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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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®.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
Happy Thursday! This post is sponsored by AVIS .
“How did you end up here?”
I can’t help it – it’s one of my favorite questions. When I talk to other travelers on the road, my insatiable curiosity kicks in and I always want to know how they picked this destination, what their itinerary is, and why they chose that particular route. I just love to know how people’s minds work when it comes to travel!
That’s why sometimes I like to give you a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into planning a trip before takeoff. These posts are a good reminder that a big part of my “job” happens off-screen – coordinating my Tetris-like calendar, figuring out when I need to be where, and what I’ll be doing when I get there.
Last year I shared a post about my holiday getaway to Siem Reap and Bangkok as a real life example of how my Wanderland Guide to Travel Planning comes to life! Now, I’m going to give you another glimpse into the planning process for an upcoming trip to Florida. Or as I like to say, here’s how I got from daydream to departure gate.
1. Picking a Destination
The destination was pretty much picked for me! Last summer one of my best friends from high school announced his wedding in Sarasota in May.
Florida is the punchline of a lot of jokes (I’m looking at you, Florida Man Twitter account) and to some seasoned adventure travelers, might not seem like the most exotic destination. But I love it. For me, since I was little, Florida has meant family and kitschy fun in the sun. Now, I have even more family members (and friends-who-feel-like-family) there than ever, so I knew I’d want to turn this wedding into a larger, multi-destination trip.
Florida with friends…
Feeling out my dates was the first step. As usual, I’m currently spending the winter in Southeast Asia, and so this year I booked a flight back to New York landing just in time to make it up to Albany for Mother’s Day weekend. I gave myself just four short days of jetlag restoration and repacking there before jetting off to Florida on May 16th (a full week would have been ideal, but you can’t have it all!)
On the other end of the calendar, I’m going back to Bonnaroo! So I knew I had to touch down in Nashville by June 7th. That gave just around three weeks in Florida to play with.
2. Booking Airfare
Traditionally, the next step is to book flights. Now I know I’m going to fly into Tampa, however some of the trip is still up in the air (and you’re going to help me finalize it!) so I’ve held off booking the return trip. And it’s a good thing, too, because I ended up fitting in a work opportunity that will take care of this for me.
USA Travel Tip: Booking with Southwest is a perfect choice for those who need a little flexibility in their schedule. Technically I booked a Southwest flight from New York to Florida using miles a while back when I saw they were having a sale, but thanks to Southwest’s amazing flexibility, I can easily get a refund for those miles and use them for another summer flight.
3. Creating an Itinerary
With quite a few items on my Florida bucket list and not enough time to pull them all off, creating an itinerary was (and actively is!) the struggle of this trip.
• First stop: Tampa
Family time! There are several direct flights from Albany straight to Tampa, and so that will be my first stop to soak up time with my hilarious aunts.
I’ve been to Tampa a billion times but I always look for something new to do when I’m there. A walking mural tour through the Central Arts District and a visit to the Tampa Museum of Art are calling to me for this trip.
• Next up: Sarasota
Wedding time! I’m super excited about watching Steve and his gorgeous wife-to-be Ali at the end of the aisle, but I’m also looking forward to time with my fellow wedding guest and childhood BFF Kristin. I’m also hoping to take in some of Sarasota’s big sights – the Ringling Brothers Museum is top of my list, as well as a possible boat tour of the tiki bars strewn around the surrounding Keys.
• And then: Orlando
I am actually obsessed with water parks but strangely as a woman in her late twenties, I struggle to find friends to join me (so weird right I know). So basically I could not be more excited to be attending the opening of Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando Resort from May 22-26th!
I will in fact be seeing a lot of Orlando this summer — at some point I’ll also be bringing my sister and our friend Ashlee for a little Muggle Marriage Harry Potter themed bachelorette party! We can’t wait – though I suppose first I should actually, er, read the books.
Plus, though I’m generally not a Disney World fan (I FAR prefer Disneyland in California), I am also super excited about Pandora, the long-awaited Avatar themed land opening in Animal Kingdom this summer. My dad is a DVC member, and so we might do a family weekend there at some point as well – though we will definitely give it a few months post-opening for the crowds to thin out.
• After: St. Petersburg
Breaking news: I’ve just confirmed I’ll be partnering with Visit Florida in May to promote the state’s fabulous array of boutique hotels. I’m super excited to be spending three nights exploring St. Petersburg, a destination I’ve spent so much time near — it’s Tampa’s neighboring city! — and so little time actually in. This is my absolute favorite kind of project.
• Finally: You pick!
From May 26th-June 7th, the calendar is wide open (apart from whenever I fit in the aforementioned campaign). What to do with those beautiful twelve days? Well, I have a lot of options! The most sensible one would be heading back to Albany to rest and regroup before Bonnaroo. But I think we all know I’m rarely sensible when it comes to booking a trip. Which is why I’m also considering these three options:
— Central Florida diving trip: A road trip to Central Florida’s amazing dives (Blue Grotto, Devil’s Den, etc.) via an adorable vintage VW vans… with some mermaids and a paddle boarding side trips thrown in!
— Florida Keys camping trip: Enjoying all the great campsites and natural adventures throughout the Florida Keys from a brightly painted camper van… do you sense a theme here?
— Jacksonville and Amelia Island friendcation: Now that Angie’s officially a homeowner (!) I’m dying to get up to Jacksonville and see her new digs, hang with the extended Orth crew, and get a proper tour of the city (we never left her apartment last time I visited due to an unexpected cold snap and our resulting panic). My friend Kristin’s coverage of her recent visit has me even more excited. Plus, we’ve been throwing around the idea of sneaking off to Amelia Island for a little friend-cation, too!
4. Booking Ground Transportation
Since Florida’s destinations are relatively compact, air travel within the state is a bit silly – you’d spend as much time going through security as you would hitting the highway.
Enter Avis. I’ve been dying to put their new Avis Now app into action since reviewing it for this blog, and this is my big chance. I know that I’ll be flying into Tampa so I used my phone to reserve a car with a few simple swipes. When I land, I’m going to receive push notifications to my phone letting me know where my car is located so I can simply bypass the rental counter, find my car in the parking lot, and unlock the car straight from my phone. I’ll be able to save time and best of all, drive off the lot having never made contact with another human. Sound intriguing? Read my full review here! Fellow introverts, I know you feel me.
Right now I’m thinking that I’ll want to drop off my rental in Orlando, since I won’t be leaving the property once I arrive at Universal. Avis is the Official Car Rental Partner of Universal Parks & Resorts, which means I’ll be able to drop the car right at my hotel when I check in! How dang handy is that?
But – if I decide to change that last minute it’s not a problem. The app allows you to modify your reservation, extend your rental, and even change your drop-off location on the fly.
5. Booking Accommodation
Like flights, booking accommodation was an unexpected breeze for this trip – so far, at least.
In Tampa, I’ll be crashing with my aunts. In Sarasota, my friend and fellow wedding guest Kristin and I debated several of the official wedding hotels but decided to crash with her mom and dad, who are like my second parents and will be renting a house nearby on Siesta Key for a few months to celebrate their retirement (how perfect is that!).
In Orlando, we’ll be staying at the budget-friendly onsite Cabana Bay hotel, which I’ve been dying to check out since I toured it briefly during our retreat in October (which yes, you’ll read about eventually!)
Beyond that, it will depend on which final leg of the trip I choose! But it looks like I’ll either be camping or crashing with Angie. Both options I love!
6. And beyond!
And then comes all that good stuff that’s planned after the big decisions are made and the important stuff is booked – decisions like which artisanal donut to eat in Tampa or which tiki bar to hit up along the Sarasota Keys.
My research for my first three destinations was pretty minimal considering I’ve been to Tampa a million times, I’ll be in Sarasota with a group, and in Orlando I’ll be on a work trip where I won’t have too much control over my schedule. In St. Pete, I’ve already thrown myself into a super detailed itinerary with museums, active adventures, beach bars and more!
But whatever destination I chose for my final week, I can’t wait to really dig deep into planning some fun adventures… and man am I curious to see which trip you all are most interested in.
Did you enjoy this behind-the-scenes peek at how my May came together? Let me know and I’ll write more of these! In the meantime, help me decide which trip to take for my final week – and give me your Florida tips in the comments!
How are your summer plans coming together? Tell me all about your planning process below!
Many thanks to Avis for sponsoring this post! As always, you receive my honest thoughts and opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.