Wedding Bells in the Windy City

It’s become somewhat of a tradition now — when a close friend or a family member sets a wedding date, I get a text within seconds of the ink drying on the contract. You’re the first to know, they’ll tell me, considering my crazy calendar — so you better be there! How could I not comply?

When my cousin Kirsten, who is really more like a sister, called to let me she and her high school sweetheart Steve had set a date — a mere twenty years later — I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Cindy's Rooftop Chicago

After a fun — and food-filled — few days exploring Chicago tourist-style with Ian, it was time to get back into marriage mode. We checked out of the Freehand and shifted over to the Swissotel, the official wedding hotel where my mom had generously reserved rooms for the whole family. While the hotel felt like your standard business hotel compared to the quirky lodging we’d just moved from, we luxuriated in the generously sized rooms and the views stretching out all the way to Navy Pier.

Chicago Wedding Weekend

Chicago Wedding Weekend

We didn’t linger long though — as soon as my mom and Miller arrived from Decatur (yes, this was the second decades-later wedding of Illinois high school sweethearts I attended in two weeks), we hopped in an Uber and rushed up to Ravenswood for the rehearsal. Lollapalooza traffic was insane, and we ended up arriving just as the wedding party was headed to the rehearsal dinner. Oops.

Chicago Wedding Weekend

Chicago Wedding Rehearsal Dinner

The super low-key rehearsal involved taking over nearby sports bar Tavern on Little Fort for a surprisingly delicious buffet, a bevy of champagne toasts, and an impromptu family reunion as I caught up with family members I hadn’t seen in eons.

I even got to give one of those champagne toasts. A few years ago, when Kirsten and my mom and my sister Olivia and I went to Central America, I penned ‘Twas The Night Before Belize in celebration. Kirst loved it so much she asked me to write a rehearsal dinner version, ‘Twas The Night Before the Wedding — how fun is that!

Finally, we took family photos. This next set of the new cousins is my favorite — first, the one you frame, second, the one you pull out and laugh at for years to come. Isn’t Steve, over on the left there, lucky to join this crew!

Chicago Wedding Rehearsal Dinner

Chicago Wedding Rehearsal Dinner

As with most rehearsal dinners, we stayed up way later than we vowed to — I feel like there’s a real flaw in this whole wedding weekend plan that means you always wake up exhausted on the big day!

One of the bridedsmaids told me that her brother had held his rehearsal on a Thursday and then had a quiet, low key bride-and-groom-only night on that Friday. I loved that idea — consider it mentally filed for any future wedding I might be a host of.

Chicago Wedding Rehearsal Dinner

Chicago Wedding Rehearsal Dinner

But beauty waits for no woman — especially not a sleeping one. We dragged our bums out of bed and up to the bridal suite for a morning of hair, makeup, and girly giggles.

This is always one of my favorite aspects of participating in a wedding. Things get so crazy once the whole walking down the aisle thing happens — I love having a little bit of alone time with the ladies to freak out over what’s about to go down.

Chicago Wedding Getting Ready

This wedding, we had a lot of tiny adorable company! Kirsten is beloved honorary aunt to a whole gaggle of cute kiddos, and they truly couldn’t have looked sweeter. The moms of all these munchkins were part of our amazing Nashville bachelorette weekend — we sure clean up nice, eh?

Chicago Wedding Getting Ready

Chicago Wedding Getting Ready

Chicago Wedding Getting Ready

Chicago Wedding Getting Ready

Chicago Wedding Getting Ready

Chicago Wedding Getting Ready

Once the bridal party headed off on the trolly for photos, Olivia and Ian and I reunited for a little photo fun of our own. I’d yet to show Ian the major tourist tick-offs The Bean and Millennium Park, so we strolled over for a gander and an iconic Chicago photo backdrop.

Wedding Guest Portraits at The Bean

Wedding Guest Portraits at The Bean

Wedding Guest Portraits at The Bean

Wedding Guest Portraits at The Bean

No surprise — the crowds were insane! It was Lollapalooza weekend, and we could actually hear some of the music extending all the way to The Bean.

Wedding Guest Portraits at The Bean

Wedding Guest Portraits at The Bean

Once we snapped a few shots, we sought refuge from the street up at Cindy’s Rooftop. Cindy’s is one of the most sought-after reservations in Chicago, but we managed to squeeze into a spot at the bar for a pre-wedding drink and snack in our finest formal wear. With tons of festival-goers crammed in for a pre-show drink, it was a lively and full crowd and a fun atmosphere.

While we were on the balcony, we even ran into an Alex in Wanderland reader — how fun! Usually when that happens I’m in my sweatpants and no makeup and haven’t slept for three days, so it was very exciting to meet someone on a day I wasn’t embarrassed to appear in photos, ha!

Cindy’s truly has the best views in the city — if you can’t get in for a meal, just stop by for a drink and the best aerial photo of Millenium Park around!

Cindy's Rooftop Chicago

Cindy's Rooftop Chicago

Cindy's Rooftop Chicago

Cindy's Rooftop

Cindy's Rooftop Chicago

Cindy's Rooftop Chicago

Cindy's Rooftop Chicago

And then we were in an Uber singing “Going To The Chapel…” except we were going to Ravenswood Event Center! I absolutely fell in love with this industrial chic space the moment my cousin sent me photos of it, and I couldn’t wait to see it transformed into her and Steve’s vision on that day.

We made our way up to the third floor, where a full wall of windows would frame the “I do’s.” And just as the sun began to set, the procession began.

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

When Kirsten walked down the aisle, I couldn’t help it — I cried!

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Olivia and I were honored to be asked to read in the ceremony, along with Steve’s cousin — I shared a passage from my man Mark Twain. It was a beautiful and heartfelt ceremony with vows that left us laughing and smiling. From their first kiss at thirteen to their wedding kiss a few years later, it was a beautiful moment to see these two crazy kids finally make it official.

Five stars on Yelp, for sure.

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

And then the party got started! I was a little too distracted by the fun of being at a wedding with not only Ian but also my immediate and extended family and a whole bunch of Chicago folk I’ve known since I was wee. Which means I didn’t get photos of the cute champagne cork place cards or the wall of vintage family photos. But suffice it to say, no detail went forgotten!

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

I love loft weddings. When I worked doing wedding set up and tear down for extra cash in New York City in college, these were our speciality and I was always swooning at the amount of creativity allowed by a big blank slate like this!

The reception room at Ravenswood was once home to an industrial printing and binding machinery warehouse — now, it houses a collection of vintage neon signs and sports cars (I couldn’t help but think of the much-beloved Neon Museum in Las Vegas!)

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Time to party! Dinner was crazy good, which meant I had plenty to dance off in the ensuing hours. Even better? The bride’s mother is a talented baker and made an overflowing dessert table for over three-hundred guests, by hand! I almost went into a sugar coma, a hospitalization I wouldn’t have regretted in the slightest.

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

Wedding at Ravenswood Event Center

What a night! The next morning, we gathered at Kirsten and Steve’s beautiful new home to wish them well on their honeymoon to Bali. While I strongly weighed the pros and cons of trying to hide in their suitcases, I had a flight to New Orleans to catch, and that was a pretty enticing trip as well.

Next stop, NOLA!

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We Solemnly Swear We Are Up To No Good: A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

One thing I’ve been hearing from you guys is that you want to hear more about my current travels right after they happen. Well, ask and ye shall receive! I’m jumping in to start sharing some posts from Florida and Tennessee, a trip so fresh I just unpacked from it. This post is brought to you by Universal Orlando Resort.

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If there is one wedding trend you will never hear me grumble about, it’s destination bachelorette parties. A chance to get away with a group of my best gal pals? Sign me up! Let’s face it — the opportunities for girlfriend getaways are fewer and far between as time goes on, families get started and responsibilities pile up. So I’m all for making the most of indulgent time away while we can.

Plus, you know I can’t pass up an opportunity to raid the closest arts supply store! If my girl Angie’s Bachelorette Bonanza in Bonaire was any indication, it’s not a Wanderland-stamped bachelorette bash unless it’s replete with crafted and curated goody bags and coordinating outfits. Crafting is my love language, guys.

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

When I first told our dear family friend Ashlee that I was working with Universal Orlando for the year, she nearly fainted with excitement at the mere thought of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Not long after, she got engaged. My travel-idea wheels started turning, and soon a Harry Potter Bachelorette Party for Ashlee, my sister Olivia and I was born.

Both girls arrived on a Friday afternoon, and we spent a low-key evening enjoying dinner and girly giggles at the Royal Pacific Resort. I’d had a big week at Volcano Bay, and so I was thrilled we were having an early night in to prepare for the big day out ahead!

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

While we had a few delays in the morning and weren’t the first ones banging down the gates at opening time, we did take advantage of the extra hour of park admission for onsite hotel guests. We were visiting on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, so crowds should have been crushing. But by planning out our route and taking advantage of onsite guest perks, we really did make the most of our visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!

My advice? Check to see which parks have early admission — on this particular day, only Islands of Adventure did. (Remember, Hogsmeade is in Islands of Adventure, while Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios, and they are connected by the Hogwarts Express ride. Thus, a park hopper pass is required to visit both in one day.) So we started our day in Hogsmeade, and rode all three rides there as soon as we arrived, waiting only for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey — which in retrospect, we totally should have sprinted to first out of the three rides, since it’s the only one that doesn’t accept the Express Passes that we received included in our stay at Royal Pacific.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is definitely the standout of Hogsmeade, and it truly left me speechless! Dragon Challenge is a traditional crazy coaster that you could ride twice and have two totally different experiences, and the Flight of the Hippogriff is a more family-friendly roller coaster.

Flight of the Hippogriff at Universal Orlando

Flight of the Hippogriff at Universal Orlando

Flight of the Hippogriff at Universal Orlando

Once we had all the rides under out belt, we wandered in and out of the beautifully themed shops, took a million photos, and giggled while Ashlee did spells. While neither Olivia nor I are huge Harry fans — though believe me, it’s growing on me! — we seriously were having a blast and loving how much fun Ashlee was having.

“Is this what it’s like to be parents?,” Olivia mused, as we watched Ash waving her wand around with huge smiles. While I’m normally not much of a souvenir-buyer, wands are an absolute must for the true Potter-head. They allow you to perform spells at mapped locations all over the Wizarding World!

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

While this was my third trip to Universal Orlando, I had never truly experienced Hogsmeade before, so it really was a blast for me. After a Butterbeer toast to seal the morning, we were off on the Hogwarts Express — which again, thanks to our Express Passes, magically had no line!

Hogwarts Express at Universal Orlando

Hogwarts Express at Universal Orlando

And after a whirl on the world’s only inter-theme park ride, we arrived in Diagon Alley! I was so excited to see the girl’s reactions to this truly magical place, one of the greatest themed lands I’ve ever seen in any theme park anywhere in the world.

Diagon Alley in Universal Orlando Resort

Diagon Alley in Universal Orlando Resort

Diagon Alley in Universal Orlando Resort

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts was down temporarily, so we wandered the alleys doing more spells, splitting an ice cream, and checking out all the fab little shops and details.

Throughout the day, we were overwhelmed with super sweet and sincere compliments from Universal employees on our outfits, and Harry Potter glasses specifically. Considering they’ve seen it all, we were pretty dang proud of ourselves. The best part was, since I’d had to order an eight pack, we had extras to hand out to strangers who asked us about them — so fun!

Diagon Alley in Universal Orlando Resort

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

Next up, it was time for a lunch — and air-conditioning! — break at The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar in CityWalk. I’d heard raves about this spot and while we were all boring and ordered (super delicious) salads and soda waters, I am totally coming back some night for their craft cocktails and signature Burgushi®.

The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar • CityWalk Orlando

The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar • CityWalk Orlando

The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar • CityWalk Orlando

After lunch, we headed back into Islands of Adventure to hit my favorite area of Universal Orlando… Seuss Landing! The girls humored me with spins on both The Cat in The Hat (which I’d been on before) and theThe High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride (which I hadn’t.) Neither had more than a two minute line.

Turns out the train ride has some of the best photography vantage points in the entire park — it’s so cool to see it all from above! So whether you’re a Seuss fan or not, if you’re coming with a camera you might just want to hop aboard for a spin.

Seuss Landing, Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

Seuss Landing, Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

Seuss Landing, Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

Seuss Landing, Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

Seuss Landing, Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

After, we headed for my favorite ride in the park — Jurassic Park River Adventure. At this point, the late afternoon holiday weekend crowds were at their peak, so we decided to head back to the hotel for a dip in the pool and a nap before the rest of the day.

My big regret of the trip? Not taking the girls on my beloved Hulk coaster and not trying out the two water rides, Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls and Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges, when it was blazing hot! Sure, we could have fit it all in if we’d stayed in the park from open to close, but with a long weekend of fun ahead, we chose to pace ourselves — which is the exact reason I’d recommend travelers invest in at least a three day park-hopper pass so they don’t burn out while trying to enjoy all Universal Orlando Resort has to offer (which is, if you haven’t picked up on it already, a lot.)

Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure

Thankfully, by the time the sun set we were well rested for a night on the town — the town, in this case, being Universal’s CityWalk! One of my favorite things about a Universal vacation is you don’t have to get in a car once if you don’t want to.

You can eat, stay, play all in one compact, well-connected resort without fussing with rental cars, cabs, or Ubers. It actually makes it the perfect bachelorette bash port of call — between the security checks into CityWalk, the free water taxis back to the onsite hotels, and the peace of mind of keeping everyone in one place in a big group, you really couldn’t ask for a more worry-free destination for a girl’s night out.

Antojitos Universal Orlando CityWalk

Antojitos Universal Orlando CityWalk

Antojitos Universal Orlando CityWalk

CityWalk is bursting with dining options, which made it hard to narrow down our dinner reservations, though we finally settled on Antojitos for a festive Mexican meal. It did not disappoint! The modern and colorful interiors left us swooning — table for three in a birdcage? yes please! — and the menu left us drooling.

Don’t miss the ginger mojitos or the fresh guacamole made to your specifications right at the table!

Antojitos Universal Orlando CityWalk

Antojitos Universal Orlando CityWalk

Antojitos Universal Orlando CityWalk

Antojitos Universal Orlando CityWalk

Antojitos Universal Orlando CityWalk

After dinner, we rushed back into the park for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which we literally sprinted to when I read on the Universal App had reopened! With late summer hours, you really can make the most of your day — and night. Diagon Alley looks totally different at the dark, which made the ride being closed earlier in the day actually feel like a blessing in disguise. We got on what must have been one of the very last runs of the evening, and exited right as the nightly fireworks were going off. Talk about timing.

After, we strolled back into CityWalk ready to dance — and sing. We kicked things off at my personal favorite venue, Rising Star Karaoke, where you can croon with a live backup band and backup dancers. Unfortunately we arrived right as the band went on a lengthy break so the girls didn’t really get to experience Rising Star in all it’s glory, but our friendly waiter conceded that on a busy weekend you really need to arrive at opening to have a good chance of singing, anyway.

Rising Star Universal Orlando CityWalk

After a few drinks and sing-alongs, we were off to check out CityWalk’s two nightclubs, The Groove and Red Coconut Club. As very dedicated researchers, we did a thorough comparison of both — and while the dancefloors were packed and we had a blast at each, Red Coconut won out as our favorite for the retro kitsch decor (The Groove was more general-Myrtle-Beach-nightclub in comparison.) Both were totally unpretentious, with an all-age crowd all just looking to have a good time. And if you’re staying onsite, you’ll get free entry to every CityWalk venue by showing your room key — so why not check out both?

Not so much for the club scene? There are also some great bars in CityWalk — Bob Marley–A Tribute to Freedom has great live music (and Jamaican specialities on the dinner menu), Pat O’Brien’s boasts dueling pianos (and cajun food), and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville has, well, a margarita-filled erupting volcano (and cheeseburgers in paradise, duh).

Red Coconut Club Universal Orlando CityWalk

Red Coconut Club Universal Orlando CityWalk

Red Coconut Club Universal Orlando CityWalk

CityWalk’s last call is 2am, but make sure you close out your tab a bit earlier to grab late night slices at the Red Over Pizza Bakery. We took them to-go and hopped on the last water taxi of the night back to Royal Pacific, which turned out to be one of my favorite moments of my entire eight days in Orlando. Why?

When we boarded the boat, I noted that the professional young captain was a girl around our age. The only other group on the boat was another crew of ladies coming back from a big night out. As we pulled away from the dock, the captain wordlessly turned on a speaker and started blasting Madonna’s classic hit Lucky Star. When she started busting some serious dance moves at the wheel, we excitedly began belting backup from out seats. We might not have made it onstage at Rising Star, but the boat become our grandstand, the seven of us aboard rocking out for a one-song headline.

When we docked, we laughed and thanked our lovely captain for an unimaginably perfect ride home. “Well, I figured it was just us girls,” she said with a wink.

A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

Just us girls indeed! It was the perfect day at the parks, and a bachelorette for the books.

What’s the best destination you’ve discovered for a bachelorette weekend? 

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This post is brought to your by Universal Orlando Resort. I am a member of the Universal Blog Squad, and have been compensated for this partnership. I maintain full editorial control and as always all thoughts, opinions, and over-ambitious craft projects are my own. 

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How to Throw A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando

How to Throw A Harry Potter Bachelorette Party at Universal Orlando