Yesterday I spent more money in one day than I have since I bought this house, and while part of me is thrilled, the other part is a little queasy. In the morning over coffee, I locked in plane tickets for a trip to Portugal in the early summer, right after Finn gets out of school. We’ve got friends who own an AirBnB in the city of Porto, and we locked in a date with them last week. I’ve got a line on a house sitter for Hazel, and I’m making those inquiries this week to reserve his time. Normally, I’m lousy at planning things like this out far in advance, but I’m trying to learn from past mistakes this year, and when these opportunities arise, you have to jump on them.
In the afternoon, after careful consideration and an assist from Dr. Gebler in the negotiation phase, we bought a new car to replace the Accord. This is a 2024 Honda CR-V EX in Canyon River Blue, optioned out with the same features the 2006 has (electric everything, moonroof, cruise, etc.) plus heated front seats, an electric driver’s seat, dual climate controls, lane-keeping assist, and a backup camera. We did a quick test drive to make sure the windshield didn’t make Jen sick, then pulled the trigger and got it for $50 over dealer invoice. The salesman couldn’t have been nicer, and frankly the process was much smoother than I was expecting. The only hiccup was waiting for the detailing crew to get it ready for me. After everyone else left for home (it was a complicated commute involving two cars and late homework). I drove it home solo while talking to Mom with the hands-free phone hookup and felt like I was on the bridge of the starship Enterprise. And for an automatic, it’s really nice to drive.
Future plans for it include aftermarket remote start, a set of Honda rails and roof racks, trailer hitch, and rubber floor mats throughout. And I’m not a fan of the stock wheels; I’ll have to keep an eye out for a set of these at the pick and pull yards around town.
Meanwhile, the ’06 is in the driveway patiently waiting for new tires and a clutch rebuild, which will come first on the list once money issues get sorted out.
We’re home from Puerto Rico after a lovely 10-day stay at a fancy resort hotel. This isn’t the first time Jen and I have stayed at a hotel (we traveled to Curacao before Finley was born) but we’re very rusty on how these things generally work. Some thoughts from the trip:
The flight was cheap because the hotel underwrote it to get us to the hotel; Frontier Airlines, while not the top-shelf carrier available, was remarkably clean and punctual, even if they did charge us extra for everything. Baggage and seating were tacked on to the ticket, but it was a direct flight and we didn’t have to cattle-call to get three seats together. The seats were relatively comfortable, and there was plenty of legroom.
Our hotel, the Wyndham Rio Mar, was beautiful. Our room stunk of mildew no matter what setting we had the A/C on, and it seemed to get worse as the week went by. That being said, there were seven restaurants available to us onsite, including two outdoor bars, a huge set of pools, a palm-fronted beach, and most importantly, drink service everywhere on the premises. All in all, not a bad place to stay. Our half was the Wyndham half, and the other side was part of the Margaritaville chain. We did some light investigation and it looked like that side was in better shape than ours was. As would be expected, food and drinks were roughly double what they would be in the outside world, so our final room bill was, shall we say, large.
The hotel concierge is there to help you find things to do, but also to put a hard sell on the not-a-timeshare timeshare presentation to get you to buy into the Jimmy Buffet Empire; we listened politely to the pitch from our sweaty concierge, took his maps, and noped the fuck out of there. I avoided him for the rest of the trip. Sorry, Enrique.
On the first day at the beach, I was out in the surf with Finn having a good time floating in the warm Caribbean water. A rogue breaker hit me from behind while my attention was elsewhere, and I lost my brown Ray-Bans to the gods of the ocean. I had them for over ten years, and they served me well; I’d lost them several times but they always seemed to turn up. I did go to the lost and found twice to see if they’d washed up on shore and were turned in, but had no luck.
The hotel was three miles away from the El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. After consulting with the concierge, we rented a car and drove up the road to check it out. After stopping to check out several of the sites along the way, we parked our little rental and hiked a mile and a half through the forest along a 650 foot elevation increase to reach the Britton Tower, which, on a good day, offers a view of the water on both sides of the island. While we were there the clouds blew in underneath us and we were treated to a gentle, cooling rainshower. But the air was clear and crisp, and the scenery beautiful. It was worth the pain in my calves and thighs. I should note for the record that I am woefully out of shape.
The Ford Focus we were rented was an interesting comparison to the Explorer I got a month ago; the Focus felt agricultural and buzzy compared to the smooth and powerful SUV. I had no problem with the transmission in the Explorer but it felt like the Focus was constantly hunting for a gear to be in, and I was constantly jamming my foot to the floor to get it to move. Visibility sucked behind my right shoulder; I never felt safe trying to change lanes. It got us where we wanted to go, but I wouldn’t ever recommend one.
Old San Juan was about an hour away using the no-toll route, and it was beautiful. Both times we got there in the afternoon and had to pause for food before we could explore; we were advised to park down by the water where the cruise ships come in, and we instinctively walked up the hill away from the touristy shops to find good places to eat. On our first night we chose an out of the way restaurant and lucked into some of the most delicious food on the trip, as well as the best margarita of Jen’s life. The second night we found a louder place advertising honest Puerto Rican food, and we all chose excellent meals. The city is absolutely beautiful, especially at night; I should have brought a set of Pantone books down to try and capture some of the colors used to paint the villas. If we’d planned better we would have spent a full day there exploring the fort and more of the city, but I think we did really well with the time we had.
Jen had asked some of the employees at the hotel where they would go if they wanted to eat real food, and we got a good lead on a restaurant in a local town, so we made a beeline for that on the last morning we had the car. We found the place off the square of a pretty little coastal town called Luquillo and sat down for some of the most amazing food we’d had on the whole trip. Tostones (twice-fried plantains) are absolutely delicious. The trifongo at this restaurant, served with a fried strip of the local fish, was out of this world.
Everybody we met was amazing. Frankie the cab driver was engaged by the bellhop to pick us up at 1:30PM for our 4:30 flight out of San Juan, but the bellhop got the time wrong. Our room phone rang at 1:45AM for reasons my tired brain couldn’t comprehend, but I woke enough to put it together and realized he’d texted my silenced phone. I sent back a profuse apology and he waved it off, telling us he’d see us at 1:30PM. The car ride out to the airport was friendly and fun, and he told us not to worry about the hassle, but I doubled his fee for his trouble. Everyone asked us how we liked Puerto Rico and we honestly told them we loved it.
I’m acutely conscious of my inability to speak a second language. Somehow, in some way, I’ve got to start learning Spanish without looking like the dad in Barbie. You know, with all the free time I’ve got.
On my way back home from New York, I stopped to get a bite to eat and use the restroom somewhere in Pennsylvania. I saw the sign for a Waffle House and figured that would be quick and cheap. Both were correct, and the food had no flavor. On my way out of the parking lot, I drove around back and noticed this statue of the Virgin Mary next to a sketchy path leading off into the woods.
I got the fuck out of there in a hurry.
One of the things Jen has had on her bucket list is to go see the lights in New York City during Christmastime. We decided we’d make this one of our advent activities this year before time gets away from us and Finn grows out of it entirely. We boarded an early-morning train on Sunday and got up to the new Moynihan Train Hall by 11AM. I was so happy to climb out of the track areas into a beautiful new station with soaring ceilings and modern amenities, and happier still that Finn didn’t have to experience shitty old Penn Station as her first introduction to New York.
After sorting out the breakfast and bathroom situation we walked out into the sunshine and headed east on 34th until we hit 7th Avenue, turned north to 34th and then walked east again past Macy’s and through Herald Square up to the Empire State Building. We couldn’t seem to buy tickets to go up to the observatory level, so we punted and kept walking to 5th Avenue where we turned north and walked to the lions in front of the Public Library. Pausing to take some pictures, Jen had to clear something from her eye so Finn and I browsed through the vendors in Bryant Park until she was able to find a mirror.
From there we continued north up Fifth Avenue, hoping to take in the windows; things have changed a lot since I’ve been in the city. It’s essentially one big mall connected by sidewalks and construction; every store available is someplace we can go at a local mall. It wasn’t until we got closer to the park and the high-high-high-dollar stores until we started seeing good window displays.
5th Avenue before Rockefeller Center was closed off to traffic and there were food trucks and performers parked outside. We peeked down through the plaza at the tree and decided we’d wait until dark to explore it further. The windows of Saks were done up with some EXTRA clothing and shoes, and it was super fun to look them all over. Right up the street we climbed the stairs to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and walked inside with a throng of other people. I found a $5 bill and we walked up the aisle until we found a saint we all liked, and then lit candles for Jen’s mom and my Dad. It was a lovely break from all of the crush of people and noise and cold to sit on a bench with my girls across from the votive stand and listen to the hymns and hush of people out in the pews.
Back outside in the fresh air, we walked up 5th Avenue and around the corner to the Tiffany storefront, where, disappointingly, there was nothing in the window. We crossed back over 5th Avenue and through Grand Army Plaza into Central Park, where we took a left at the Zoo and walked to Gapstow Bridge so Finn could see the true scale of New York City.
Walking back up 5th Avenue on the other side of the street, we paused in front of Bergdorf Goodman, whose windows were by far the best of any of the luxury stores. At the top of the hill the street was still cordoned off so we stopped for some mocha lattes to power back up, then plunged back into the crowds forming in front of Saks for the display. They have the lights on the front of the store keyed to different music, sort of a luxury-goods version of the Metallica House, and we enjoyed a quick medely of Elton John before heading down into the plaza to look at the skaters and the tree. I told Finn about the Christmas tree that came from Mahopac after we explained that it was a real tree, and tried to move closer to the edge to look down on the rink.
We kept heading down 50th Street past 30 Rock, and stopped inside to show Finn the murals in the lobby, which remain amazing. Noticing they’ve added a big arcade with food in the basement, we headed downstairs to find bathrooms and some food.
Once we were fed and watered, we continued west on 50th until we hit 7th Avenue and walked south to Times Square, which was probably even more crowded than Rockefeller Center had been. It was, we explained to Finn, the closest to Tokyo she’d probably find in the U.S. and she was suitably impressed (if not overwhelmed).
At this point it was cold and we were all tired, so we continued south to 34th Street and back to the train station, where we posted up on some comfortable chairs and warmed up with some drinks until our train arrived.
We walked back in the door at about 1:30AM and went directly to bed; I don’t think any of us got a decent night’s sleep. Jen’s watch said we walked about 9 miles in total and over 20,000 steps, which is pretty respectable, I think. I was happy to have worn Smartwool socks and an UnderArmour Cold Gear shirt; the only parts of me that were cold were my hands. All that being said I was happy to be in a warm bed.
There was a point when we were walking back up 5th Avenue towards people and Christmas music and lights and dusk was just beginning to set in, and I was happy to be in the Big City with my girls, enjoying the feeling of sharing the season with thousands of strangers.
I think we all had a great time in Texas, even if it was an unorthodox vacation for us. Normally we go someplace and there’s a mission or an activity to be accomplished; this can be anything as stupid as get to the beach before noon or as complex as be in the lobby by 8 for the bus to St. Peter’s Square. There’s a plan, and we try to follow the plan. For this vacation, we had a destination, we had friends to see, and we had a vague notion of things to do, but most of the enjoyment for me was just coasting from day to day. As such, this review is going to wander all over the place, because I don’t remember exactly what happened when, and that’s kind of a good thing.
The house Jen found for us was absolutely perfect. Set on the east side of the city, we rented a mod little cottage set back from the road in a stand of trees. It was cool, quiet, decorated tastefully, and within walking distance of several restaurants that served great coffee. I made it my job to rise early and bring back breakfast for the three of us to slowly get our days started. We had the luxury of having the house to relax in, and actually spent a fair bit of time there just enjoying the cool quiet by ourselves. It was clear they’d spent time designing it with sunlight in mind; each wall was sprinkled with small windows set high off the ground for maximum privacy. All the surfaces were reclaimed wood, and the floor was poured concrete.
Jen had ideas sketched out for each day. Our first day on the ground, we pulled beach towels and swimsuits out of our suitcases and drove to Deep Eddy, a cold spring-fed community pool that was very quiet for such a hot day. We lucked out and found a parking spot right out front, paid our tickets, and were able to immediately wade into refreshing water with a very slippery bottom. Being spring-fed, it took me a while to get up to my waist, but it was worth it to see Finn wade right in and make some new friends.
We spent Friday hitting some of Austin’s best thrift/vintage stores; they take their thrifting seriously down there. We started at a place called the Leopard Exchange, where I found a vintage Budweiser delivery shirt that fit like a glove. Around that shop were about five others, each with their own vibe. The level of curation at these places is beyond anything I’ve seen in Baltimore—there are a few vintage clothing stores I’ve been to here but nothing like the selection and pricing we found there. I looked long and hard for a good western pearlsnap shirt but came away empty handed—the closest I got was made of heavy polyester and wouldn’t be comfortable for a day’s wear. Finn took us to an alternative store and picked out a corset with Jen’s help; she found a way to relace it and wore it for the next couple of days.
On Friday I posted a picture of a Scout I saw on Congress Street to Instagram and the local IH community said hello; I’ll write more about that elsewhere. We walked the length of the street and found some great artwork, as well as spending time in a store called Lucy In Disguise with Diamonds, which was full to the rafters with interesting costumes for Halloween and from feature films. After stopping at Guero’s Taco Bar for some dinner, we hiked down the hill to the Congress Street Bridge, where a crowd had gathered to watch the bats fly out to hunt at dusk. It was incredible; thousands of bats following in trail down the river and out over the city, enough to show up as a dark blot on the horizon.
When the main swarm had left, we rented scooters and rode them back up the hill to our car, which was one of the better ideas we had all week.
We spent Saturday and Sunday hanging out with Linda and Cam at their house, and they took us to a couple of their favorite restaurants in the area. It was great to catch up with them and relax.
Monday we drove to Barton Springs, another naturally-fed community pool, and spent a good bit of the day swimming in the cool water under the skyline of the city. It was a perfect way to spend the day—just wading in and out of the water, with noplace to get to and nothing else to do. When we started getting hungry, we reluctantly dried off and drove to a restaurant called Chi’lantro, where Jen and I ordered Kimchi Fries, a dish Linda has been talking about for years. We were not disappointed. Then we checked out some more stores featuring local art, hoping we’d find something good. It was hit and miss.
On Tuesday we did some shopping for our neighbors, who helped us with housesitting, and who always bring back interesting things from their travels. We hit a store called Uncommon Objects, which featured an incredible collection of curated antiques and oddities, including some artwork we loved but couldn’t afford.
We don’t have an Alamo Drafthouse by us, so we thought we’d take in Thor: Love and Thunder on our last night in town. We had a lot of fun, and Finn loved the movie. I think the thing I remember most about that experience was a music video they played before the show which was equally disturbing and hilarious.
Wednesday morning we hustled back to the airport, turned in our little Buick (review: nice little car, but abysmal visibility past the B-pillar) and sailed through security in record time. The flight was uneventful, and we got back to our house by 4PM. All of the pets were happy to greet us except for Bella, who remained asleep on my pillow, and we collapsed into chairs, tired from the trip.
I would happily return to Austin anytime as long as they can stave off Gilead; it was a great city filled with great people and a vibe I remember from the early 90’s in Baltimore when it was weird and full of artists. I’d love to transplant a bunch of that energy here.
I’m sipping coffee and sitting in a mod chair in our beautiful AirBnB on the second morning of our stay, thinking that I should have brought warmer clothes. It’s already 81 degrees (feels like 87) outside and the high yesterday was 102, but the most uncomfortable I’ve been is inside where the Texans chill everything off around the Meat Locker setting. Jen warned me, and I took her seriously, but I didn’t pack warm enough PJ’s to cope.
We landed on Wednesday afternoon, got our little Buick Enclave (review: perfectly fine for our needs but terrible visibility out the back, which is crucial for merging on and off Austin’s many feeder roads. At least we could pipe Jen’s phone into the dashboard display) and then checked into our rental. What a beautiful little house. It’s designed perfectly for a family of three, laid out in an L shape with Finley on one side and us on the other. It’s mid century modern all the way through, filled with thoughtful touches, and situated in East Central Austin, walking distance to a bunch of awesome restaurants.
Austin is beautiful, definitely weird, eclectic, and interesting. The architecture is amazing everywhere we look. They spend so much time on signage and textures and buildings made of unusual shapes it makes Catonsville look like an old gray dish towel. There’s functional neon everywhere we look. There’s garish graffiti all over the place. There are hand painted signs and metal signs and old weathered signs on every corner. Welded steel is everywhere. It’s a festival of the senses for design.
Camping is a crapshoot. On a good trip, the conditions can be just right, the campsite ideal, the amenities perfect for keeping kids and parents occupied happily for the duration of the stay. On a bad trip, the people next to you are drunken bigots, the mosquitoes carry off your children, the lake is a swamp, and you’re miles from any ice cream stand. If you’ve got a shiny new trailer, you can hole up inside and pretend you’re at home on the couch watching Age of Ultron with the kids. When you’re tent camping, you’re at the mercy of pretty much everything. So you do the research, look at the pictures, ask for recommendations, and take a leap of faith a year in advance, hoping you made the right call and a hurricane with a stupid name doesn’t wipe your reservation off the map.
Early this year, I looked around for another Eastern Shore-based campground that had all of the cool stuff our last place did minus the live band and found Jane’s Island State Park, down at the bottom of Maryland before Maryland becomes Virginia. Reviews looked promising, the sites looked clean, and I was able to reserve a spot right on a canal, figuring the closer we were to moving water, the cooler we’d be.
I’ve spent the last week preparing for the trip, making piles of gear and then moving them around the house, paranoid I was going to forget something important. I upgraded our cooler. The Scout has new brakes, which are AMAZING and feel fantastic. I premade hobo stew for our first night at the campsite, figuring after I drove all the way down there, set up camp, and got the kids organized, easier dinner would taste better.
We were able to hit the road at 9:15 and got to the Bay Bridge by 10, slowing for some construction at the site of the old toll plaza. Once we made it over the span, we breezed into Easton, picked up Zachary, and continued south on 50 for the end of the earth. Stopping for food and gas, we made decent time, slowed only by the fact that the safari top needed to be up to keep Zachary’s hair from blowing all over his face.
The park is very well-run, and one of the cleanest and most well-equipped state parks I’ve been to. Our campsite was spotless and in a perfect spot to pick up breezes off the marsh. I got the site organized while I had the kids ride their bikes around to scout out the bathhouses, camp store, and marina.
Figuring we’d be hot overnight, I left the rain hood off the tent to keep us ventilated and started a fire. The hobo stew is in foil packets and was on the fire for 45 minutes before I got impatient, took it off and heated it in a pan. The kids were pretty cool about trying it (or, just extremely hungry) and we all made it disappear pretty quickly. Then, figuring we’d have nothing better to do, I drove us in to Crisfield to walk the pier and see what was there.
A century ago Crisfield was the epicenter of oyster fishing in the country, but the town has declined along with the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Most of what we saw was dark and quiet—an ice cream shop along the water actually had a sign saying they were closed due to lack of staff.
We found an ancient diner on Main Street and kept them open to enjoy their A/C and our ice cream for as long as was respectful, and then headed back to the campsite. I set the kids up with headlamps I’d bought and we lit off some sparklers by the canal before calling it a night.
On the pier at Crisfield we’d seen heat lightning flashing to the north, and my weather app showed big orange blobs on the radar heading our way. I made sure to get the rain cover ready and packed away all of our consumables in Tupperware tubs in the truck. Then we laid down for the hottest night in a tent I’ve spent since 1997. That time my ex and I had to wander the pier at Myrtle Beach until about 3AM, when exhaustion set in and we finally passed out in the tent for three hours—until planes started taking off from the airport directly over our heads.
This time we all tossed and turned until about midnight, when a blast of wind suddenly hit us and I knew I had precious minutes to get the rain cover on the tent. I scrambled outside to get the cover secured right as the first fat drops started hitting, and by the time I was able to get back inside, the wind was blowing the tent sideways and Finn was sitting up holding it in place.
It rained hard for half an hour, and then tapered off pretty quickly. The tent is a good one and kept all of the rain out both top and bottom—thank god. We all laid back down to try and sleep. It had cooled off but I couldn’t remove the rain cover to ventilate while the trees dripped on us, so things got muggy. Zachary found it impossible to sleep and was sitting up every half an hour, miserable. At about 4AM I told him if he couldn’t sleep we weren’t going to stay the second night and that I was totally OK with bailing out. That seemed to make him feel a little better, but didn’t help him sleep at all.
In the morning, he and I were up the earliest. I got coffee going and then made us some breakfast on Dad’s skillet while he talked to his Mom on my phone. We ate some food and let Finn sleep in until quarter of eight, then got ourselves ready to run over to the camp store to rent a canoe. I parked the truck in the sunlight to dry out and we filled the boat with our gear. Paddling out into the marsh, we followed a canal for a kilometer that led out into an area of open water and up to the beach separating marsh from bay. We were the first to pull our canoe up onto the sand, and we immediately got into the water to cool off.
Because it’s so shallow, the water was about 85˚ and very calm, so we stayed in for an hour and relaxed until the kids wanted to fish. We hiked back to a pier leading out into the open area of the marsh and I hung out with them for an hour while they dropped their lines in the water. While they were occupied, I took a side trip up the beach until I was away from everyone and spread some of Dad’s ashes out into the bay. Some of my strongest and best memories of him are from camping at the beach, and I was missing him a lot on Saturday.
The fish weren’t biting, so Finn got bored; we left Zachary at the pier and took the canoe back to the beach. He joined us after about 20 minutes, and we stayed in the water for about three straight hours laughing and splashing until our fingers were prunes and our stomachs were growling.
I got the kids hydrated and snacked, and then we got back in the canoe to paddle back to the marina. Thankfully the wind was at our back so it was pretty easy for me to paddle us back in—both kids ran out of steam about halfway back. Finn had applied sunblock 3 times but was still bright red and I think Zachary was suffering the lack of sleep. I got the zombies back to the campsite and sent them off to the bathhouse to wash off with their pre-selected clothes (DAD WIN) while I broke down camp and packed the truck up. After I got showered, I threw the bikes on the back of the truck, cleaned up our site, and hit the road for home.
About 5 miles out of the park we got hit with a rainstorm, so I put the hammer down until I could find a covered gas station and put the full top back up on the truck. Finn was up front slathered with aloe and Zachary was in back, so I think he only got a sprinkling. We put the rain behind us and stopped at a Hardee’s for a huge, well-deserved burger and fries, and continued on to Easton.
Dropping Zachary off at home, I noticed more storm clouds brewing north of us, so I hustled Finn out the door, put the bikini top back up, and floored it for home, hoping we could outrun the clouds moving southward. The Scout doesn’t currently have windshield wipers—it’s a long story—so I’ve coated the windshield with Rain-X. It works remarkably well on a summer day but at night in a thunderstorm I don’t want to test it out. Thankfully she’ll do 70mph with no effort, and with brand-new front brakes I’m not worried about stopping anymore.
We made it over the bridge with no problem—and as we got closer to home the clouds seemed to move off to the west. We pulled into the driveway at 8:30 dry as a bone and exhausted; I brought all of the consumables inside to the front porch and backed the truck into the garage.
Even though it wasn’t the full two-night three-day experience, I think we all had a lot of fun under the circumstances. Sometimes you roll the dice and get great weather, and sometimes the heat chases you home. I know we all slept like babies in our own air-conditioned beds last night, and with the kids going back to school tomorrow, that was the right call.
I got back from Florida and fell immediately into a grind at work so I haven’t had any time to collect my thoughts about the Wizarding World in one place. Currently I’m sitting in the doctor’s office (Saturday morning) being tested for the flu, because both Finn and Jen tested positive for it in the last five days.
But let me back up. Our flight to Florida was uneventful. Finn was much more anxious about this flight than she was when we went to Kansas City, but once we made it into the air she did great. On the ground in Orlando we collected our bags almost immediately and then waited a full hour for the shuttle to arrive to take us to the hotel.
We stayed at the Aventura, which is the cheapest of the three available through Universal but about five levels above a normal hotel: multiple choices of food in the lobby, staffed from 7AM to 11PM, a rooftop bar/bistro, a heated outdoor pool with its own bar, etc. Our room was on the small side but perfectly functional for our needs, and from the 8th floor we could look out and see the park (and Hogwarts Castle) from our bed.
On the first morning we were on one of the first shuttles (our tickets included an hour’s early admittance), and within 10 minutes they’d dropped us off at the entrance to Citywalk, which is a giant outdoor mall in between the real world and the entrance to the park. We followed groups of people in Hogwart’s robes to the entrance, scanned our tickets, and then followed them further through the park, past a 50’s Main Street, the San Francisco dockyards, and New York City to the facade of Kings Crossing Station. Through a crack in the wall, at about 8:15, we walked out of Orlando and into Diagon Alley. Finley’s breath caught in her throat. Sloping gently uphill, the shops and stores led to Gringott’s Bank, on top of which perched a bloodied, angry dragon. It was good enough that if I squinted in the early morning (before the throngs of tourists really descended on it) at the families wearing their robes, under the overcast Orlando sky, I was as close as I could actually get to the world of the books.
We’d been advised to go to Ollivander’s straight away, so we got in a short line and soon found ourselves queuing up inside for a private wand selection. Inside a closed room, a wizard stood behind a desk and drew one of the kids out of the crowd (not Finley, but some chump who was celebrating a birthday). His show was great. He made cabinets move and lights dim and had the crowd in his hand. When he was done we filed out into the main shop.
Finley walked almost immediately over to a wall containing hundreds of boxes, chose a blue one, and said, “What’s this one?”
A man in Ollivander’s costume overheard this and walked over. He asked Finley if she had lots of energy and if she wanted to share that energy with other people, and we all smiled with agreement. It was pretty clear Finley’s birch wand had chosen her. He then matched Jen and I with our wands (holly and reed) like a boss.
Outside, we practiced our spells at the medallions set in the ground and began to explore the Alley. We sampled hot butterbeer—which is liquid heroin—and looked through the shops, exchanged $10 for Goblin money, walked down the dark alley at Borgin and Burke’s, and looked over the flavors of ice cream at Mrs. Fortescue’s. After a thorough inspection of Diagon Alley, we found the Hogwarts Express and queued up on line there.
As with much of our stay, the lines were relatively short, and we filed into a compartment on the train. This ride is an experiential one, where there’s a projection on the “outside” wall, where we could see ourselves passing out of London, then over the countryside and past Malfoy Manor, through the Forbidden Forest (where Hagrid joined us for a while on the motorcycle) and the Weasley’s car chased alongside. Interspersed with that was a projection on the inside compartment windows where Harry, Ron and a terrible Hermione impersonator battled a dementor and bought candy from the trolley.
Walking into Hogsmeade is another moment of awe. The buildings stretch out into the distance, snow-covered roofs piled high with leaning chimneys and towering dormers, and the castle looms off in the distance. In the afternoon it’s mobbed with people, so the effect isn’t quite the same as Diagon Alley, but we still had loads of fun looking in the shops, casting spells, and walking up the lane.
Here I was able to talk Finley into going on the Hogwart’s ride, which, as we found out, is a mixture of live-action and projection. You strap into a chair four seats wide, which is connected to a hydraulic arm. The arm is on a track that takes you through an immersive story experience through Hogwarts, flying across the Quidditch pitch, and down into caverns to face off with dragons. I reached out and held Finley’s hand through the whole thing, as it was a little more intense than I was expecting, and I figured she was having a good time (I heard her laughing at certain points, but the way the chairs are set up you can’t see your neighbors). When we got off the ride she immediately told us with a solemn face that she didn’t want to ride any more rides.
We took a break from Harry Potter and wandered out into the rest of the park, starting with a strange area that wasn’t tied to any property we could identify. There we found some lunch and then went on a ride called Posiedon’s Fury, which felt like it dated back to 1998 or so. It’s basically a show, where the audience is led from one room to the next, and you stand on a low stage while they project video, shoot fire, and spray water on you. Finley thought that was great, probably because she wasn’t on a moving car.
From there we wandered out to the Jurassic Park area and the Kong experience, where we were unable to get her to ride any of the other rides. Finley played a game, and then we walked to the other side of the park to try and find our way out.
Returning back to the hotel, we took a brief break while Jen slept off a headache. Finn and I went down and sat by the pool, where I read a book and she did some of her homework. Then we shuttled back to the CityWalk, where we met the Matejowskis for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. I haven’t seen them since 2007, when I arranged for Jen to fall out of a plane, although the girls met with them for a hike a few years ago while I was traveling for work. It was great to catch up with them (this little girl is now driving), and we all had a great time.
We rose early on Sunday to to have breakfast at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. The only problem was that it’s very hard to get to Hogsmeade early without taking the Hogwarts Express unless you’ve got a different ticket than we did. So we hustled to King’s Cross and queued on line, rode the train, and got there early enough to be the first family on line. The food was passable at best but the ambiance was excellent, and we were able to relax for a little while before heading back out. We deliberated over what to do with a cup of butterbeer, then dove into the rest of the Universal park.
First up was Seussland, where the three of us rode the Sneetches ride, and then Finn and I rode One Fish Two Fish and the carousel. I do love the fact that she’s 11 and still loves a carousel.
Finn and I queued up for the Minions ride, which was an indoor experiential ride centered around a large screen with moving seats. That was so much fun we convinced Jen to try it with us, and she liked it up until the seats went backwards and then she white-knuckled it through the rest of the show.
Down the street was Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York, which again was an experiential ride with 3D glasses. Finn and I tried that one and she proclaimed it her favorite of the day up to that point. Jen sat out in the park square and got her stomach back in order, watching a parade down Main Street.
We then wandered through the Simpsons area, where Finn and I rode another spinning ride (this one hosted by Kang, the alien) and then I stopped in for a frosty Duff. Further on, we found the younger kids’ section of the park and checked out the Curious George area, which was basically a huge water park/exploration area and then a giant air-powered ball pit/gladiator arena. Six-year-old Finley would have spent the whole fucking day in there. As it was, we had to ask her to leave.
Walking towards the exit, we stopped in at the ET ride, which we’d been told was a throwback acid trip from the park’s opening in 1990. It did not disappoint. Like many of the other rides, it’s an experiential ride, where you get on a bike on a track and ride through the forest, ultimately going to “ET’s home planet” where a bunch of crappy rubber dummies sing a mind-numbingly bad song. Seriously. This would have been the perfect opportunity for experimentation with recreational drugs.
Walking back toward the entrance, we noticed a light show going on in the lake between areas and stopped to watch. They projected clips of their films on spraying water, synchronized with other jets of water, projections on the buildings behind, and fireworks overhead. It was, I must admit, pretty cool. When it was finished, we hurried out of the park to get ahead of the throngs.
Back at the hotel, Finn asked if she could check out the pool, so the two of us got suited up and went down to try it out. The weather was cold enough that a pool heated to 85˚ still felt freezing to me, so we stayed out and watched Back to the Future while Finn swam—and ultimately made a friend!
Jen and I were determined to ride some rides together, so we prepared Finley to hang out while we waited on the lines. But we planned things so that the lines would be as short as possible. Hustling into the park in the morning, we hit the Escape from Gringott’s line with a 20-minute wait and wound our way through the building until we boarded a mine car and headed into the dark. Again, it’s an experiential ride augmented with 3D glasses, with live-action elements and projection, where we followed Harry, Ron and Hermione and evaded Bellatrix and Voldemort, who were shooting spells directly in our faces.
Exhilarated, we found Finley where we’d left her and hustled over to Hogsmeade, where we queued up for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. We didn’t know much about this one going in, other than that it’s the newest of the rides in this section of the park. As we walked up to the building where the queue starts, we saw part of the ride flying past, and I have to admit, both of us got really nervous. I don’t like roller coasters all that much and I knew this was going to be outdoors, but I also knew Jen really wanted to ride it, so we continued in line.
The cars are shaped like a motorcycle and a sidecar, with a restraining pad that comes down over your legs. I took the motorcycle so I was sitting up the whole ride, which ramped up my anxiety, and Jen was in the sidecar. Normally when I’m in a roller coaster I squinch down into the seat as much as possible so I can pretend I’m not dangling from a pipe twelve stories above hard concrete. This was like standing on top of a speeding train.
Luckily, as you can see, there are no giant climbs or loops, which would have had me shitting my pants (I’m afraid of heights; anything above 3 stories has my palms sweating) but the acceleration and physical movement was absolutely fantastic. We were both cackling like idiots at the end of the ride; if we’d not had Finn waiting on us, we would have immediately gone back on line.
As it was, Finn was feeling lousy at that point, and by the time we’d made it back to the entrance she was really down. We got back to the hotel and put her in bed for a couple of hours until she woke up with a fever, at which point we Uber’d to an urgent care. We then got a car to take us to the nearest Walgreens to pick up a Tamiflu prescription, where we found they had not received the prescription. I called a car for the girls and waited around an hour for them to fill the script, then came back and delivered her medicine.
We quietly packed our gear while she slept and the next morning hit the ground running. Our Uber driver was a nice man from Venezuela who didn’t complain at all when Finn got sick in his van. I tried to catch as much as I could with a plastic bag but didn’t have time to actually open it, so most of it was in my hands. In the airport we checked our bag and then washed up in the lavatories, sailing through security relatively quickly. We prepped for more sick on the plane but Finn did great and thankfully had no further issues.
Getting home was uneventful, and Finn laid down immediately on the couch, where she stayed for the next two days. As she got better, Jen got worse and she was diagnosed with the flu on Friday.
I spend most of my life worrying about money, so it’s strange that I get so zen about money when we’re on vacation. Basically, I’m willing to spend whatever on whatever if it makes our life easier, especially when I know that we’re going to be spending more on food than I normally would. Even so, the numbers were kind of staggering for the time we spent in the parks. Overall, we spent $848.05 on food of all types, from airport to airport; this equals a little over $200/day on meals, butterbeer, drinks from the bar, butterbeer, snacks, and butterbeer. We spent a total of $200 on Uber rides, $80 of which was a cleanup fee for our Venezuelan friend, and a further $25 for travel to and from the urgent care/pharmacy.
Where we were relatively chill was in merchandise. Given that Every. Single. Ride. Ended in a gift shop, and there was a gift shop in the lobby of the hotel selling merch, we got away with only spending $202.31 on branded stuff: 3 wands and a hippogriff. Finley was really restrained in the face of all this consumerism; she never bugged us for a robe or a T-shirt or jewelry or any of the other thousand items available. When she latched on to the hippogriff, I made that happen, but waited until the final day in the park and made her carry it in her own backpack. It was fun to watch her walk the park with Buckbeak’s head sticking out of the pack, and it made her happy—and that was worth every penny spent.