The key to successful travel is, and always will be, resilience. You will contend with crowds, discomfort, and tedium at times, but if you power through with positivity it is always worth it. Consider this – our journey to Florida took us 18 hours. We were up at the crack of dawn and arrived at the Orlando International Airport after a sweeping series of taxis, bus rides, planes, and layovers, and then after all of this we couldn’t find my parents and they almost got a ticket for waiting in the wrong spot. And yet, we strolled out onto the parking lot dragging our battered suitcases to continue our wait and we were immediately overcome by not-freezing air. It was nearly 10 PM but it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and through the darkness we could see palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze.
It was already Heaven.
After a heavy night’s sleep we rose early again the next day, positively vibrating with excitement at what was to come. So soon had we arrived in Florida and yet already we were off on another trip – to London 😉
Or, if you want truly grounded reality, to Orlando’s Universal Studios for Harry Potter World. We arrived at their gates before opening, park-to-park tickets in hand, singing Hedwig’s Theme and admiring the Hogwarts robes of fellow patrons. We made a bet about how much those robes would cost inside the park. Our roommate Annika adorably wagered $30. I guessed $80. Once inside the park we found the robes on sale at Madame Malkin’s were going for $110! And here’s the raw deal – Harry Potter World is very expensive. In a brilliant capitalist maneuver, Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are split up between Universal’s two parks (connected by the majestic Hogwarts Express), forcing you to buy those premium park-to-park tickets as previously mentioned.
But to experience it once, oh baby, was it worth it for us. These books have meant so much to so many, and never had that been more tangible.
Diagon Alley was a sensuous experience – swirling colors and the sweeping film soundtrack, and, every so often, the feeling of scorching flames overhead. The dragon perched menacingly atop Gringotts Bank sometimes spits raw fire. It was astounding.
As was the interior of Gringotts itself, which has an incredible simulation ride in which Charlie Weasley, the Golden Trio, and even Voldemort himself make appearances.
In Hogsmeade we toured Hogwarts, we raced dragons, and we browsed the aisles of Honeydukes. Our wallets took a hit but we simply had to have a chocolate frog each. We lost our minds when Annika’s card was of Salazar Slytherin, Sam’s was of Rowena Ravenclaw, and mine was Godric Gryffindor. Like any good Potter fanatics we had, of course, already picked our houses. That we should each randomly select the heads of our own houses, well, it just felt like magic. On a similar note, Butterbeer is better cold than hot, and Pumpkin Juice just might be the nectar of the gods.
As I lay in bed that night, just before a deep sleep quickly overcame me, I could feel the rocking in my belly as though I were still riding through the Dark Forest on a rocketing cart.
We were just a touch slower to get going the next morning because a small disaster had struck – Sam’s computer had gone kaput. It was inexplicable, but while we had gamely woken up that morning, it had refused. It’s not like we needed her laptop for the day’s adventures, so Sam valiantly put her stress on the back burner. On we went – to Disney World.
Now, Disney World is not a competition, strictly speaking, but I think we won it. We invested in the park-hopper pass and squeezed three parks into a day that stretched from 9 AM – 10 PM. That long day began with two heart-stopping runs on the legendary Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, was sustained by a hilarious but adorable Winnie the Pooh Character Lunch at the Crystal Palace, and closed out by a run on Big Thunder Mountain as the fireworks shot through the night sky. I don’t want to completely overuse the word, but by God, did that feel like magic.
The park-hopper pass gives you access to all four parks in the off-season and it is more expensive, but if you don’t have small children (and no judging, not everyone at Disney has to have small children 😉 ) we definitely recommend it. By not being limited to one park a day, we were able to do only the things we wanted to do, rather than try to fill time on some of the lesser rides and “experiences.” We hit the Tower of Terror (twice), the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (twice), Splash Mountain, Everest (twice), the Kilimanjaro Safari, It’s Tough to be a Bug inside the Tree of Life, Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, the Haunted Mansion, and, finally, Big Thunder Mountain (twice). It was an amazing day, and by the end of it I felt I had gotten my fill of Disney World for the next 5-10 years. So really, we saved money by not having to buy a second day’s ticket.
On our third day we took a much-needed break and lounged by the pool. We sunbathed, read, swam, and indulged in some Popeyes Chicken (yes, you heard me.) What a feeling, to soak in the sun beneath swaying palm fronds, surrounded by the bright pink flowers already in bloom, with the gentle chatter of fellow happy vacationers bubbling all around. Indescribable.
That night we went to Winter Park, a surprisingly hip and art-filled town with brick-lined streets and artisanal shops. We went to Bosphorous for truly incredible Turkish food, and over our grilled lamb and vegetables discussed the odd town that Orlando truly is. Maybe it is more than swamp wasteland and Disney mania.
We ventured to the Gulf Coast the next day. Lovely Clearwater Beach was a solid two-hour drive and we arrived at high noon to stake our claim on its white sand. The seagulls had other plans for us and did their best to wrest our Popeyes leftovers from our greasy fingers. We couldn’t believe their gall. Are you not afraid of humans? Do you not see how much bigger we are?
The grand finale of our little vacation came the next day at Wakiwa Springs, which the signs leading up to claim give you a taste of “The Real Florida.”
We rented kayaks and paddled through the swamp for several intoxicating hours. The jungle was lush and brilliantly green and we had to steer through thickets of cypress knees. It was so quiet out there, save for the birds, the swaying branches, the dip and pull of our paddles. And, of course, the racket we are prone to making because getting us to stop talking for a few minutes takes a lot out of us. We took a dip in the chilly spring once we had finished and spied for fish, somewhat unsuccessfully.
I guess the true grand finale came later that night at Pig Floyd’s Urban Barbakoa, a latin-influenced barbecue joint. Sam and Annika split a full-rack of classic mouthwatering ribs, and I opted for their tacos – shrimp and sausage, chicken al pastor, and pork belly, with a side of fried plantains. I like my last bite of a meal to be the best bite (you know, like a little kid?) The end of my meal was delayed a good 20 minutes simply because I couldn’t decide between the shrimp and sausage taco, which was just an explosion of savory goodness in your mouth, or the fried plantain, which was so perfectly caramelized and chewy it was almost a dessert.
The next day we repeated the up-at-crack-of-dawn routine from earlier that week and, admittedly, the 18 hour return trip seemed much more interminable than the trip down had been, but when we finally, finally reached our own apartment I felt a small stir of gratitude.
And then I fell asleep. Immediately.