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Just Added

Trip Report – Hard Rock Hotel & Harry P...

Welcome to Orlando. It is midnight. My daughter and I have been traveling on a buy one get one free ticket offer from one of my credit cards companies. Let’s just say that you get what you pay for (like a four hour layover in San Fran).

The Hard Rock Hotel

We take a short but expensive cab ride to the hotel. The cab driver tries his best to play on our sympathies by telling us we are only his third fare of the day. It is Christmas week. I give him a big tip. We arrive at the Hard Rock around 12:30 a.m. We walk into a very quiet lobby and find out that we are the final guests to arrive. But we arrive happy, still on west coast time and hyped for Harry Potter World.

“We have some good news and some bad news,” the front desk clerk announces.

After hearing many stories about mean guests from a nephew who works in the hotel business, we decide we are going to be the nice guests.

“Ok, let us have it,” I reply cheerily.

“Tonight’s room is being comped by the hotel. But we have had some problems with our guest rooms and we have no rooms left. We are going to shuttle you over to the Doubletree Inn.”

I think this is hysterically funny, being Christmas week, and that there is “room at the Inn.” My daughter doesn’t get it, and later I find a Gideon bible and explain the origin of that phrase.

The clerk and his partner brace for our reaction. I assure them that everything is fine as long as we can come back to the Hard Rock for the rest of our stay. And that is when the giving starts:

1. Coupons for the free breakfast buffet the next day (“Oh make that for 2 days, you are so nice”)
2. Hard Rock pins
3. Hard Rock blow up guitars
4. A fruit basket, wine and nuts in our room the next day (“Is it ok to change out the red wine for white? Certainly!”)
5. Hard Rock guitar picks and bracelets in our room each night
6. Late check out on our last day

During all this excitement, the night manager comes out to check on the situation. I tell him that his front desk staff are extremely accommodating and have treated us very well. Smiles are in abundance.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

As a guest at one of the Universal Studio hotels, you receive two very important benefits. First, you can enter the park one hour before the masses. Second, you can go to the front of the line for most rides with your room key.

At 6:30 a.m., on our chosen date, we walked the 11 minutes (yes, we timed it the night before) to Universal Studios. Lucky for us, my niece who resides in Orlando, accompanied us and was a super tour guide.

Wizard Alert 1
Harry Potter World is not a separate theme park. It is tucked into a corner of the Islands of Adventure Park. Hmmm. You walk past Cat in the Hat land and Poseidon’s something to get there. Since you are speed walking with hundreds of other hotel guests, these areas go by in a blur.

The sun is just rising as we approach the gate to a replica of Hogsmeade Village. I have to say, it is quite a magical moment. There is the train to greet you and a waiting area with owls in the rafters.

Wizard Alert 2
The shop fronts are fake. Not a good sign for future shopping later. We arrive in time for a short wait to get into Ollivander’s Wand Shop (which I can never remember and call Oleander’s). A boy is picked and you know the story. But I have to elaborate a bit on this one. The younger brother of the chosen boy cannot stand it. He is so upset his brother got chosen he keeps hopping up and down. This spectacle is almost as distracting as the “chosen” brother who repeatedly grabs at the wands “Mr. Ollivander” is waving around. The father of these two boys is in dire straits. It is all quite amusing if you aren’t related to them.

Next stop is the ride through the castle called Forbidden Journey. The entrance to the ride is almost as fun as the ride itself. This is definitely a top notch ride and there is no fast pass, it is wise to plan accordingly.

Wizard Alert 3
Harry Potter World is more like a street. Or as my daughter says, a cul-de-sac. That’s right. After you get off the castle ride, boom, end of the world. It is now 8:00 a.m. and we’ve seen the entire area. We head to get some Butterbeer and look around in the two shops that aren’t fake, the candy shop (Honeydukes) and the joke shop (Zonko’s). These well-decorated shops are connected, but very small with a disappointing selection.

There are a few more things to see and one place to eat but it doesn’t open until lunch. We’ve managed to get to 10:00 a.m. There are lines for everything now. The masses have been in the park for two hours. We wind our way to the other parts of the Islands of Adventure. They are all are deserted. We walk onto every ride and kill another hour. We decide to take a water taxi back to the Hard Rock for lunch and to enjoy some pool time.

My niece bids us farewell and we decide to try Harry Potter’s World again in a night setting. It is still very crowded. We work our way into “Three Broomsticks” for a yummy dinner and decide to try the pumpkin fizz drink. Yuck, stay with Butterbeer.

We return to the castle ride and enter as single riders. This cuts 15 minutes off the 45 minute wait. It is still a great ride. My daughter does a couple of the roller coaster rides again (no wait ever) and we go wand shopping. The crowds have thinned down enough that we don’t have to wait in line to get into the wand shop.

Missed Opportunity
Good try Universal. You gave us a big tease and left us wanting for much more. Not only could there have been more Harry Potter attractions, but the themed merchandise was very limited. I hear that there is going to be a Harry Potter World in California. I’m hoping they can pack a lot more wow into the new park.

So you are probably wondering, was it worth it? If someone had told me what I’ve told you, I would have had lower expectations and not have been so disappointed. But this wasn’t about me. This was my daughter’s gift. She loved every minute of it and that was worth every cent.

Just Added

A Holiday Story

I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and hope you have a special memory that makes you smile.

The Gift
My sisters and I swayed like pine trees in the wind as Burl Ives sang “Silver and Gold.” Each time we saw the hairy abominable snowman, we shrieked in unison. The three of us were like stick figure characters, all arms and legs. I was almost seven years old when Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer first aired on television. Dianne, the middle sister, was five years old and Sandy, the youngest, was four years old. We were a bunch of wiggly giggly girls, completely enchanted with Rudolf and his friends.

A few nights later, on Christmas Eve, we were still singing songs from that show. At bedtime, we stood with our arms straight up and let our mom drop our nightgowns over our heads. For Christmas, we wore matching green plaid flannel nightgowns trimmed with lace. Although giddy with excitement, we performed our nightly winter rituals. We lived in a big old house in New England. The heat came out of metal vents on the floor. Each night, we’d find a vent and stand over it, letting the hot air puff out our nightgowns and warm our bodies. On this special night, we imitated Santa, rubbing our hot air bellies and yelling “Ho, ho, ho” in our deepest voices. Mom reminded us, “Santa won’t come until you all fall asleep.” On Christmas Eve, we didn’t have to be told twice to do something.

Alone in my room, I lay still and quiet, straining my ears to hear reindeer paws on the roof, or the jingle of bells, or even Santa’s hearty laugh. Sometime later my mom was in the room gently shaking me awake. “Val, Santa’s here,” she whispered. I jumped out of bed and ran down the hallway to my sisters’ bedroom.

“Wake up, wake up, Santa, Santa,” I shouted pulling off their covers. They rubbed their eyes with little fists and trailed after me. We were a fast moving parade of green flannel, tangled hair and bare feet.

I stopped at the threshold of the living room with my sisters bumping and poking behind me. There, sitting in our biggest chair, was Santa. I thought we must be the best girls on the street because Santa was in our house waiting to give us our presents. Santa waved his white-gloved hand in my direction. “Ho, ho, little girl, do you want to sit on Santa’s lap?”

I looked at my mom, dad and grandma all watching me with big grins. I scampered over and climbed onto his lap. Santa had a big belly and his velvet suit was soft and tickly on my ankles and feet. I looked into his crinkly eyes with anticipation.

“Who do we have here?” Santa asked.

“Santa, it’s me, Valerie and I’ve been good,” I chirped.

“So you have, and I have some presents for you.”

As he reached for my gifts, his beard moved away from his face. I leaned in for a closer look. Santa’s beard was not growing out of his skin; it was lying on top of it. I started to feel shaky inside. Something was wrong with Santa. I recognized his eyes, and I had heard that gruff voice before. Was this some kind of trick? Was my grandfather pretending to be Santa? I didn’t know what to do so I searched for my mom’s face with my nervous eyes. She came to us, took my hand and I slid off Santa’s lap. We walked around the corner into the dining room. I could hear Santa calling one of my sisters to the place I just left.

“What is wrong with you Valerie?” my mom asked.

“Mom, that’s not Santa, that’s Grampy,” I whispered.

“You are right; now don’t ruin it for your sisters. Let them believe it is Santa.”

I nodded yes and went back into the living room. I found a spot on the leopard print sofa near my grandmother. I tucked my knees under my nightgown trying to get really small. I had a lot to think about. Gram reached over and pulled me close to her. She almost tipped me over, and I had to kick my legs out of my nightgown for balance. I leaned into her and inhaled her scent. Mixed in with the Estee Lauder were the onions she’d slice every day in her sub shop. While my sisters had their fun with Santa, I tried to sort through my jumbled feelings. I had a lot of questions, but I could not ask anyone for answers. In my frustration, I wanted to cry out loud, and I remembered my mom’s words.

If Santa wasn’t real, then I guess the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy were made up too. I had my doubts about those two already. But Santa, I really loved him. The more I thought about it, I realized that it wasn’t just Santa I loved. I loved the lights decorating the houses, the smell of the tree in the living room and how cheerful everyone seemed that time of the year.

Lost in my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed the presents piling up at my feet. As I ripped the paper off my gifts, the ache in my heart got smaller. I looked up from my gifts and saw the tired and happy faces of my parents and grandparents. I thought about everything they had done to prepare for this special night: Grampy dressing up as Santa, my parents hanging up our stockings and buying and wrapping all our gifts. They even put ribbon candy in the fancy candy dish. I wondered how they did all of this without our finding out.

Faintly I could hear the radio playing holiday music. One of my favorite songs “Little Drummer Boy” was playing. I listened for my favorite part, the sound of the drums. I remembered when I first understood that a song had many parts. More than just the singer’s voice, other people played instruments to make the music behind the singer’s voice. Figuring that out made me feel more grown up. I was feeling more grown up this night too.

I felt all shivery like I had goose bumps on the inside instead of the outside. I was beginning to understand something. Love was more than what you received from others – that was the small part of love. The big part of love was the giving part. My parents and grandparents gave us the magic of Christmas, and they weren’t expecting anything in return. I now had that responsibility with my sisters. I would keep the holiday magic alive for them. My frustration turned to joy that night and that joy filled up my little girl heart. Love was my gift to give that Christmas.