Wednesday, February 22, 2023

8 Must-Do Rides at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (and 3 You Can Skip)

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are two of the most popular theme parks in the world and for good reason. They’re packed with thrilling rides, immersive experiences, and all sorts of attractions that will appeal to kids and adults alike. If you’re planning a trip to these parks, you’ll want to make sure you hit all the highlights – and avoid the time-wasters. 

Here are our family’s top picks for the rides you can and cannot miss at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Read on after the jump. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

How do I plan the best trip ever to Universal Florida?

Attention all thrill-seekers, Harry Potter fans, and amusement park enthusiasts! If you're planning a trip to Universal Studios in Florida, you're in luck because we've got the inside scoop on how to make the most of your adventure. After a recent visit, we've compiled a list of tips and tricks to ensure your trip is as magical and efficient as possible. So buckle up and let's dive in.

First things first, use a travel agent. Many people assume that planning a trip to Universal is easy enough to do on their own, but we can't stress this enough - having a travel agent can make all the difference. They know the ins and outs of the park, can help you get the best deals, and ensure you don't miss out on any opportunities to save money. Our travel agent, Lindsey Markwood, was able to get us extra days of park tickets and a discount on our hotel stay at Loews Portofino Bay.

Two little girls on a vespa at Portofino Bay Resort
The kids "ride" a vespa at the Portofino Bay Resort

Now, on to the park itself. If you're a die-hard Harry Potter fan, you'll want to make sure to visit Ollivander's during the early park admission hours. This will increase your chances of being "picked" for the wand ceremony. Our own daughter was lucky enough to be chosen after another child had their turn. Just be prepared to shell out some serious cash ($65) for the interactive wand.

Hogwarts Express train at the station at Universal Florida
The Hogwarts Express takes you between the parks

Speaking of cash, let's talk about the food. We won't sugarcoat it - the food in the park is overpriced and mediocre at best. However, if you're a Potterhead, you'll want to check out the Leaky Cauldron and the Three Broomsticks for the ambiance alone. And don't forget to try the butter beer! It's sweet, but delicious, and comes in both frozen and regular varieties. We enjoyed the pumpkin juice as well, but as for the rest of the Potter-themed drinks, they're forgettable at best.

If you're looking for a break from the typical park food, make a reservation at Mythos. It's a bit pricier, but worth the hype. The food is great, and the setting is stunning. Try the hummus and tomato soup - you won't be disappointed. You can also leave the park to eat at the slightly better selection of restaurants at Universal City Walk. My kid loved the burgerushi at Cowfish. It's an abomination, but a tasty one at least!

Mother and daughter in front of Hogwarts at Universal Florida
Hogwarts is ever-present at Islands of Adventure

The big draw of Universal Studios, of course, is the rides. And let us tell you, the lines can be brutal. We highly recommend staying in one of their top-tier hotel properties to take advantage of the express pass (Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock, Loews Portofino Bay). We went during a relatively quiet February week, and even then, wait times were over an hour on some rides. With the express pass, we were able to ride some of the most popular rides multiple times throughout our stay.

Two little girls banter with the Knight Bus at Universal Studios Florida
Bantering with the Knight Bus at Universal Studios

When it comes to early park entry, I thought I had it all figured out. But as it turns out, showing up at 8 am doesn't guarantee you a spot on the biggest no-express pass rides, like Hagrid's Motor Bike Adventure. Nope, the true early birds are there at 7-something, eagerly waiting in line for that sweet, sweet ride. By the time I strolled in at 8 am, the wait was already an hour long, and it only got worse from there. Let's just say, I have better things to do with my time than wait 90 minutes for a ride. However, fear not my fellow thrill-seekers! The single-rider line for the Velocicoaster was a godsend, and we made it onto the ride in just 15 minutes. So, if you're looking to skip the wait and ride something without an express pass, I highly recommend giving the single-rider line a shot.

Performers in Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida
Beetle and the Bard at Diagon Alley

Finally, when it comes to planning the length of your stay, keep in mind that two to three days at Universal's parks is enough. We were able to cover everything multiple times except for Hagrid's in that time, and even had a half day to enjoy the pool at our hotel. Trust us, by day three, you'll be ready to move on. 

So there you have it - our top tips for planning the perfect trip to Universal Studios in Florida. With a little bit of planning and some insider knowledge, you're sure to have a truly magical experience. 

Curious about what rides to prioritize? Check out 8 can't miss rides and 3 you can skip.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Want to Experience the Magic of Austria's Christmas Markets with Your Kids?

Thanksgiving is a time for family, feasting, and, in our case, a trip to the beautiful cities of Vienna and Salzburg in Austria. With my husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 9, in tow, we set out to explore the Christmas markets and enjoy all that these two cities have to offer. This was our second visit to European Christmas markets, and we were so happy to be back in action after they were closed for the last few years. 

Woman and man drinking at Vienna Christmas market
Gluhwein at Am Hof market

Vienna, the city of art and music, is also home to some of the best Christmas markets in the world. We started at the Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz, one of the largest markets in the city. In addition to the usual stalls selling crafts and food, there was also an ice-skating rink to enjoy. This was where I first tasted some of the classic Austrian Christmas treats, like kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes) and kaiserschmarrn (torn pancakes) with plum compote. Sweet treats abound in these markets, and my kids were in heaven sampling the wide variety available.

Pretzels at Austrian Christmas Market

While Rathausplatz was a popular market, it wasn't my favorite. I preferred the smaller markets, such as Freyung and Am Hof, where I found some truly unique crafts and ornaments. Another highlight in Vienna was the Stephansplatz market, located in the shadow of the Gothic Stephansdom church. It was lively and energetic, and we also enjoyed the younger, hipper vibe at the Spittelberg market, where we grabbed a drink at one of the many stalls. 

Purple lit gothic church at Vienna Christmas Market
Stephansplatz market in Vienna

One thing we loved about all of the markets was the option to enjoy holiday boozy treats like gluhwein (hot mulled wine) or flavored punsch, and the ability to add to our festive mug collection by buying the market-specific mugs for a small fee. We now have quite a collection of mugs from our travels!

Woman and child drinking gluhwein in Vienna
Gluhwein at Schonbrunn Palace's Christmas Market

One market that we couldn't miss was the one at Schonbrunn Palace. Located in the courtyard outside the palace, this market had perhaps the most elegant crafts of any in Vienna including several pig-themed ones for my porcine-obsessed 9-year-old. Don't miss the booth with activities for kids. My daughters loved the scavenger hunt, and I loved having a moment to sip my punsch in peace.

We also combined our visit with a tour of both the kids' museum and the main palace, which was a hit with my daughters. They loved dressing up in costumes at the kids' museum, while I enjoyed learning more about Austria's most famous emperor, Franz Ferdinand, and his fascinating wife, Sisi. We even watched Netflix's The Empress before the trip to get a better sense of their lives. 

Girl dressed up at Schonbrunn's Children's Museum
Dress up at Schonbrunn Palace Christmas Market

In addition to these cultural stops, we also made sure to indulge in some of Vienna's famous coffee salons. We had breakfast at Cafe Central and enjoyed the famous sacchertorte at Cafe Demel. Dinner was a highlight, with exceptional meals at Glacis Beisl (where we feasted on wiener schnitzel and grammel dumplings) and Lugeck, where we enjoyed rye sourdough bread with caramelized creamy butter and delicious Viennese fried chicken. Vienna is a city of immigrants, so we also had a hearty Israeli lunch at Neni am Wasser (cash only).

Christmas market crafts in Vienna
Christmas market crafts at Schonbrunn

After a few days in Vienna, we took a train to Salzburg, the city of Mozart and The Sound of Music. Naturally, we had to take the Sound of Music bus tour, a must-do for fans of the movie. We saw places like Mirabelle Palace Gardens, where the Von Trapp kids sang Do Re Mi, and Leopoldskron Palace, which served as the lakeside view of the Von Trapp home. 

Two girls standing in front of gazebo from Sound of Music
I am 16 going on 17

Despite the dreary weather, the Salzburger Christkindlmarkt was perhaps even more atmospheric than anything we saw in Vienna. Located next to the city's main cathedral, the market was filled with twinkling lights and carolers, making it the perfect setting for some holiday cheer. I also had the chance to enjoy one of my favorite holiday drinks, a lumumba (basically a boozy hot chocolate). Salzburg was a delight, but 1 night/2 days was plenty for my family. 

Salzburg Christmas market at night
Salzburg Christmas Market - so pretty, right?

My only misstep was paying to go up to Fortress Hohensalzburg after hours on a rainy day. The funicular was enjoyable and the view was pretty but not enough to justify the cost.

View of Salzburg from Hohensalzburg fortress on a rainy day
View from Hohensalzburg - nice but not worth beaucoup bucks!

Overall, our trip to Vienna and Salzburg over Thanksgiving was a memorable one, and was a perfect add-on to several days in Paris. We combined cultural experiences with indulging in the local cuisine and enjoying the festive atmosphere of the Christmas markets. 

3 nights Vienna
1 night in Salzburg

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Adventurous Tastes' Guide to Christmas in Austria with Kids

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