Spring Break -- April 2011

It just so happened that Spring Break coincided with my birthday this year. So we decided to head to Florida for a 5 day cruise out of Tampa followed by a day at Universal's Islands of Adventure (with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!!!).

The first day down there we visited Tampa's aquarium, which is right across from the ship terminal actually. Our hotel was only a mile away and it was still cool enough to walk without sweating bullets.

We stopped for lunch in a little outdoor mall where we snapped this picture of Catey standing in front of the worlds largest bowling ball along with a few other photos.

The aquarium was pretty cool with many open air exhibits. Here's a smattering of photos:

Alligators getting frisky with the kiddies:

Spoon billed bird walking freely amongst us:

Catfish gulping air:

The family getting frisky with the mermaid:

Catey and Chase getting frisky with a starfish (so much friskiness!)

Huge tank filled with fish and sharks. While we were there some divers came through also!

Some cool pics of Catey in the science area.

It also had an outdoor water playground:

The next day Chrissie and I went running along Bayshore Blvd which is the longest continuous sidewalk in the world apparently. After a quick shower we headed to the port to board our ship, the Radiance of the Seas.

Our first evening there, we headed to the formal dining room where Chase ordered a special drink from the bar, some sort of chocolate oreo concoction.

The first full day was totally at sea, and I didn't take any pictures, but our second day was in beautiful Cozumel. We went to one of the beaches north of town. We chose not to do a pre-arranged excursion, as you really don't need to if you're just going to the beach. There's plenty of less expensive options once you are on the ground. Here's us getting off the ship.

And, of course, you have to walk through the touristy shops at look at the overpriced merchandise and buy at least one thing. We did find Dos Equis bottles for $2 each, and you can walk around freely with them.

At our beach we had a photo op (for $10) with some neat birds.

We really enjoyed Cozumel. Next vacation I could probably spend 5 days just at Cozumel! Here's us leaving Cozumel to get back on the ship.

Back on board we headed to the "My Time" dining. If you've ever cruised before, you know that you typically pick a seating time. Usually there is an early seating (6pm) and a later seating (8pm). But, this ship offered a third alternative called "My Time" dining. We could just go whenever we wanted, like at a normal restaurant. I don't know if it was the My Time style or what, but it was not as nice as the last two cruises we went on. The dining room was very loud and we were very crammed in. Dinner was actually stressful. This was the last night we did the "My Time" dining, and after this we just opted for the glorious buffer by the pool every evening instead!

The next day was at Costa Maya. Costa Maya is actually just a little fishing town that the cruise lines invested in to build a port. The fishing village has been only slightly built up with the addition of a concrete boardwalk along the beach, but there are no big hotels there. I thought it would be better than the typical pre-packaged tourist beach trip, but it was actually worse. Every 5 minutes a local would come up to try to sell you some trinket while you were hanging out, and I had positively the worst Margarita I've ever had there. And the beaches and snorkeling off the beaches were nothing to write home about. It just doesn't compare to Cozumel. The only good thing is that it is very cheap. $20 one hour massages... beers are a dollar... $3 taxi to get to the beach from the ship. Here's us getting off the boat (a bit windy that day, as Chrissie holds onto her hat).

Back on board, here's a picture of the coastline from the top deck.

Chase also did the rock climbing wall that afternoon when we got onboard. Unfortunately, the wall had been baking all day in the sun. Chase gets 3/4 of the way up before he can't take the heat.

The kids always love the cool things the stateroom attendants make out of the towels. Look, a towel monkey!

No pictures of the next day at sea. But, when we got back to Tampa at 7:30am Thursday morning, we headed straight to Orlando. The plan was to get to Orlando by noon and check out GatorLand. But, it took us so long to get off the ship, we didn't get to Orlando until 2:30pm. I wanted at least 2 hours at GatorLand (you can spend 3 hours there, but 2 is enough). It's a nice place to visit if you only have a partial day. But, I had already prebooked tickets to the BlueMan group for 6pm, so we didn't have time and had to skip GatorLand.

BlueMan group was cool. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend. However, it felt like the show hadn't changed since we saw it in Vegas 7 years ago. Here's a picture of the kids with the guys in the band (not the Blue men themselves... these guys play backup instruments to the Blue men).

Rachel, Chrissie's friend from high school, and her family, joined us at BlueMan. We had dinner at Margaritaville after the show.

The next morning we all met up at Universal's Islands of Adventure! Quick photo op on the main boulevard/

We headed straight to the Harry Potter section. We had planned to get an early start to beat the crowds. Bad idea. Everybody plans to get an early start to beat the crowds!!!!

Here's some advice. The lines in the morning were almost all over an hour. So, you have two options. Pay an extra $90 a person and get the Express pass, or wait til after lunch to visit the park. We actually had four express passes, and we easily saved an hour or longer on the lines. If you insist on going in the morning, figure out how much you've already spent on your vacation, and then figure out how big that incremental cost is when compared to the total cost of going on vacation. You'll be able to hit a roller coaster like the Dragon Challenge 4 times in the time it takes others to ride it once. Not joking. When we got to the point where our line intersected the regular line (we had zero wait up to that point), the folks in the regular line told us they'd been in line for an hour already. We just cut off 60 minutes of the ride line. The express passes value is directly proportional to how crowded it is. When we went (Good Friday), it was totally packed: some line times were estimated at 120 minutes. The only thing that I didn't like was that the express pass doesn't work at the Forbidden Journey ride (90 minute wait), or Olivanders Wand shop (it's not a ride... it's a store, but the wait was 45 minutes to get in).

Having said all that, the other alternative is to wait to the afternoon to even bother showing up. By 3pm, ride lines had dropped to a third of the morning times. The park is open to 11pm, so if you're okay with a late night, this might be a good options. We did actually stay in the park until past 9pm. Over 12 hours in the park!

I suppose the third alternative would be to go in lateAugust or September (horrible heat) on a Tuesday. I found this list on the web of most crowded and least crowded days at the theme parks:

Jan 15 - 17  Martin Luther King Jr. weekend
Feb 19 - 21  President's Day weekend
Feb 6  Super Bowl
Mar 12 - Apr 3 Florida Spring Break
Apr 23 - 24 Easter weekend (this is when we were here... the 22nd... also Northern Virginia's Spring Break week)
May 28 - 30  Memorial Day weekend
July  Summer Holidays
Jul 2 - 4  4th of July weekend
Sep 3 - 5  Labor Day weekend
Oct 8 - 10  Columbus Day weekend
Nov 11 - 13  Veteran's Day weekend
Nov 24 - 27  Thanksgiving break for schools 

Dec 24 - Jan 2  Holiday break for schools
Dec 20 - Dec 31 Holiday break for schools 

T/W/Th are the least crowded. Weekends are twice as crowded as weekdays, and Saturdays are more crowded than Sundays. Shockingly, according the chart I found below, the least crowded time to go is between the Thanksgiving and Winter breaks. I guess that makes sense since most families have already taken time off and planned a vacation during the breaks. I guess it's time to plan that October vacation to Orlando!!!

Okay, back to the pictures. Here's Chase and Catey next to the Hogwarts Express, steam and all.

Enjoying some butterbeer (tastes like butterscotch with some whip cream on top).

Chase hanging with his new found friends Toby and Katie (not to be confused with Catey).

The ride line at Harry's Forbidden Journey. No express pass here, but they didn't sell beer while we were in line! You can see our friend Rachel behind us in the same line. She had to check her bag, which cost her 10 minutes in the line.

Here's a picture of Catey inside the Castle. Still in line though. :)

Once we'd had our fill of Harry Potter, we explored the rest of the park. We skipped Olivander's wand shop for now, vowing to come back later in the evening to see if it was less crowded. Here's the Catey and Katie checking out the Onceler's house they'd read about from Dr. Seuss. There's no such thing as a Thneed you silly people!

And the two of them had a great time exploring some of the things meant for the smaller kids. The three of us found a fun little water park that everybody else missed while they went on the Hulk, and then got to participate in a group jam session:

And on our way to meet up with the rest of the crowd, we encountered this momma duck and her babies hanging in the shade of one of the vendor stands:

By this time it was getting pretty hot. It was 2pm and the lines for the water rides were pretty long. However, they have sprinklers and misters throughout the park. Here's the kids cooling off:

But, nothing substitutes for a good splash on a water ride. I've never gotten more soaked than I did riding Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges. Literally, I couldn't have gotten more soaked if I had jumped into a pool. Catey, of course, loved it.

Squeezing the water out of her socks:

The splash down from the Jurassic Park adventure water ride. It's a big splash, but you don't get as wet as you do on the Bilge-Rat barges. But, if you stand in the splash zone for the Jurassic Park Adventure water ride, you get absolutely soaked... HUGE SPLASH DOWN!!!!

Some wet boys:

On our way out, we were attacked by a T-Rex. The kids are fast runners though. I was smart and stayed perfectly still.

True to our word, we went back to Olivander's to try to get selected for a wand. At 8:14pm, the line was still 20 minutes long. The kids were happy to wait...

They really did a nice job on the castle. Here's a picture of it at night. Well done Universal!!!

Now, you might ask yourself, "what's the big deal about Olivander's wand shop?" Well, you are brought into the wand shop in groups of about 25 at a time. Once in, Olivander will usually select one person from the group to be "fitted" for a wand, just like in the movie. It's very cool.

We were very lucky, and Olivander actually selected two people from our crowd.... Chase and Catey!!! This video is a bit dark unfortunately, but you can still get the idea of why this is so cool. The two magic tricks you see in this video are two of about 6 different tricks Olivander can have the kids do. There are many other videos with better quality showing some of the other tricks, but this video is the only one where I've seen Olivander choose two kids from the group. The look on Catey's face at the :15 mark shows why the wait was totally worth it for the two of them. Despite the darkness of the video, it's worth watching still:

As the night drew to a close, we stopped one last time in front of the Hogwart's Express with the conductor before heading out.

This was a great trip, and the kids said it was the best vacation they've ever been on. I can't wait til the next one now!!!