the region, for which they are allotted some of the items uncovered. The museum has a large collection of pots, tools, seals (I thought these were really cool.), and sculpture, in addition to some truly huge and impressive pieces recovered from temples and palaces. They also have an Egyptian collection, with a few mummies, some airy papyrus, and stone friezes. We spent a couple of hours here, taking in the collection and browsing the gift shop.

One of Wright's famous stained glass
windows at Robie House
As the weather was still miserable, we abandoned our plan of eating lunch in a nearby Italian restaurant and walked the scant block to the Plein Air Cafe for lunch. The tiny cafe was packed, but we lucked out with a table, settling in for salad and sandwiches. (I can vouch for the prosciutto and manchego baguette, served with fig jam and arugula - delish! And the vanilla latte I had with it warmed my very soul.)

We relaxed a bit over our warm cups, then popped right across the street for our 1 p.m. tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. I'd toured Taliesin West back when hubs and I visited Arizona, but other than that, I hadn't toured any of Wright's buildings. This private home is a little gem, sheltered by trees and open to its surrounds. The tour starts in the gift shop/courtyard area, then winds around the house to the lovely front porch, and then to the entryway. The outside of the structure has been fully restored, and efforts are underway to restore the home's interior as well. Gorgeous wood paneling and stained glass, coupled with Wright's penchant for close spaces that open into large ones, make this a lovely stop.

Light, open sitting room at Robie House
After soaking in the architecture a bit, we hopped a car back to the hotel for a quick break. We wanted to be well-rested for dinner at The Gage, which I was very much looking forward to. It was a delight! I had the roasted elk rack entree with roasted brussels sprouts and a big glass of wine. I finished it off with a piece of sweet strawberry pie. YUM. Prices aren't cheap here, but you get what you pay for. My food was amazing (and the wine pour was generous), our server was attentive without being annoying, and we left the restaurant full and happy!

More to come . . .

Sunday, April 09, 2017

A Weekend in Magical Orlando (cont.)

Pasta at Vivo Italian Kitchen! 
I spent the next day in my conference sessions, learning, networking, and typing tons of notes. That night, however, after our sessions were over, I had other plans. I took a quick Uber to Universal CityWalk. And, boy, was it crowded! After going through security and navigating the sea of humanity surging through the shopping, dining, and entertainment district, I found what I was looking for - Vivo Italian Kitchen. I was seated quickly and settled in for squid ink seafood pasta and a big glass of red. Delicious! This meal totally hit the spot. It was filling, tasty, and at a very reasonable price point.

By this time, the crowd outside had thinned. (Thank God.) I ventured out and explored CityWalk a bit, snapping pics and fondly remembering our fall vacation here. Then, it was off to Blue Man Group. I had tickets for the poncho zone, and I wasn't going to miss a minute of it! I hadn't seen Blue Man Group live since my first trip to Las Vegas, about seven years ago! I scooted up to the will call desk, claimed my ticket, and headed in. In the front rows, plastic ponchos are draped over each seat. I happily donned mine (It was a bit of a struggle. Now I know how George Bush felt at the Trump inauguration.) and settled into my seat.
The blue men are so sweet! They stay in the
lobby after the show and take pics with fans!

The show cranked up, and the concept was just as fun as I remember. Three blue men played the drums, made art, and interacted with technology in a show that was surprising, disconcerting, funny, and human. There was a lot of audience interaction, which kept the crowd's interest high. Wonderful!

When the show was over, I took a cab back to the resort and settled in to bed.

The next day was another bonanza of professional development. That evening, the conference had partnered with Disney to host a networking event for us on the "beach" outside. It was so fun! Tables and chairs were set up in the sand, the food and drink were both terrific, we had a DJ, and Disney characters like Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Captain Hook, and Smee joined us for photos! What fun! Nobody does events like Disney, and we all felt special!

After it was over, I headed back to my little bridge for the fireworks, then sank gratefully into bed. We had half a day of coursework the third day, then myself and another conference attendee walked the boardwalk one last time, picking up slices of pizza for lunch and making a last round through the shops for souvenirs.

Disney sure knows how to paaaarrrrty!!
Then, it was pack, airport, home! Hopefully, the next time I visit Orlando, I can bring my little tribe with me. It's been four years since we went to Disney, and I KNOW there are oodles of rides that Clay wasn't tall enough to enjoy then that he'd love now. Can't wait to return!

A Weekend in Magical Orlando

The Yacht Club lobby.
Back in the fall, I won a free conference registration at a professional development event. I used that freebie to attend a conference in sunny Orlando, Florida, figuring that I'd talk my little family into coming along for some fun.

No dice. Hubs was on call that weekend back at the ranch, and I couldn't take little man without someone to watch him while I attended the conference sessions and networking events. Undeterred, I decided that *I* would still go down early for the weekend and enjoy myself.

I flew into Orlando around lunchtime and caught a cab to Disney's Yacht Club Resort. I'd never stayed at this property before, so I was interested to check it out. It's so lovely! Built to evoke a New England-style yacht club, the expansive lobby features model boats and a huge, spinning globe so you can chart your adventures. My room was a spacious double with a lovely little balcony. The resort hugs a bay, with a lighthouse pier jutting out into the water. From the pier, you can catch a free boat shuttle to the boardwalk (replete with restaurants and shops), Epcot, or Hollywood Studios. Epcot, the Boardwalk, and the Dolphin and Swan resorts are all clustered around the man-made bay, very close by and easily walkable along the resort's many trails and pathways.
The Boardwalk, lit beautifully at night!

I unpacked my things, freshened up a bit, and headed out in search of lunch.

I found it at Beaches and Cream, a cute little sandwich shop at the resort. It's retro-themed, and in addition to lunch fare, it also serves ice cream. (Lots and lots of ice cream.) I took a seat at the counter and ordered a snappy grilled cheese and tomato soup. The food came out quickly and was delicious, if a little pricey. (You are at a resort, after all.)

Sated, I decided to toss on my swimsuit and check out Stormalong Bay, the resort's pool. I'd heard it was one of the best at Disney World, and I wasn't disappointed! First of all, it's BIG. Several swimming areas are connected, traversed by small bridges and centered around a windmill and a raised, covered patio featuring a pool table. At one end of the pool, a huge pirate ship functions as a water slide. There's also a hot tub, a pool bar, and free lockers for your things. Plenty of chaise lounges and umbrellas dot the area. (And as I discovered later, this isn't even the only pool at the resort. There's another, more standard hotel pool also on property. Not as gee-whiz, but also virtually deserted.)

Drinks at bluezoo!
I swam most of the afternoon and got some sun. I also walked a bit around the resort and took a quick turn on the free boat shuttle, just to orient myself and take in my surroundings a bit. It's a lovely area.

I went back to my room to shower and get ready for dinner. I had reservations at Todd English's bluezoo, a short walk away at the Dolphin resort. A beautiful stroll in the evening air, and I was there. I started off with a delightful sweet cocktail called the bee's knees (made with local honey), then moved on to the grouper, which was served with a rock shrimp risotto and an amazing sauce. I ate up every bite!! Delicious! Plus, the dining room is atmospheric, and the service is wonderful.

After dinner, I decided to walk around the boardwalk. I'd heard that street performers appeared there in the evenings, and I was treated to a quick magic show and a fun juggling act! In addition, views around the bay are lovely in the evenings, as all of the resorts and shops are lit brilliantly.

I'd heard that a bridge on property offered great views of the Epcot fireworks each night, so I headed over there at 9 p.m. Lovely! You can't see the low part of the Epcot show from there, but you can see all of the big fireworks. A great vantage point for a free show! After that, I walked along the "beach" and back to the hotel for lights out.

The next morning, I was up early. I had a ticket to Discovery Cove, and I was excited to get there! I decided to go to Discovery Cove instead of the Disney parks because I hate waiting in line. I happened to be visiting Disney at a really high-crowd time (spring break), and I didn't relish the thought of so many lines and crowds at the park. Discovery Cove, however, caps admission to its park. So it's never more crowded than it ever is (if that makes sense). So, a day of marine wildlife it was!

Discovery Cove is GORGEOUS!
I caught a quick Uber to the park and checked in, getting my badge for the day. From there, it was off for a full (and yummy) breakfast on site: eggs, bacon, potatoes, pastries, french toast. They had it all. You pay to get into the park, and all your gear, lockers, meals, drinks, and snacks are included. They have plenty of towels for guests and even fish-friendly sunscreen! It's nice not having to think about any of that! After breakfast, I got the lay of the land. The great thing about Discovery Cove is that it's plenty big, with plenty to do, but it's easily do-able in one day. After getting my bearings, I suited up in my free wetsuit for my first activity - a swim with the dolphins!

My group of 9 or so folks followed our trainer out into one of the dolphin pools, where we met LaToya, our dolphin for the morning. For the next hour or so, we learned about dolphins, stroked LaToya's smooth, soft skin, and watched her show off. She splashed, waved, and talked to us. She also did some jumps and other tricks. At the end, we each got to swim with her for a short distance and have our photos made with her! It was so fun! Discovery Cove has about 55 dolphins on site, and they rotate them out for guest interactions so the dolphins have plenty of time to rest and relax. When you buy your ticket to Discovery Cove, you can either include or exclude the dolphin experience. I highly recommend including it! I had such fun!

This is my sweet dolphin, LaToya!
After the dolphin swim, I checked out my free snorkel gear and headed for the Great Reef, where you get to snorkel with oodles of fish and non-harmful rays. When I first got there, there was almost no one in the water. It was amazing to swim through the "reef" alone, with fish all around you and rays gliding silently by. The reef is big enough that even later in the day, when it got more crowded, you could find pockets of solitude within it. Really, really cool.

After enjoying the reef, I headed over to the bird aviary. There are a few of them, and there are plenty of Discovery Cove employees around who can give you food to feed the birds. Birds would perch on your hand or your shoulder to eat! So fun! And there were so many to see!

Then, I explored the freshwater oasis, where you can see otters and marmosets. The otters weren't very active while I was there, but I got up close and personal with the marmosets, who were all hanging out in full view. I also stumbled on the oasis bar around this time, opting to try a mango cocktail to wet my whistle.

I wasn't yet really hungry for lunch, so I checked out Serenity Bay (a "beach" pool, with sand and a waterfall) and the Windaway River. (It's kind of like a lazy river, but HUGE, and with really deep parts. You use pool noodles to float through it. You can also snorkel through it.) I really loved Windaway River. It's gorgeous, and it wends through the aviary. I saw huge peacocks resting in the trees, their tail feathers dripping down like a cascade of jewels.

By this time, I was hungry! You can choose from a wide variety of food, with both traditional fast food and much healthier options available. (It's also all-you-can-eat!) I had beef tips with veggies and rice, then a piece of cheesecake. Yum!

After lunch, I hit the reef, the oasis, the bay, and the river all again. I also explored the resort more on foot, swung in a hammock, and got some sun in a chaise lounge before deciding to call it a day at around 4:30 p.m.

A quick Uber ride later, I was back at the Yacht Club, freshening up for dinner. I was meeting up with a fellow conference attendee for dinner at the Yachtsman Steakhouse. Katie and I met in the waiting area for the restaurant, were quickly seated, and then enjoyed steaks and pinot while we got to know each other and discussed our work and life. The steak was rare, the pinot was dry, and the company was great!

More to come . . .

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Christmas in New York City!

Skating rink and tree at Bryant Park
I've been to New York City several times, and I love it. I haunt Broadway, eat my fill, and snoop through the world-class museums. But in all my years of visiting, I'd never visited at Christmas.

Business had me nearby in mid-December this year, and I decided to fly in a few days early and see what all the fuss was about.

I'm so glad I did! NYC at Christmas IS cold. And it IS crowded. And it IS expensive. But there's just something so Christmasy about it that I can't help but love it.

I arrived a little after lunch on a Saturday and checked into the Bryant Park Hotel. This is one of my go-to hotels in NYC, mainly because of its unbeatable location and super-friendly staff. As a bonus - During the Christmas season, the park the hotel sits on transforms into Winter Village, complete with food vendors, an outdoor Christmas market, a beautifully lit tree, and an ice skating rink!

Once I got settled into the hotel, I headed to Winter Village to check it out. I started with a Nutella waffle from Waffles and Dinges and a lovely coffee. The market was absolutely packed on a Saturday afternoon, but I did manage to find a pair of gorgeous earrings for a friend and a pair of texting-friendly gloves for myself! It was fun to watch the skaters and admire the tree, as well!

Live nativity at the Christmas Spectacular at
Radio City Music Hall
After warming up back at the hotel for a bit, it was off to The Lambs Club for my dinner reservation. I arrived at around 5:30 p.m. and perched at a banquette in the bar area upstairs. For the next hour and a half, I paged through my Time Out magazine, munching buttered bread, fish, and vegetables in between sips of red wine. I liked this restaurant. They had a mix-up with my reservation, but it was quickly righted. The food is delicious (I would call portions "right-sized," not overly large.), and service is very quick and friendly. Prices are mid to upper range, depending on what you order.

After I paid my bill, it was off to catch a performance of Avenue Q at New World Stages! I'd tried to see this show on previous trips to NYC, but the planets had not aligned. I either got better tickets to another show, or, during one trip, visited during the show's one dark week moving from Broadway to off-Broadway! At any rate, I found the theatre with no trouble and settled into my seat.

Macy's windows!
The show was a HOOT, and I'm so glad I went! Featuring puppet characters operated by performers in full view, the show follows a naive college grad who moves to NYC and the relationships he builds with his neighbors. Funny and racy, the show delights in skewering society and its constructs. I thought that Jason Jacoby as Nicky/Trekkie Monster and Grace Choi as Christmas Eve were standouts, but the whole cast was good.

After the show, it was back to the hotel and to bed, admiring how the city had dressed up for the season along the way.

The next morning, I was up and at 'em early and headed to Herald Square. I couldn't wait to see the Macy's windows! They were as elaborate as I'd hoped, with interactive elements, animated characters, and plenty of holiday cheer! (At one window, you put your hand to the glass, and a machine activated to tell you if you'd been naughty or nice this year! Luckily, I was deemed "nice!"At another window, you played an interactive pinball machine! So fun!)

Breakfast at The Harold, on Herald Square
After enjoying the displays a bit, I walked across Herald Square to have breakfast at The Harold. I didn't have a reservation, but I was quickly seated at a table facing the window onto the square. I munched a benedict, sipped my coffee, and watched New York City buzz by outside. I really enjoyed this place. Good food, reasonable prices, and great service. Plus, the view was nice!

After breakfast, I was off to see more windows. I found Lord & Taylor (a fun woodland theme!), and then headed down 5th Avenue. I pressed my face to the glass at Sak's (a take on the Nutcracker, with lots of animation) and braved the hustle and bustle at Rockefeller Center to see the tree and the skating rink! Further down 5th, I caught the displays at Tiffany's (small and exquisite), Bergdorf Goodman (rich jungle layers), and Barney's (modern and . . . odd).

All kinds of lovelies at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art
By this time, my legs were frozen! I decided to spend the rest of the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I hadn't been in a few years, and I LOVE the place. A tip - Don't go in the main entrance at the top of the steps. Buy your ticket online ahead of time (I always buy a ticket to support the museum.), and then enter through one of the ground-floor doors. (Lines for entry and coat check are much shorter there.)

I spent the next several hours poking through the first floor of the museum. I love the Temple of Dendur and the Egyptian collection, and I usually go there first. Then, it was on to the armor and weapons (because if you're going to get stuck with a sword, I think it should at least be a beautiful, jewel-encrusted sword). After that, I browsed the medieval collection, which, during the holidays, includes the towering Angel Tree. Such a meaningful sign of the season!

By this time, I was getting hungry again, so I headed to the Petrie Court Cafe. I was a single diner, so even though they had several tables available, they were going to make me wait for a small table. However, I noticed another woman who was also dining singly, waiting. On a whim, I asked her if she'd like to dine together so as to be seated sooner. She happily agreed.

I spent the next hour or so getting to know Margot, and she was a delight!! She was in town for a friend's 80th birthday, serves on a museum board, and is originally from Louisiana. We had so much fun chatting, and we exchanged cards before the meal was over. As Margot wisely said, "There's no such thing as a coincidence! We were meant to meet today!" I couldn't agree more!!

Even the lions at the New York Public Library
get into the holiday spirit!
After lunch, I toured most of the first floor before popping out to freshen up for the evening. By the time I left the hotel again for my dinner reservation, it was snowing!! I walked to cozy db Bistro Moderne for dinner, where I was welcomed and immediately seated. I ordered a glass of red wine and a rare steak frite. The service was so, so friendly and attentive, and the food was so very good. I took my time and savored each bite as the snow fell lightly outside the door, feeling very grateful to be in NYC on such a night! When I was finished with dinner, I got a cup of hot cocoa to go and made my way to Rockefeller Center again to see it all lit up. Gorgeous. I also stopped in a St. Patrick's Cathedral, as I hadn't seen it since the restoration was complete.

Then, I headed to Radio City Music Hall. I had tickets to the Christmas Spectacular (featuring the Rockettes), and I didn't want to be late! I showed my ticket at the door, got my 3D glasses, and settled in. What followed really WAS spectacular, a brilliant mix of live orchestra, singers, the precision dancing of the Rockettes, some 3D effects, and a live nativity that blew the doors off the place. Of all the things I did in NYC during my visit, this was the most amazing. I just can't recommend it enough. If you leave this show without feeling the Christmas spirit, you must not have a pulse.

The beautiful reading room at the New York Public
Library. Because I can never visit it enough.
After the show, I made my way back to the hotel. The next morning, I got a quick breakfast and spent some time wandering around the New York Public Library (They have two free exhibits open now - one of Alexander Hamilton and one of the prints of Geurard.) and Grand Central Station (with a decorated train set in the transportation museum - so cute!). Festive decorations and hustle and bustle everywhere! (The only bad news? The Campbell Apartment is still closed for renovations. Boo. Hiss.)

I didn't spend too much time in NYC over the holidays, but it was enough to make me consider a trip there next year! Lights, snow, cocoa, skating, trees!! If I did it, I'd fly in on Sunday and do my sightseeing during the weekdays, as I noticed considerably fewer crowds out and about on Monday than on the weekend. What a wonderful time of year to be in the city!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Bradshaws Take on Fabulous Florida! (cont.)

Sunrise over the Atlantic, as seen from the 20th floor
The next morning, we took our time waking up, having breakfast, getting ready, and packing. Then, we picked up our rental car at the handy Hertz desk in the lobby of Cabana Bay. After checking out, we loaded into the car and drove a little over an hour to lovely Daytona Beach! When planning our trip, we'd decided that after three full days at theme parks, we'd be in need of a bit of decompression. Daytona Beach is one of the closest beaches to Orlando, so it was an easy choice!

By the time we arrived, we were jonesing for lunch, so we stopped at Ocean Deck, where we feasted on fried shrimp with a lovely ocean view. You can sit in or outside, and the restaurant is right on the beach! Portions are generous, the shrimp was delicious, and prices are reasonable. Clay loved that his meal came in a frisbee he could keep!

This boy loves the ocean.
After lunch, we headed to our condo. We'd booked a one bedroom (with a fold-out couch for Clay) with an ocean-facing balcony at Ocean Walk. This development was lovely, and so convenient! First of all, it's right on the beach. Take the elevator down to the lobby, walk out through the pool area, and you're right there. Secondly, it has oodles of pools - one with a fun water slide, another one sans slide, a big splash pad for the smaller set, a lazy river, plus two indoor pools and two outdoor spas. Third, it's also on a really nice boardwalk. You can stroll down past a shopping/dining area that's connected to the development, markers about the area's racing history, other resorts, and then a small amusement park area with a couple of rides.

In addition, the resort's pool area has "take a toy, leave a toy" for beach and pool paraphernalia, a small bar, and plenty of free beach towels for resort guests. Not only that, they have small indoor putt putt course and arcade. Needless to say, Clay was in heaven.

The water slide at Ocean Walk!
That first day in Daytona Beach, Clay and I spent an overcast afternoon on the beach. Clay loves the ocean, and so do I. After a relaxing afternoon with the waves, we walked next door to the shopping and dining development and had happy hour appetizers (chicken tenders, spinach/artichoke dip, and some sweetly spicy  shrimp) and drinks at Mai Tais bar and restaurant. They had a beautiful outdoor seating area with a view of the ocean. Tuckered out from a long day, we headed back to the condo and snuggled into bed!

Because of the time change, Clay and I were awake at sunrise the next morning. We wrapped blankets around ourselves and watched the sun peep up over the ocean from our balcony, then returned to bed to cuddle. When we got hungry for breakfast, we decided to try out some local spots. We first tried the Starlite Diner, which is right across the street from our development. Sadly, it had been ravaged by Hurricane Matthew a few weeks before. I think it will be a long time before it re-opens. Then, we tried Donnie's Donuts. Ditto, though that building did look like it was in better shape. We settled for IHOP, where I chose the nutella and banana crepes, and Clay got waffles.

The boardwalk at sunset
Sated, it was time for more fun in the sun. They day was bright, so we hit the beach and the pools! Clay and I played in the lazy river, frolicked in the waves, and took turns whooshing down the water slide! (It really was fun, even if I WAS one of the only adults enjoying it!) After a morning of play, we all walked down the beach to eat a late lunch at Crabby Joe's. I had their yummy crab cake sandwich with onion rings! (This place was so convenient. It sits out on a pier over the water and offers great views. The food is good and not too pricey. They also have great cocktails!)

After resting a bit at the hotel, we decided to catch a movie in the theatre next door to Ocean Walk. We reserved fully reclining seats for Marvel's Dr. Strange. Very cushy! We enjoyed the movie and headed back to the condo for showers and bed.

The next morning, after another glorious sunrise, we decided to get in the car and find a real, local breakfast. We ended up at Dancing Avocado Kitchen, which became a fast favorite! First of all, the place has this fun, quirky vibe. It's decorated with kitsch (There was a shark head with a sombrero on it hanging on the wall.) and TONS of personality. Secondly, the menu is varied, and the food is GOOD. I had the mushroom swiss omelette with breakfast potatoes and toast, and it was filling and fabulous! Clay chose the chocolate chip pancakes. Service is sweet and friendly, and the restaurant is in this really cute downtown area with other shops and attractions, across the street from a green space.

Chocolate making!
After breakfast, we browsed in the magic shop a few doors down, buying Clay a beginner magician's kit with some rope tricks and other illusions in it. Then, we strolled into the Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory, where we got a short, free tour on how they make delicious small-batch chocolates. (They showed us where they make taffy and brittle, how they create chocolate covered cherries, and pointed out the vats of melted chocolate. We even got to see the moving belt on which hand-placed pretzels get enrobed in chocolate, cooled, and collected! Fun!) The tour ended with free samples, and the candy was delicious!

After our tour, we got back in the car and returned to the resort. We walked up and down the beach and played with Clay's free frisbee a little bit! (For a klutz, I thought I did remarkably well!) Then, we got a special visitor! Hubs' little brother, Steven, drove into Daytona Beach to see us! He lives a little over and hour away, and it had been AGES since we'd seen him! It was so good to see his sweet face and catch up with him! Late that afternoon, we all walked back down to Crabby Joe's, where we ordered drinks and big steamer buckets of crab, corn, and potatoes. Seriously yum, and the company was fabulous! We finished up at around 5 p.m., when the pier closed, and watched the little amusement park at that end of the boardwalk spring to life as the sun started going down.

Steven stayed and chatted with us for a while back at the condo, and then I took Clay to the indoor putt putt course so Steven and hubs could catch up a little. Then, it was time for him to go home, and time for us to hit the showers and the hay.

It's hard to beat steamer buckets at Crabby Joe's!
The next morning, we took our time waking up and getting packed. Then, it was off to the Dancing Avocado Kitchen for one more delicious breakfast before making our way back to Orlando. The Hertz agent at Cabana Bay had convinced that it was more economical to return our car there and catch a cab to the airport. Since we were still a bit early, we played games in the arcade for an hour or two before setting off for the airport. Two flights later, we were home!

On this family trip to Florida, we planned for a good balance of go-go-go excitement and relaxation. I really enjoyed Universal Studios Orlando, and Ocean Walk in Daytona Beach couldn't be beat! I can't wait for our next trip!

The Bradshaws Take on Fabulous Florida! (cont.)

Ready for adventure!
On Day 2 at Universal Studios, we were again up and at 'em for early park entry. After breakfast at Bayliner Diner, we hopped the shuttle and got to the park gates before the line got very long. On the way in (and to Diagon Alley), we noticed that Despicable Me Minion Mayhem was already open. We stopped for a no-wait ride. It was so cute! It's more of a 3-D show with moving theatre seats and some additional effects than a ride, but we loved it!

After enjoying this ride, we made our way to Diagon Alley, where we caught a no-wait performance of the wand-choosing ceremony at Ollivander's. Then, we went into the wand shop and let Clay pick out an interactive wand. Ollivander's sells two types of wands - non-interactive ($25) and interactive ($50). The interactive wands can be used to make magic within the parks. Clay picked out one similar to Dumbledore's wand from the movies, and we were off to make magic! This is so fun! The wands come with maps to where you can cast spells in both Harry Potter parks. Over the course of that day and the next, we worked every spell marked. Clay made feathers levitate, opened up boxes full of chocolate frogs in shop windows, and had big fun exploring the dark corners of Knockturn Alley. (At one spell station, an eye appears in a door when you cast your spell. If you then try to OPEN the door, a blast of air shoots out at you! A fun surprise!)

After doing a good bit of magic, we realized the rest of the park was opening up. We backtracked to Revenge of the Mummy, checked our wand in a free locker, and rode it twice, back to back, with no wait. This ended up being one of my favorite rides in the park! So old school and fun! Fire on the ceiling, mummies that jump out at you, and plenty of spills and chills! While we were in the area, we also rode Transformers: The Ride-3D with almost no wait. I really liked this one. It's more in the vein of Escape from Gringotts in that it combines some motion, 3-D, and other effects to create a full experience.

Watching a baby raptor hatch at the Jurassic
Discovery Center.
We decided to take the Hogwarts Express again to the other park. This time, there was almost no wait (YAY!), so we were quickly on our way. Also, because there was no line this time, we got the chance to film and take pictures of ourselves "disappearing" into Platform 9 3/4. This is a really cool effect!

Once we got to Islands of Adventure (the other park), we practiced our magic a bit. We next checked out the Jurassic Park Discovery Center, where we heard all about how they care for their baby triceratops, explored what fossils lie beneath the rock wall, looked through the eyes (and roared through the vocal chords) of dinos, and watched a baby raptor hatching.

Hubs and I needed to sit a spell, so we let Clay loose in Camp Jurassic. He LOVED this place, but came out dripping wet!! It was about 11 a.m., so we grabbed lunch al fresco (and in the sunshine) at Thunder Falls Terrace (OUT of the splash zone). I'd heard that this place was really yummy and served real food. It didn't disappoint! We had delicious ribs, chicken, corn on the cob, and salad.

Ok, so maybe we got a *little* wet in
Camp Jurassic . . . 
Clay was still pretty damp, so we took him to one of the people dryers near Ripsaw Falls to dry him out. (I didn't want wet socks and shoes leading to blistered and painful feet.) Full of good food and nice and dry, we popped back over to Hogsmeade to catch the Hogwarts frog choir performance and walked out of the park through Seuss Landing, riding the Caro-Seuss-el and snapping goofy pictures. We were pretty pooped that night, so we didn't return to the park. We stayed in, had lunch at Bayliner Diner, and walked around the resort.

On our last day at Universal, we started by riding Gringotts again, with almost no wait! (Now that we had our wand, we had to check it in one of the free lockers. Just know that you can't take the wand on some of the more fast-paced rides.) Once we'd done that, we explored Diagon Alley and bit more and then backtracked to the front of the park to ride Shrek 4-D. (This one was really fun! Similar to the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem attraction.) While Clay and I did that, hubs rode Rip Ride Rockit twice, with no wait. (Clay was *just* tall enough for this one, but it looked too scary for him. So, we went to Shrek while hubs got in the very short single rider line.)

After that, we crode The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman Ride in 3-D! We hadn't spent much time in the Marvel Super Hero Island part of the park, and Clay loved this ride. Very similar to the Transformers ride - some motion, video, and special effects to create the illusion that you're fighting bad guys all around the city. The wait time, too, was really cute and entertaining, as you wind through the newspaper offices and get your assignment from J.J. Jameson.

Lunching at Three Broomsticks!
The whole time we'd been at Universal, we'd been trying to ride Skull Island: Reign of Kong. But there was always a 60-90 minute wait. A quick check of the app showed the wait time at 25 minutes, so we went over and got in line. The line moved really quickly, and we were very close to the end of it when the line just stopped moving. A voice came over the loudspeaker that the ride was having a malfunction. (Sad face.) They shut it down, giving all of us express passes to come back when it opened later in the day. It never did, so we missed this one. (Shoot.)

By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch. We popped over to Three Broomsticks for fish and chips, cottage pies, chicken tenders, and butterbeers. Afterwards, I sneaked into Honeydukes and bought Christmas candies! They will deliver purchases to your on-property hotel or hold them for you at the front of the park so you don't have to lug them around all day.

Then, we chatted a bit with the Mystic Fountain and headed in to The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad Stunt Show, which features live action stunts, fire and water effects, and really corny comedy. (The more groan-worthy the jokes, the better Clay likes them! I'm rolling my eyes, and Clay is typically laughing like a mad man! Heh.) This was a fun way to cool our heels for a bit. The stunts are cool to see, and you get a little wet if you sit in the splash zone! (Note: Poseidon's Fury, another show, was closed for renovations during our visit. Visiting any park during off or shoulder season usually means that some rides/attractions will be closed for maintenance or repairs. The trade-off is lower prices and less crowds.)

Taking aim at Bilge Rat Barges riders from The Olive
We explored Seuss Landing, where we rode Cat in the Hat and the Seuss Trolley. (These rides are for the smaller set. But Clay loved Dr. Seuss when he was little, and I am trying to hang onto his baby years! Don't judge me!)

Still going strong, we popped back to the super hero side of the park. Brian wanted to ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster. While he did that, Clay and I rode Storm Force Accelatron twice (no waits at all!) and got pics with Wolverine!!  Then, we met back up and explored the nearby play area  Me Ship, The Olive, gleefully spraying folks riding on Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges ride with those handy water cannons!

Winding down for the day, we stopped by Reign of Kong again to see if was re-opened. No dice. So, we used our express passes to ride Forbidden Journey again, and then took the Hogwarts Express BACK to Diagon Alley. (We hadn't done this so far, and I recommend it! The show is different each way, so you get a new experience!) Back on the other side of the park, we walked out slowly, saying goodbye to Universal!

As we were leaving, we noticed that the E.T. Adventure ride had no wait time! We walked right in, and I'm so glad we did. I LOVED this ride. You sit on old-school bikes, and tears nearly sprang to my eyes when we rode out over the city all lit up at night, crossing the moon along with Elliot and E.T. (This made me think of the Peter Pan ride at Disney World. A very powerful illusion.) This story was one from my generation, and the ride hit me right where I live.

To sum up our adventure in Universal Studios, I'd say that the Harry Potter parts of each park are both wonderful, especially when you can experience them at low-crowd times. Other favorites included Revenge of the Mummy and Ripsaw Falls. Looking back, I don't know if staying on property was worth it for us on this trip, because (as I mentioned before) the WHOLE PARK doesn't really open early. Perhaps if we'd stayed at one of the pricier properties (which include express passes), this would have been a more valuable benefit. (But, Lord, it does rankle to pay extra for an express pass at Universal when Disney provides fast passes for popular rides for FREE, letting you maximize your time in the park. When I compare Universal to Disney in this regard, there's no contest. Disney has come up with a better way to control crowd flow in its parks. Which is genius, really, because the time you spend standing in line isn't revenue-generating time. You aren't browsing the gift shop or getting an ice cream or otherwise spending any dollars. It's smart for the park to minimize your wait time as a customer.)

That night, after dinner at Bayliner Diner, it was sitting around the fire pit and taking a dip in the sauna before packing up for the next part of our adventure - Daytona Beach!

More to come . . .

The Bradshaws Take on Fabulous Florida!

During the past year or so, little man has read all of the original Harry Potter books. He'd read a book, then watch the movie. Then read the next book, then watch the next movie. And when he was done, he also read Tales of Beadle the Bard, which is the book of wizarding fairy tales that Dumbledore bequeaths to Hermione. He loved the fantastical, magical world of Harry Potter.

So, hubs and I decided to enchant him a bit further with a trip to Universal Studios Orlando, which features two Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks. A quick consult of the park's crowd calendar told us that early November was a low-crowd time to visit, and our friendly hive mind on Facebook let us know that three full days at the park would allow us to take a "deep dive." Off we went!

We decided to stay at one of the park's official properties. We chose Cabana Bay because it offered good value, featured a free (and frequent) shuttle both to and from the parks, and allowed us to access at least one park per day early. (More on this later.)

We flew through Atlanta and arrived at Cabana Bay shortly after lunch on a Saturday. We'd decided not to visit the parks that first day, opting instead to settle into our hotel and relax after our flights. This was a really good decision! First of all, our hotel - Cabana Bay is a HUGE property. It offers a variety of rooms in different styles (traditional, suite-style, rooms with kitchens, etc.), and they are clustered around two large, beautiful outdoor activity areas. In one area, there's a lovely pool, a lazy river, a spa, a small bar, a small splash pad, and a large sandy beach area with lounge chairs and games. There are also two fire pits in this area. In the other area, there's a really large pool with a fun water slide, a larger splash pad, a spa, a bar, a green lawn where evening movies are shown using a projector, and a fire pit or two. We really enjoyed spending time in both of these areas during our time at the resort. The pools are amazing!

The aesthetic of the hotel is mid-century modern, and it is beautifully executed throughout the property. Cheerful colors, Eames-style chairs, modern light fixtures, and palm trees reaching skyward in the lobby.

The goblins at Gringotts regard interlopers
rather severely.
We arrived shortly before our room was ready. First things first - I traded our park ticket vouchers for actual tickets at the guest services desk. That done, we checked our bags and stopped for lunch at Bayliner Diner, the big cafeteria-style eatery at the property. We LOVED this place and ended up eating there often. You can choose several different lines: salad bar, pre-packaged to-go foods, grill (hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.), pizzas and sandwiches, and then more "real food choices" (think meat and three). You could also pick up desserts, snacks, s'more kits (for use at the on-property fire pits) and more.

You got your food FAST, it was very reasonably priced, there were plenty of healthy options, and it was delicious! Perfect for families and large groups! By the time we finished lunch, our room was ready. We picked up our bags at the front desk and checked in.

We'd chosen a traditional room. Nothing fancy, just two double beds and a bath. The room offered plenty of storage and mirrors for getting ready in the mornings (smart).

After we'd rested a bit, we headed out to the pools! Clay donned his suit, grabbed his swim goggles, and off we went. We first tried the pool on the lazy river side of the development. The side we sat on is zero-grade entry, and Clay happily played with the other kids in the pool for an hour or two. Then, the two of us played some beach games for a while. (Giant versions of Connect Four! What fun!) After that, we checked out the other pool. Clay loved the water slide! Not too scary, but plenty of thrills and spills for a 9-year-old! After an afternoon of fun in the sun, it was back to the hotel room to freshen up for dinner.

We went to Universal's CityWalk shopping/dining/entertainment development to take a look around and rustle up our evening meal. We hopped the free shuttle to CityWalk right outside the hotel, and within 10 minutes, we were going through the quick security check. The buses let you off in front of escalators and stairs. Up those, you go through security, then take two moving walkways to CityWalk.

There's so much to see at CityWalk, especially when it's all lit up at night! They have tons of restaurants and shops, a movie theatre, and some entertainment venues. We walked around a bit, then popped into Emeril's for dinner. Even though we didn't have reservations, because this restaurant is at a higher price point than most of the offerings in CityWalk, we were able to be seated quickly. I had a specialty pasta with a glass of red wine, hubs had lobster bisque and salad with a cocktail, and Clay had chicken tenders. We had great service, and the food was delicious. After dinner, it was back to the hotel for bed!

The next morning, we were up and at 'em early. Guests at Universal Orlando properties get early admission (1-hour early) to one park of the resort's choosing each day, and we didn't want to miss it! (All three days we were there, we got into Universal Studios, where the Diagon Alley portion of the Harry Potter theme park is, one hour early.) We had a big, delicious breakfast at Byliner Diner, which opens at 7 a.m. Then, we caught the shuttle to CityWalk/the parks at 7:45. A little after 8 a.m., we were in the mid-sized line to get into the park.

A word about the early-entry benefit - Though Universal may say the park opens early, it really doesn't. In reality, most of the park is still closed when it "opens" to on-property guests at 8 a.m. The only thing that REALLY opens early is the Harry Potter portion of the park. So, of course, all of the on-property guests pack in there. I thought this completely defeated the purpose of the "benefit" of having extra time in the park. If the WHOLE park (Revenge of the Mummy, the Simpsons, ET Adventure, Transformers, etc.) really HAD BEEN open early, at 8 a.m., this "benefit" would have helped me as an on-property guest. But most of that other stuff didn't open until 9 a.m., or sometimes 10 a.m.! So, in reality, the whole exercise kind-of defeated the purpose. We were in the park early, but it wasn't any less crowded, because we were all in the only part of the park that was actually open early.

The fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts is soooo cool!
Anyway, we got in and headed straight for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. The theming in this part of the park is intense. You walk through a passageway in a brick wall on a "normal" London street (You can dial MAGIC in the red telephone booth just outside to hear a message from the Ministry of Magic.), and suddenly, the wondrous alley is revealed to you. (Very dramatic.)

Once we caught our breath, we got in a pretty short line to ride Escape from Gringotts, which we loved! While you're in line, you get to see the Gringotts lobby, where the goblins are going about their work. Some of the paintings talk to you, and as you wend your way through the areas leading to the vaults, you see shadows and hear conversations through the office windows. Then, you watch a short film that sets up the journey, take the elevators "down" to where you board the carts, pick up your "safety glasses," and board.

This amazing ride combines true motion, 3-D video, and other effects to send you down through the Gringotts vaults. You meet up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione; narrowly escape being toasted by dragon fire; and flee the killing spells of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. We loved this ride and rode it twice during our visit!

After escaping Gringotts, we explored Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley. In Borgin and Burkes, we heard a bird tweeting in the vanishing cabinet. The mirror in Madame Malikin's told us we looked fabulous! Nagini spoke parseltongue to us in the glass case behind the magical menagerie, and we caught a performance by Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees on the park's stage. We also checked out the Knight Bus, where you can have a chat with the driver and the shrunken head!

Jurassic Park is lit up beautifully at night!
The rest of the park opening by this time, we popped out of Harry Potter to ride the Men in Black Alien Attack ride (really fun, and similar to the Toy Story ride at Disney). I enjoyed this ride, but as half of it broke down while we were waiting in line (thus halving the number of riders they could accommodate), we waited in line too long for it. We followed that up with The Simpsons Ride (a 3-D affair that I really disliked - not much real movement, closed-in space with no air) and Kang and Kodo's Twirl 'n' Hurl (think Disney's Dumbo ride, but with a different theme, and there was zero wait).

By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch. We headed back to Diagon Alley and bellied up to meals at The Leaky Cauldron. We had cottage pies and butterbeers! Butterbeer is very sweet (almost like a dessert) and very good. We found that you could get waters, then get one butterbeer for everyone to share, and it was usually plenty. Our tummies full, we headed for the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade.

Whew. This line was loooooong, much longer than I expected during low season. We must have just hit it at the absolute wrong time. We waited more than half an hour before boarding, which *I* think is entirely too long. And unlike other park attractions, there's nothing to keep you entertained while you wait. We finally got on the train, which takes you from Diagon Alley (in the Universal Studios park) to Hogsmeade (in the Islands of Adventure Park). It's a short, comfortable ride during which you see the shadows of Ron, Harry, and Hermione (and hear them talking) in the train car, watch London go by out the window, and narrowly miss an encounter with a dementor. Pretty soon, you're pulling into the station in Hogsmeade, which is also wonderfully themed!

We looked around a bit, but we didn't spend too much time in Hogsmeade that first day, as it was crowded. We had other plans! We headed for the Jurassic Park River Adventure. We'd seen on the park's app that lines were really short for it, and we were ready to get wet! (In general, we found the official theme park app very helpful. It's just a little bit behind on wait times. So, for example, the app might say that wait times for an attraction are 15 minutes, but there are in actuality about 20 minutes. It was often about 5 minutes off, but not usually more inaccurate than that.) This ride was so much fun! It's not really scary, but you're always waiting to find out when you'll get soaked! We all loved it! (A note - At the end of the ride, as you're beginning to pass under a bridge, guests standing on the bridge above have the opportunity to soak you. Watch out!)
Soaked but thrilled on Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls!

After this ride, since we were wet anyway, we decided to check out Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. There was no wait, so in we went! At first, Clay was a little nervous about the big drop at the end, but he loved it! We were completely soaked by this time, so we decided to head back to the hotel room for a break and to dry off.

On our way, we made a pit stop at the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium for a snack. Clay and I split one of the eatery's HUGE sundaes. Delicious! A note - We saw families coming here and getting a sundae or a milkshake for each person. These things are expensive - $10-$13 each. And because they are so big, most folks would eat about a third of it and leave the rest. Don't make this mistake! Plan to share, and you'll waste less money and ice cream!

After a break (and drying out) at the hotel for a bit, it was time for more fun! We came back to the park that night at around 5 p.m., and the park closed at 7 p.m. As the parks were emptying out, we headed back to Hogsmeade to catch the attractions that had been crowded earlier in the day. First, we rode Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which was really fun! The wait in line was really short, but for this ride, the line is really part of the attraction. You are walking through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You see the big towers of jewels that measure how each house is doing on points towards the house cup. Harry, Ron, and Hermione explain the world of the ride to you. The fat lady admits you (grudgingly) into the Gryffyndor common room, and you visit Dumbledore in his office, where you can see the pensieve. You even get to see the sorting hat, and it talks to you!
As you wait in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden
Journey, the sorting hat talks to you!

Once you get on the ride, in many ways, it's similar to the Gringotts ride. It combines video, real motion, and other effects to zoom you all around Hogwarts, encountering dementors, visiting the Chamber of Secrets, and participating in a Quidditch match. So fun! When we finished this ride, we went right onto Flight of the Hippogriff (no line), which is a smaller, not-too-scary roller coaster.

We still had time before the park closed, so Clay and Brian rode Pteranodon Flyers. As this brief, two-person ride is really geared towards the smaller set, they only allow an adult on if they are flying with a child. While they went through the ride, I cooled my heels and explored the Camp Jurassic play area a bit, making a mental note to return here before we left Universal.

After a looooong day, it was back to the hotel for a little grub at Bayliner Diner and a soft bed!

More to come . . .