The last time I visited a Universal Studios I was 10 and on a family holiday to California and I can’t believe it’s taken this long for me to make it to the Florida parks – especially since the addition of the Wizarding World I love so much.
The Florida site seems bigger for sure, and there are some new additions worth a mention (like the 4D King Kong ride) as well as some nostalgic favourites (e.g. the Jurassic Park log flume) which are starting to show their age against newer areas:
Universal Studios is actually comprised of two parks and the Wizarding World is split across both – with Hogsmeade and Hogwarts in the main park, while Diagon Alley and Gringotts are in the Islands of Adventure Park. It’s an entirely profit-driven move by Universal as you have to purchase tickets which get you into both parks to get the full experience.
Apparently there was a bidding war with Disney for the Wizarding World and Universal won. I can only assume they are still trying to recoup their expenditure because our visit was not cheap. But was it worth it…?
There are two Owl Posts – one in each park and while this one is purely decorative, you can actually use the one in Diagon Alley to send mail (including Wizarding World purchases).
For a small fortune you can also buy a wand which will make certain objects in the village windows move when you wave it at them.
There is something very unsettling about experiencing a supposedly snow-capped village in warm sunshine, while wearing tropical print shorts (ASOS Tall – Old).
But it’s even more unsettling when you’re making your way from the village to Hogwarts and you bump into a T-Rex. Don’t worry though, he calmed down after a Butterbeer (or several).
Hagrids Hut marks the entrance to the “Flight of the Hippogriff Ride” which is a smaller ride in the shadow of Hogwarts. Worth a go but by no means the main attraction in this part of the park.
The Hogwarts ride itself is like the majority of the rides in Universal Studios – a simulation coaster. You join Harry flying on a broomstick through the castle and grounds and while it’s not a patch on the Avatar Ride at Disney, it’s certainly good fun.
What Universal have done exceptionally well here and on other newer rides is to enhance the experience of queueing for the ride. Here, you wind your way through the Hogwarts grounds, via the herbology greenhouses, through corridors lined with talking portraits, passed Dumbledores office (above) and eventually into a classroom where you meet the famous 3 (Harry, Ron & Hermione) and get to experience a little magic with some more special effects.
When night falls Hogwarts is put under a new spell and it’s fabulous to watch it light up.
I had to get a picture of it in my house colours…
Part two and our second day: We entered via Universal Studios but boarded a train at Hogsmeade Station to make our way over to Diagon Alley in the Islands of Adventure park.
For me this was where the park could use some improvement as the story starts to vere away from the books and even the films. The story that plays out on the train ride throws together characters who had little to no interaction in the stories and I found it frustrating that the park and ride developers hadn’t done as much research as they maybe should have given the scale the story plays out on. And don’t even get me started on what passed for “Toad in the Hole” at the Leaky Cauldron…
Diagon Alley itself is true to fiction. It’s dominated by Gringotts (the main attraction in this part of the wizarding world) and the dragon from the seventh book spews out flames over the street sporadically.
Much like the Hogwarts ride, they’ve tried to make the queue an equal part of the attraction and it’s certainly a visual feast – but only once you get indoors.
The ride itself is thrilling – you take a runaway cart on a ride through Gringotts which will leave your stomach lurching. But again, it fell down on story for me and I found the inaccuracies too distracting from the overall experience.
Back on the Alley, you can visit Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, Florean Fortescue’s or, if you’re feeling brave, Knockturn Alley.
There’s no show in this part of the park after dark (instead a light show plays out on the lagoon) but it’s worth taking a quick detour back to Diagon Alley before closing to see it lit up at night.
There’s a wide variety of restaurants outside the theme park and we rounded off our magical excursion with a trip to the Hard Rock Cafe.
After I had lived out my childhood dream at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, it was time to let my Dad live out his.
[Bit of background if you are new around here… I work for my Dad and unbelievably, this was a work trip!]
My Dad was 9 when his family gathered around a black and white television set to watch man land on the moon. I don’t think he’s ever dreamed of travelling to space, but he loves all forms of transport – be it cars, boats or planes. And yes, rockets too.
I had imagined this was going to be a day of smiling politely and feigning interest while he ran around like a kid in a sweetshop, but after an hour, I was finding it all quite exciting as well.
Space travel doesn’t need any glamourisation, but NASA certainly know how to put on a show. If I had children, and I wanted to spark an interest in science or STEM fields – this is where I would take them.
I don’t think anyone could ever convince me to board a rocket, but I have a new found respect for those who do.
There are many educational resources at the Kennedy Space Centre but I found the film on their planned mission to Mars especially interesting. I’m not sure I see a need to push the boundaries of what the human body can endure, but for those who do want to venture further from earth, the work they are doing to support life in space is fascinating.
And if you aren’t able to venture to Florida yet, I would definitely recommend the film ‘Hidden Figures‘ in the meantime.
A couple of days after our trip to the Kennedy Space Centre, we headed south for our conference. It seemed wrong to bypass Cocoa Beach on the way so we made a slight detour for lunch.
This area is where the families of the astronauts lived in the 1960s, and the beach is where they gathered to watch their loved ones take off for the moon.
It’s relatively quiet compared to other tourist spots in Florida and we had a lovely peaceful lunch at the end of the pier, overlooking the ocean.
When I was 10, my Aunt won a Safari Trip in a photography competition. When she and my uncle arrived home they brought us souvenirs. I was given a necklace featuring “The Big 5” (Lion, Leopard, Rhinoceros, Elephant and Buffalo). I’ve never worn it but the symbolism is something that has always stayed with me: You are an exceptionally lucky person if you get to view The Big Five (or any endangered creature) in the wild.
Not long after I got my necklace, Walt Disney World announced it was opening Animal Kingdom. I knew I might not ever get the chance to experience the real thing, but a Disney safari seemed like the next best thing to 10-year-old me.
Fast forward a couple of decades and (through hard work and some very good fortune) I found myself in Florida on a work trip. So as you can imagine, Animal Kingdom was the first park I wanted to visit.
I made a beeline for “Kilimanjaro Safaris” as soon as we were through the park gates.
I have to be honest, visiting as a 30-something, the safari area was a little smaller than my childhood memory had led me to believe, but of course I was much smaller back then…
Some animal rights campaigners don’t support zoos, for obvious reasons (lack of space, enrichment, animal welfare, etc) but most reputable keepers of big game will off-set that by directing some of their profits toward conservation. I also think parks such as this have a vital role to play in educating children and adults alike about the magic of the natural world and the need to protect and conserve it.
Looking at the wildlife documentaries and films available on Disney+ it certainly feels like this attraction is more than just an amusement park to the corporation. For honesty’s sake though I will say it would have been nice to see some more mental enrichment in this area of the park (which wasn’t overly large).
These guys in particular seemed a bit bored of their enclosure…
The safari itself is certainly educational and there are other resources dotted around for visitors too.
I had to share this as (being tall) I have a certain affinity with the Giraffe.
Back out in the main park there’s colour and life, everywhere you look. It’s classic Disneyland and makes you feel like you are wandering through one of their live-action remakes.
The street acts were just as impressive as the rides and attractions too.
Everest is a ride with a twist. I loved every second on that runaway cart.
We saved the best for last though. The Avatar Flight of Passage is billed as an immersive 3D ride through the world of Pandora (from James Cameron’s Avatar). Personally, I would have described it as 4D. It’s the best theme park ride I have been on to date. It’s that good. Get there early because naturally, everyone wants to ride the Banshee!
Visiting in February (2019) meant that nightfall came early so we finished our day with the Rivers of Light show on the lagoon.
Maybe it was the magic of Disney, or maybe it was the jet lag, but I found this show and it’s message very moving. Visually, it was stunning, and a real feat of aquatic engineering.
First things first – this is a post about a trip I took in 2018 (pre-Covid) and the pictures reflect that. It’s also worth pointing out that some of the info below may not be current and/or the attractions mentioned may be closed or operating under restrictions.Please visit their websites for the latest info.
In 2018 I chose to spend my birthday weekend in Stockholm.
We landed mid morning and headed straight for the Gamla Stan district where we checked into the Scandic Gamla Stan Hotel. I chose it mainly for the blue gingham armchairs. (Anyone know where I can get one of those?!)
The first stop on our minibreak was the Fotografiska gallery. I’m not much of a photographer, but I’ve always loved the art form. In this gallery I found myself immersed in a feminist body of work by Ellen von Unwerth whose work presented “a compelling journey through a world of emotions, from a feeling of strength and power to high-spirited games and play, then from the great moment of drama to profound passion, leading us into the sugar-sweet valley of love, taking a detour via the question of gender roles and concluding in the intimate space of desire and lust.”
After a wonderful afternoon spent admiring her work, we took a stroll through the Gamla Stan neighbourhood. I was craving Swedish meatballs for dinner yet somehow, we ended up in the Ardbeg pub & bar (and if you know anything about Whiskey, you’ll know that Ardbeg is Scottish). I will say this though – the meatballs were as good as any others I had on the trip.
Slightly tired from our flight and afternoon excursion, we opted for an early night, determined to pack as much in as possible the next day.
I was travelling with a scientist in tow (with her very own PhD) so our first stop of the day was the Nobel Prize Museum.
This plaque detailed the discovery of plastic in 1963 – how strange to think that something society is now working to eradicate was once considered such a wonderous discovery.
Nobel Prizes are awarded every year on the date of Alfred Nobel’s death (10th December). While the peace prize is presented at a ceremony in Oslo, the other prizes are presented in Stockholm. There are 5 prizes in total (including the peace prize) and a 6th prize sponsored in memory of Alfred Nobel. The 6 prizes are for Peace, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Economic Sciences.
During our visit, the museum was holding an exhibition titled “Literary Rebellion” which profiled 12 Literary Laureates who had used their writing to “question, create change and offer resistance.” The exhibition profiled writers of both prose and poetry and opened my eyes to a host of new writers.
The museum also profiled the life and discoveries of Alfred Nobel himself – as well as the recipients of his prizes. These days knowledge of Alfred Nobel’s legacy revolves around the Nobel prizes themselves, but I made some discoveries of my own during my visit (did you know he is also the chemist who invented Dynamite?)
While my sister might have a PhD, I can’t claim to be much of a scientist. I enjoyed learning about Alfred Nobel and the literary laureates though and came away with many new books added to my Amazon wishlist. (Incidentally, if you ever want to feel inspired by humanity or have your faith in it restored, I would also highly recommend a visit to the Nobel Peace Prize museum in Oslo.)
Before lunch I found an hour to explore the Royal Palace – which could rival the Louvre for opulence.
And to watch the changing of the guard.
After a lunch which mainly consisted of Gelato, we hopped on a boat…
Taking in the sights from the water, we travelled to an unusual museum away from the hustle and bustle of the central districts of Stockholm.
The Vasa Museum is home to just one exhibit – a 17th Century war ship. This spectacular vessel (which has got to be the largest and most ornate ship I’ve ever seen up close) sailed just 1300 metres on its maiden voyage before sinking. It never even left Sweden. Several hundred years later, and miraculously preserved by the sea bed, it was recovered, restored and moved to the museum where it has been on display ever since. In order to preserve it, the cavernous room which now holds the Vasa is kept cold all year round – be warned, you’ll need an extra layer to visit it.
After our excursion to the Vasa Museum we were in need of something to warm us up again. I was determined to find a more Swedish dining experience, which led us to a Viking restaurant back in the Gamla Stan neighbourhood. While obviously more touristy and less authentic than other restaurants we could have chosen, what this place lacked in sophistication it made up for in interesting conversation. Dining here is done communally at long wooden benches. We could have met a whole variety of travellers – but instead we got seated next to some fellow Mancunians. At least we had something in common!
Our last day was just like the others before it – gloriously sunny. So after leaving our bags with the concierge, we headed out on foot to soak in the sights before our flight home.
Having now ticked all of the main tourist attractions off my list, I’d love to go back to Stockholm one day and take it in at a slightly slower pace. The Swedes have a word for this: Fika. It means to make time for the important things in life – good friends and good food. A concept I could totally get on board with.
By the time I’d been dragged out of Christmas-land, time was ticking on a bit… The very kind attendants at the museum reassured us that we would have time to do one wing and helpfully, gave us a pass so that we could return the next day for the other half of the museum.
The museum was formerly a Prison and we spent our first day in the Women’s Wing – which housed a number of historical exhibits and (most impressively) a full scale replica of a Victorian Street, complete with back alleys and stores for you to wander in and out of.
After all that time-travel we were feeling a bit peckish so headed to Betty’s (a Yorkshire institution!)
Dinner was a little disappointing so I’ll skip over that and move on to Day 2…
We returned to the Museum bright and early, ready to tackle the next wing. This holds an eclectic mix of modern day history (1960s – Present Day) and a centuries-old history of the prison.
Once back outside we headed for the Shambles. (Perhaps the most instagrammed street in York.)
A few people have assumed it influenced the Harry Potter stories or was used in the film (there’s actually very little to link the two) and as a consequence Potter-mania has invaded the street.
By far the best of these shops is The Shop That Must Not Be Named. People quite literally queue up to shop here…
After all that horcrux-hunting I was hungry again.
York is famous for it’s history with Chocolate (and with fruit pastilles – but as I’m a chocaholic that’s of little interest to me.)
Monk Bar is just the sort of shop to fulfil any craving you might have. But I can particularly recommend the liquid chocolate shot in a chocolate cup!
Our visit to York was choc-a-block and I will be back again soon!
I look forward to going to Scotland every winter. Sadly this year I spent the entire holiday feeling very poorly indeed. Back home, whenever someone asked me how the holiday was I replied with “Well the medical centre was excellent, and the three pharmacies I visited were lovely.”
That being said, staying indoors wasn’t too bad, with these views to admire…
We rented the most charming and secluded cottage. If I won the lottery I would buy it (I liked it that much!)
When I was feeling up to it, I didn’t have to venture too far to see more of the scenery. The cottage is surrounded on all sides by secret pathways and spectacular views.
The most spectacular part was perhaps the three waterfalls, which you surrounded the house and could be heard everywhere you went.
The village of Lochgoilhead doesn’t offer much more than a medical centre and a post office, but the one benefit of having to make multiple trips to the pharmacy, is that you get to see more of surrounding areas.
Fortunately all of the pharmacies I needed could be found in one place: the charming town of Dunoon. My grandad came from Dunoon (which perhaps explains why I’ve always prefer the west coast of Scotland) but this was my first visit to his hometown.
Sadly I couldn’t linger for as long as I’d have liked, but I’ll be sure to return. When everywhere looks as pretty as this, how can you stay away?
This is the last of the posts from my American Road Trip. I’m sad not to have an excuse to relive the memories but I’m excited to plan some fresh content!
For the final day of our trip we decided to unwind on Sullivan’s Island, and do one of my favourite activities: Brunch! (A much bigger deal in America – but thankfully it’s catching on over here.)
Charleston is a cyclists city and thankfully our hotel included bicycle hire in our resort fee (most places do this but it’s still a good idea to check). So we borrowed a couple and headed out to the coast. We passed by the picturesque Shem Creek en the way and were drawn back here for a last meal before heading for the airport.
I am just going to say it… I think Charleston is possibly the prettiest city I have ever visited. Not to mention the most warm and welcoming. It really showed us some amazing southern hospitality.
We only stayed a couple of nights, but I could easily live here.
On our first evening we arrived starving after a long, long drive. I had heard wonderful things about Magnolias but sadly they couldn’t squeeze us in. So here is my hot tip: head next door to it’s sister restaurant Blossom. Which is every bit as good and much less crowded.
For shopping; you can’t beat King Street, but the market hall was fun to wander through and we also found a fun farmers market on the square (held once a month).
Mostly though, I spent my time in Charleston drooling over dream houses and other pretty places.
Oh, and if you want to splash out on a fancy dinner – try this place. I celebrated my birthday with a Bison steak which I am still talking about now.
We hadn’t made any firm plans (except for horse riding) for our time in the Smokies so on the second day we headed out to explore with no real destination in mind.
Taking the scenic (and somewhat slippy) route down the mountain. I’d have been a bit less nervous on this road with a driver who spent a bit less time admiring the view…
…but then again it was pretty spectacular so who can blame him?
When we reached the valley floor we were greeted by this handsome chap.
Elk don’t usually appear during the daytime (we were very lucky!) but they can sometimes be seen on the meadows at sunset/sunrise.
After bidding adieu to the Elk we made our way to the Boogerman trail (thanks to the advice of a friendly mountain ranger we met en route).
Walking the Boogerman trail is a pretty magical experience – with all the different coloured butterflies dancing on the breeze you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a Disney movie.
Our walk was cut short a few miles in (one of the log bridges was out due to recent flooding) but as we turned to head back we came across this little gang. I’ve never seen butterflies flocking together like this and would love to know what caused it!
We returned to the car just as the rain started to pour. So the afternoon was spent in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian (very interesting if you like learning about Native American history).
Luckily, the sun came out again just in time for our last evening on the Ranch…