Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights #27 (#hhn27)

Howdy!  It’s time for another guest blog post — this time from the Hubs.  Enjoy!

Being a lifelong lover of the macabre, I’ve always wanted to take Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights for a spin, but it’s never been in the cards. That changed this year, when a surprise birthday trip included not only our daughter, but our teenage niece — who, as it so happens, is a big fan of horror movies. (By her own admission, the only things she can’t handle are creepy twins and scary clowns. That’s called “foreshadowing.”) So, as the rest of the group headed to Disney Springs for some restaurants and shopping, Niece (not her actual name) and I headed to #HHN27 for some pants-ruining fun.

First off, the map:

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The map for Halloween Horror Nights #27

The little red letters are the haunted houses (there were nine altogether: American Horror Story, The Shining, The Fallen, Dead Waters, The Horrors of Blumhouse, Hive, Scarecrow: The Reaping, Ash vs Evil Dead, and Saw), while the yellow sections are Scare Zones — themed areas where performers roam free to pounce on you as you walk by. Upon entering the park, the very first thing we saw in the very first Scare Zone was the creepy ghost twins from The Shining, standing there being all creepy. As a direct result, we decided to start with some rides. So, proceeding through the nonexistent line, we hopped straight onto Transformers. Personally, I find Universal’s rides repetitive — it’s like the pitch for every ride since The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man has consisted of, “Hey, remember Spider-Man? It’s like that, except with {insert hot intellectual property here}!”

But I digress. Halloween Horror Nights isn’t about the rides; it’s about the scares. (As a matter of fact, several attractions are closed during the event since their queues are repurposed for the haunted houses.) It was well time for a haunted house, and, with me being a huge Evil Dead devotee for more years than I care to admit, Ash vs Evil Dead was the logical place to start. And since it’s horrific in a haha sort of way, it couldn’t be so bad for Niece, right?

It scared the absolute bejeezus out of her.

To calm her still-pounding heart, I decided it was Harry Potter time. Now, referring back to the map above, Ash vs Evil Dead is at the bottom center, while Harry Potter is at the top right. If you’ll notice, the walkway between the two is in no way, shape, or form yellow. (This will be a very important factor in my upcoming defense trial.) As we headed that way, however, Niece froze in her tracks. When I asked what was wrong, she said simply, “That’s a clown.”

As it turns out, that was a massive understatement. It was not a clown. It was a plethora of clowns. Scary ones. With chainsaws.

We ducked into a Simpsons-themed food court and made our way along its entire length to an exit at the opposite end. As we peeked out in an attempt to determine whether we’d managed to circumvent the murderous clowns, I noticed a teenage girl sitting at a nearby table. No food, just sitting. Eyes wide, she said, “You can’t go out there. THEY CHASE YOU.”

The long route to Harry Potter it was, then! Backtracking through the restaurant, we exited the door through which we’d entered, taking precisely zero notice of the support column right outside said door. Two steps later, a theretofore unseen clown lunged out from behind that column and brap-brapped his — quite realistic, I might add — chainsaw right in Niece’s face. Until that moment, I never knew it was possible to launch scream-powered tears out of one’s eyeballs with such astounding velocity.

 

We did eventually make it to Harry Potter via the long way around, but any further haunted houses were to be solo affairs while Niece waited it out in a no-scare zone (the performers don’t follow you into shops or restaurants). While, as I mentioned before, the size of my Evil Dead fandom is only surpassed by the ego of one Ashley J. Williams, if asked to pick a Best of Show I’d have a hard time choosing between that and The Shining — both were extremely well done experiences, and really managed to capture the essence of their respective properties.

So, would I do it again? In an elevated heartbeat I would! I’d just do so knowing that, when Universal says Halloween Horror Nights is too intense for most guests, they sort of mean it.

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A conference in Virginia Beach…

My latest adventure took me to Virginia Beach, to accompany the hubs to a work conference.  I can only recall being in Virginia Beach twice in my life, once at least fifteen years ago for a concert that got cancelled (boo!) and then back in middle school on a field trip.  We don’t live terribly far from the area but it has never been on my short list to visit.

Arriving at the beach, it was what I was expecting but not what I’m used to for a beach vacation.  I prefer quiet, family-oriented beaches with sand dunes, seashells, and very little commercialism so I struck out on all counts here.  I won’t lie, I wouldn’t visit the area again to hang out at the ocean.  However, this trip wasn’t focused on the water so we entertained ourselves at the pool area of the hotel (Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront), at the always delicious Duck Donuts around the corner, and at the conference activities.  We had a free afternoon that we planned to spend at the nearby aquarium but, the rest of the greater Virginia Beach area got the the same idea, so we bailed.

A speaker at the conference had mentioned the Military Aviation Museum in nearby Pungo, so we changed course and headed there.  Luckily, the museum was a short drive past the aquarium, so we were already going in the right direction.  Bombing out on a place that looked appealing for lunch near the hotel, we stopped in at Firebrew Bar and Grill on the way to the museum.  How delish!  Being a Monday at lunchtime, we had the restaurant to ourselves and dined on yummy pierogies, ahi tuna tacos, flatbreads, and pizzas.  The day was looking up!

After stuffing ourselves at lunch, we continued on to Pungo.  The bucolic fields and controlled retail environments made for a great experience on the drive.  Arriving at the museum, we were pleased to find that it wasn’t crowded.  Entering the main exhibit building, the staff gave us a warm welcome and intro to the facility with an overview of the areas to visit.  We saw working aircraft from World War II from the Army and Navy, various German vehicles, an Amphicar, and a real German Enigma machine.  Had we a little more time, we would’ve gone on the tour to visit the additional hangars that featured World War I replica and German aircraft.  If you visit anywhere in the greater Virginia Beach area and are an aviation or history fan, you need to make time to stop here!

Another evening took us to One Fish, Two Fish for dinner and we enjoyed a fantastic meal.  The restaurant is situated in a marina and offers local ingredients and stellar service.  Another place to add to the list.

So, yeah, not a fan of Virginia Beach’s oceanfront but I think the surrounding area has potential for a future visit.  I hear Sandbridge Beach is nice so maybe that would be a good home base to stay and then pop in to some of the other places we enjoyed and find some new fun at First Landing State Park or the Cape Henry Lighthouses.

Where will I go next…?

Ahi tuna tacos at Firebrews Military Aviation MuseumMilitary Aviation Museum

Visiting Disney to enjoy new experiences

Hello all! Amber here. In late July, the kid and I visited Walt Disney World on a mission to try as many new things as possible, in a super short timeframe. Did we succeed? YES! I’m going to turn it over to the kid to report in with the things we tried and her take as a tween.  Here we go!!

Hi! I’m Hailey and today I am going to tell you about all the new things we tried on this past trip. First things first flying, in the middle of summer, and in the afternoon is just asking for a disaster! We had to sit in the airport until about two hours after our original flight time, because of the weather in Orlando. But now to the more important stuff.

Our first park day was at Animal Kingdom. We had so much fun in Pandora, and both the rides were amazing! I would recommend riding Na’vi River Journey, it’s worth it after waiting in the line or using a FastPass for the ride. The food at the Satu’li Canteen was very good. I would recommend the quinoa salad with the black bean vinaigrette, I really enjoyed that. The veggie curry pods I didn’t enjoy as much as the salad, I’m pretty sure that the curry, and the overall texture, was my problem. But if you are a fan of curry and like steamed buns, you would probably like the pods much better than me. If you eat at the Satu’li Canteen you HAVE to try the blueberry cream cheese mousse, it was AMAZING! I think that while it took a long time to wait to ride Na’vi River Journey it would be a lot more worthwhile to save your FastPass for Flight of Passage, if you have any hope of riding it in a fair amount of time. But if traveling to Pandora with younger children, or children who are afraid of thrill rides or heights, it would be of more use to use your FastPass on the Na’vi River Journey ride.

If you like thrill rides or Soarin’, but more action packed, than this is the ride for you! Flight of Passage was an amazing ride! It was a lot less jerky than I thought it would be. It was a nice way to cool off in the hot afternoon. I would recommend Flight of Passage for kids my age, early teens, teens, or adventurous kids who are tall enough, like Soarin’ and are not afraid of heights. While you aren’t off the ground, it simulates you being thousands of feet up.

The Caring for Giants tour was a wonderful tour. I would recommend the Caring for Giants tour for mature eight year olds to nine or ten year olds and up. It was a truly amazing experience, getting to see elephants, just going about their business, kicking up sand to protect them from the sun, living in their natural habitats. It was an fantastic tour.

At Tusker House the buffet was delicious, and extremely vegetarian, which was very good for me and my mom! I think there is absolutely no need to go there for breakfast, when the food served for dinner is delicious. Now that the characters, Daisy, Mickey, Goofy, and Donald, as safari versions, come visit your table with all meals you don’t have to go there for breakfast to see them, you can see them all the time!

For the Rivers of Light show or package, I would recommend arriving around 35-45 minutes before the show starts, in order to get a good seat. I would recommend trying to get a seat in the first row of normal seats, for the best view. I wouldn’t recommend giving your child a freshly refilled bubble wand when every one is all clumped up in one spot, no one likes to be sticky or have bubbles in their Starbucks.

Rivers of Light was a fantastic show! It didn’t need to have fireworks to be an amazing show! It was very nice I enjoyed the projections onto the screen of water, they were beautiful. Also, if you are visiting Animal Kingdom in the night you must visit Pandora! Everything starts glowing and it is beautiful! Just make sure to stay hydrated whether you are visiting Africa or a guest among the sights of the world of Pandora.

I definitely recommend the Amorette’s cake decorating class in Disney Springs for mature nine to ten year olds (and up) who have a passion for baking. For me, as a twelve year old, who loves to bake, I really, really enjoyed the experience and learned a lot about cake decorating. I would definitely try out any of their new cake decorating classes!

In Epcot, I would recommend the Frozen Ever After ride to fans of Frozen and really anyone. But I have to say, I wasn’t expecting a Frozen ride to be so much like Splash Mountain! It was a great ride for cooling off. I also really enjoyed the Behind the Seeds tour, which is where you get to learn more behind the scenes information about The Land, I think it is more geared towards mature nine or ten year olds and up. I think it was a really neat tour and I learned a lot about the plants and fish in The Land.

On the way to Magic Kingdom from Epcot, we tried out the new Express Transportation service. It was very handy, being on a tight schedule, as long as you are there on the dot and ready to board the bus, or else you have to wait a half a hour for the next bus to arrive. It didn’t take nearly as long as the regular bus service, but that’s in the name right? Anyway, I would definitely recommend using the Express Transportation if you are on a tight schedule and park hopping, so you don’t miss your Be Our Guest reservations.

I really enjoyed Tony’s for dinner in Magic Kingdom, and I recommend it for anyone who likes pizza, pasta, and anything Italian of course! I also definitely would recommend the caprese salad there, it is amazing! I also would recommend the Happily Ever After dessert party, there are lots of different sweets there for you to enjoy, and they are wonderful! I really liked the cookies and cream mousse, it was delicious.

The Happily Ever After show was a spectacular show, with fireworks and projections onto Cinderella’s Castle. I think to get the full experience, you have to see the castle, not just the fireworks. I really enjoyed this past trip with my mom, we have tried lots and lots of new things, with a few familiar things among them.

In the future, look for more trip reports from me!

~Hailey

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Desserts at the Happily Ever After dessert party

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This is a Winter Melon!

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Cake decorating at Amorette’s in Disney Springs

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Safari Daisy at Tusker House

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Caring for Giants Elephant Tour

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Lunch at Satu’li Canteen in Animal Kingdom

 

 

Memorial Day in Mexico!

Hola! The end of school means hitting the road (or skies) for another adventure! This year, the fam decided on Cancun, Mexico for a little Yucatan fun! Our visit to Cancun was largely spent in the amazing pools of our resort, Dreams Playa Mujeres Resort, just north of Cancun. From our balcony, you could look across the Caribbean Sea to catch a glimpse of Isla Mujeres in the distance. Such a beautiful place, let me recount the ways…

#1:  All-inclusive resort goodness… Dreams Playa Mujeres is part of the AM Resort family, like Dreams Punta Cana that I visited last fall.  These are family-oriented, all-inclusive resorts that offer as much (or as little) as you care to enjoy during your vacation.  In our case, we were going for ‘as little as possible’ in terms of activity level and we were not disappointed!  With two infinity pools, a lazy river, and waterslides plus a gorgeous beach, we had plenty to ‘not do.’  Each day started off with no alarm clock ringing, room service for breakfast, then hours by/in the pool being served fruity beverages. When I wasn’t in the pool, I was enjoying a Bali bed near the pool with said fruity drink.

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A look toward “our pool” and the Bali beds that are napping perfection

After a day in the pool, we would clean up for dinner and enjoy after dinner cocktails and desserts at the Preferred Club lounge.  (Preferred Club is the Dreams resort version of club level.)

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Cocktails anyone? I highly recommend the kiwi one!

The resort was in the off-season so we felt like we often had the place to ourselves.  That was such a fantastic change from our typical vacation style.  No plans, no crowds, all food and drink included… super luxurious and a great change of pace.  Our room didn’t disappoint either with modern furnishings (it is a new resort, just opened in late November 2016) and a laid-back feel.

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We did decide to do an excursion to Isla Contoy and Isla Mujeres one day… Isla Contoy is essentially a deserted island with a limited number of guests (200) per day allowed to visit.  A friendly stingray played in the water with us during our morning and the fam enjoyed climbing up a small tower to drink in the view of the island.

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And we shall name him ‘silky’.

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Isla Contoy — a view from the top

All-in-all, we had a great vacation that was filled with lovely weather, lots of relaxation, and family togetherness.  Until next time, good night to Playa Mujeres!

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March Madness — both coasts! (Part 2)

Late March and spring break meant packing up our van and heading south.  For each trip to Walt Disney World, I try to do several new things that I’ve never experienced before.  For this trip, that meant:

  • Going to Cirque du Soleil’s “La Nouba” show
  • Staying in a royal guest room at Port Orleans Riverside resort
  • Trying new restaurants:  Raglan Road, Chef Art Smith’s Homecoming, The Wave, and Jock Lindsay’s Hangar Bar
  • Watching a “Perfectly Prepared Princess Makeover” at the Grand Floridian’s Ivy Trellis Salon come to life
  • Enjoying the new family raft slide at Typhoon Lagoon “Miss Adventure Falls”

None of my new experiences disappointed!  The food, as always, was fantastic.  We really enjoyed the new restaurants that we tried and I have to say, Jock Lindsay’s has some SPECTACULAR drink offerings and a fantastic theme.  I’d visit all four of the new locations we tried again and again.

My daughter, who is almost a teenager, has gotten out of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique makeover age but I wanted her to experience a ‘real’ makeover at the Grand during our visit.  Ivy Trellis is an actual salon and spa so we both felt that this particular offering was super for pre-teens and teens to add a little more magic to their vacations.  The makeup and hairstyles were more grown up and the service was impeccable.  Since Ivy Trellis is a full-service salon, the guest is able to choose how they would like their hair styled; there are no preset styles to choose from.  This flexibility is great for older girls and is the first step to see them as they start to blossom into their prom years. **tissues**

We’ve seen numerous Cirque shows closer to home but had never taken the time to watch the “La Nouba” performance while in Florida.  The show ends 12/31 after about twenty years in Orlando, which is an incredible feat.  We quite enjoyed this show and definitely hope that a new show takes its place so we can go back again next year.

How was the lodging?  Well, we stayed for the first part of the trip at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa and then moved to Port Orleans Riverside to try out a royal guest room.  Both resorts were super and I wouldn’t hesitate to return to either.

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Room with a view at the Grand Floridian.  Across Seven Seas Lagoon, you can see the Wedding Pavilion and the Polynesian Resort.

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A room fit for royalty!  The headboards light up with fireworks!

The parks were full of spring cheer with the Flower and Garden Festival in full bloom at Epcot.  I love visiting during the festival and enjoying all of the beautiful topiaries and food stands throughout World Showcase.

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Beautiful gardens at Epcot between Future World and World Showcase

Ah!  Another new thing — we visited the Disney Vacation Club Member Lounge inside of the Imagination Pavilion in Epcot.  What a great place to hang out!  Comfy chairs, free drinks and snacks, outlets galore to charge up your electronics, and a great view!

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View from the DVC lounge in Epcot

Typhoon Lagoon is always a great day (or two) of fun for my family and this trip meant hopping in line to ride the new family raft ride called “Miss Adventure Falls.”  The ride just opened in mid-March after Typhoon Lagoon’s annual refurbishment.  Talk about a ride you just can’t get enough of!  The entire experience from loading to unloading is a blast (of water!)  Speed, curves, and thrills were found throughout and I can’t wait to ride again!

Each time we visit, I’m astonished at how much Disney Springs continues to change.  We enjoyed new stores and restaurants there this time around including the ones on my to-do list plus Amorette’s Patisserie.  You want to know where to get the best dessert?  That’s it, Amorette’s beside the World of Disney store.  They’re not cheap but they are scrumptious.  Worth every last penny.  This place will be on my to-do list from now on.

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Goodies from Amorette’s Patisserie

While at Disney Springs, we had to take time out to see the newly released live-action version of Beauty and the Beast at the AMC Theater.  It had been awhile since we had visited this theater but it too never disappoints.  There’s no place better than seeing a new Disney movie than at Disney (or on a Disney Cruise!)

Of course, all good things must come to an end.  For this trip, it meant a brief stopover at Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort in South Carolina to enjoy a little sand and surf.  While the ocean was way too cold to take a dive, my feet took a dip, and I found a few shells to bring home to remember the visit.

I’ll leave you with this parting thought…

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March Madness — both coasts! (Part 1)

It’s been awhile since my last post… you certainly didn’t think I have been sitting at home on the sofa, did you?  No way!  It’s the end of April and I’m seriously slacking on posting updates to my blog this year.  Such is the life of a busy travel planner though!  I was on both coasts last month with a business trip to Disneyland in early March followed by a family trip to Disney World at the end of the month.  Let’s recap, shall we?

Disneyland in California, Walt’s original.  Love it there.  Can never say that enough.  If it wasn’t such a long flight and a three-hour time difference, I’d be there much more often.  This was my third trip out, first alone, and it did not disappoint.  I stayed at the Disneyland Hotel during my visit for the first time, previous trips were at the Grand Californian resort.  I’ll tell you, I really enjoyed the Disneyland Hotel and will definitely stay there again.  The authentic Disney feel there was unmistakable.  Zero complaints.  Perfect weather, gorgeous resort, impeccable theme parks, and I even got to experience the California Adventure Food & Wine Festival before it officially opened.

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My room at the Disneyland Hotel.  That headboard lights up with fireworks and plays music!

While this was a business trip and I spent a good bit of time touring resorts and learning more about the West Coast House of Mouse, I had a phenomenal stay and am so glad I was able to participate.  Touring two of the five signature suites at the Disneyland Resort, The Big Thunder Suite and the Adventureland Suite, was amazing.  If I had the cash, I’d be in those for the night in a heartbeat.  Unfortunately, I think one night would be pushing the fiscal limits of a typical week-long visit.

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The living room area in the Big Thunder Suite.

The parks?  Yes, they were as delightful as always.  My only regret was that Pirates of the Caribbean was down for refurbishment during my visit.  That is my fave!  And sorry Disney World, Disneyland’s Pirates ride is SO much better!

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The Main Street Electrical Parade returned to Disneyland earlier this year after being at WDW for over 20 years.

After a few days of hard work (and some time change confusion), I was back on a plane to the East Coast.  Two weeks later, I was packing the van for a trip to Walt Disney World…

Why yes, a cruise for Thanksgiving would be divine!

Being a vegetarian, Thanksgiving is not one of my favorite holidays.  For my family, it represents a long weekend that is perfect for hitting the road and enjoying some time together.  This year, that meant packing up and heading to Florida!

First stop, Disney World, for a quick one-night stay at Saratoga Springs.  We are Disney Vacation Club members and own at the Saratoga Springs resort but this was our first stay there in several years.  We chose Saratoga since it sits right beside Disney Springs and visiting there was our plan for this abbreviated stopover.  Thanksgiving dinner was accomplished at ‘Ohana at the Polynesian resort (to die for, as always!) and then a few hours at Disney Springs was a delightful treat.  I’m amazed with each trip how much Disney Spring evolves.  So much of the area is brand-new and super fancy!  I love the changes and can’t wait to see everything fully complete.

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Disney Springs – Town Center

Black Friday morning for me meant breakfast at Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge, no shopping!  We stuffed ourselves and then hopped in the van to head over to Port Canaveral.  Emptying the van and skipping into the terminal at the Port, we got checked-in and waited with the masses.  With boarding group #2, we were some of the first folks onboard the beautiful Disney Dream.  Cabanas for the lunch buffet then a little ship exploration kept us occupied until the lifeboat drill and Sail Away party.

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Pool deck on the Dream after boarding

Sail Away party

Sail Away party (before the crowds hit)

Our stateroom was fantastic!  When I toured the Dream in January 2015, I saw a room type that I had never been inside of before.  I knew when I saw it that I had to book one for myself!  The split layout of these rooms and the two large portholes are amazing.  So much room in the stateroom to spread out and really get settled in.

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Our stateroom on the Dream

During our cruise, which was a super short 3-night Bahamian, the ship docked at Nassau in the Bahamas and Castaway Cay.  As I’ve mentioned before, Castaway Cay is Disney’s private island in the Bahamas and it was all decked out for the holidays.

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Island paradise

The ship was also adorned with holiday goodness around every turn.  The lobby featured a beautiful gingerbread house which also filled the air with its lovely scent.

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Dream’s gingerbread house

Pirate night onboard the Dream was a blast (literally!) too with fireworks at sea and the ever-popular Pirate Buffet.  They do such a great job putting out these late-night treats for the hungry pirates!

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Pirate night food decor

Disney Cruise never disappoints and this trip was another memorable one for the fam!