Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Best surprise vacation ever!

I've got a LOT of catching up to do. This summer has been overwhelming, to say the least. We sold/gave away/tossed a houseful of furnishings for the second time in twelve months, packed up the irreplaceable/sentimental/small-enough into a U-Haul trailer and moved across the country from Louisiana to Oregon. Wheeeeeeeeee! The Campbell family adventures continue! I've got about a billion and a half photos of the month we spent in Utah visiting family while en route to our new home in Oregon, but first I need to back up just a bit to the time shortly before we left Louisiana when we took our kids on the best surprise vacation EVER!

One of the things we knew we wanted to do before leaving the south was to drive the relatively short distance from Louisiana to the Atlantic coast in Florida so that we could officially declare "We've driven from one side of the country to the other!" We didn't do it in one continuous trip, but pieced together we've all now covered the complete distance from the Pacific coast in California to the Atlantic coast in Florida (plus now the distance from Florida to Oregon as well!) Kind of a cool feat to be able to claim, so we told the kids we were heading to Florida for the weekend to get our toes wet and watch the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean. They grumbled a little about the long drive (9+ hours) just one short week before we would be starting our cross-country trek to Oregon, but we convinced them it would be worth it. And we promised lots of portable DVD player time :)

When we realized how close Orlando was to our coastal destination we started fantasizing a bit about taking the kids to a theme park. One quick glance at the Disneyworld price lists had us considering other options immediately. Being huge aviation and space junkies, we knew the kids would love Kennedy Space Center, but even that had a hefty price tag. If we were going to spend a small fortune (not a Disney fortune, but a more "reasonable" fortune...) we figured we could do better than the Space Center. One of my personal  bucket list items was to take the kids to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but I honestly didn't think we'd be able to make that a reality for quite some time. But the time was now! The likelihood of us taking a family trip from Oregon all the way back to Florida to visit the Wizarding World  was slim to non-existent... so we gulped mightily and hit the "process order" button online and purchased two-day passes to the Orlando Universal Studios theme parks! Our plan was to spend one day in Islands of Adventure (where the Wizarding World can be found) and one day in Universal Studios - Orlando.

But we didn't tell the kids!!!

We left Friday after Willy got off work a little early, drove through the evening, and then stayed the night in Ormond Beach.

 We got up bright and early Saturday morning to go watch the sunrise over the Atlantic, with the promise to the kids that we were going to do something special that day. They figured it had to do with the ocean.

After making the kids wake up before dawn, we had to deliver on our promise of a special day. And we totally tried to enthusiastically sell the kids on the idea of how exciting it was that there is an LDS temple in Orlando that we were going to go see as a family before heading back to Louisiana. Bless their hearts, they tried to match our enthusiasm but it was lackluster. It had been a LONG day of driving on Friday and the idea of just going to see a church site and then making another long day drive wasn't nearly the kind of "special" any of them were hoping for.

Brady had gathered tourist pamphlets at a rest stop and was longingly studying them, dropping not-so-subtle hints about how cool it would be to go to Disneyworld or one of the many theme parks. We told the kids that we had actually looked into Disneyworld options but had quickly learned that it was waaaaay outside our budget, and that we would plan for Disneyland as soon as possible once we were on the west coast. Trying for something more budget friendly, Brady nonchalantly mentioned Sea World. So I played along and pulled up the pricing on my phone but dejectedly explained that it was also too expensive for us to manage.

Then in a flash of clarity and brilliance I devised a plan.

We had wanted to keep the Universal secret from the kids as long as possible but knew once we actually drove up and parked the car the secret would be blown. But as we were driving toward Orlando trying to repeatedly explain to the ever vigilant Brady and crew how all the theme parks were way too expensive for us to visit, I had the solution!

"Hey! I have an idea! Why don't we drive to all the major theme parks in Orlando and take pictures of our family in front of the park signs and then we can post the pictures to Facebook and pretend that we went to all those parks!!"

We all laughed a little maniacally and the kids enthusiastically latched onto the idea. "Coincidentally" Universal Studios was the most convenient park for us to get to and start our little photo scavenger hunt plan. We had to play off the fact that we shelled out $16 for parking by saying "There was nowhere we could even turn the car around to get out of the parking structure. Sheesh. Maybe we won't be able to go to all the parks today after all if they're going to charge us big bucks just to even park next to a sign!"

After parking we followed the crowds toward the parks, through the shopping district, in search of the best sign to take our picture with. We got one near the park entrance.

Then, since they weren't taking tickets yet, we kept wandering and managed a photo in front of Islands of Adventure as well.

About this time Ben started getting really uncomfortable with our plan to just wander around without tickets. We had recently watched the movie In Search of the Castaways where two children are told to walk up the boarding plank backwards as other passengers are debarking a ship, so they would be facing the same direction as those debarking and not draw attention to themselves as the kids were sneaking onto the ship. We joked about walking through the ticket kiosk backwards. Ben was not amused. In fact he was downright mortified and certain that we were about to be ejected from the area and escorted by security. He kept saying "Okay, this is far enough. Let's go now!" Brady was clearly still determined to get into a theme park so he was totally ready to try the back-our-way-through-the-ticket-gate plan LOL.

When we were feet away from the ticket takers I opened my bag and produced the tickets and presented them to the kids. It was a pretty magical moment. Ben thought we were still joking. Molly didn't understand what was happening but loved the excitement of it all. Toby studied his ticket like crazy. Brady admitted later that when we paid for parking he was suspicious and hopeful that we were going into the park but was still pretty shocked that we'd actually bought the tickets in advance and that it was an honest-to-goodness planned vacation destination. Here's a little bit of their reaction...

Once we were inside the park, I was a mom on a mission. I had studied all the sites I could find that gave helpful tips and tricks for making a one-day visit to Islands of Adventure a successful visit. (The most informative by far was the Orlando Informer... an absolute wealth of knowledge with tips and planning suggestions that really did help us get the most bang for our buck!) Because of my studies, I knew that the first thing we needed to do was hustle over to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and get ourselves on the Forbidden Journey ride, stat. We knew that would be an attraction that had consistently yucky lines all day long and that since it was a top priority we should go there first before the lines filled up.

We hustled through other areas of the park, oohing and ahhing at the sites and attractions. My heart was racing. I was so stinking excited I could barely contain myself.

And then we saw this:

And I reacted in a manner something like this:

Hogsmeade was amazing! But we had no time to dawdle. We had to get to the Forbidden Journey at Hogwarts!!

Thanks for flatly refusing to make any effort to get out of our photo,
Mr. Photobombing mirror-glasses dude. Grrrr.

We wasted no time going through the castle tour part of the line. We knew (based on Orlando Informer info!) that we could come back and leisurely walk through Hogwarts and do some exploring later in the day. And we weren't concerned with sitting next to each other on the rides, so we were happy to hop in the Single Rider lines which had a 5 minute wait versus about a 40 minute wait in the regular lines. Molly was too little to ride the Forbidden Journey, but we quickly learned the joy and benefit of Child Swap, allowing Willy and I to take turns while one of us rode and the other waited with Molly, but only having to wait in line once. We also quickly learned that the parent who had originally waited with Molly could drag an extra child (or two or three) along to ride again. So Ben, Brady and Toby got to ride a lot of rides multiple times in a row when we were taking advantage of Child Swap due to Molly's size. We mastered the art of Single Rider and Child Swap to minimize our wait times in line on that very first ride and we used both to our advantage on everything we possibly could!

Anyway, Forbidden Journey was definitely the highlight ride for me. I was TERRIFIED that I wouldn't be able to ride it because of my size, but the 30 pounds I had recently lost shaking my groove thing in Zumba had paid off and I got on the ride with no trouble! It's kind of hard to describe the ride. It's basically part 4-D movie and part roller coaster. It's AMAZING. Harry and Hermione cast a spell that allows you to fly along with them on a journey around Hogwarts and through the castle, dodging dragons, giant spiders and the whomping willow, enjoying the thrill of racing around the quidditch pitch, and finally into the great hall where Hagrid and the students cheer you on for your successful ride. It's absolutely thrilling and magical and I loved every second of it. It was Harry Potter brought to life for me, and it was honestly a bucket list dream come true. The kids loved it. Willy and I loved it. Enthusiastic thumbs up from the Campbells!

After riding the Forbidden Journey a few times in a row (thanks Child Swap and Single Rider lines!) we hopped in line for Flight Of the Hippogriff (a fast but smaller-kid friendly roller coaster) and got to see Hagrid's hut which made us all grin. Then Molly and I headed to Seuss Landing to enjoy the Dr. Seuss inspired kid-friendly rides like the Caro-SUESS-el, One Fish Two Fish (Molly's fav because she controlled our fish and managed to get me completely soaked) and the High in the Sky Trolley ride. While she and I were there, Willy and the boys went to the Dragon Challenge ride back in the Wizarding World.


We met back up and headed all together to Jurassic Park.

But found that one of the rides had a reeeeeeeally long line (no single rider option available) and the other that we wanted to ride was temporarily shut down (while we were waiting in line.... boooo!) so we headed back to Wizarding World for a little bit of exploring.

Hogwart's Express and its conductor!


I was in a weight loss group challenge at the time of our trip and had been given the task of
no-sugar and no-soda for a few days. I may have abandoned both goals to enjoy this amazing concoction.
No guilt though LOL. Butterbeer was worth the splurge, for sure!

Next up? The big thrill rides! We LOVED the Incredible Hulk Coaster and some of us loved Dr. Doom's Fearfall and Storm Force Acceleration. We went on some water rides and played in fountains (which we all regretted later as we walked around the park the rest of the evening with damp pants... Willy was the only wise one who stayed off the water rides.) The kids and I loved the Jurassic Park ride (Molly was afraid of the dinosaurs but loved the free fall splash at the end). The day was a bit of a blur. A blur of fun and rides and characters and happiness!!

SUCH a fun roller coaster!! 

Once they were wet from the rides there wasn't anything holding them back from
getting soaked in the water fountains and features...

By about 6:30 p.m. we noticed a pretty cool thing happening... the lines were disappearing! People were slowing down and the crowds were thinning. We were able to ride the Hulk coaster over and over again. Brady probably did Dr Doom's Freefall 10 times in a row! We enjoyed everything as much as we wanted and then made our way back to Wizarding World to see if we could hit those rides a few more times as well.

We were thrilled to find that the line to Ollivander's Wand Shop was dramatically smaller than it had been earlier and we enthusiastically got in line to enter. When it was our little group's turn to enter the shop, we were hopeful that one of our kids would be selected to "have a wand choose its owner". Sure enough, Toby was picked!!! He was soooooooooo nervous and stumbled over spells that normally roll right off his tongue ("wingardium leviosa")! It was really adorable. The shop was amazing and magical and as Toby attempted to work magic with various wands it was hilarious to witness the havoc the "wrong" wands wreaked. And then, with the correct wand in his hands, an amazing glow of light and swell of music surrounded Toby and it was just an incredible moment. A lady leaned over to Willy and whispered "I know someone who's not leaving without buying a wand tonight..." and she was right. We HAD to get Toby "his" wand. And Ben and Brady each selected a wand as their own souvenirs as well. The Ollivander's experience was magnificent and a highlight experience for all of us (except Brady who was sorely disappointed to have not been chosen...)

It's dark, but represents such a lovely experience! One of our fav - Toby waiting
for a wand to choose him!!
 Here's a little video that's too dark to actually see anything, but gives you a taste of the experience we had...

Boxes and boxes and boxes of wands!

The shopkeeper in the wand shop

The monster book of monsters :)

After the wand shop, we ran over to Forbidden Journey and rode it as many times as we quickly could before the park closed. Such a fun way to end a magical day!!

Hogwarts at night...

The Three Broomsticks

Hogwarts Express

Okay I've taken 8 days trying to wrap up this blog entry. It's never going to happen if I tell the whole vacation story. And the reality is we took far less pics on day 2 which was inside Universal Studios Orlando. Here's a quick bullet point recap of the second of two amazing days and a few pics to finish off our trip.

  • Slept in because we were E-X-H-A-U-S-T-E-D from day one. And we were hopeful that lines would open up and be fast moving in the evening the way they'd been at Islands of Adventure, so we were less concerned with being there right when the park opened for the day.
  • Actually went to the Orlando temple before heading to the park.
  • Got to the park and started getting ourselves familiar with the lay of the land when the heavens opened and completely and utterly drenched us in rain. What a start to the day! Soaking wet. Blah.
  • We were there two days after the brand new Transformers ride opened. It was AWESOME.
  • We took advantage of single rider lines again as often as possible. My fav thrill ride was Revenge of the Mummy. Brady and Willy loved Rip Ride Rockit. Ben was still talking about The Incredible Hulk ride :) Toby and Molly HATED Twister. Molly HATED ET. We all LOOOOOOVED Minion Mayhem. It was a riot!! We also all loved Men In Black. 
  • Our feet were so sore at the end of two days of standing in lines! Universal does a good job of keeping you moderately entertained in line. But the lines do take f-o-r-e-v-e-r.
  • Knowing we were going to drive through the night to get Willy home in time for work on Monday morning, he headed to the car to power nap while the kids and I closed out the park.
We didn't take nearly as many pics the second day. Here are a few highlight shots though.

Beautiful Orlando Florida Temple

Back to the Future!!


Newest attraction at Universal Orlando - Transformers The Ride

We LOVED the Minion Mayhem ride!! It was so well done and an absolutely hilarious blast!

At the end of the ride we exited the attraction and found it was time for a Minion dance party!! Molly was the first to join
the minion and get her groove on! Toby joined with a little bit of prodding and had a blast, too!

As planned, we drove through the night and arrived in Louisiana early Monday morning after a whirlwind of surprises, excitement, fulfilled dreams and SO MUCH FAMILY FUN! I hope the memories we created that weekend stay with my kids forever. I know they'll always be some of my fondest memories, for sure!

Surprise vacation? Smashing success!!


  1. Such a fun thing to do. Glad you are settled in the NW so we can meet up some time.

  2. Just wanted to say thanks for mentioning our site in your post ( - so glad we could help you have a successful trip to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure!

    1. Are you kidding? THANK YOU!!!! The information your site provided gave us everything we needed to make the most of our very quick weekend trip to Universal and helped us have an amazing experience in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Thanks again!!

  3. hahaha I love this! I've heard some of the stories before but it was SO much better with pictures! I would love to take my kids there some day. I'm a huge Harry Potter fan lol. I'm so glad you guys had such a great time. You definitely deserved it!

  4. Hi Angie & Willy, watching you and your kids is what reading Angie's writing was like. We had such a fun time! Thanks for sharing your summer vacation surprise trip with us. You made us wish our kids were younger and we still energetic enough to survive it. You guys definitely deserved this! Blessings, Russ & Deb