Harry Potter and thrills galore set Universal apart

Universal Studios

The highlight of our visit to Universal Orlando Resort was walking into a masterful recreation of Diagon Alley, the crowning achievement of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Before I get into the amazing experience we had during our Facing Fears Together visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure earlier this month, I need to put this whole Harry Potter thing into perspective.

We are a family of readers. By that, I mean we enjoy sitting (or lying) down with a good book and getting lost in the pages (or, these days, the digital representation of pages on my iPad Kindle or Nook apps).

Beth and I bonded over the Harry Potter series. How obsessed were we?

In the summer of 2005, we knew the sixth book in the Harry Potter series would be released during our visit to Charleston, S.C., with my mom and dad. So, we pre-ordered the Half-Blood Prince for pick up at a little book store on Meeting Street around the corner from our hotel.

Oh, and we ordered two copies, because we knew that neither of us would want to wait while the other plowed through the pages. This was during a long weekend in one of the coolest walking cities in America.

We spent a good portion of that trip to Charleston imagining ourselves roaming the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Even as we took the ferry out to Fort Sumter, we itched to get back to the room and read.

That should give you a pretty good idea where things stand for us when it came time to step into Diagon Alley for the first time.

I was prepared to be mesmerized. Universal Studios did not disappoint.

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First, though, there were other thrills to experience, other rides to ride.

I think my new favorite roller coaster in Florida just might be Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a 17-story, 65-mph rocket that allows you to create a music video of your ride using music of your choice (I chose Camouflage by the Beastie Boys). It was one of the first things we did with the party of bloggers and their friends and/or family members put together by Toni and Mellisa from Two Traveling Moms.

We also had our insides pureed at Universal Studios on Transformers, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and Revenge of the Mummy. Later, at Islands of Adventure, we ate an incredible lunch at Mythos, acknowledged as the top theme park restaurant in the world by Theme Park Insider from 2003-09.

Islands of Adventure

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The castle looks so real, I half expect to see Harry come flying in on a broomstick.

At Islands of Adventure, we also rode the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, Jurassic Park River Adventure and the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride.

It was all great, the kinds of thrills and wonderful experiences that help put Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure on a world-class level. The proximity of Walt Disney World, Legoland Florida and Sea World demand that of Universal Orlando, anyway.

What takes the two Universal parks into a unique realm, at least in my view, is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Hogsmeade, the Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey came to Islands of Adventure in the summer of 2010. It gave J.K. Rowling fans the chance to experience what it’s like to move through real-life versions of the locations made famous in the books and movies.

Then, this year, Universal Studios’ Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express were added.

It’s a game changer on Florida’s theme park landscape. While Disney made great strides with the New Fantasy Land facelift last year, nothing I’ve seen in any theme park anywhere compared to the experience of walking into a place that brought to life a setting I’ve only imagined or seen represented on screen.

Universal Orlando

Once through the brick wall maze coming in from “muggle” London, the view is … well, magical.

Diagon Alley in the books and movies is one of the best-conceived settings in kid literature. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, it provided Harry’s first, true immersion into the world of magic. Everywhere he turned was something new and delightfully fascinating.

Later, it served as a setting for major plot elements. That new and amazing place of the first book eventually became a place of warmth and familiarity for Harry — and for us, the readers.

The detail of Diagon Alley is spectacular. Anyone who loves the books and movies like we do will feel transported.

Universal Orlando

A spectacular light fixture, part of the interior of Gringotts at Diagon Alley.

There were many highlights, but the Escape from Gringotts ride took the prize. Frankly, even though the ride itself is fantastic (it’s like you’re inside a wild, magical 3D movie), the re-creation of the interior of Gringotts was what put it over the top for me.

Small but important details, like the painted advertisements on the brick facades throughout Diagon Alley, gave the place a “street-level” feel not even the books or movies could provide. I’ve included a few of my favorites in the accompanying slide show, and I urge you to check out the information available about the Wizarding World on the Universal Orlando’s website.

Because Beth was not able to accompany me on this Facing Fears Together couples trip, she suggested I invite our neighbor, Ken. He had been to Universal with his kids and loved it, but he had not had the chance to see any of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In fact, Ken — even though he has two kids that love to read and are Harry Potter fans — had never seen any of the movies or read even the first book.

He came into it as a Harry Potter newbie. While there, I repeatedly expressed my amazement with how real it all seemed. Ken was impressed at the time, too, but he lacked the perspective of a Harry Potter veteran.

That changed once we got back. He made a point of watching the Sorcerer’s Stone movie shortly after our return, and I got this text from him as he watched: “You weren’t kidding about Universal vs movie! Impressed!”

Exactly.

Disclosure: DadScribe was invited to the Facing Fears Together blogger event co-hosted by Two Traveling Moms and Universal Orlando Resort to review the theme parks, Halloween Horror Nights, Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Citywalk entertainment district. All opinions those of the author.

 

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Sea World Spooktacular: Get there early to beat the crowd

Sea World Spooktacular

Our boys very much enjoyed their first visit to Sea World. The Spooktacular Halloween event only made it more memorable. And more bubbly.

Our family was invited to Sea World this past Saturday to experience the first weekend of the annual Spooktacular Halloween event. It was our sons’ first trip to Sea World, and the first trip for Beth and me since summer 2005.

I’ll say this up front: Our boys, a 7-year-old second grader and a 5-year-old kindergartner, loved every minute. They already were asking when we’d be back before we left the parking lot on the way out.

That said, let me add: Bubbles! Holy Mother of Shamu, there were so many bubbles. So many.

Bubbles.

And I get it. The whole scene is supposed to be an undersea Halloween adventure. As they put it in the news release: “An ocean of Halloween fun.”

B.

U.

B.

B.

L.

E.

S.

There were more than a few. And you know what? Our kids loved those, too.

Sea World

Did I mention there were bubbles?

Before getting into the day’s highlights, I’ll bottom line the Sea World Spooktacular here. The event, which takes place weekends throughout October, is OK for all elementary school-age kids, but is probably best suited for kids between 4 and about 8 or an early 9. It’s included with park admission, which is a nice bonus considering how much extra other parks charge for their Halloween special events.

As I mentioned, our sons loved the event and the park, so I can definitely recommend it for families with younger elementary- or preschool-age kids.

We got to the park around noon, which was definitely the right time to arrive. The lines for trick-or-treating and animal interactions were still relatively short when we went through. Later in the day, as we passed back by the areas we’d already visited, the lines stretched down the walkway. So, get there early. It was extremely crowded the day we were there, and because we aren’t regular Sea World attendees, I don’t know if that’s the norm. If so, prepare yourself for slow progress from area to area.

Photo Highlights of Sea World’s Spooktacular Halloween Event:

Sea World Spooktacular

Spooktacular is good for kids 4-8. Just make sure you get there early enough to beat the long lines for trick-or-treating.

Sea World

The boys met a possum and a beautiful eagle.

Sea World

The early trick-or-treat lines were virtually non-existent. We went past this one a couple of hours later and the line stretched down the walkway. Get there early!

Sea World

Waiting for Shamu!

Sea World

Orca leaping. When asked later to name the highlight of the day, our 7-year-old didn’t hesitate: the whale show.

Sea World

There are paid games and free arts and crafts, as well as interaction with costumed undersea characters at Penelope’s Party Zone. Our boys enjoyed decorating the gigantic sugar cookies (this activity costs extra).

 

Sea World

The entrance to Antarctica illustrates how dense the crowd got at times. The wait for the Empire of the Penguin ride was an hour, so we gave it a pass this time around. Really, I can’t emphasize enough: Get there early!

Sea World

Did our boys enjoy their first visit to Sea World? Well, this photo was taken at the six-hour mark of our trip. They look pretty happy to me!

Disclosure: Our family was admitted to Sea World at no cost for one day in order to experience the Spooktacular event and the park itself for review purposes. All editorial content and opinions are those of the author.

 

My Son, the Jedi Padawan

The Force is strong with this one. Jedi Academy training Sunday at Disney’s Hollywood Studios bore that out.

Hollywood Studios

Jay communes with the Force moments before vanquishing the Dark Lord of the Sith on stage.

Lord Darth Vader’s mastery of the Dark Side was no match. Padawan Jay showed that Dark Knight of the Sith what’s up. But don’t take my word for it. We have video proof of his subtle, but powerful skill with the lightsaber. He was, if I say so myself, the very image of the future Jedi Master.

In fact, feel free to use the video below as a training tape for your young ones. Or even for your old ones. This kid can rock a saber. Honestly, he had seen the training so many times during our many visits to Hollywood Studios that he had memorized the training routine. And yes, he is small compared to the full-sized Darth Vader, but never tell me the odds.

The Force will be with him … always.

ESPN Wide World of Sports: Athletic Excellence, Disney Magic

WWOSGlobe

In 16 short years, ESPN Wide World of Sports has carved out a unique position in the world of participatory and spectator sports.

When the Braves and Reds inaugurated the beautiful baseball stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports in 1998, I was there to cover it for a newspaper. I remember being impressed by the “Florida Picturesque” style, and the whimsical Mediterranean Revival details of a stadium that instantly became the premier spring training ballpark in Florida. (It still is that, by the way.)

Back then, I barely gave the rest of the complex a second thought. After all, this was about the partnership between Disney and the Braves. Once spring training was done, I figured the facility would — like many ballparks in Florida — merely transition into a sleepy, minor-league facility for the Double-A Orlando Rays.

These days, those minor-league Rays are long gone. So is any hint of anything remotely “minor league.” In 16 short years, ESPN Wide World of Sports (the four-letter network became part of the name in 2010) has emerged as a unique destination for participatory and spectator sports.

Boardwalk

Disney’s Boardwalk Resort at sunrise, the morning of the Run Disney Fun Run at Epcot.

I and 18 other bloggers from around the country had the chance to immerse ourselves in the sports facilities and amenities — as well as the overall Disney World experience — earlier this week.

My bottom line takeaway from the very well-run and extremely informative media event: If you have a child who participates in organized sports, or you are a coach or team organizer (mom or dad) responsible for planning and executing trips for a youth sports team, I can’t imagine a better place on Earth to come than ESPN Wide World of Sports.

That’s a broad statement, I know, and it needs support. Here, then, are just a few things that stood out for me during the media event:

  • The 225-acre complex is the site of more than 350 events with 350,000 youth, college and professional athletes in more than 70 sports annually. That means the Disney Sports Solutions team is extraordinarily experienced when it comes to meeting the needs of athletes and their support crew (coaches, parents, relatives, etc.).
  • You, too, could own a WWOS DadScribe t-shirt. And you know you want one.

    You, too, could own a WWOS DadScribe t-shirt. And you know you want one.

    The ESPN brand is ubiquitous, and that’s on purpose. One of the most interesting aspects of the athlete experience at the complex is the opportunity to, as the marketing slogan says, “Play at the Next Level.” Part of that next-level experience is being on TV. There is an incredible ESPN control room located behind the scenes next to Champion Stadium, and the action on the many fields and courts is almost always framed by one of the 56 high-definition cameras that dot the complex. There also are high-def 40 screens, including three jumbo screens, carrying footage all over the complex. In fact, athletes can view their professionally edited highlights from that day on a dedicated channel in their Disney resort rooms. The goal is to dramatically increase the TV presence of these games. The Watch ESPN app and ESPN3 figure big in the broadcast future of the Wide World of Sports Complex, which also serves as a testing ground for breakthrough broadcast technology like 3D.

  • Yes. Yes, I was the MVP.

    Yes. Yes, I was the MVP.

    Memorabilia is big for kids, and they do those things very well at the WWOS complex. Customized shirts are available (mine is pictured above) and the visit can be commemorated with photos and a personalized ESPN the Magazine “cover” shoot (also pictured). I can imagine kids begging their parents for these items. I know I mine would.

  • Everything — and I mean, everything — logistical is handled for the teams and their organizers by the Disney Sports Solutions team. No matter what you need help with (the daily itinerary, fundraising for travel, safety and health issues, finding the right open tournament to match your team’s competitive level, housing for athletes and family members, transportation, nutritious food, entertainment between games, and so much more) the Disney Sports experts have it covered. In addition, the recently opened Office Max Business Center provides computer access, smart phone charging, and more.
  • The starting line of our personal Run Disney Fun Run through Epcot.

    The starting line of our personal Run Disney Fun Run through Epcot.

    And here’s the clincher. There’s no reason another sports complex couldn’t one day compete on an equal footing with Disney in all of those qualities (yes, even the broadcast element, if another big network decided to commit 100 percent to the plan). But no organization can combine a first-class athletic experience with the magic of Walt Disney World theme parks. According to the Disney Sports team, an estimated 50-60 percent of the athletes and their supporters who come to ESPN Wide World of Sports to compete have never been to Disney World. Nothing can compete with using your down time before, during or after games to head on over to the Magic Kingdom for a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean and a viewing of the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks; or to Hollywood Studios for a stroll along Hollywood Boulevard at twilight and wild rides on the Rock-n-Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror; or to Downtown Disney for dinner and bowling at Splitsville. Sure beats cable TV or an outdated game room at some low-budget motel.

The Welcome Center at ESPN Wide World of Sports integrates the athletic experience and the Disney experience for participants and families.

The Welcome Center at ESPN Wide World of Sports integrates the athletic experience and the Disney experience for participants and families.

To find out how to put your team on the Road to Disney, check out the Disney Sports website. Twitter is a great way to keep up with the many goings-on at the complex, and the official Disney Sports handle is @DisneySports. There also is a YouTube channel that is updated regularly with highlights from the complex.

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Here are some bonus videos taken during the Disney Sports media event I was fortunate enough to attend. The highlight for me, in addition to learning so much about a place I thought I already knew, was meeting a lot of great writers and content producers from all over the country. I learned a great deal from interacting with them, too, and I think these videos provide wonderful insight into the work that goes into reporting for blogs.

The videos also expose you to detailed, behind-the-scenes looks at what goes on at ESPN Wide World of Sports. You’ll see what we saw. The first two are five-minute versions of our tours. The third includes highlights of a really cool Run Disney Fun Run we had the chance to do at Epcot on Tuesday morning.

Disclosure: I was invited to attend the Wide World of Sports media FAM and write about what I learned. I was provided a room and promotional materials, but all opinions and editorial decisions are my own.

Seconds to Check, a Lifetime of Moments to Savor

I’m trying to remember how I thought about things when I was seven. I carry a few foggy memories from that age of an awakening awareness of gonads, girls and God. I was on the verge of knowing a few things, but I was still working out the details.

For instance: I knew older boys were terrified of being hit in the ‘nads. That’s what we called them: ‘nads. Or, I suppose I should say that’s what the older boys called them, and we first graders followed suit.

Because that’s what first graders do. They emulate. They’re mostly undifferentiated human templates, absorbing and assimilating the qualities of those around them. What they hear, see, smell, touch, do and dream at that age combines with nature to give them form and substance for life.

At seven, I don’t recall if I had the slightest idea that ‘nads were properly called testicles (and even more properly called testes, but we’re not really sticklers for propriety). I do remember that I didn’t know what purpose testicles served. I only knew they were my constant companions, and that it hurt like the dickens when I they got hit or kicked or smashed by the pointy tip of my bicycle seat, and older boys wore a cup during baseball practice and games, and I wanted to get a cup, too, because it would mean I was a big boy.

So, now, I’m the father of a seven-year-old first grader. In preparation for this piece about testicular cancer awareness, I thought it would be good to start with a lesson for my older son. I thought I’d begin with the generalities then move on to the specifics.

During the drive from Tampa to Walt Disney World Saturday, I asked the back seat the general question, “Hey. You guys know what testicles are?”

Silence. Then …

“They’re, like, well … um, no, not really.”

Turns out my older son knows approximately what I knew almost 40 years ago at that age. Only, instead of ‘nads, he and his buddies call them balls.

(A quick aside here. I envy the years of rich discovery ahead for my sons. The lessons they’ll learn. The colorful vocabulary they’ll acquire. Oh, to relive each and every moment when life served up a new testicular euphemism. It’s all ahead for them: nuts, eggs, huevos, danglers, scrotes, cojones, rocks, stones, the family jewels. And oh, so many more. Use them well, boys. Use them well.)

After our brief chat Saturday, my older son knows now that the proper name is testicles, but I’m still not sure he’s ready to process the concept of testicular cancer. I’ll save the specifics for later.

Not much later, though. One day soon, I’ll explain to my sons that testicular cancer is the most common form of cancer among boys and young men aged 15-35. I’ll explain that catching it early is vital, because 99 percent of those diagnosed with testicular cancer respond well to treatment and can lead normal, active lives. My wife and I will talk to their pediatrician about teaching self-examination, and then we’ll reinforce the importance of vigilance. We won’t be shy, because it’s too important for awkwardness.

All of those details are a bit much for a seven-year-old, I think. But what we can do now is instill the zest for life that will convince him that it’s well worth the few seconds it takes to check for signs of testicular cancer.

So we savor the moments. Saturday, with my wife laid out by a nasty head cold, I piled the boys into the car for the hour-long drive over to Epcot. The annual Flower and Garden Festival has begun, and that means topiary! You might be surprised at how fascinated young boys can be with wired shrubbery shaped like Mater and Lightning McQueen, or like a family of pandas.

We spent a couple of hours Saturday wandering the pavilions, chasing the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz, enjoying the mild weather, relishing each other’s company. It’s the Year of Disney for our family, and this was the first time it was just me and the boys. They’ll remember these days of Disney, I’m sure. I know I will. Perhaps one day they’ll look forward to days like these with their own kids.

With that hopeful thought in mind, we’ll remind them occasionally when they’re older to self-check for signs of testicular cancer. And then, if necessary, we’ll remind them of why. Hopefully, they’ll already know. Hopefully, they won’t need to be reminded that we check because those few seconds could buy them and everyone who loves them years, decades, a lifetime of moments to savor.

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 SingleJingles-Logo-spot

It’s Man UP Monday!

I’m proud to be a member of the Single Jingles Man UP Monday BLOGGING TEAM!

Today, I’m doing my part to spread an important message about Testicular Cancer.

Did you know that Testicular Cancer is the #1 cancer in young men ages 15 to 35?

Did you know that Testicular Cancer is highly survivable if detected early?

Did you know that young men should be doing a monthly self-exam?

What can you do?

Stop by the Single Jingles website for more information on Testicular Cancer.

Request a FREE shower card with self-exam instructions — it just might save a young man in your life!

And if you’re feeling just a little AWKWARD about this conversation, check out this video from some parents who feel the exact same way!

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Thank you to Jim Higley of Bobblehead Dad for inviting me to participate in this great series. Here is the first installment, written by Whit Honea and published last Monday at his personal blog, Honea Express. Here’s another entry by Paul Easter, and another by Andy Hinds (aka Beta Dad).

Epcot

Topiary panda family at the China pavilion, Epcot.

The Year of Disney

This is why we're going back again. And again. And again.

This is why we’re going back again. And again. And again.

Is today February?

The 4-year-old knows. He knows that the Year of Disney begins for us when the calendar turns to February. Every day since he learned that fact, he has asked the question.

Is today February?

Not yet, we tell him. Soon. Shortly after February arrives, we’ll make the first of many planned trips over to Lake Buena Vista to visit the Mouse and his minions. We’ll use the seasonal passes Disney offers to Florida residents. Choosing the less-expensive seasonal passes saves us money, but there will be blackout dates. That’s actually OK, because the blackout dates take place during the high summer, as well as at Christmas and Easter. Going to a Florida theme park in June and July is as close to experiencing the heat of the Earth’s core as you’ll ever get. The Brits and Brazilians can have those dates. As for Christmas and Easter – those are the dates when the park administrators routinely close the gates to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom because they reach maximum capacity. You can have those dates, spring and winter breakers. If we want to get lost and disoriented under the relentless crush of a crowd of wild-eyed strangers, we’ll go to Ikea.

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