Ensure Your Wizarding World Visit is Truly a Bucket List Experience

Family bucket list tripNext to Disney World, a trip to Universal Studios tops many family vacation bucket lists – especially with the addition and expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the last few years. And rightly so! Universal has come a long way in creating amazing experiences for their theme park guests.

UniversalSignSince our family enjoys Harry Potter, and our youngest, who is a big fan, was feeling left out of the fun after her two sisters had summer adventures (at camp and in Europe), my husband and I felt the time was ripe for a trip to Universal Studios Orlando. And while the trip alone would have been bucket list-worthy, we made a few key choices along the way to ensure it exceeded our kids’ (and our) expectations. And we made one or two goofs that I want to share about to spare you the same mistakes.

By the way, we’re a frugal family, and while theme parks don’t equate with small budgets, I did find ways to save significantly on this trip. I’ll share those tricks in a later post.

Here are the highlights of our Wizarding World experience (along with a few tips):

We arrived in Orlando during our kids’ second week of Winter Break. It also happened to be a lot of other schools’ winter breaks too, so the parks were crowded. At times, it was difficult to even walk through areas of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios or Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. We made the best of it, and generally were able to plan our tour of the parks to avoid the areas and attractions that were the most popular at the time (for example: on one occasion instead of waiting 60 minutes to ride the Hogwarts Express between parks, we chose to make the 15-minute walk). If crowds bother you, or you’ll only have one day at the parks, you may want to try to take your trip during a quieter season.

Girls at OllivandersWhen we entered Universal Studios Theme Park on the first day, after jumping into the line for Minion Mayhem (which turned out to be an excellent choice because we only waited about 10 minutes and never saw a line that short afterwards), we immediately went to Ollivander’s Wand Shop in Diagon Alley to buy interactive wands for our girls. Now you can either go directly into the shop itself to buy a wand, or you can wait to see a show in which the Wand Maker helps a wand choose a park guest. Since the line was short for the wand choosing show, we went to it –  but even so we still waited about 20 minutes. We enjoyed the show, but I wouldn’t suggest waiting much longer than a half hour. For our two girls (13 and 15 years old), finding wands on their own in the shop was much more exciting.

Bucket list tip for The Wizarding World: The interactive resin wands (either character wands or Ollivander’s “wood”)  are not cheap at $50 each for a wand and map of spell locations in a classy box. But all four of us agreed they added a priceless dimension to our visit. I’ve advocated before for strategic splurges that take experiences to the next level. The interactive wands would fit that category. Being able to “cast spells” to make it rain or turn on lights or reveal invisible ink (shh! that one is at a secret spell location), was cool! And the fact that the wands had to be swirled and flicked in just the right motions showed that Universal Studios knows their audience well.

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Pygmy Puff Naming Ceremony

Another tip: If you have a child who loves stuffed animals and they want to “adopt” a Pygmy Puff (and who wouldn’t, they’re so adorable!), make sure they go through the naming ceremony at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Katherine, our fifteen-year-old did this and was enchanted by the process, and by Genevieve, her pink fluffy Pygmy Puff.

Our bucket list “miss” in The Wizarding World: We didn’t have our girls buy costume accessories early on. All throughout the parks we saw folks decked out in wizarding gear, some in full Hogwarts uniform, many others just in their house robes. Being surrounded by people in costume made the experience more immersive – being in costume herself would completed it for Evelyn, our Harry Potter fangirl. However, in our case it wasn’t until the last day that our girls chose their souvenirs. Evelyn bought the Gryffindor tie and headband, along with a patch for us to iron on robes we’ll sew ourselves ($110 for official robes was too much for her souvenir budget). If I had it to do over, I would have encouraged her to buy the accessories on the first day to wear throughout the rest of our visit.

What makes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter so magical is how immersive it feels. Both areas are fairly well hidden/shielded from the rest of the parks – Diagon Alley more so than Hogsmeade (we even had other park visitors stop us to ask where it was, when they had just been standing right outside it, unaware). Music from the movie soundtracks plays continuously in the background, one of my favorite parts of being in those areas, and no detail is spared in the buildings themselves. In fact, keep your eye out for actual props used in the movies. You can also eat in both The Leaky Cauldron (Diagon Alley) and The Three Broomsticks (Hogsmeade) – for sure you want to try the Butterbeer!

Platform 9 3/4If The Wizarding World is on your family’s bucket list, consider splurging on those elements that complete the immersion: buy the interactive wands (or one for the family to share), let the kids dress up in costume (save money by making or buying your own before you go), and have a meal in one of the Wizarding restaurants. You won’t regret it!

Editors note: You might want to hold a Harry Potter movie marathon in the weeks leading up to your trip. We did and it was great to have the scenes fresh in our minds to recognize the significance of everything we were seeing at the park.

4 Ways to Bond One-on-One with Your Kids

4 Ways to Bond 1-on-1 TimeTuesday mornings are my Chick Fil A breakfast dates with Evelyn, my 12-year-old. We started going in February for their free mystery breakfast offerings and we’ve kept it up ever since. This month, with our eldest working 2 hours away at a camp and our 15-year-old in Europe with a friend for 12 days, I’ve enjoyed even more one-on-one time with Evelyn, but we’ve still kept that Tuesday morning date going. There is something about the ritual and our corner booth that makes it a special time for the two of us.

Even if you’re the parent of an only child, once your kid reaches a certain age, you may not be seeing much of them in a “hanging out” sort of way. And with busy schedules, it often takes planning and purposefulness to capture meaningful parent/child interactions. Here are 4 ways that have worked for me:

1. Get physical. Sharing a sport or physical activity can be a memory-making experience, even if it feels ordinary at the time. You could bike, play tennis, go golfing, run a 5k race.

2. Play a game. When you play games you laugh together, think together and shed the worries and stresses of life. You bond. The beauty is, there are games for every type of person. If your kid says he isn’t into games, you may not have found one that suits his personality. Check out boardgaming.com for game reviews and suggestions.

3. Go out to eat. Removing yourselves from the distractions of home allows you both to focus on each other better (although you might want to suggest that you both put your cell phones face down on the table or in a purse or pocket). Make a list together of places you want to try, and work from that whenever the opportunity arises.

4. Tackle a quest. Evelyn likes to quilt. I like to quilt. And while we do spend time working on our own projects in tandem (one of us at the sewing machine, the other ironing or cutting fabric), that shared interest recently afforded us the chance to go on a quest to visit a number of quilt stores in our area in what is called a “Shop Hop” complete with free patterns, raffles and discounts. You may not want to Shop Hop, but I’ll bet you can turn a shared interest into a quest of sorts. Try to use all of the LEGOs in your house in one huge project, test out recipes for your favorite dessert in search of the ultimate version, or see how many characters you can collect in Pokemon Go. You get the idea – a big shared project can equal a great time to bond.

Have you paid attention to how often you interact one-on-one with your kids? Are you due for a date or outing with each of them? Try one of the four methods above with your child this summer while your schedules are more open.CoursePromoImage


If you’re looking for more ideas to engage in bonding with your family that you can use this summer, sign up for my online video course “Build Stronger Bonds Writing Family Bucket Lists”.

July 2016 Bucket List Life Dare: A Day of Freedom

July 2016 Bucket List Life DareWhat would you do with a whole day free: nothing on the calendar and no obligations to fulfill? It’s worth thinking about because the concept of freedom alone can yield interesting bucket list goals. A whole 24 hours to yourself with the freedom from other’s expectations. A wide open day of freedom in the location of your choosing to explore or relax. A day free from screens, phones, social media, interruptions, distractions.

Freedom, expressed in the way that we most need or prefer, can take on a variety of forms. But how often do we seize on it and embrace it in any form? More often than not conversations with people I know will gravitate toward how busy they are and how many obligations they have to fulfill. Freedom, and the release it provides, rarely factors into daily life – at least not here in the U.S. Which if anything, is ironic.

That’s why I chose this Bucket List Life Dare for July. I want us to take advantage of the freedom we should be able to experience in this great country of ours in ways that improve our lives. Too often I see freedom only being exercised to trumpet beliefs (freedom of expression). But freedom is about so much more than that.

So here’s your bucket list life dare for this coming month: put a big “X” through one day on your calendar this month and keep it free from planned activities. Enjoy that day of freedom however you and your family wish.

Our family has already booked a few days of camping in Michigan for later in July. It’s an annual trip for us that does a pretty good job of taking us away from obligations and giving us freedom. But to be more intentional about it, I’m going to encourage my family to make one of our days about everyone getting to choose one expression of freedom – go to the beach or not go to the beach. Get up early or sleep late. Eat healthy food or not. Or whatever it is they come up with.

How about you? What would a day of freedom look like for you? Can you claim a day of freedom on your calendar this month?




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June 2016 Bucket List Life Dare: 10 New Things to Try

June 2016 Bucket List Life DareHere we are, at the gate to the garden of summer adventures, ready to open the door. You have the key in your hand. Will you do it? Or will you pass on by and leave it unopened, unexplored, sticking instead to the safety of the familiar?

This month’s dare is about taking the key to adventure and putting it in the lock so you just have to turn the knob to enter into adventure when you’re ready. Here’s what that looks like: create a list of ten new things you want to try this summer. Get out a piece of paper or open up a blank document. Write down the numbers 1-10, then fill in the slots with experiences you want to have in the next three months.

You list could include local shops you want to check out, foods you want to grill, sports you want to try, bike paths you want to travel, road trips you want to take. Make it an eclectic collection or go with a theme. Work hard to come up with ten ideas that are doable – not too far or too expensive or too time consuming. Although don’t pitch the ideas that are distant, pricey or long-term. Those should go on your master Bucket List. This list is just a mini version limited to the scope of the June through August of this year.

Invite your kids to come up with their own lists. Ask your spouse to create one too. Spend time in the next week as a family comparing lists.

If you stick with a list of 10 New Things to Try, you could easily check them all off by going after one each week. Or use your list as an outline for how you’ll spend days off, if you take a vacation.

Here’s my list:

1. Visit a new-to-me cupcake shop in the suburbs.

2. Go zip lining (they have this at the camp my daughter is working at this summer, so my goal is to do this on one of our visits to see her).

3. Make homemade tiramisu using the recipe we learned in Tuscany.

4. Pick one of my Pinterest “Crafts to Try” board ideas and do it.

5. Eat at a Naperville restaurant we’ve never been to.

6. Volunteer at a Naper Nights concert.

7. Put my daughter on a plane to Europe with a friend (already planned, but every list has to have a “gimme”).

8. Take my husband to a comedy club.

9. Check out a new-to-me festival.

10. Go to a vintage baseball game.

Once you have a list written, you won’t have to wonder about what to do when you’re looking for adventure. Just pick something from your list and go!

Are you game to take this month’s dare? Share in the comments an idea or two from your list.

Bucket List Life Dare: Make Spring Break Memorable

How many spring breaks do you have left with your children? What will you do to make this spring break memorable?

March 2016 Bucket List Life DareBethany, my eldest, received a packet in the mail this week notifying her that she has a summer job as a lifeguard at a camp in Wisconsin, 100 miles from our home. It wasn’t a complete surprise. She applied in December and had an interview at the camp early last month while she was there helping with a junior high retreat. By her estimates the interview had gone very well. But part of me was still hoping she wouldn’t be chosen for the job. I have counted the number of spring breaks and summer vacations we’ll have with her before she heads off to college. We’re down to two of each. How could we give up one, especially a three-month long stint like summer?

As Gretchen Rubin says in her book, The Happiness Project, “The days are long, but the years are short.” Nowhere is this more true than in parenting. I can remember when my girls were toddlers and babies, counting down the years until they’d go to preschool for a few hours each day. Not that I wanted to be rid of my three little girls, but I was exhausted by them and found focusing on the impermanence of those physically demanding days a source of comfort. The days spent changing diapers and wiping spit-up from my shirt sleeves, while little people with an incessant need to know “why, Mommy?” clung to my jeans and begged me to play another game of Candyland, dragged on and on.The days are long

But now here we are. Those little girls are twelve, fourteen and sixteen years old. This spring break I’ll be driving Bethany out East to look at colleges. We’re taking my mom with us for the journey and planning to do some sightseeing and vacation-like activities while we’re there. A tour of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. A stroll along the National Mall during the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC. And some time hanging out with my aunts and uncles in Pennsylvania on our way home.

It will be a different spring break, for sure. I’m sad to leave behind my husband and the other two girls, but we all agreed that it would be less fun for them to hang around while we tour campuses and sit through information sessions. But it also promises to be a memory-making excursion. Three generations of women set loose on a road trip from the Midwest to the East coast. It has the makings of a movie plot.

So my challenge to you this month is to take note of how short the years are for your family. How many spring breaks do you have left with your growing children? What can you be doing during this year’s spring break to store up memories for the years to come?

Each spring break is an opportunity to break free of the everyday chaos and hurriedness. It is an invitation to hang out, sleep late, play games, talk, travel. To make memories. More than likely your spring break plans are already set. Maybe you’ve booked a trip or bought tickets to a local event. Whatever you have on the calendar for your kids’ spring break, I dare you to make it one for the books. Pull out your family’s bucket list and decide you’re going to complete something on it this year, THIS spring break.

Because you never know when a letter is going to arrive in your mail notifying you that the time you thought you had left with your kids has just shrunk a little further.

Tell us in the comments, what will you do to make the most of spring break with your kid(s) this year?
CoursePromoImageIf you want to make sure you’re capturing the most interesting, motivating ideas for your family’s bucket list – the kind that bring you closer together, you need to take my online video course, Build Stronger Bonds Writing Family Bucket Lists. Now through the end of March you can get the course for 50% off, using this link. Purchase it now and watch it together over spring break. Or save it for those rainy days in April. It’s self-paced and packed with resources (many of which aren’t available anywhere else).

 

[Image via Pixabay]