My well-traveled friend Lisa recommended packing anti-chafing underwear. After another exhausting day of walking, queuing, and playing at amusement parks in Orlando, Florida this past Easter, my thighs felt relieved that I took her advice.
On paper, this family vacation was a nightmare. Being the sedentary type, I’m generally not a fan of nonessential walking, especially on vacation, but in Orlando, our average steps were 25,000 to 30,000 steps per day. I would do just about anything to avoid a queue and everyone knows theme parks are full of long queues. I’m afraid of roller coasters, hills, and anything that goes too fast. There seems to be no such thing as too high or too fast in a world where roller coasters reign supreme.
So why on earth would I choose a vacation at Universal and Disney? As for the kids of course, that’s what I told myself at least. To put an end to their feeling that the vast majority of their holidays up to that point had been in Ireland and usually involved rain. And because of the constant voice of a little girl inside me, who is seven years old who was given a plastic ring by some of her friends, a magic ring that they said had the power to fulfill any wish.
We’ve been talking about a trip together to the magical kingdoms of Orlando since the girls were little. After facing a global pandemic and endless lockdowns, we finally decided to tackle it
You believed them. With all my heart in my hand, I wished with all my heart to have a family vacation at Disney’s Magic Kingdom which I read about in my children’s encyclopedia. There was a haunted mansion. A fairy tale castle. It was just a few days before my “friends” laughed at my wish, revealing that the ring had no magical powers. I am still very disappointed after more than 40 years.
But it may take some time to show up. Our trip to Orlando was over a decade in the planning and also has quite a bit of backstory. In 2009, my partner Johnny and I met a married couple named Lisa and Phil in an antenatal class at Hollies Street Hospital. Our C-sections were scheduled for the same day in April 2009. The four of us became parents within hours of each other – Lisa and Phil to Macy’s and Georgia, Johnny and I to Joya and Bria.
Fortunately, the chance alliance formed in a maternity hospital won out. We’ve had years of get-togethers, birthday parties, parenting brainstorming, sleepovers, camping vacations, pizza parties, movie nights and community-infused picnics.
The eight of us shared so much fun time together that for my 50th birthday last year, Lisa and Phil were able to give me a memory stick filled with over a decade of photos and videos of my daughters’ childhood moments, replacing some of my unfortunately lost.
We’ve been talking about a trip together to the magical kingdoms of Orlando since the girls were little. After facing a global pandemic and endless lockdowns, we finally decided to tackle it. The girls were all 13 years old during Easter 2022 and I felt this was the perfect time. We booked through Tour America who couldn’t have been more helpful in creating the package that suited us. Then we spent a year of bravery saving and paying for the most expensive vacation any of us had ever had.
We kept the reservation a surprise and for months used the password “Greystones” in case prying eyes happened to see our WhatsApp messages. The big reveal came on Christmas Day last year. The euphoric and tearful zoom call between the four girls, both realizing that our two families were going on vacation to America together, was a bright spot on that pandemic Christmas.
At first the waiting times for the ride were unacceptable. An hour or more just waiting in line? Nobody was more surprised than I was because we soon got used to it
The winter months passed in anticipation of an adventure that lived up to all our hopes and dreams and, in my case, far exceeded them. Our great hotel was the retro-themed Cabana Bay, a world-class resort-inspired 1950s and 1960s Florida property with a water park called Volcano Bay on the grounds.
The hotel staff was friendly and helpful while the comfortable family suites – including the kitchenette and sitting room – were a hit. The bathroom is cleverly designed so that the sink, shower and toilet areas can be used separately. It changes the rules of the game when you share a hotel room with three other people.
We chose to spend most of our roughly two-week vacation at the three world parks – Islands of Adventure, which contains the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Vulcano Bay, and Universal Studios, where you can find more Harry Potter works and a land dedicated to The Simpsons. We also had a day spent at two of Disney’s theme parks – Magic Kingdom, the home of Mickey and Minnie, and the Hollywood Studios with all that Star Wars excitement – without forgetting a short trip to Sea World.
Most of our days started with dawn – again not my usual idea of a vacation – but by staying on the Universal property we could take advantage of previous park opening times so it made sense to beat the crowds. Our main destination every morning – we took the regular free shuttle buses to the park – was Hagrid’s Adventure of the Magical Creatures Motorcycle, in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I can’t tell you much about the experience because Lisa and I only went to her once – she was horrified sitting in the sidecar of my motorbike – and our eyes were closed in horror the whole time. (The very embarrassing souvenir that won’t see the light of day proves it.)
At a mile in length, it’s the longest coaster in the park, and among other endurance tests, it shoots you 65 feet into the air at a more than 70-degree angle before quickly dropping you back. I’m nauseous and shocked I even remember it, but this was the trip the other six people in our group took every day, even on the day of our flight home for ‘The Last Hagrid’.
Even if you’re not a fan of Potter and don’t fantasize about horseback riding, sipping Butterbeer while wandering through oddly authentic Universal scenes from books and movies—like Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, and a full-size replica of Hogwart’s Castle—is impressive. The ride on the Hogwart Steam Express on platform 9 3/4 between the parks was as magical as stepping into the wardrobe for Narnia, or visiting the hobbit’s home.
At first the waiting times for the ride were unacceptable. An hour or more just waiting in line? Nobody was more surprised than I was because we quickly got used to it and started enjoying the system that is well-lubricated and impressively effective. Two days later we heard ourselves say things like “Just 50 minutes for Spider-Man? Let’s go.” And I’m sure it’s only 60 minutes from Jimmy Fallon’s race to New York. We’re quickly becoming a theme park specialist, and we’re working out what kind of rides to take at any time of the day to avoid the biggest queues. (You can pay extra for Express Pass, which we tried for a day which meant less time spent waiting in line.)
We were also able, just before the park closed, to access the park’s most popular, technologically advanced and innovative attraction, Star Wars Rise of the Resistance.
Previously on roller coasters, I found out on the first day that while you’d never get me into those outer ring roller coasters, I am mad at the inner roller coasters; “Dark Tours” like Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey, and Escape to Gringotts. The queue for this one – with hilarious talking images, 3D images and an elevator that cleverly simulates the journey of several stories underground – was as fun as the rides themselves.
Every day, I found myself – sometimes on my own – chomping at Hogwart Castle to join the queue of Forbidden Journey, enchanted by the sensation of whizzing around Quidditch Stadium at full speed and soaring over the slopes while encouraging Harry Potter on a broom in front of me to act as my guide and protector.
The boldest of the group tried the painstakingly sounding rollercoasters like Velocicoaster at Jurassic World, and The Incredible Hulk coaster, but I preferred the gentle nostalgia of Dr. Every few days when we needed to relax and recuperate we spent some time in Volcano Bay just a short stroll from our hotel room.
Lisa and I grabbed the sun loungers under shady awnings, while the others threw themselves onto slides and chutes of different excitement levels. At Sea World – well worth a visit if you’re in Orlando – we enjoyed the amazing shows featuring dolphins and blue whales, and eight of us were cooled off from the scorching heat by completely immersing us in the frankly gorgeous Infinity Falls ride.
Unforgettable dining experiences included restaurants at the Universal Citywalk and the endless buffet at the local Golden Corral while a communal thirteenth birthday was spent at Kobe Japanese Restaurant, where a chef theatrically cut our meal.
The birthday cake was made of ice cream that the girls ordered themselves from a branch near Dairy Queen. There were also several trips to Walmart, Target, outlets, and the world’s largest McDonald’s to fully embrace American vibes.
Then there were two unforgettable Disney days. It’s impossible to overstate the charm of walking down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, Sleeping Beauty’s castle looming like a storybook mirage before us. While passing through the haunted mansion, one of the girls made me cry, squeezing my hand and whispering “Look, your wish has come true.”
We did all the mountains – Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain – and we all cried when fireworks erupted over the castle at the end of a long and exciting day. We had a physical pass, which is an extra cost and means we can prioritize rides on some rides to take advantage of shorter wait times but tip – it pays to be very strategic in your choices.
At Disney’s Hollywood studios, we loved Toy Story Land with the Slinky Dog rollercoaster and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, a no-track “dark ride” that covered all the greatness of the park. Perhaps the biggest thrill of the holiday is the experience in Batu where members of the Disney team play the role of actual residents of this barren outpost on the edge of the galaxy, and where we arrive at the Millennium Falcon.
We were also able, just before the park closed, to access the park’s most popular, technologically advanced and innovative attraction, Star Wars Rise of the Resistance. A truly out of this world experience, this 18 minutes for me was the highlight of the holiday; And I say this as someone who doesn’t know their resistance of the first degree.
Six months later, none of us have removed the theme park apps from our phone. Every once in a while, from our Dublin homes, someone will check in to see how things are in Orlando. Someone will say, “Hagrid’s motorcycle is only a 70 minute wait,” and we’ll look at each other, with misty eyes longing for a vacation neither of us will ever forget. There is serious talk of going back to celebrate the girls’ 16th birthday. All we need is a few years to memorize, a new password and maybe another one that goes into that magical plastic ring.
Ten nights at Universal Cabana Bay Beach Resort with United Airlines flights for two adults and two children starting from €959 per person. Universal Orlando 3 Park Explorer tickets for ten days cost from 357 euros per person. touramerica.ie