Jon and I spent five days in Orlando to ring in the New Year in 2016. This trip was my third time in Orlando. My first trip was with my college roommates back in 2006 as a graduation trip (no better way to graduate into the real world than to celebrate in Orlando!). I returned in 2008 with my siblings, and here I was eight years later.
Our primary objective was to visit Harry Potter World as I’ve always wanted to go and figured this would be the last chance we had before having kids (my line of thinking is: once you have kids, it will never be the same…haha). I am a big Harry Potter fan – I’ve read all the books and have seen all the movies. Jon, on the other hand, has not read any of the books (though he claims to have read the Sorcerer’s Stone) and had yet to see any of the movies! He was a trooper though – he watched all the movies within three days, including wrapping up the final movie the day we arrived in Orlando. He became an instant fan and was *almost* as excited as I was to the hit the parks.
I had rented cars for past trips but this time we did not want the hassle of having to drive around, especially since we wanted to be able to drink freely in the evening. As such, we booked our hotel and park tickets through Universal. We stayed on-site at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which was a super funky, retro-themed hotel with its own bowling alley and arcade center. The resort offered shuttle service to CityWalk and Universal parks which I initially thought was going to be a pain, but it was actually quite convenient.
We landed on Thursday (12/30) afternoon, once we settled into our hotel, we made our way to Universal Studios. Everything felt so new but still familiar. We walked straight past CityWalk to Islands of Adventure, home of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts. We were blown away by the architecture and design of Harry Potter World (especially since we had just spent the last 72 hours watching all the movies).
The crowd was insane (as expected) and our first pit stop was waiting in line for butterbeer. It was a hot, muggy day so an iced cold butterbeer was worth the wait! Butter beer tastes like cream soda – delicious! We then spent 90 minutes waiting in line to get on the Harry Potter ride, a 4D simulation through Hogwarts (worth it!). I’m not a fan of roller coasters but absolutely love 3D and 4D simulation rides, and Universal certainly excels at those.
After purchasing a few wands (hehe), we made our way back to CityWalk to dine at Emeril’s Restaurant (recommended by our friend, Ryan). Of course we trust Ryan’s judgement when it comes to food, but we were pleasantly surprised by how good the food was. For appetizers, we had fried green tomatoes, ribs and crawfish & andouille bread. For entrees, I had the seafood pasta and Jon had the shrimp & grits, both of which were excellent. Sadly, we were too full to have any dessert.
The next day was New Year’s Eve, and we had planned on spending our day at the Magic Kingdom. As we neared the park, there were signs throughout the roads saying that the park was already at capacity (again, Ryan had warned us, but we thought getting there at 1PM would be good enough). We decided to buy a Park Hopper ticket at Epcot so that we could go to the Magic Kingdom later in the evening, which turned out to be a great investment. We spent a good 4-5 hours at Epcot, exploring and eating in one country to another (and it’s always interesting/disappointing to see what they have on the menu from China). Our favorite meal was from Germany – mac & cheese hash and sauerkraut sausage accompanied by beer.
We then went to Hollywood Studios where we were able to catch the Fantasmic show, stroll through a beautifully lit area, get on a 4D Star Wars ride (based on the most recent Star Wars movie), and eat some turkey legs. We wanted to get on the Rock ’n Roller Coaster but it was a 2-hour wait, and ain’t nobody got time for that! 😀 Still, Jon wanted to feel the thrill of a roller coaster so he ended going on this one roller coaster by himself since it was a relatively short wait (I was too scared to join him (I know, I’m lame)).
Around 10PM, we made our way to the Magic Kingdom which fortunately was no longer at capacity. This was my first time at the park and it was wonderful even though it was terribly crowded. People had already laid down their blankets and reserved their spots for the midnight fireworks show so we ended up making our way through the crowd to get some decent photos of the Castle before we settled on a spot away from the crowd to watch the fireworks. Despite us being in a park with thousands of people, it was wonderful to ring in the New Year with Jon by my side. It made me feel safe, loved and optimistic about the year ahead. At any rate, we left the park immediately to try to beat the crowd. It took an hour to take the ferry to get to the transportation center where we would be able to catch a cab. Unfortunately, everyone else who also decided to not drive was also trying to catch a cab, so the drivers had their pick on who they wanted to drive, depending on their destinations. Fortunately, a driver found us and made us a good deal and we eventually made it back to our hotel, THREE hours later! As much as I loved being at Disney for New Year’s, I don’t think I would ever do it again, especially if kids are involved!
We spent the next two days enjoying the amenities of our hotel and exploring Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Since we had Park-to-Park tickets, we were able to take the Hogwarts Express train from Hogwarts (Islands of Adventure) to Diagon Alley (Universal Studios). Diagon Alley is AWESOME! The viewpoint you get from where you enter the Alley is exactly the same viewpoint that Harry, Ron and Hermione see for their first visit to Diagon. We felt immediately immersed into the world and were blown away by the details of each and every shop in Diagon (e.g., Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Borgin and Burkes, etc.). We bought another wand at Ollivander’s Wand Shop (we couldn’t help it!) and had lunch at the Leaky Couldron. The ride, Escape from Gringotts, was amazing – we walked through the same Gringotts Bank that Harry, Ron and Hermione did, and all the Goblin bankers were so realistic. For our last night in Orlando, we dined at Antojitos which had mediocre Mexican food but excellent margaritas (I had a frozen mango margarita and it was a perfect blend of mango and tequila).
We returned home with too many souvenirs (for family, friends and ourselves, hehe), including matching Thing shirts, matching Harry Potter hoodies, and minion shirts for my niece Leah and my brothers. Orlando was such a treat, and we hope to make it back in the future, not as two adults who are perhaps too overzealous about going to amusement parks, but as two parents spoiling our kid rotten 😀
Airfare: ~$250/pp on Jetblue (nonstop from Boston)
Universal Hotel + 3-Day Park Hopper Ticket: $700/pp
Total cost for 2 people: ~$3,500 (includes airfare, hotel, park tickets, all meals and souvenirs; keep in mind we traveled during the holidays)