A Harry Potter Nerd’s Guide to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I have wanted to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter since they opened their doors in 2010. We try and travel to a new place at least once a year and this year we finally chose Universal Studios Orlando. Technically, my husband had been there as a child, but the park has gone through so many changes since then that it was pretty much new to both of us. Saying that I am a huge Harry Potter fan would be a ridiculous understatement. I typically read the entire series every other year and have seen the movies countless times…thank you Freeform!

I’m going to do a couple of posts on how we structured each of the two days we spent at Universal, but first I’m going to do a recap of the Wizarding World because oh. my. God. it was heaven on earth.

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What’s Where?

Diagon Alley is in the Universal Studios Park and Hogsmeade and Hogwarts are in the Island of Adventures Park. You can get between the parks by riding the Hogwarts Express or by walking out of one park through City Walk and into the entrance of the other park. You must have a park to park ticket in order to go to both parks on the same day and to ride the Hogwarts Express. The park to park ticket is a little more expensive, but it was totally worth it.

Diagon Alley

I wanted my introduction to the Wizarding World to be in Diagon Alley and I’m going to nerd out here for a minute so bear with me. Diagon Alley is Harry’s first real immersion into the wizarding world and I wanted that same experience. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that when we walked into Diagon Alley tears came to my eyes. When you step in you feel like you are in a completely different world. You can’t hear or see anything that’s going on in other areas of the park and everything from the buildings to the walkways to the employees dressed in character was just as I always imagined it would be in real life. As many people have said, it’s a completely immersive experience.

Hogsmeade/Hogwarts

The design and set-up of Hogsmeade is not quite as immersive to the same extent, but still wonderful. To walk through Hogsmeade and come upon Hogwarts was breathtaking. You truly felt that you were in a little wizarding village and again the shops, displays, and set-up were spot on as described in the books and shown in the movies.

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Rides

Escape from Gringotts – Located in Diagon Alley. You walk through the entrance to Gringotts to get to the ride and pass the goblins hard at work, goblin offices, and eventually you feel like you are down in the vaults. The ride is simulated so you feel that you are diving around here and there, but without having to experience the actual plummet where your stomach jumps into your throat.

The Forbidden Journey – Located in Hogwarts Castle. The lead up to this ride was by far the best. While in line you are walking through various notable Hogwarts areas to include Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor Common Room, the Defense Against the Dark Arts Classroom, and you run into the sorting hat. The ride itself I struggled with due to motion sickness. I get motion sickness very easily, so I had loaded up on non-drowsy dramamine and still when I got off the ride I was worried I might be sick. This ride is also motion simulated, but you get whipped around a little more aggressively then with Escape from Gringotts, and has been critiqued as causing motion sickness by many others. When we go back to the park in a few years I don’t know that I would be able to ride it again, but will definitely get in the line to walk through the castle.

Flight of the Hippogriff – Outside Hogwarts. This is a 30 second super fun, family friendly roller coaster. We were in the front row which was great and loved it. There weren’t any big drops, so I was happy. Hagrid’s hut sits in the center which was a nice touch.

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Butterbeer

Frozen Butterbeer – This was my absolute favorite! It’s butterscotch flavored with butterscotch foam on top and I would seriously risk diabetes to drink it every day. I was even asked by someone who was in the butterbeer line which one I would recommend, because obviously even strangers can tell that I’m a true member of the wizarding community, and hands down advised that she get the frozen.

Hot Butterbeer – Also, so delicious! It tasted exactly as I always imagined it would based on the description in the book. It tastes warm and buttery and sweet and all the good things. In fact, the hot butterbeer was my husband’s favorite and we had a rather spirited debate about which one was truly better in the middle of Diagon Alley making all of my wizarding dreams comes true.

Cold Butterbeer – The cold butterbeer is nothing to turn your nose up up at, but the other two were superior in my book. The cold butterbeer tasted like cream soda with butterscotch foam on top. It was yummy, but I went back for frozen time after time.

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Restaurants/Stores

I’m going to recap just the restaurants and stores that were most memorable for me. I obviously went to all of them, but some are definitely must sees.

Hog’s Head – Located in Hogsmeade. It’s attached to the Three Broomsticks and serves drinks only. You can get food at the Three Broomsticks, but we elected to grab a couple of pints (HP beer recap below) and hang out in the pub like we would any other Saturday night. The line was super long for the bar, extending out the side door when we arrived, but it moved quickly and the bartender was in character as the owner the entire time, which added a certain amount of charm. It was dark and kind of dank, just as described in the books.

Leaky Cauldron – Located in Diagon Alley. We ate lunch here on the second day and I had a great meal. My husband was less satisfied with his, but overall it was a fun experience. They keep the long line moving as quickly as possible and have someone that helps you find a seat which was nice. I highly recommend the Fischerman’s Pie if you like seafood. Also, quick tip! You can buy a bottle of Gilly Water for $4.50….which is outrageous. Instead just ask for a cup of water and it is free of charge.

Ollivanders Wand Shop – Located in Diagon Alley. They have one in Hogsmeade too, but we went to the one in Diagon Alley, saw the show, and walked through the wand shop. We got in to see the show, where Ollivander picks someone from the crowd to interact with a wand that chooses them, early in the day within an hour of the park opening and got right in. By the afternoon there was a line of 50-100 people waiting. The show and shop are a must sees.

Weazley’s Wizard Wheezes – Located in Diagon Alley. Very elaborate and on point interpretation of the Fred and George’s joke shop. It’s also attached to a clothing shop and a candy shop so you can work your way through.

Knockturn Alley – Located in Diagon Alley. This was one of the most well done areas of Diagon Alley because you truly felt like you were walking down a dark and scary path. Also, the shop in Knockturn Alley sold merchandise you couldn’t find anywhere else in the park which was on point with the books.

Honeydukes – Located in Hogsmeade. Obviously a must see because Harry, Hermione, and Ron love it so much. They have all of the themed candy you could want…chocolate froges, fizzing whizbees, etc.

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Wizarding World Beer

The Wizarding World has several beers that are brewed just for the parks.

Dragon Scale – Sold in both parks. This was my husband’s favorite. It’s an Octoberfest-style lager.

Hog’s Head Brew – Sold exclusively in Hogsmeade. It was an Irish Red.

Wizard’s Brew – Sold exclusively in Diagon Alley. This was my favorite. It’s a heavy, coffee stout. Rich and filling.

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In short, it was truly the trip of my dreams. We planned ahead to spend two full days at Universal so we never felt rushed and were able to enjoy other areas of the park too. We took our time seeing everything in the Wizarding World and on the second day even spent an hour in each Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade just sitting on a bench people watching, drinking butterbeer, and enjoying the hustle and bustle.

Questions about the Wizarding World or our experience? Comment below!

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What’s in My Weekend Carry On

I am beyond excited to spend the weekend at Universal Studios in Florida. We bought our 2 day park-to-park tickets weeks ago and I have been ready to go ever since. I’ve wanted to live at Hogwarts for over a decade and I can’t believe I’m finally going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I am not even attempting to reign it in and have purchased a couple more Harry Potter tees/tanks to wear at the park, lest anyone confuse why I am there.

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We’re spending the weekend in Florida and then Monday morning are boarding a 4 night Disney Cruise with my extended family. I’m planning ahead and packing my carry-on for the weekend and my checked bag for the cruise that way I only have to sift through one piece of luggage at each destination. In the carry-on I’m packing 2-3 day-time outfits for the parks and 1-2 nighttime outfits that can all be mixed and matched. I’m also packing a bathing suit, cover-up, and flip flops because our hotel has a pool. I’m bringing a pair of sneakers for the parks and sandals for night. I am making a concerted effort to pack light for the weekend because I am the most diligent over packer on the planet aside from my mom.

Check out what I’m packing, which will be especially enjoyable if you’re an HP fan.

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Weekend Getaway – Annapolis

I grew up taking 2-3 trips a year to the Annapolis area because we have extended family down there. On average the drive is 5-6 hours and includes a jaunt over the GW Bridge and a trip through the big underground tunnel in Baltimore. We drove down to Annapolis over Labor Day Weekend for a friend’s wedding and although we got very little sleep and drank more than was standard we had a blast. Reviews/recommendations below!

Hotel: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Annapolis – about 3 miles outside of downtown

**Pros – Free shuttle to and from downtown until 11pm, free cookies, comfy mattresses, bar and restaurant in hotel, outdoor pool, and fitness center.

**Cons – Walls were super thin. If someone was talking in the hallway it sounded like they were standing in our room. Also, I HATED the pillows. But, hubby loved them so I guess that’s just preferential.

Eats/Drinks: All in Annapolis

Mission BBQ – This is a chain that we’d never been to before and they don’t have them in CT. We were obsessed and actually ate here once for dinner and once for lunch during our visit. We each got the pulled pork sandwich and mac n’cheese…both times….so good.

Pennsylvania Dutch Farmer’s Market – This is a farmer’s market style store run by Amish folks and is only open Thursday-Saturday. They have THE BEST doughnuts, pretzels, and cinnamon buns (all handmade on site) and have a heavenly produce section, meat department, and deli. The restaurant within the market is also amazing. It gets busy, but is worth the chaos.

Dry 85 – We were super excited to try this place for lunch, but both of our sandwiches came out on stale buns. Ambiance was great though. Dark wood, industrial style. We went back the next night for drinks and the sidecar was on point.

Red Red Wine – Food was reasonably priced, kind of light fare, but not the most flavorful. Again, ambiance was fun, wine bar vibes. I got a flight of pinot noir and was pretty pleased.

Today’s Pizza – We ordered a pizza at 1am, as previously mentioned there was excess drinking and little sleeping. It was hot and cheesy which was pretty much our only requirement for the night. Obviously doesn’t compare to our normal New Haven pizza standard.

Ports of Call – This is the restaurant in the DoubteTree Hotel and we had breakfast here before we checked out. The fruit and yogurt parfait was pretty good and the omelettes looked huge. They also have a breakfast buffet in the mornings. Pretty much your standard hotel restaurant.

It’s fun to be down in that area, do some shopping, and sit by the water. Overall it was a very relaxing, but busy weekend. Share your Labor Day Weekend getaway in the comments!

Cape Cod Mini Guide

My family has been going to Cape Cod, or as it’s more affectionately known by New Englanders “The Cape”, almost every year since I was 9 years old. If you haven’t been you should, even if it’s for a long weekend. The summers are prime tourist season, but it’s beautiful in the fall as well. Plus, it’s still pretty warm in September in the northeast so you could get in some beach time. My family typically stays in the  Harwich Port/Chatham area, which is on the ocean side – more waves and a stronger current. My husband grew up visiting the bay side – calmer waters and a lot of sand bars. Here is my mini guide for eating, beaching, and exploring Cape Cod:

Food
Breakfast: Woolfies Bakery  in Dennis Port has amazing pastries and doughnuts. My personal favorite is the raspberry danish. It’s set in an old house and has a very welcoming environment with picnic tables and a rope swing out front. See picture below of all the yummy.

Lunch – Arnolds Lobster and Clam Bar in Eastham has the best lobster roll on the Cape. For those less familiar with lobster rolls they’re either served cold with mayo or hot with butter. Arnolds is hot with butter and OH MY GOD you need one. There will always be a line, but it moves quickly and is worth every second.

Dinner – The Impudent Oyster in Chatham has an amazing lunch and dinner menu and is a little more upscale. Great opportunity to break out that flowy dress you brought “just in case you go somewhere nice.” Also, you have to get dessert and it has to be the butterscotch blonde. It is my favorite dessert of all time and I eat a lot of desserts my friends.

Ice Cream – Sundae School has multiple locations (Dennis Port, Harwich Port, and East Orleans). The ice cream is homemade and super creamy. They also have a specific cooler with “allergy free” ice cream/yogurt which is awesome for those with nut allergies. My husbands favorite is the frappe float which is a milkshake with a scoop of ice cream in it. Pic of their strawberry ice cream cone below.

Beaches
Nauset Beach (ocean side) – Located in Orleans and is our favorite beach on the Cape. It has that crowded beach vibe that I love, the waves are usually big, and you always end up spotting a couple of seals swim by. Nauset also has Liam’s which has great beach and fried food. We always get a jumbo order of the clam fritters. So. Good.

Hardings Beach (ocean side) – Located in Chatham and is a lot quieter than Nauset. There are 2 big parking areas ($20 to park unless you have a weekly/seasonal pass), bathrooms on-site, and an ice cream truck stationed right next to the stand.

First Encounter Beach (bay side) – Located in Eastham and is huge. Beaches on the bay side have more real estate because the water goes out a lot farther, even at high tide, so there is more space for everyone to sit. The water is shallow and there are easily accessible sand bars out 200+ feet at low tide. This beach is great for kids because there are multiple pockets of super shallow water for them to sit and play in.

Attractions
Downtown Chatham – Chatham in itself is very picturesque. Downtown has a ton of shops and restaurants. There are multiple free parking lots as well as free street parking. They have music in the parks some evenings and outdoor craft fairs a few times a month.

Cape Cod Beer Brewery – We went to the brewery for the first time this year. It’s located in Hyannis, but outside the main drag so it’s not as hectic. The beer was “so so” according to my husband, but we both really liked their blonde ale. We sat outside in the beer garden in a couple of adirondack chairs for a few hours chatting and people watching. They also have picnic tables set up and a hot dog truck. You’re able to bring your own picnic and dogs are welcome in the beer garden.

Provincetown – It’s all the way out at the tip of the Cape, so it’s a bit of a drive from most everywhere (30-60 minutes), but it’s a fun little town. Once you park the main street, Commercial Street, stretches a ways and is super walkable and packed with shops and restaurants. My favorite part about Provincetown is all the used book stores. Heaven. The beach is right there also and the town as a whole is very dog friendly, a lot of shops put water bowls out for the visiting pooches.

Share your own Cape Cod recommendations in the comments!

New Orleans Stole My Heart….and my diet

 Like many couples, my husband and I have a pretty extensive travel bucket list separated by continent, length of trip, and places we have to go before we have a kid and have to travel with an alarming amount of unwieldy baby items. New Orleans was one of our ‘pre-kid’ travel destinations, so we took a 4 day trip there in the Spring of 2014 as a partial adult spring break/yay we just got engaged/happy birthday vacation. 

When I tell you that I ate 5 po’boys in 4 days I am not exaggerating. My husband still tells people that he has never seen me eat more in my life than I did in the 96 hours we were in Lousiana. He says it with awe and admiration, not with judgment, which is part of the reason I married that son of a gun! I digress…  

Here are some New Orleans must eat, cannot live withouts:

* Breakfast- Eggs Cochon from the Ruby Slipper

* Lunch – Muffaletta from Central Grocery

* Dinner – Roast Beef Po’Boy from Mothers Restaurant

* Dessert (or all day every day) – Beignets from Cafe du Monde. We stopped at Cafe du Monde every day. The line looks intimidating, but it moves quickly. There’s no one there to seat you, you just grab a table as soon as someone stands up to leave. This type of aggressive, action-packed seat claiming was not a problem for us native New Englanders, but those from other regions are going to have to pocket the pleasantries if they want to get their hands on the sweet doughy goodness that is a beignet.   

 
Here are some New Orleans must do, cannot live withouts:

* Take a trip to one of the plantations. You can book a bus trip that will take you out there, but we rented a car and drove ourselves so we could experience the outskirts of the city more for a day. We chose to go to Oak Alley, on the advice of a friend who had lived in the area previously, and it was truly stunning. We toured the plantation and mansion, sauntered through the exhibits, and ate lunch at the on-site restaurant (catfish po’boy and a mint julep flight = heaven). Sidenote: a scene from the classic Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer was filmed there, so now you obviously need to go.

* Do a ghost tour. We have done a lot of ghost tours and this was by far our favorite. I got the tickets on groupon for Witches Brew Tours. It was 2 hours long, you stopped in the middle for a to go cup at a local bar, and learned all about NOLA history and ghostly folklore. Amazing.

* Spend a night on Frenchman Street. It’s where are all the best local and original jazz music is played. If you want to hear Rhianna and One Direction, go to Bourbon Street. If you want to hear genuine New Orleans jazz, go to Frenchman Street.

* Venture through the Garden District. Unless you’re staying in the Garden District (which is not advisable because you’ll be far from everything else) you’ll have to take the trolley/streetcar out there. The trolley was a rather miserable experience: small seats, long waits, long stops, and slooooow. On the way back we took the trolley halfway and then just walked the last couple of miles. We made it back before the trolley. Anyway, the Garden District is gorgeous! Old and beautifully kept houses, lavish gardens, massive cemeteries, and of course more stellar food.   

 Here are some New Orleans should nots:

* Stay in a hotel on Bourbon Street…unless you are a 19 year old college student, enjoy the continued harassment of exotic dancers who stand outside of clubs to ‘lure’ you in, and/or prefer to listen to the thumping sounds of techno music 24 hours per day.

* Begin your day with a daiquiri and assume you will be able to sustain the daiquiri lifestyle for the next 12 hours. You can drink on the street in New Orleans. You can get a drink at a bar, decide you want to leave, ask for a ‘to go’ cup, and walk into another bar with the first bars drink! This is very tempting, so are all of the stands with multiple flavored daiquiris whirring around in slushi machines waiting for you, yes YOU, to simply make a selection and go about your day. That being said, our favorite daiquiri, the ‘Voo Doo’ daiquiri (aka grape), came from Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop

* Decide to live up your last day in New Orleans by indulging in multiple beverages and then immediately head to the airport. Learn from our mistake.

New Orleans is magical. We found it incredibly relaxing even though we did a lot of sightseeing…and eating…and decided that if we ever have enough money as John Goodman (New Orleans resident) we’d get a vacation home down there in a second!