2013 Universal/ WDW
Aunt Faith took Julia and Megan to Universal Florida for 3 nights, followed by 6 nights at Walt Disney World
Once upon a time- in spring 2012- I decided that the time had come to start planning another Disney trip with my nieces. After carefully considering many possibilities (which is a euphemism for driving myself and everyone who knows me crazy with my indecision), in May 2012 I finally made a decision- I booked a 7 day Eastern Caribbean Cruise on the Disney Fantasy for August 2013. With each passing month, I added more details to my increasingly elaborate plot as my excitement grew.

I unveiled my plan on New Years Eve 2013 by giving my nieces colorful M&M's imprinted with the words "Disney", "Fantasy", "Cruise", and "2013" on them. There was much rejoicing, and I went on to book Disney hotels to bookend the trip using a 35% off discount code I received.

Unlike most fairy tales, the jubilation was short lived. It seems that the girls' school district had recently approved a plan to deviate from their standard policy of starting school after Labor Day whenever the holiday falls on September 2; the revised schedule meant school would begin while we were still on the cruise. Ultimately their parents said that the girls could not miss school, so I had to let go of all my well thought out plans. The 30 minutes I spent on hold canceling the Disney hotels I'd just booked were painful.

I evaluated other options, and quickly ruled out taking a Disney cruise on another date; by the time I was looking into making changes, the earlier summer Eastern Caribbean cruises were prohibitively expensive. I didn't want to take a cruise on another line because I wanted to do something Disney. The only viable option was a land only trip to Florida but I had 2 major concerns: 1) I did not want to feel like I was "settling" for something less than what I really wanted and 2) I worried that spending long times in theme parks the Florida humidity would lead to conflicts; the last park day of our 2011 trip was far from happy and we'd only had 4 park days.

Since my Disney hotel discount code was only valid for a limited time, at the end of January I booked 6 nights at the Polynesian just in case I wanted to do a Disney World trip with the girls; I could still cancel up to 5 days before my scheduled arrival without penalty. After months of consideration, I finally decided on a plan I could love: we'd spend 2 days at Universal, mainly to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, followed by a week at Disney World. By that point, I'd let go of my grief for my original plans and my heart was truly open to new possibilities. When I asked the girls in April if they wanted to join me, there was much celebration… from Julia. Megan, on the other hand, was more immediately concerned with her fear of a bug in the house.

After gathering information on the possible air options and their prices, I consulted with the girls and we agreed that the best option was to fly out of Baltimore since the prices were much more affordable than Philadelphia for convenient times (especially when you multiply by 3). No one wanted to fly at 7am, especially for the return home!

A few short weeks before our departure, I received an email with an offer for 40% off of a hotel stay at Universal. Since compatible rooms were not available at the hotel where I'd originally booked and since I'd starting questioning that hotel choice anyway, I ended up switching our reservation to the Portofino Bay Hotel. I'd initially had some misgivings at arriving on Saturday but since I needed to stay 3 nights to qualify for the discount, it all worked out in the end.

Thus begins the tale of my 3rd trip to Florida/ Disney World with Julia and Megan. While it had had a more bumpy genesis that our 2 previous travel adventures, as the trip approached I felt increasingly better about how nicely things were working out. One special aspect of this trip was that we'd be in Disney World for Julia's birthday and I was determined that she have special memories of her Sweet 16.

Note: Like my blog from 2 years ago, this one is interspersed with comments from Julia's notes that are displayed in green text. I wrote my reports first so that I wouldn't be influenced by what Julia had to say, and then I tried to add her commentary.
It often seems surreal to blink my eyes awake and realize that a day I'd been anticipating and imagining for months has finally arrived. I woke up at approximately the same time I get up for work and yet it felt totally different, of course, because I'd be headed for the airport instead of an office. My bags were packed so I had time to goof off a bit online while waiting for Brian, Caren and the girls to pick me up.

At 9:45, they arrived- a little late, but still with plenty of time to spare to make our flight. As everyone rightly fussed over my adorable furricanes, it really hit me that instead of my usual solitude, I'd be spending 24/7 for the next 10 days with a tween and a teen. I was able to allay my fears by reminding myself that past experiences have always worked out wonderfully in that regard.

The car ride to Baltimore was filled with joy and silliness. Megan was talking about the Stitch pin lanyard she wanted to buy at Disney and I shared some of our plans. Despite some traffic and making a pit stop, we arrived at BWI airport at approximately the time I'd been targeting.

However, I'd received an email en route saying that our flight would be about an hour late. In addition to realizing the delayed schedule might kill my plan to hit the pool at night, it would be a big test: airports and plane delays had been pitfalls of drama on our 2011 trip. Fortunately, this time the girls had samsung tablets which ended up being worth their weight in gold in their ability to keep them occupied and amused.

The lines at the airport were not too bad, and of course we had plenty of time. But I am notoriously full of nerves until I clear security. Once that hurdle was overcome, I was able to breathe. I sat down to put on my shoes and rearrange my bags… and out of the Amazing Overflow Duffle came 2 gift bags, 1 for each girl. On our Florida trips, it's been a tradition for me to present them with gift bags, which center around a guidebook I write with background information and daily plans/ park hours. This had been a great way to manage expectations, plus it's a lot of fun for me to put it together.

Of course, the gift bags end up stuffed with all sorts of goodies ranging from practical items like tissues and chapstick to fun stuff like candy- else what would be the fun of them? Not surprisingly, the Universal gift cards were a big hit! Megan's face lit up when she saw the Stitch lanyard she'd been coveting; hey, how could I have let her spend $45 of her money on it when I could get it on ebay for half of that? Julia got one, too. The Smores flavored candy corn in Julia's bag proved to be a huge hit for all 3 of us- So much so that we were practically begging for fresh supplies to greet us at the airport on our way home. Yes, I am an addict. And an enabler.

Aunt Faith is an angel.

After the gift bags and guidebooks had been thoroughly examined, it was time for some lunch. I finally found a terminal map and followed its directions to a place that was supposed to serve pizza; however, the map was clearly out of date. So I suggested we try another Italian sounding place a little further away. When we arrived there, we saw a bonus- not only did they offer pizza, there was also a sushi place next door! Julia and I decided to split a Salmon Avocado Roll and a Philadelphia Roll, while Megan stuck to the original plan for pizza. Once we were done, Julia broke out the Smores candy corn- yum!

We had plenty of time at the gate for the girls to play cards together and play video games on their tablets while I texted their mom. And by "plenty of time", I mean that it was downright exciting when we could finally line up to board the plane! (I think we had boarding numbers A25-27 so we were some of the first to board) It felt like we'd been at the airport forever; indeed, we'd spent more time at BWI than we would spend on the airplane.

I'm not sure if I'm more excited to board, or just get the heck outta here.

Our flight to Orlando featured the kind of off beat flight attendants that seem to be a bit of a specialty of Southwest. In this case, we had "Crazy Raul" (so dubbed by another flight attendant). Our first clue that he was a bit… different… was when he made funny faces and such while demonstrating the safety procedures. If that wasn't enough, he kept saying "I think I can, I think I can" over the P.A. as if voicing the inner thoughts of the plane as it sped up on the runway for takeoff.

During the flight, the girls loved the view of the clouds. It looks so cool outside... Clouds seriously look like cotton just hanging in the sky. I, on the other hand, tried to catch a few moments of shut eye; I am notorious for easily falling asleep on flights which definitely serves me well on long hauls. Landing was a bit choppy and Julia was chided by "Crazy Raul" for taking a photograph after we'd been told to shut off all electronics for landing, but otherwise the flight was nicely uneventful.

"If you leave anything on the plane, please let it be cash"- our flight attendant.

We landed in sunny Florida in the middle of a rain storm. That wouldn't be a big deal, but our baggage was delayed due to luggage carts not operating since there was lightning within a certain radius. So we waited. It was hard for me to be patient since we'd been en route for approximately 8 hours and I just wanted to get somewhere!

"Welcome to Orlando, land of hot, humid and rain. And Disney and Universal so it's all good. And palm trees. You can't forget palm trees"- Megan

Finally, our luggage came out and we were able to hop directly into a cab without a wait. Next stop: Portofino Bay Hotel! It was exciting riding in the taxi and knowing that we were getting closer to fun. Heck, it was just exciting being outside of an airport or airplane!

Themed to the Portofino area of Italy, the hotel reminded me a little of the Hotel Miracosta at Tokyo DisneySea. There was a slight delay when we checked in- I'm not sure what that was about, but since they ended up upgrading our room to a Bay View, I was good with it. (Bay View wasn't available when I made my reservations; I'd considered adding it later but it didn't seem to be worth the trouble) The newly renovated room was quite lovely, and the view was great. Julia was very put off by the fact that the room contained a mini-bar which charged you high prices if you succumbed to the convenient temptation to partake of any items; this is a fairly common concept in the hotel industry, but I guess it was the girls' first time experiencing it.

We didn't spend much time in the room before we headed out to the dock, where we could catch a boat to the Universal theme park area.

First glimpse of Universal. This place is pretty sweet.... Reminds me of Six Flas or Clemington. Sortaish, kinda, not really. There's no (natural) palm trees these. Man, I'm excited.

My first stop was the guest services outside the Universal Florida gate because I had an old ticket I wanted to upgrade. Years ago, I'd purchased a 2 day park-to-park ticket but had never used the 2nd day (partly because I had not exactly been enchanted with the place during the day I spent there…). I needed 2 days for this trip, and in my research I'd found that Universal will credit you the price you paid for a ticket if you want to upgrade it. (ie if I originally paid $90 for a 2 day ticket and a 3 day park-to-park was now $150, I should have to pay $60; Disney does this a little differently, in a manner that is more beneficial to the customer, because they will charge the difference between the current price for the ticket the guest has and the one they want)

After what seemed like an awfully long wait (although the line was short at 8pm, there were only 2 agents working), I smiled and inquired about converting my ticket to a 3 day park-to-park ticket, fairly confident that it was possible. And the agent told me that I couldn't do it! I tried to politely state my case, but after I continued to receive a negative answer, I found myself slipping and saying (still politely) that Universal sucks. I am not sure if she originally misunderstood me- she kept saying something about not being able to split a ticket which was not what I was asking- but eventually she was able to do exactly what I wanted, and my ticket was set. I used this experience as an opportunity to tell the girls that it pays to always do your research and to stand your ground (without being overly confrontational) if you believe you are right.

Oh man. Things are looking very hairy for my poor, overstressed, overworked, much loved Aunt. We don't need this to go wrong... OK. This might actually work. Yay! Hooray! We're in business! Woot woot's!

Finally, we were able to head to dinner! I'd selected NBA City for our dining experience- not because we have any affinity for basketball, but because they served milkshakes and a variety of foods. Plus, it was very close to the guest services area.

The service was quite slow, but we all enjoyed our meals: Megan had a kids' meal of macaroni and cheese and French fries, Julia had a chicken club sandwich and I ordered the honey balsamic salmon. For dessert, Julia and I had Reese's milkshakes while Megan had an Oreo one; neither girl could finish their shakes but they were able to take the remains to go. When I got the check, I was a little annoyed at how the restaurant had nickel-and-dimed me without my knowledge; they'd charged extra for Megan's fries and had also charged $1 each to add whipped cream to the girls' shakes. None of these charges were explained to me at the time of ordering- the waitress would simply say she could bring the item without explaining that there was any added charge. I didn't think it was worth arguing, so I just paid. Despite leaving on a slightly bitter note, we really had good time laughing and eating good food so it was worth it.

There seemed to be a long line for the boat back to our hotel so I suggested walking. It was quite a pleasant, peaceful walk, especially at night (ie not in the heat of the day) and especially when we'd been sitting all day.

On the way back to our building in the East Wing, we stopped to gaze at the pool and then by the lobby to get our Express passes for the parks. If you stay onsite at Universal, you can get front of line privileges for most rides using the Express pass, which has your photo so it can't be transferred. You can get the Express pass from automated machines which were simple to operate- you insert your room key, position yourself in front of its camera, and then click to take a photo. You can even re-take your photo if you aren't happy with how it turned out; both Megan and I used this option. Finally, we made it back to the room around 10:30pm and we partially unpacked (no need to unpack things we wouldn't need until Disney) and chilled out a bit before going to sleep.
Julia's gift bag Sushi! Playing cards while waiting for the flight Arriving in sunny (NOT) Florida In the airport monorail Megan shows off her pins Julia takes up journaling View from our hotel room The boat we took to Universal, after we disembarked Universal signage We made it to Universal Dinner at NBA City My Honey Balsamic Salmon dinner at NBA City NBA City
The alarm was set for 7:30am but both Megan and I woke up before then; I'd also awakened in the middle of the night when I felt really warm. In the process of setting the A/C to be a little cooler, I also set the thermostat to display Fahrenheit instead of Celsius (which Julia had said wasn't possible)

There was a boat waiting when we got to the hotel dock, and we made it to Universal by around 8:30am. The regular opening time was 9am but since we were staying onsite, we could get in early at 8am. I tried to get my PhotoConnect card that I'd pre-ordered, but I was told that this could not be done until the official park opening. So we headed to the "Despicable Me Minion Mayhem" ride. I'd only recently seen the movie with my nieces, and I'm glad I did because the ride definitely made more sense. The plot of this cute simulator ride was that the girls from the movie were training you to become a minion. Unfortunately, it started a trend that would continue throughout our time at Universal of rides I liked despite making me at least slightly motion sick.

After riding, I achieved my goal of having my photo taken with a Minion- there was one was posing/dancing with guests in the area where the ride lets out. At the gift shop, Megan bought a large stuffed Minion and Julia purchased a Minion key chain.

After leaving the Minion area, I was finally able to activate my PhotoConnect card which would allow us to download all the photos taken on rides and by park photographers. I'd ordered it when it was discounted to $40 as a pre-order, and it was worth the price.

Across from Despicable Me was a Shrek themed 4D movie attraction, so we headed there next. This was another movie I'd only recently seen, and I was once again glad I had context. From there, we headed to Rip Ride Rockit coaster- or, as it was known to us, "Super Duper Looper Barfing Coaster of Death #1". Megan and I were both happy to sit and wait for Julia to ride it as neither of us are huge fans of scary rides.

Megan and Aunt Faith are being party poopers. Super Dooper Looping Barfing Coaster of Death sounds fun!

Some unique features of this coaster are its vertical lift, the ability of the rider to select a music track to accompany their ride, and the fact that it takes a video of your ride. So when Julia finally emerged, we were able to watch a video of her riding. There were a lot of people crowded around the video/image viewers but eventually we figured out that we could go to the counter to get Julia's ride photo added to our PhotoConnect account.

It was a little different for me to be walking around a theme park without knowing exactly where everything is. When we were making our way around, I happened upon the ride marquee for The Mummy which was high on my list of rides to experience. Megan decided that she wanted to sit it out and wait for our report, so she held our bags. I've never seen the movie and have only a limited idea of the ride's story line, but it was a lot of fun. It started out like a slow moving ride, but then changed to a more exciting roller coaster type ride- something on the order of Space Mountain but smoother. And oh yeah, there were fire effects that were really neat too. A definite winner for me!

Our next ride was Men In Black- again, I have no context from the movie. All I know is that it was a ride where you aim at targets (in this case, aliens) and accumulate points. And that I got the highest score- woo hoo! Well, technically I only got the high score because I pressed the red button in the ride vehicle console when I heard them saying (twice iirc) to press the red button; that gave me a 100,000 bonus. I've since read that only the first person to press the button will get the points. Whatever the case, it still counts as a win.

Men In Black was one of several rides at Universal that does not allow you to carry on any bags. They provide free lockers that you can lock and unlock with your finger print. Well, when I came back to retrieve my bag after the ride, I realized that my backpack strap was hanging out of my locker- and its bottom was locked in the one below mine! Fail. Fortunately, there was an attendant who was able to open the lower locker long enough for me to retrieve my bag so I didn't have to stand there like an idiot waiting for the other locker's owner to arrive.

Next we headed to a new area of the park that I was looking forward to: Springfield, home to The Simpsons. This area was just newly expanded in 2013 and I was eager to see it. Our first stop was "The Simpsons Ride", a simulator type ride which had been there before the recent expansion. Even using our Express Passes, the wait seemed to take quite awhile. I loved the humor in the queue and the ride movie. However, I had to close my eyes at parts because I was getting motion sick.

By now, it was almost noon and time to start thinking about lunch- but not before stopping to take photos with Sideshow Bob and Krusty the Clown. We stayed in Springfield and headed to Fast Food Boulevard, which is adjacent to an amazing replica of Moe's Tavern. The area is situated with counters offering various kinds of food and one pay area- so each person a family could theoretically choose to get a different cuisine and then someone could pay for everyone together. In our case, we all ordered from Luigi's Pizza: I had the Meat Liker's, Julia had vegetarian, and Megan unsurpringly had a plain. I wanted to try the Flaming Moe (an orange flavored soda that bubbles because it is served on dry ice), but settled for Buzz Cola- a diet cherry cola- since I didn't want to pay $8 for a beverage! (the $3 I spent was plenty overpriced) I also grabbed a donut cupcake to split with Julia. (Cupcake #1)

It was good to take a break from rides, and there was much laughter as we made variations of Despicable Me quotes. ("I fly to the moon, I shrink the moon, I grab the moon, I sit on the toilet- wait what?") After lunch I made sure we all reapplied sunscreen- showing that I can sometimes successfully play the role of Responsible Adult.

We decided to head out to the 2nd theme park, Islands of Adventure, but the E.T. Adventure was on the way so we stopped to ride. This was fortunate because apparently we missed a massive downpour while on the attraction.

It's very convenient that the 2 Universal parks are almost right next to each other so we could easily make our way to Islands of Adventure (IOA); it is slightly less fortunate that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is located in a far corner of IOA, thereby requiring a hike through Seuss Landing and The Lost Continent. But finally we made it- and it was thrilling to finally be immersed in the world of Harry Potter that I'd been wanting to visit ever since it opened in June 2010. We're all huge Harry Potter fans- Julia and I went to the midnight release for the last book- so we were in heaven.

At about 1:40pm I decided to look at the wait time for the signature ride, Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey, expecting it to be ridiculously long. I could not believe it was only posted as 20 minutes! Clearly, it was a no brainer for us to make a unanimous decision to get our butts on the ride. First, though, we had to store our belongings in a very claustrophobic locker area.

Forbidden Journey is an amazing and unique ride. Yes, it made me more than a little motion sick, but it was worth it. The queue itself is fabulous as you travel through various areas of Hogwarts and have "virtual" versions of Harry, Ron, and Hermione explain the ride's concept (they are going to help you skip a boring History of Hogwarts lecture to see a Quiddich match). As you sit on a vehicle that holds 4 people in one row, the ride takes you further into the world of Harry Potter through the use of screens, props, and the movement of the ride vehicle. Our journey was interrupted briefly by a ride stoppage, but fortunately after only a couple minutes, it started back up. It's really hard to explain, but it's a must for any Harry Potter or theme park fan: Definitely one of the more creative and immersive rides I've experienced.

Another must is sampling Butterbeer, something we were all eagerly looking forward to. Rather than standing in line in the heat, we went inside the Hog's Head Pub and we were able to walk right up to the bar and place our orders. Butterbeer comes in 2 varieties: normal (cold) and frozen. The girls both decided on frozen so that's what I ordered, too. I wanted to sit inside but all the tables said "reserved" and were probably meant for people ordering meals at the connected Three Broomsticks restaurant. So we ate outside; only after we finished did I discover a slightly secret location with tables behind the restaurant.

I wanted a photo with my Butterbeer and Megan eagerly volunteered to take one. The only problem was… she couldn't get the photo to take. Fail. So I had her pass the camera to Julia. We all thought the beverage was delicious- especially the foam at the top! As we sat in the shade enjoying, I tweeted some Les Mis song parodies about the Phillies which made us all laugh.

Ride Rating Despicable Me Minion Madness: :) (but only once...)
Ride Rating Shrek: :) (only once)
Ride Rating Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit: :) :) :) ♥ OMG MUST GO ON AGAIN!
Ride Rating Revenge of the Mummy: :) :) :) ♥ OMG FABULOUS!!
Ride Rating Men In Black Alien Attack: :) :) ♥ MUCH FUNS!
Ride Rating The Simpsons Ride: :) Well that was fun
Ride Rating The ET Adventure: :) ♥ A little kiddy ride like, but LOVE the scenery!
Ride Rating Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey: :) :) ♥ Man that's cool.

We were all ready for a break. So, after I bought a chocolately Caldron Cake in Honeydukes sweet shop, we headed back to the hotel. By the time we got to the boat, it was about 3:30 pm; we couldn't believe we'd spent 7 straight hours in the parks. It was a relaxing ride back, and after exploring the hotel gift shops and purchasing a bottle of water, we enjoyed some time chilling out (literally) and being silly in the Air Conditioned hotel room. Although I am not sure how much Megan enjoyed the fact that she had a bad case of hiccups.

After a couple hours indulging in mental and physical laziness, we decided it was time to start thinking about dinner. I suggested checking the menu at Sal's Market Deli which seemed to be the less expensive/ more casual option offered by our hotel; if we couldn't agree on anything there, we'd head to a park or CityWalk. We all were able to find things we liked, and the food ended up being fabulous. I had a chicken parmagiana sandwich which came with homemade potato chips, Julia had a caprese sandwich (Fresh mozzarella, Marinated Tomato and Basil; also served with chips) and Megan had a kid's size pizza.

Dinner was served with a side order of silliness. Megan tried to feed her sister potato chips; Julia's response was to hold her hand up and saying "talk to the hand". Megan used this as an invitation to draw a face on her sister's palm. You probably had to be there. ;)

After dinner, we decided to hit the Beach Pool at the hotel since we hadn't been able to do so the previous night. We arrived at about 7pm and had just enough time to get a little wet before hotel personnel started evacuating the grounds due to approaching storms (which didn't actually materialize for another half hour) . That was a huge bummer! Since it didn't appear that the pool would be opening imminently, we decided to head back to the hotel room and call down later to find out the status. On the way, I wanted to peek at the other pool. The Villa Pool was so deserted that it felt creepy to be there; I declared that it seemed almost like it belonged to the Hollywood Tower Hotel (home to the Tower of Terror ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios).

Swimming was fun for 4 seconds... until they kicked us out due to weather. Boos! Now I'm wet and depressed.

As we sat in the hotel room, we could see that it was really starting to storm outside and we doubted the pool would be able to re-open. So we resumed our regularly scheduled silliness which this time centered on mocking Russell Crowe as Javert. I played various musical theatre songs and cast recordings from my iPad for the girls and we had a lot of laughs.

At some point, I decided to have a little of my Cauldron Cake; it was so yummy that I couldn't stop before eating the entire thing! (I am not sure if this counts as a cupcake for my official count; it definitely counts as a win at yumminess)

We didn't stay up too late because we wanted to get up for early entry at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter the next morning.
Happy to be in Universal Posing with a minion Rip Ride Rockit Julia and Me on Revenge of the Mummy Ride photo from Men in Black Springfield, home of The Simpsons Posing with Sideshow Bob and Krusty the Clown Me with the Donut Cupcake Entering the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Ride Photo from Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey The girls enjoy frozen butterbeers Portofino Bay Resort Looking out from the hallway Portofino Bay Resort Dinner at Sal's Market Deli My chicken parmigiana sandwich at Sal's Market Deli
The alarm was set for 7 am, but I awoke a couple minutes early. When the girls didn't get up right away, I started playing Russell Crowe singing "Stars" on my iPad. (*cringe*) All of a sudden, they were jumping out of bed declaring that they were awake!

Although we were ready and at the boat dock by 7:45 am, we had to wait awhile for a boat to arrive… and once it did, the family in front of us was the last allowed to board. If only I hadn't stopped to take a few photos…! Fortunately, another boat arrived right away, although it took awhile to load it with several large strollers and ECV's.

After posing for an obligatory photo when we entered the park, we headed directly to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (via Seuss Landing etc) and got there around 8:30am. At the time, Forbidden Journey wasn't yet running but they let us in line; the line ended up being about 30 minutes due to the delay in opening the ride. (The Dragon Challenge coaster also hadn't been open when we got there, so the whole onsite early entry privilege was a bit of a fail that day) Despite taking a low drowsiness Dramamine that morning, the ride still made me motion sick- but I felt better afterwards than the previous day so maybe there was some benefit.

I felt like I was stuck in the longest, slowest moving line ever to claim our photo after the ride; I told the girls to just look around the store since we didn't all need to be annoyed. Julia ended up buying a plush spider, and Megan picked up a plush Fawkes (phoenix). I eventually got a Hogwarts T-shirt.

We next headed to the Flight of the Hippogriff which is a bit of a kiddy coaster that I described by saying that if it wasn't Harry Potter themed, I'd skip it as being beneath me. But since it was Potter themed, we rode it and thought it was cute (especially when we saw Buckbeak) but very short.

By now the Dragon Challenge coaster (aka "Super Duper Looper Barfing Coaster of Death #2") was open. Megan and I decided to get in line with Julia since I'd read that the theming of the queue was worth a look. And indeed it was, as it had signs cheering the entrants in the Tri Wizard Tournament that is the centerpiece of "Goblet of Fire". Plus, it had an awesome view of Hogwarts castle.

When we got to the front of the line, Megan and I happily took the chicken exit and waited. And waited. And waited some more. No one seemed to be coming off the ride so it was slightly concerning; it turned out there was a delay while they were adding cars to the track to increase capacity. I was surprised that there was no ride photo. Moreover, Universal seemed to be missing the mark in general by not having their big coasters feed into gift shops at the exits. In addition to the fact that it would be more beneficial to guests to be able to wait in air conditioned shops while the braver members of their party rode, it could also boost park revenue; seems like a win-win scenario.

The only possible complaint I have about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is that it gets crowded. Very crowded. So we were happy to move on to some other areas of the park, which all seemed deserted in comparison. Our first stop was the Jurassic Park River Adventure, a ride in a 25 person boat that takes you on a tranquil voyage to see some dinosaurs before a thrilling final drop. There was absolutely no line. As is my custom, I lifted my arms in the air to enjoy the final drop. Which I did. Until we reached the bottom and my stomach slammed hard right into the lap bar - ow!

We also got quite drenched by the ride, moreso than we expected. Despite being soggy, we took advantage of the opportunity to take a photo op nearby with a dinosaur which was fun.

By now it was around 11am; I was hungry and wanted a break so I navigated to the first counter serve place on our route which was the Comic Strip Café in Toon Landing. I had spaghetti and meatballs, Julia decided to have a couple egg rolls, and Megan had an adult sized cheeseburger which Julia finished. It was nice to sit down in A/C, and some of the cartoons on the wall were really cute.

The next ride we came across was Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, a log flume ride that should theoretically not seem threatening. Alas, I still have post traumatic stress from the time I rode it back when the park was new. After a line that seemingly took forever, I recall feeling like I was going to tumble out of the boat on the final drop. I told the girls that I'd be happy to wait for them if they wanted to ride, but I probably made it sound unappealing enough that they were glad to pass on it.

So we headed to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man which is- wait for it- another simulator type ride, although this one is different from most others because you are in a vehicle that actually moves on a track to different screens. Our express pass served us well here since the regular queue was substantial. On our way into the ride, there is a photo op where your picture is taken to be superimposed on a Spider Man background; when we went to pick it up, Julia's torso seemed to be transparent because her shirt was a similar color to the screen! Too funny. They fixed the photo for us, but I kinda prefer the version where she is transparent.

Julia rode The Incredible Hulk Coaster (aka "Super Duper Looper Barfing Coaster of Death #3") while Megan and I once again happily waited in a boring area. If I was ever to brave a big coaster, this would be one I'd like to ride; I like how it has a powerful launch inside a tube and it generally doesn't seem quite as scary as some others. Perhaps if I visited Universal after Disney, I'd be able to work myself up to it. But in any case, I was not in a mood that was conducive to riding it that day and I have no regrets.

As we headed back to Seuss Landing to ride The Cat In The Hat, Julia mocked the fact that she was going from a big coaster to a kiddy ride. But at the end, we all thought it was very cute and were glad we rode it. But even this kiddy ride made me feel a tad motion sick! (the ride vehicle spins at some points)

We made our way back to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to try some regular (not frozen) butterbeers. Once again, we ordered from inside the Hog's Head Pub. This time, we sat to enjoy our drinks in the "secret" area we'd found behind the bar ,which had a nice view of Hogwarts. Megan and I preferred the regular version which was fizzier, while Julia preferred the frozen. But we were all glad that we tried both!

By now it was a little after 1pm, and we decided to head back to the hotel. On the way, we stopped at some shops and I stopped at a store where I could get some PhotoConnect issues addressed (we had some magic shots that were missing the magic, plus a photo taken before we got our official card that we wanted added). It took a little longer than I expected, but at least everything was taken care of.

Ride Review Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey take 2: :) :) :) Seemed more fun!
Ride Review Flight of the Hippogriff: :) :) Fun but short
Ride Review Dragon Challenge: :) :) ♥ Funs!
Ride Review Jurassic Adventure: :) :) ♥ Now I'm wet...
Ride Review Spider Man: :) :) Yays. Much funs!
Ride Review Super Duper Looping Barfing Coaster of Death #3 ie The Hulk: :) :) :) Muchly funs!

We went back to the hotel to chill, and were quite happy to just sit on our beds for awhile. At about 3:30, it was time for a snack so we headed to the gelateria near where we'd eaten the night before. The availability of gelati was one of the things that had appealed to me about the hotel so I was glad to find a chance to try some. I had Dulce De Leche with hot fudge which was exquisite; Julia had Spumoni with chocolate sprinkles and Megan had Dulce De Leche with rainbow sprinkles.

We thought it would be nice to eat on the cute tables outside, but we soon felt drops of rain so we headed back up to the room. Once I finished my frozen yumminess, I closed my eyes for a bit though I remained awake. Meanwhile, hilarity ensued as the Megan's large stuffed minion was hung upside down in the bathroom (I believe it had previously been right side up) and Megan and I mocked Julia's dislike for Lucky Charms cereal. Laughing, laughing, rolled off the bed. One of the best parts of spending time with my nieces is when we can all be silly together- it's like being enveloped in a cocoon of pure joy, isolated from anyone who might be tempted to judge or be unkind.

Eventually, the girls decided that they wanted to head back to Universal. Since we were hungry, our first stop was Classic Monsters Café at around 6:30pm. Julia and I both ordered the lasagna which I thought was mediocre. Megan ordered the pizza- at first they gave her an adult potion which would have been too much for her, but then we had them change it to the kids size which was perfect. For dessert, Megan and I split a red velvet cupcake (Cupcake #2) and Julia had a cupcake with white chocolate. Julia liked the fact that one of the movie clips playing on a loop was German, the language she studies at school.

After dinner, we talked about riding the Mummy again but Megan was waffling on trying it, so I decided to temporarily divert our attention to the new Transformers: The Ride – 3D which was- shockingly- another simulator type ride. The ride mechanism was almost identical to Spider Man, so it was pretty awesome even though none of us are familiar with the story line. And even though it made me slightly motion sick. Our express pass was a huge time saver here, since the ride is brand new and very popular.

We were eventually able to convince Megan to try the Mummy so we headed over there. On the way we passed a parade and paused to admire the minions. I was very happy that Megan liked the ride, and suggested we ride again so she'd have a chance to ride it knowing that she didn't need to be scared. There was no line either time, so it worked out nicely.

Julia wanted to ride Rip Ride Rockit (aka "Super Duper Looper Barfing Coaster of Death #1") again. She said it wasn't that scary but, all the same, there was absolutely no way I wanted any parts of riding it! So Megan and I happily waited. Afterwards, we decided we'd had enough of the parks and headed back to the hotel. On the way, we stopped for a Minion photo opportunity that was promoting the new movie.

Ride Review Transformers: :) :) ♥ Cool! Love the 3D.
Ride Review Mummy Take 2: :) :) ♥ Awesomeness! Especially the real fire! AND it has the Megan seal of approval. WIN!
Ride Review Mummy Take 3: :) :) ♥ Booyah, baby!
Ride Review Super Duper Looper Barfing Coaster of Death #1 ie Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit take 2: :) :) :) ♥ Yays!

We were back at the hotel by around 8pm and we decided to give the pool one more chance. This time we succeeded! Well, except for the fact that they closed the slide a couple minutes before they were supposed to, so we couldn't get a final ride in. They were showing the movie Spider Man by the pool, which was neat even though I wasn't paying attention. We finished the night in the hot tub, which felt like heaven after all the walking we'd done. The previous evening, I'd seen a waterfall going into the hot tub; I had no idea why that wasn't running, but another person confirmed that she'd also seen it operating earlier.

Swimming time! Yays! (for real!) Swimming was funs. So was the slide. The hot tub ended up being too um... hot.

When we returned to the hotel room at about 9:30pm, I was shocked to find out that the Phillies had won. After taking turns showering, it was time to turn out the lights at around midnight… with dreams of hitting Disney World the next morning dancing in my head.

I'm excited for Disney, but a little sad to leave Universal.
On the boat to Universal Entering Islands of Adventure Hogsmeade, Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogwarts from the Dragon Challenge queue Julia bought a plush spider Megan bought a plush Fawkes (phoenix) Dragon Challenge queue Jurassic Park photo op Julia is transparent in this Spider Man photo Hog's Head Pub Enjoying my butterbeer Returning to our hotel Portofino Bay Resort Ride photo from Revenge of the Mummy Despicable Me promo selfie that we took Back at the hotel Hotel pool at sunset
I hadn't set the alarm because we didn't have to leave at any specific time, other than by the checkout time of 11am. We ended up waking up at around 8:30am, and were packed and ready to go at 10:15. I was a little sad to leave Universal because we'd had a great time, certainly far better than my last journey to Islands of Adventure in 1999. And although we'd hit all of my "must see"s at the parks, there were still some other attractions I wish we could have found time for. Also, I'd really enjoyed staying at the lovely Portofino Bay hotel- initially, I'd been a little disappointed that our room was in the East Wing since it was further from the pool and water taxi, but it really didn't end up being a big deal.

I was able to check out by replying to an email with my bill that was sent by the hotel; technology is an amazing thing. When I inquired in the lobby about getting a taxi, I was told I had 2 options: take one of the nice sized cars that were waiting on standby for a flat rate of $50 or wait an unknown time for a cab. I thought I'd read that a taxi would be about $40, so I decided that it was easiest to just take one of the conveniently available cars since the extra money was nothing in the scheme of my vacation budget. I'm sure they make quite a nice business off people like me who just want to get where they're going with minimal fuss.

I always get excited riding to Disney, especially the magical moment when my vehicle passes under the colorful "Walt Disney World" gate when you've officially crossed the barrier into another world. There's something special about Disney World that is deeply ingrained in my heart; I'm sure it has something to do with having so many wonderful memories from previous trips.

Although it hardly seemed possible to get any more enthused, my excitement continued to build as we pulled into the tropical Polynesian Resort. When we arrived at the online checkin desk and I saw that our folio was marked "Tuvalu 3412", I had goosebumps because it seemed to be exactly the location I'd hoped for, but I tried not to get too excited right away especially since I wasn't sure if it would get changed. I'd reserved a theme park view which meant that (unless I was somehow upgraded to concierge), there were 3 longhouses to which I could be assigned: Tahiti, Aotearoa, or Tuvalu . Aotearoa was further back than the others and probably the least desirable in terms of the view. I'd originally wanted to stay in Tahiti (which has the most theme park view rooms) because it was very convenient to the Epcot monorail when I'd stayed there in 1996. However, unlike the other 2 buildings, it had not been renovated in 2013 and I'd recently seen reports that it was not in the best condition. Due to the "magic" of the new Disney website (note sarcasm), I hadn’t been able to remove my original online check in request for Tahiti but I was able to add one for Tuvalu and hope for the best. Once the cast member confirmed my room # was indeed Tuvalu 3412 (woo hoo!), I tried to contain my glee as I asked one more question: What floor was it on? I don't like staying on ground floors and the 2nd floor of Tuvalu (and most other buildings) does not have a balcony, so my fingers and toes were crossed for 3rd floor. And it was indeed a 3rd floor room! Double woo hoo!! Plus, the room was ready even though it was only around 11am! (I'd requested an early check in online and stated that I'd prefer having a room ready early than meeting my requests) Triple woo hoo!!! I almost wanted to cry, it was just so perfect.

I had to dig around my purse to find my Chase Rewards card to put on my room account. As I did so, I pulled out 2 gift cards: a Stitch one for Megan and an Evil Queen one for Julia. That definitely made them happy! After receiving colorful leis, we went off to our room, admiring the hotel grounds on the way.

We took some time to enjoy our room and its amazing view of the Seven Seas Lagoon where we could see The Contemporary, Grand Floridian, and of course Cinderella's castle at the Magic Kingdom as well as various watercraft. Our view kicks butt. Once we felt settled, we headed back to the Great Ceremonial Hall (main building) around noon to explore lunch options. I was glad that Kona Cafe had a children's menu with something that appealed to Megan, especially since they had sushi! Sushi for lunch! Woot Woot! I ended up ordering the caterpillar roll (Inside out Tuna roll, Shrimp Salad Tempura crunch topped with a layer of Avocado), which was adorable since it was shaped like a caterpillar. Julia had the volcano roll (Spicy Tuna, Shrimp Salad, Tempura Crunch) and Megan had a cheeseburger. I vetoed any notions of ordering dessert because we had an early dinner reservation. This was my first time at Kona, and I found it to be a relaxing and lovely place to eat; I'd definitely go back.

On the way back to the room, I couldn't resist buying a Mickey Mousse cupcake from Captain Cook's quick serve to eat later. After getting ready for the parks, we headed to the bus stop and just missed a bus going to Hollywood Studios. While we were waiting, there were a bunch of other buses, including 2 headed to Downtown Disney- where are these buses whenever I actually want to go there?!? Go away, Animal Kingdom/ Blizzard Beach bus. You were here like 5 minutes ago! Finally, after about 20 long minutes, we boarded a Hollywood Studios bus at around 2:15.

The park tickets I'd ordered in advance were older style tickets that are being phased out. So our first order of business was to stop at Guest Services to exchange them for the new style of RFID tickets. We had a little wait which was annoying because I just wanted to do something, but it really wasn't so bad. Once that was done, I exchanged my PhotoPass Plus voucher for a card; this is similar to the PhotoConnect card and it would allow us to get copies of all ride photos plus ones taken by park photographers and any photo packages at character meals. It's a lot more expensive than the Universal card, but it can be worth it if you are there for awhile, especially if you like to get a lot of the ride photos. Since photos are my favorite souvenirs and since I treasure visual reminders of the time I spend with my nieces as they are growing up all too quickly, it was definitely worth it to me.

Once we took care of business, it was a no brainer where to head: Tower of Terror, which has always been our first real ride at Disney World. On the way, we got Fastpasses for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. I had a bit of a fail getting the fastpasses; apparently, I was accidentally trying the same ticket multiple times. We were able to take advantage of a recent (and probably temporary) technology loophole which currently allows you to get a 2nd set of fastpasses if your park tickets are separate from your room keys, so we also obtained Tower of Terror fastpasses.

The standby wait for Tower of Terror was posted as 45 minutes; I wasn't entirely sure if we should wait but the girls definitely wanted to. It soon began to rain- hard. And then it began to absolutely pour. By the time reached cover, we felt like we were wetter than we'd get on a water ride! But no one wanted to get out of line. Meanwhile, when I checked my new phone, it kept giving me a crazy message saying "Charging paused, battery temperature too low" WTF?! Not good. Especially since I obviously wasn't trying to charge it! When we entered the lobby, we saw someone training a new cast member and probably explaining all sorts of hidden details- oh how I wish I could have overheard what they were saying!

Tower of Terror has a high repeat value for me because the theming is amazing, and it also manages to offer a bit of a thrill without making me at all motion sick. The girls marveled that the ride was even more fun than they remembered. By the time we got off, it was time to use our fastpasses. Although by this point, the standby line was way shorter. Actually, the only time the entire trip when we saw a significant line for ToT was when we were caught in the downpour.

It was still early for our dinner reservation so I suggested we ride the Great Movie Ride since I'd never had a chance to take the girls on it during our previous trips; any time we passed by, it always seemed to have a really long line. They thought it was cute. Ride Review Great Movie Ride: :) Cute. Cool special effects!

50's Prime Time Café is our only "must eat" table service restaurant at Disney so it was a fitting spot for our first Disney dinner. We arrived slightly early but only had a short wait to be seated. Throughout our dinner, I was sending twitter messages to an internet friend, Ellen, to try to make plans to meet up. My phone was still periodically displaying the wonky message about charging being interrupted due to low battery temperature. I tried rebooting it and keeping it off for awhile several times but to no avail. Our waitress chided me for my use of the cell phone during the meal- that's part of their antics but I really wasn't in the mood to be teased since 1- I needed to use it to make plans and 2- I was worried that it might need to be fixed or replaced. Julia's stuffed spider spent the meal on the table and was quite the talking point amongst cast members passing by!

For dinner, I had the poached salmon which was quite delicious especially since it had onion sticks on top. Julia had the vegetable lasagna and Megan had the kids' macaroni and cheese. Of course we also had milkshakes- Julia and I both ordered the scrumptious signature Peanut Butter and Jelly shake, and Megan ordered a strawberry shake. We were all stuffed after the meal but I insisted on making room for S'mores, which were yummy! This was the first time we were actually offered an old fashioned viewfinder to see the dessert menu; I'd seen them in online reviews of the restaurant but never in person.

Because Ellen was on her way, we hung around at the stores by the main entrance. We all tried on silly hats and Megan bought a bunch of things. Finally, Ellen twitter messaged that she was in the park and I told her where we were; I recognized her immediately because she was wearing a Phillies T-shirt! I've had a great time meeting online friends this year and Ellen kept that trend alive; the girls adored her because she listened to them and understood all their Sci Fi references. (which I don't usually get)

After standing around and talking for awhile, it was about time to use our Rock 'n' Roller Coaster (RnRC) fastpasses. I'd already told Ellen we had fastpasses and she didn't mind waiting. As we were making plans to meet up after the ride, Julia realized she'd lost the lei that had been wrapped around her stuffed spider and she went back to re-trace our steps. During her brief absence, a random person came around asking if anyone needed a single Rock 'n' Roller Coaster fastpass…. Why, yes, we could sure use one- I couldn't even script that kind of magic! So Ellen got to ride with us- yay! It only goes to show that anything can happen at Disney.

Megan had not ridden RnRC on our previous trips, but she agreed to try it since we said it was a lot like the Mummy at Universal except it sometimes goes upside down. Since it was Megan's first time riding, I asked her to decide who she wanted to sit with- she chose Julia so I sat next to Ellen. Since we'd been convincing her to try it, I had my fingers crossed that she would like it as much as I thought she would- or at the very least that she would not be traumatized. I needn't have worried- she loved it! This was awesome since it meant that Julia and I could spend more time riding it! (we only rode it once during each of our previous trips since there were plenty of other rides we could all enjoy together) Megan kept her eyes closed at times, but she was determined to try it again at some point with her eyes open.

Afterwards, Ellen joined us on Star Tours and then for 2 more journeys into the Twilight Zone on the Tower of Terror. We had some awesomely creepy cast members acting as the bellhops in the pre-show library scene.

By then, it was about 9:45 so we headed over to catch the 2nd Fantasmic! performance of the night which would start when the park closed at 10. Even though it was so close to the performance, we were able to get great seats; that's the benefit to catching the 2nd show on a 2 show night since most people go to the earlier one. I asked the girls if they remembered seeing it 4 years ago and they didn't, so it was almost like it was new to them. It's one of my favorite shows, although the Disneyland version is better. (and although the Beauty and the Beast float was noticeably MIA at this performance) We all really enjoyed it and it was an excellent way to end our first day at Disney World.

As we left the park, we said our goodbyes to Ellen; she's an awesome person and it was great to meet her in person. Met up with Aunt Faith's friend from online. Now that was great! [She] listened to our blabber and obsessing about Lord of the Rings and Once Upon a Time and stuff.

We were able to get into a bus to our hotel right away. It took awhile to leave, but at least we were sitting in air conditioning. Julia's feet were hurting and she took off her sandals once we got back to the hotel. The heels on these flip flops are so thin and KILLING the heels of my feet. I got off the bus and I almost couldn't walk, my heels hurt so bad. So I walked barefoot.

We checked at the front desk and we were able to get new leis to replace the one that had fallen off the plush spider earlier. Happily, once I turned my phone back on (I'd had it off once we got together with Ellen), it seemed to be working normally without any crazy messages popping up.
About to enter Walt Disney World! Entrance to the Polynesian Newly renovated hotel room Balcony View from our hotel room Zoomed in view of the castle from our balcony In the lobby Kona Cafe My caterpillar sushi at Kona Cafe Julia loves sushi at least as much as I do A second ride on Tower of Terror More funny hats Dinner at our favorite, 50's Prime Time Cafe The 50's Prime Time dessert menu is presented on a view master Met a Twitter friend, Ellen, at the park Megan's first ever ride on Rock n Roller Coaster Fantasmic! finale
The alarm went off at 8:30am, and we were at the monorail station at around 9:45 for a quick ride to the Magic Kingdom. At the entrance, we came across a funny Photopass photographer who directed me to take a picture of another party with my camera. I was all "But I don't know them!" LOL

Our first stop was in Tomorrowland to get fastpasses for Space Mountain. Then, we visited a couple gift shops because we were on a mission to locate a Cast Member named Doug who we'd met on our 2 previous trips. If you've read my previous blogs about travel with my nieces, you might remember how 4 years ago he made a cranky 8 year old laugh as he buried her in plush Stitches. Or how 2 years ago, a 10 year old's face lit up when he presented her with a Jumbo plush Stitch. When we last saw him 2 years ago, he led us skipping through Tomorrowland as if we had no other cares in the world.

I saw a cast member who was also named Doug and asked him if there was another Doug who worked in Tomorrowland. He said that there was, but that he'd passed away in January. I wanted to believe it was a different person; when this Doug (to be known now as notDoug) said that the other Doug had been blond, I protested that it surely couldn't be our Doug because he was older and had white hair. But if there was any sliver of doubt remaining after notDoug said that our stories seemed consistent with the person he knew, there could be no denying the truth once he recognized a photo I pulled up on my phone.

Well, that news certainly put a damper on our moods. We had all been so looking forward to enjoying more of Doug's antics; It's strange that someone who crosses your path so briefly can mean so much to you. I blabbered a little to notDoug about our memories; I am not sure if he was interested, but I needed to share anyway. I wish I was able to find an obituary, to perhaps donate to a favored charity or to do something else to honor his memory. But I guess the only thing I can do is to try my best to pass the joy he'd brought into my life onto others.

After a group hug, we rode Space Mountain and then headed to New Fantasyland which I'd been eager to see. I really enjoyed the landscaping of the areas dedicated to Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid, 2 of my favorite Disney movies, and am looking forward to when the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride is completed next year. (we were able to peak in at the construction) Since the Little Mermaid ride had a short wait, we got in line. I was glad this version did not have the creepy haired Ariel that had been in the California version. Ride Review Voyage of the Little Mermaid: :) :) Very cute!

While walking around the Storybook Circus area of New Fantasyland, we entered a gift shop where a cast member was handing out samples of candy apples. The girls each eagerly took a small cup without a second thought… until I asked them if they were really going to take apples from a stranger, LOL. We played around a little with the cast member who seemed to be a bit taken aback by our reaction though he tried to play along.

We came upon another cast member who teased me for not taking a photo with him (I was wearing my big camera around my neck which always gets attention). Julia looked at his pin lanyard and told him she really liked one of his pins but she had nothing to trade. When he took off the pin to offer to her, I told him that now we really needed a photo with him. It turned out that he was from the Philadelphia area.

As we walked back to the Beauty and the Beast area for lunch, we laughed at the fact that Julia had thought that the Gaston in a promotional photo with Once Upon a Time's Regina was a statue not a real person.

While perusing a Disney message board, I'd found a link to sign up for a test of fastpass for lunch at the new Be Our Guest restaurant in the Beast's castle. This new restaurant, which serves a quick service lunch and a table service dinner, is so popular that there is always a huge line of people waiting outside to order lunch. I wasn't entirely sure it would work since we were not officially invited to take part in the fastpass test, but when we went to check in at the kiosk in front of the restaurant, my name was on the list and we were handed a pager. Yay! Pretty soon, our pager went off and we were able to go directly inside. There was still a short wait to order but we were inside so it didn't matter; the fastpass really worked out quite nicely!

The way lunch ordering works is a little different than most quick service restaurants. After guests order at computer kiosks, cast members deliver the orders to the table- they can identify the correct location through the GPS in the electronic roses each party is issued. Guests are able to choose 1 of 3 dining rooms; we decided to eat in the West Wing, a dark room with thunder effects that is home to the enchanted rose. It was really an awesome place to dine for a Beauty and the Beast fan.

I'd been wanting to eat at Be Our Guest ever since I'd heard the announcement that it was being built, so I was really excited. Our food came out quickly and it was delicious; I had the Croque Monsieur (ham and cheese), Julia had Vegetable Quiche and Megan had the children's pasta without marinara sauce. On the way out, we toured the other dining rooms. I enjoyed how there was a stained glass like the final image from the film on the way out.

We headed over to Splash Mountain, one of our favorites, but the wait was too long and the fastpass return time too far out. At 1:30pm, Pirates of the Caribbean had a modest 25 minute wait; normally you can find times when it is a walk on, but I wasn't sure if we'd be passing by again so we took the opportunity to ride. Pirates of the Caribbean was cool. Before we left the park, I bought a purple sparkly Magic Kingdom T-shirt which would complement the purple Space Mountain T-shirt I'd bought earlier.

When we got back to the hotel for a few hours of relaxation in the A/C, I picked up a powerade. As I was uploading some of my photos, I went to look up PhotoPass magic shots and the first article I came across was written by an online friend- LOL! Julia spent much of our break time telling Megan that she needed to take up journaling which was a popular saying of hers. I think somewhere around here was when we finally broke out the Mickey Mousse Cupcake (Cupcake #3) and split it 3 ways- yummy!

At about 5pm, we started walking to the Transportation and Ticket Center to take a monorail to Epcot; one of the great things about staying at the Polynesian is the ability to walk to the Epcot monorail. We just missed one but another came by about 6 minutes later. Here monorail, monorail, monorail. Here monorail, monorail, monorail. Where are you? I could have WALKED to Epcot by now! Or gone to Magic Kingdom, gone to some hotel, and taken the BUS to Epcot. Never mind, it's here.

Our first stop was Spaceship Earth, since I knew it was scheduled to be closed for rehab starting the following morning. As we started to head out after the ride, we realized it was time for the Daily Downpour. Eventually, we got sick of waiting undercover so we ventured out and ran like mad for the next building. I am not a fan of getting soaked with no opportunity to dry off, but it was rather exhilarating to run freely through the rain. It turns out that we stumbled upon a character photo location which had absolutely no wait! So we had fun posing for photos with Mickey, Pluto and Minnie. Way to make the best of a storm! I'm wet. But we had our pictures with Mickey! If that's not a good omen, I don't know what is.

The rain was lessening as we headed over to Japan for our dinner at Tokyo Dining restaurant. When I checked in at 6:30, which was a half hour early, they told me it would be a short wait while they cleared off a table by the window. Awesome! It was terrific to be able to look out on World Showcase as we ate. During dinner, the girls noticed how polite the Japanese cast members were and I shared some tales of how amazing people are in the real Japan.

It's interesting to see how the Japanese people still follow their country's customs, even in America. (bowing before and after conversation, always cleaning up) I'm not sure how they ended up with kimonos. Disney said "here's your work clothes", they picked it out, or something in the middle. Their names are so different. It's pretty cool. They probably think our names are weird, and Americans are noisy and rude. Close! We're loud and clueless.

I'd been wanting to eat at Tokyo Dining ever since I was planning our first trip 4 years ago, but I worried that there wouldn't be anything for Miss Picky Eater Megan. Fortunately, she really liked the Chicken Tempura which came in a cute plate shaped like a bullet train. Julia questioned whether she should get sushi, and both Megan and I immediately said that of course she should. So she ordered a Spicy Crunch Roll (spicy salmon and tuna mix, cucumber with green onion and sesame seed) and split a Philadelphia Roll (salmon, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, green onion and sesame seed) with me. I had a Rainbow Roll (California Roll topped with tuna, yellowtail, salmon and avocado) and the refreshing Mikan smoothie (a combination of orange, pineapple and lemon juice) It was another great meal, and not even too expensive.

Afterwards, we tried the Agent P's World Showcase Adventure. Based on the hit Disney TV show Phineas and Ferb, this is an interactive experience in which you follow clues that appear on a modified cell phone in order to foil the villain (Dr. Doofenshmirtz). We chose to do our adventure in Germany, partly because Julia has been studying German and partly because the other location we could choose from was Japan and we didn't want to go back. As we followed the clues to certain key locations, certain inanimate objects would appear to respond to our cell phone actions to reveal part of Doofenshmirtz's plot. It was fun, though I think the game went on just a tad too long to really hold my attention; or maybe that was because it was getting late.

The secret mission was fun. We went to Germany. That was really cool. Being actually able to talk to people in German. And hear it spoken!

After Julia bought a Germany T-shirt, we walked very quickly to Norway to ride the Maelstrom troll themed small flume ride which had no wait. They weren't even showing the Norway movie afterwards; I remember back when Epcot was new that they practically forced you to stay and watch the movie though they'd become much more flexible with it in more recent years.

We finished the ride about 5 minutes before Illuminations was scheduled to start and were still able to find a halfway decent spot. The girls also didn't remember this show from 4 years ago, though they did recall taking the boat ride that I'd booked then. They really enjoyed seeing it; I always enjoy it, especially the soundtrack.

There were massive crowds exiting Epcot right after the show, and we found ourselves in a frighteningly huge line for the monorail. Impressively, it only took about 10 minutes before we were able to board, though we were tightly packed.

As we exited at the Transportation and Ticket Center, my heart was touched by the sweetest sight: a small girl sleeping in the lap of an older woman (presumably her grandmother) in a wheelchair. It just epitomized for me a little of what Disney is all about- sharing experiences with family and friends of all ages.

It was peaceful walking through lush trails of the Polynesian back to our room. Soon after we got into our room, we heard some noises which alerted us to the fact that the 10pm Wishes fireworks show was starting at the Magic Kingdom! We ran out on the balcony which gave us an awesome view, though we could only barely hear the music. But that's ok, we'd have more chances to experience it. After the fireworks, I experimented with taking a few night shots with long exposures using my dslr camera.

I also found out that while we were watching Wishes, the Phillies had staged a comeback and won the game- what?!?

After showering, backing up photos and writing up some notes, it was time to go to sleep.
Posing in the lobby This CM was pretty awesome Gaston's Tavern All those people with umbrellas are in line for lunch It was awesome dining in the West Wing at Be Our Guest Ballroom dining room at Be Our Guest restaurant Be Our Guest restaurant Posing with Mickey Mouse Posing with Pluto Posing with Minnine Mouse Great view from our table at Tokyo Dining Dinner at Tokyo Dining With my beverage My Rainbow Roll and the Philadelphia Roll I split with Julia Agent P's World Showcase Adventure Phone used in Agent P's World Showcase Adventure View of Magic Kingdom fireworks from our balcony Night view of the Polynesian marina and the Contemporary from our balcony
At night, I had a dream that cast member Doug (whom we'd sadly learned had passed away) was smiling and handing us each presents. I'm not sure what it meant, but it was comforting.

All too soon the alarm went off at 7am. When the girls didn't get up right away, I asked them if they wanted a fastpass to Russell Crowe singing Stars; that did the trick and got them moving instantly!

After a short walk through our resort, we were able to board the Epcot monorail right away and we arrived at our destination at around 8:20. Epcot has 2 attractions that are extremely popular with lines that can be prohibitively long as the day goes by: Soarin and Test Track; the girls decided to head first to Test Track since we hadn't been able to ride it 2 years ago. At 8:45, they started letting guests into the park but they were holding the crowd at Innoventions so we couldn't get all the way to Test Track just yet. Once they let us in, we got fastpasses for 9:55/10am (the time switched in the middle of getting them) and then got into the standby line for a moderate wait (perhaps 20-30 minutes).

Test Track had been reimagined since our last trip so we were all curious to see the changes. The first obvious change is that before boarding, you are led into a room with touchscreen terminals where each group of 1-3 people can design a vehicle. The vehicle you design is rated in 4 different metrics; it will be graded and compared to others when you are on the actual ride. But we were more concerned with something more important than performance statistics: style! Every time we rode, we created some variation on a purple vehicle with a butterfly and flower design- very girly.

After we were let out of the design room, there was some confusion over where to go next; they really should add some signs with arrows because people (not just us) were heading to the exit doors of the other design room. Once we figured it out, there was only a short wait to board a ride vehicle. Before you get on, you can scan your room key (or whatever you used to create the vehicle) so that your design is linked to the ride.

The ride track itself hasn't really changed. But instead of going through a series of tests like you are a crash test dummy, you go through a different series of simulated tests for each performance metric used in your vehicle design; your design is compared to others after each series of tests. The end of the ride is the same exciting loop around the building at >60mph; the only change is that your ride photo is taken outside which resulted in us all having hair in our faces. I'm not sure which version of the ride I prefer; I like them both for different reasons. I enjoyed the touch screen experience of customizing a vehicle more than I'd expected.

After our first ride, we headed across Future World to get fastpasses for Soarin; our return was 12:30. Then we backtracked to the entrance to pose for some Photopass photos; we didn't have time to do so originally because we wanted to get to the rides as soon as possible to try to beat the crowds. By then, it was time to return to use our Test Track fastpass- this time, I put a scrunchie in my hair to try to look a little more presentable in the photo.

We had plenty of time until our Soarin fastpass, so we took more Photopass shots and then headed to Club Cool where you can sample free Coca Cola beverages from around the world; Julia knew better than to try the Beverly which I'd urged her to try on our first trip. So we all stuck to some of the refreshing varieties such as Lemon from Israel and Watermelon from China.

I unilaterally decided that the girls needed see the 3D movie Michael Jackson Captain Eo, basically because it defies description. I'd seen it in Disneyland and my only thought had been "What was that..?!?!?" Actually, I will quote my original blog entry from 12/2010 since (except for being nodding off) it still applies:
I had a little bit of a difficult time with some of the 3-D in the main attraction and had to close one eye to see better; I thought it was me, but my friends said the 3-D was a bit off. Beyond that... well, #1: I had a hard time staying awake (yes, I was tired but I had no such problems on any other attractions) and #2: I think the attraction might be better enjoyed after imbibing a large amount of alcohol. Or something. ;) It was just really crack. From what I gathered, Michael Jackson was the captain of a crew of strange puppet-like creatures including the very odd Hooter who blows his elephantesque nose and sprays the audience. They all land on a strange planet and meet the scary looking female Supreme Leader who is, shall we say, not very welcoming. However, Eo transforms everyone into 80's Thriller-esque dancers and eventually the Supreme Leader turns into a beauty and apparently everyone is happy. Except perhaps for some people in the audience who may be scratching their heads. ;)
Julia described it as a bad cross between Star Wars and the finale of the Sponge Bob Squarepants movie. The girls were suitably disturbed, and suggesting that they might be headed for fastpasses to Captain Eo proved to be as effective a deterrent to questionable behavior as fastpasses for Russell Crowe. And yeah, we all thought the 3-D was off in places and all thought it was just us.

To scrub Captain Eo out of our heads, we rode the Journey Into Imagination with Figment. I still miss the original ride with Dreamfinder, but the girls never saw that version. Afterwards, we played on computer terminals to design our own Figment- however, we had to change to a different terminal when we were blocked from proceeding on the first one we tried since the keyboard wasn't working. The 2nd terminal had a working keyboard, but the letters had mostly been rubbed off so it was a bit of a challenge to type in a name for our design and my email address, but we managed with team work.

After riding The Seas with Nemo & Friends, it was finally time to use our Soarin' fastpass. By the time we were done, we were well overdue for lunch so it was understandable that Megan was getting a little cranky.

The plan was to walk through the International Gateway exit to the nearby Beach Club resort; however, floodgates of rain opened up as we left the park, and we unanimously decided to head for the cover of the nearby shuttle boat queue. We were content to sit and wait awhile before the boat started moving since we were undercover; I'm sure we could have walked it faster if the rain hadn't picked that moment to come barreling down. Eventually, we were on our way- the first stop was the Board Walk hotel and as we neared it, I pointed out the bakery that was known for having great cupcakes but I said we wouldn't be going there this trip. The rain had lessened by the time the boat pulled into the dock, so I was surprised to hear a voice announcing that the boat would be terminating at Board Walk for an indefinite period due to the threat of thunder storms.

Since we were in rather desperate need of food, staying on the boat to wait out the storm would not have been a wise option. So I decided we should walk to Beach Club- which meant we'd have to pass the Board Walk Bakery. Clearly the universe was conspiring to give us a sign that we needed a cupcake from there to add to our collection. So instead of grumbling about how things worked out, we walked cheerfully to the bakery, picked up a cute Oreo cupcake to eat later, and talked about how to try to make the best out of any situation.

The rain still wasn't bad at all, so the walk to Beach Club was rather pleasant. We were headed to Beaches and Cream for lunch; I'd never eaten there before and they don't take reservations. We found our way there, and the hostess told us it would be a 60 minute wait for a table… or we could sit down right away at the counter. Obviously, we chose the latter. I stuck the cupcake on the counter in front of me- doesn't everyone eat out with a random cupcake on the table?!

Both Julia and I ordered a combo platter of Grilled Cheese and Tomato Bisque- it was amazing! Megan had a kids cheeseburger which she also enjoyed. Beaches and Cream is known for their ice cream and they are most noted for "The Kitchen Sink" which includes 8 scoops of ice cream and all the toppings they have; we were fortunate enough to see 2 tables ordering this and it was adorable how it was served in a huge bowl that actually looked like a kitchen sink! Our appetites were much too modest for this- Julia and I shared a sundae with Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream and hot fudge, while Megan's came with a scoop of ice cream that was fashioned into the shape of Mickey Mouse- too adorable!

Beaches and Cream is very cute little place with a nostalgic feel. The waits can be long because it is so small, but they also offer take out service which would be convenient if you just want ice cream. The food was terrific; I think my only problem is that the service seemed awfully slow.

Beaches and Cream is adorable. Holy fudge lunch is good! There is always room for ice cream.

After lunch, we waited at the Beach Club bus stop for a Magic Kingdom bus which seemed to take a long time to arrive. Once we got off the bus, we saw a boat waiting to go to the Polynesian. Julia had been talking about taking the boat instead of the monorail so it seemed like a good time to try it since they had just enough room for us. All in all, it took about an hour from when we started waiting for the bus until we were back at our hotel at 4pm. (the boat made one stop at the Grand Floridian) Took the boat from Magic Kingdom. That was pretty.

As we sat in the hotel room to relax, it began pouring outside (again). Let's just say that rain plus free wifi is dangerous, as could be exemplified by one of Julia's Facebook posts to which we managed to add 173 silly replies. (there were a few by the girls' parents but it was mostly us) Sitting in the same hotel room and talking to each other via Facebook… yeah. But there were a lot of laughs so it was all good.

Fortunately, the weather cleared up in time for us to go out to seek the 7:30pm marshmallow roasting. I couldn't remember exactly where I'd seen the fire pit in my earlier wanderings, but we ran into a cast member carrying marshmallows and played follow the leader. This was a completely free activity, and one could roast as many marshmallows as one liked (kids needed an adult's permission). It was pretty amazing roasting marshmallows with the backdrop of Cinderella's Castle and the Seven Seas Lagoon. We each had 2 marshmallows; I didn't think it would be wise to do any more since we still had to eat dinner. So glad my campfire dreams didn't get rained out!

Afterwards, we headed to Captain Cook's, which is a quick serve area where you can order from automated kiosks. I had a cheese flatbread (pizza), Julia had Stir-Fried Noodles, and Megan had chicken nuggets; some of my and Julia's meals were taken back to the hotel room since we were still a bit full from our lunch. (Julia- aka the trashcan- would eventually eat the leftovers)

Our evening was dedicated to relaxing around the pool and the beach. We were very disappointed that the volcano water slide was already closed by the time we got to the pool, but it was fun swimming around- you could even hear Hawaiian music playing underwater. We were able to catch both the 9pm electrical water pageant and the 10pm Magic Kingdom fireworks show from the beach. I'd heard that the Polynesian was a great place to view them but it still managed to exceed my expectations. The music accompanying the fireworks was piped into speakers by the beach and, even though we were a little far, the view was amazing.

The girls also spent some time building Mount Towel Monkey (see previous 2 Disney Cruise blogs for the Towel Monkey reference...), which was an awesome creation complete with a tunnel. Alas, I did not have any camera devices with me so we have no visual evidence of this wondrous sand castle other than our memories. (they'd built an earlier version while we were out for marshmallows)

We built the TowelCano. I.e. a volcano made of sand which is the towel monkey's hideout, has the glitter balloon coming out of it, has a tunnel under it, and is amazing. And if it is gone, that means it has the towel monkey seal of approval.

Back in the hotel room, we took showers and I caught up on the 2nd straight Phillies walk-off win. Apparently they win in dramatic fashion whenever we watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks. We also decided to eat the Oreo cupcake (Cupcake #4) I decided to cut it while Julia was in the shower… and I'll just quote directly from my notes:
I fail at cutting cupcakes. Like really fail. But I laughed. Like a lot. Even though I got some of it on the floor. But it was yummy. Like really yummy. Julia is better at cutting. She says I am jealous of her cupcake cutting skills. Maybe I am. But it was not an equal comparison since the one I cut was in a container not on a plate.
The cupcake was delicious, and it was most fortuitous that we'd had an opportunity to stop at the Board Walk Bakery to buy it. Unfortunately, Julia started brushing her teeth before she remembered there was a cupcake to be eaten. So we saved her share- which didn't exactly resemble a cupcake after my cutting fail- for her to eat later. Julia had some teenage drama moments on the phone with her parents after we'd teased her that we wouldn't have reminded her of the cupcake's existence if she'd told us she was going to brush her teeth. She'd gone out on the balcony to make the call but we could hear every single word with extreme clarity; I mean, it was loud enough that we would have had to have really tried not to hear it. I told her we'd heard what she said, just because I think it's best to be open even though it probably caused her a little embarrassment. The lesson here is that if you want to talk about other people, be absolutely sure they can't hear you. (I was totally ok with her having a moment because, let's face it, it's hard to spend 10 days 24/7 with anyone and not get annoyed at all)
Early morning view The girly car we designed at Test Track Test Track ride #2 Figment hat More silly hat silliness Crocs: better headwear than footwear? Lunch at Beaches and Cream Megan's dessert at Beaches and Cream Taking a rain break in the hotel Roasting marshmallows Megan on the beach Volcano Pool Volcano Pool, with view of the castle
The previous night, Julia had told me I should be more forceful about getting them up by telling them that they needed to get ready by the time I was out of the shower. So after the alarm went off at 7:30, I tried that tactic. It… didn’t exactly go over very well. Julia had her share of the oreo cupcake remnants as part of her breakfast. Cupcake breakfasts are good.

We got to the bus stop around 8:25 and saw 2 buses for Downtown Disney/ Typhoon Lagoon before we saw the bus we needed to Animal Kingdom. Once again I saw plenty of Downtown Disney buses when they've historically eluded me in the past whenever I needed one.

Since Megan had enjoyed Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, we convinced her to give Expedition Everest another chance. She'd ridden it once 4 years ago when she was 8, and hadn't wanted to ride it again since. Julia and I were both thrilled that she now likes it! We ended up riding 3 times almost in a row- the first 2 were using the very short standby queue and the 3rd was using fastpasses that we'd obtained before our first ride. That was plenty for me; the uphill curving backwards part of the ride was making me motion sick, although I still enjoyed it.

We headed next to Dinosaur, which barely had a line. As we were about to claim our photo after riding, I was asked to take a survey about the ride and whether I'd recommend it. I wonder if they were trying to find ways to make it more popular.

Obviously the Kilimanjaro Safaris ride at Animal Kingdom couldn't hold a candle to a real life safari in Africa, but it was still nice to see the animals. The ride used to have a storyline that you were trying to save a baby elephant from poachers; I hadn't remembered that they'd removed it so I was a little sad.

After the ride, I embarked on an important mission: locate the Kusafiri Bakery, home of a most tempting and adorable cupcake I'd seen online: The Cotton Top Tamarin Cupcake, described as "Chocolate Cake with Buttercream and Dark Chocolate". Oh, but it's so much more than that since it also has a white and dark chocolate candy on top that is shaped like the head of a cotton top tamarin monkey. I'm not generally partial to small primates ever since one stole my memory card in 2010, but I'll make exceptions for cupcakes. And this one (Cupcake #5) was delicious, perhaps my favorite cupcake of the trip. We split it up 3 ways as usual as we stood at a table to eat it… but I could easily have eaten it all myself!

After calming our hunger, I decided to take the train to Rafiki's Planet Watch, mainly since the girls had never been to that area of the park. While we were there, we were able to get up close to a Tawny Frogmouth bird which was brought out by a trainer. We also got our photo taken with Rafiki, and went to a little petting zoo area. There is an area where you could watch veterinary procedures; none were going on when we were there, but that would have been neat to watch. I thought I remembered seeing baby animals when I was in this area ages ago, but we didn't see any. Megan bought a bunch of pins, including one that she got by redeeming her birthday coupon for a pin from me.

I wanted to see the 3D movie in the iconic Tree of Life, It's Tough To Be a Bug, but first we made a quick detour when I saw that there was a photo op with Dug and Russell from the movie Up, which I love. One of my favorite parts of It's Tough to Be a Bug is the pre-show area which is decorated with posters transforming Broadway show titles into insect related themes- ie "Beauty and the Bees", "My Fair Ladybug" etc. The girls definitely appreciated this aspect more than they had 4 years ago since they've both become interested in theatre.

On our way out of Animal Kingdom, we got our photos taken with Mickey and Minnie. When I thought I heard someone telling a Photopass photographer that one of his photos was hanging backstage on some board, I figured it might be worth having him take our photos. And indeed we got some great shots from him- especially one where he had us roaring like lions. Photopass photographers vary in ability and interest, so it's always good to take notice if you come upon someone who seems like they might be above average.

When we left the park at about 2:15, there was a bus waiting to take us back to our hotel. The sunscreen leaked and got all over stuff. Yuck! To the hotel. I'm gross, sweaty, with a mess in the bottom of my bag. Once we arrived, it was time for us to head to Captain Cook's to have Dole Whips, a soft serve pineapple delight that is only available at the Magic Kingdom and at the Polynesian. We were given little plastic bowls and we were able to pile on as much soft serve as we could fit in them- we all chose to get the Pineapple Vanilla swirl option. You may notice that it doesn't seem like we had a proper lunch. This is true; as someone who cannot even keep plants alive and flourishing, I sometimes think it is scary that people can entrust me with their kids. But I will say that our afternoon offerings were well balanced- they included fruit, milk, and quite a number of varieties of chocolate.

Keeping dry during the daily thunder storm, we lazed quite comfortably in the hotel room. I started looking at our PhotoPass pictures online and also began looking at other Disney sites online. Suddenly I was hit with inspiration- we'd take the monorail one stop to the Gasparilla Grill quick serve for some dinner! And what did I see to prompt this split second decision? Of course, it was a cupcake! I wasn't sure if they'd still have it available… but we were well overdue for an actual meal so we headed out at about 5:30.

Even though we'd stayed at the Grand Floridian just 2 years ago, we had a little bit of a fail trying to find the Gasparilla Grill but we eventually got there. I ordered a Create Your Own Pasta with marinara sauce, chicken, prosciutto, sundried tomato, and garlic; Julia and I both eagerly spotted bacon on the counter with the toppings but alas that was not an option. Julia picked out a packaged vegetarian sushi and finished my pasta when it proved to be more plentiful than my initial impression. Megan had macaroni and cheese with French fries and a cookie.

Of course, the highlight was the S'mores Cupcake (Cupcake #6). There was a lot of chocolate in the icing and the filling, so perhaps it was technically more of a chocolate cupcake with marshmallow and graham cracker adornments. But the important thing is that it was delicious, and among the top cupcakes of the week. After my disaster cutting the oreo cupcake, we let Julia have the honors this time

Fully nourished with both meal and cupcake, we ventured off to Hollywood Studios. Since I'd changed my T-shirt to one matching Julia's, I wanted a photo of the 2 of us together. Megan was eager to redeem her photo taking fail from earlier in the week, so I passed her my camera- and she ended up taking an awesome photo! This isn't to say that she was over her photography issues because I think she ended up having problems later, but at least for one moment, she did a great job.

The Hollywood Studios bus came almost right away at about 6:30pm. After we entered the park, I sought out a photographer who could take magic shots. I was excited when he told us to point to the ground since I knew that was a Stitch shot! When he heard our enthusiasm, he had us sit down for the other Stitch magic shot. I was thrilled. When those photos didn't show up in my account, I was obviously disappointed. But the story has a happy ending- after I got home, I emailed the PhotoPass people and within a day or 2, they'd located our Stitch magic shots for us!

We headed directly to our favorite attraction, the Tower of Terror and were able to ride 4 times since the waits were so short. There were some awesome creepy bellhops manning the library; we kept asking one of them for cupcakes.

This evening's episode of Tower of Terror brought us into the company of some very memorable riders. One time, we were seated in front of the "Shut Up Mom" people- before the ride started, the mother expressed some apprehensions and kept being told "Shut up, Mom!" by her kids; at the end of the ride, she exclaimed something like "You are the worst children ever!" It was funny because even if there was some shred of truth, the conversing seemed to be done in good humor. And also because they had nifty British or Australian accents.

On our final ride, we met up with the "Shoe Phone" people- when the ride photo was snapped, they each posed like they were using one of their shoes like a cell phone. They were also memorable because one of them (not sure if he was a father or what) was wearing a birthday pin where he filled in his name as "Happy". So it read "Happy Birthday Happy"

By this time, the girls had already come up with the idea of making creative poses since they knew we had the PhotoPass+ package which let us get electronic versions of all our ride photos. Julia started by holding up one of her orange crocs; we had been mocking their hideousness all week. (Although I didn't say a word against them until after Julia admitted that she realized that were hideous and clashed horribly with some of her outfits.) The other pairs of shoes she brought didn't prove to be as comfortable as she'd thought they'd be, so we were all stuck with the orange crocs.

As we were waiting in the queue, I came up with the idea that my S'mores Candy Corn obsessed nieces should make S'mores Corn cupcakes after we got home: chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow frosting decorated with crushed graham cracker and Smores Corn. We all liked that idea. (and the results, baked a week after our return, proved to be delicious!)

Right before the park closed at 8:30, we headed over to Rock 'n' Roller coaster which had no line- yay! Megan tried to keep her eyes open this time, and we all enjoyed it.

It was criminal that we were now 4 days into our Disney holiday and we had not yet ridden one of our favorite rides, Splash Mountain. So we decided to head to Magic Kingdom to rectify this situation. I felt that the quickest way to get there would be to take a bus to the Contemporary and then walk; it was just a little further than where a bus would let you off (and there are no direct buses from other parks; all the buses leave you off at the Transportation and Ticket Center where you need to transfer to a monorail or ferry) After waiting a short time, a bus pulled up- but instead of having hotel names on its electronic display, it said "VIP Cast Member"; clearly Disney recognized that we were VIPs because we'd had 2 cupcakes and were on an important mission.

Because we all have vivid imaginations, we came up with a story to accompany our quest which will only make sense if you are familiar with Phineas & Ferb and Les Miserables, and have a twisted sense of humor. Basically, we decided that they key to stopping Dr. Doofenshmirtz and his new fearful invention, the Russell Crowe-inator , was to ride Splash Mountain and trigger a destruct button.

Our main obstacle to getting to Splash Mountain was the Main Street Electric Parade which was just finishing its run up Main Street as we arrived. We battled the crowds by cutting through the stores on Main Street and going through Adventureland. We got very close to our target when the Electric Parade was starting along the path we needed to cross! Cruel fate- we could see the joyful mountain nearby but were prevented from getting there. After a few minutes of mental torture, I noticed that a cast member was going to allow guests to cross between some of the floats, so I told the girls and had them follow me. Then I turned around and noticed that Julia was nowhere to be seen! I literally screamed her name at the top of my lungs- her first name and then her full name- and fortunately she made it across before they stopped passage. It would have been very tragic indeed if Megan and I had made it across without her.

Excitedly, we entered the standby queue which said it was a 10 minute wait, but it was practically a walk on. When the cast member asked us if we wanted to be in 1 or 2 rows, we were determined to fit in 1. It was very snug, but we all like to be together, especially when we clap our hands during the "Zip a dee doo dah" finale. After we got off, we immediately looped back to ride a 2nd time; this time we saw a little bit of the fireworks… and the Phillies had another walk off win right before we boarded. Saw pieces of parade and fireworks from Splash Mountain. Life goal achieved.

We took a break to ride Big Thunder Mountain railroad which is always lots of fun at night; again, we sat in 1 row. We ended up squashing each other but it didn't matter. I forgot how fun Big Thunder Mountain is. After that, it was back to Splash Mountain, with thoughts in our head about maybe getting a 2nd ride while staying in the same log. When the cast members asked us to get off at the end, we asked if we could ride again. They didn't seem inclined to allow our request initially, but I didn't see anyone queued up for our row so I announced to the girls that we were going to begin Occupy Log (which Julia later also called "Log Occupado"); they'd have to forcibly take us out if they wanted us to move! Fortunately, the cast members changed their minds and were cool with letting us stay on- we cheered and thanked them muchly!

After that ride was over, the park was officially closed. We retrieved our photos from both rides (even though we obviously didn't have the photo number from the first ride) and then noticed that the 2nd showing of the Main Street Electric Parade was headed in our direction to finish its run. Contrary to our experience with crowds presenting obstacles earlier that evening, the pathways were dead. I mean, there were long stretches where absolutely no one was waiting for the parade! We decided to stop and watch since we weren't in a hurry, and we all ended up dancing with one of the CM's who was manning the parade route. It was a blast! I even got twirled by one of the parade members in the Peter Pan section. My nieces dubbed it the Main Street Electric Party. Honestly, in the past this parade had not been my favorite and I had recently mourned the fact that Spectromagic (a nighttime parade I adored) would never be coming back. But now, every time I hear the cheerful Baroque Hoedown theme music, I will fondly remember the time that my nieces and I danced around Frontierland like the parade was our own private party.

After the parade sadly ended, we made our way to the Polynesian via the monorail. On the way back to the hotel, I checked Captain Cooks to see if we could get the Red Velvet Cupcake I'd been eyeing; it wasn't there, so we settled for a brownie which was totally yummy. We were up past 1am, but everyone was in good spirits after a fun filled day.
Animal Kingdom Expedition Everest ride #3 Cotton Top Tamarin Cupcake: adorable and delicious Showing us a Tawny Frogmouth bird Petting zoo area Meeting Dug Posing with Dug and Russell from the movie Up In the lobby for It's Tough to Be a Bug Posing with Mickey and Minnie Julia and her Dole Whip T-shirt twins!  (almost) I was really excited to find a photographer who could do Stitch magic shots ...but I said we'd be happy to see Stitch so we took a happy one too One of our favorite places General silliness while riding behind the Shoe Phone People Heading out after the park closed Riding Splash Mountain after not getting off Main Street Electric party Main Street Electric Parade The end of another magical day
Because we'd been out so late the previous night, I didn't set the alarm. I woke up for good around 10am; Megan had been up much earlier and was playing on her tablet.

We decided to hit the pool so we could try the water slide that had been closed on Thursday night. Since I burn easily, I suggested that we just spend a short time in the pool as I am hesitant to do water activities in the sun during daylight hours. By the time we got ourselves going, it was 11:45; we stayed about an hour though I got a little bored and sat at a table for about half that time.

The volcano water slide was a lot of fun; it's inside a tube so I was slightly apprehensive my first time due to worrying about claustrophobia. I ended up going on a bunch of times; I loved that you could see the Magic Kingdom and the castle from the top as you waited your turn! I also thought it was great that the slide had automated red/green lights so you could know when it was safe to go without having a lifeguard at the top (The lifeguard at the bottom may have a control that triggers the change to green; I'm not sure) Swimming was fun. :) Now I'm wet.

After showering, we headed to Disney Hollywood Studios. Except first we had to catch a bus. It was another long wait but after about 17 minutes, we were finally on our way at around 2:30. Our first stop was at Starring Rolls for cupcakes because I'd read that they close early. As we approached, I saw a sign stating their hours were up until 3pm. I glanced at my watch and started to get disappointed because it was now a couple minutes past 3. But fortunately, they were still open!

I already knew I wanted to try the drool-worthy Butterfinger Cupcake (Cupcake #7) but Megan doesn't like butterfingers so I also bought an adorable Mike Wazowski Cupcake (Cupcake #8) so she could enjoy a snack too; we split the latter into 3 parts and all tried it. They were both terrific. The butterfinger one was worth the hype- In addition to buttercream icing that was covered with crushed butterfinger candies, this chocolate delight featured a fudge filling in the center. Yum! Cupcakes were amazing.

After feasting on cupcakes, we wanted to get some real food. (we had to get the cupcakes first because Starring Rolls closes early; also, because they are a prority!) On the way, we met up with an off duty Photopass photographer. Since Julia had a stuffed Perry the Platypus, he led us to a Phineas and Ferb character meet. As we waited in line, the wind began to swirl and I crossed my fingers and toes that the pending storm would wait until after we met the characters since the meet was outdoors. I got especially nervous when Phineas and Ferb had to take a quick break just before our turn to meet. Fortunately, it all worked out- and both Phineas and Ferb adored Julia's stuffed Perry!

We ducked into Pizza Planet in time to avoid getting drenched. Since we were slightly full on cupcakes, we got a single pizza to split 3 ways; it also came with a salad. I didn't have a problem finding a table like I'd had 2 years ago, but unfortunately I made a poor selection by sitting next to a video game that periodically blared a disturbing pulsating sound. This decision was compounded by the fact our lunch break proved to be quite long due to the storming activity outside. It seems obvious in retrospect that we could have moved, but we were also still in the midst of theme park hangover from our long night so we really didn't want to move more than necessary.

Our stay at Pizza Planet ended up being a dark spot in our week for reasons beyond the annoying video game. Due to the combination of boredom and fatigue, Julia and Megan started pushing each other's buttons. Previously I'd been able to diffuse situations though humor and gentle reminders to cut it out when they went too far with something (I'd taken to calling them "Ginny" because I needed to use the same tone I use when my adorable cat decides to be naughty), but not this time. Julia, as she tends to, started acting like a martyr by saying things like that she should stay in the hotel room as penance while the rest of us had fun. I recognize this behavior because it's a pattern I've often assumed, but I'd never considered how it appears from another person's point of view. Megan, on the other hand, just got irritated by anything and everything Julia did.

My head hurts and I'm tired. And we're trapped in Pizza Planet while it rains its little heart out. I'm freezing and it seems like it will never stop raining. I'm so bored!

At some point we left. I am not clear why I didn't march them right back to the hotel room, other than the fact that we had a dinner reservation that would have charged me a no show fee if I'd canceled. Still, we probably could have hung out in the room for a short time. In any case, once it cleared up enough to escape the Pizza Planet, I took the girls to see the Once Upon a Time TV show costumes that were in the ABC Commissary since we are all addicted to that show (I'd introduced them to it on New Year's Eve) Then I headed us towards the Voyage of the Little Mermaid stage show that I adore. The next show was too long of a wait, so we went into the animation studio. I was thrilled to see a photo op with Wreck It Ralph and Vanellope. We also decided to get our photos taken with Sorceror Mickey. I tried to keep the girls away from each other as much as possible, but they weren't too happy.

After we were done and tempers had cooled some, I offered the girls 2 options: we had enough time to take one ride on Tower of Terror which we could do if everyone agreed to cooperate. Otherwise, we would head out of the park without riding our favorite ride. I also said that, either way, we would not be staying out late after dinner. I was pleased that they chose Tower of Terror- and we all had a great time as usual riding. Crisis averted!

When we left the park, we were able to quickly get a bus to the Contemporary, from which we walked to Magic Kingdom. We decided we didn't want to do too much walking so we headed directly through the castle to Fantasyland. We had enough time before our dinner reservation to watch the 3D movie Mickey's Philharmagic which is always cute. Then we wandered around New Fantasyland a bit, and stopped in a store with a ton of adorable Beauty and the Beast merchandise.

Our dinner reservation at Be Our Guest was for 8:35 but we checked in early and were seated very quickly. We'd had lunch here earlier in the week, but dinner is different because it's table service and you can meet the Beast afterwards. We were seated once again in the mysterious West Wing themed dining room, which suited us just fine!

When we were brought to our table, I loved how the red napkin at each place was folded in such a way that it resembled a rose. For my dinner, I started with the French Onion soup and had the Pan Seared Salmon as my entrée; they were both delicious! I also enjoyed the All Natural fruit punch which is described as "sweetened with Organic Cane Juice and Wildberry Extract topped with Lemon-Lime Foam". It was quite refreshing! Julia had the Potato Leek soup followed by the Grilled Strip Steak, and Megan had the same thing she'd ordered for our lunch- Whole Grain Macaroni without the tomato sauce.

When the waitress asked us about dessert, we were all pretty stuffed. However, I smilingly asked her if we could try the grey stuff (this comes from the song Be Our Guest where Lumiere sings "Try the grey stuff, it's delicious, don't believe me, ask the dishes"). She said that they could only serve it for a celebration; we were celebrating Julia's sweet 16 so we were in business! She brought out a little plate with a tiny amount of grey stuff with a candle in it; on the plate "Try the grey stuff" was written in chocolate. Julia was also presented with a birthday card signed by the Beast. The grey stuff, which is really a cookies and cream mousse, provided just the right taste of sweetness to end our wonderful meal. We tried the grey stuff. It was delicious.

On our way out, we waited in a queue to have our photo taken with the Beast. The photos were taken in the room where we'd placed our lunch orders on kiosks; the screens now displayed the French lyrics to Be Our Guest and the room was almost unrecognizable from its lunchtime appearance.

After eating, we decided to ride It's a Small World since it was nearby, and ended up being on the ride while the fireworks went off. On our way out of the park, I found the new Rapunzel restrooms. I admit it's strange to be excited to see a restroom area, but I'd read about these and the outdoor area really did make you feel like you were in the festival from the movie.

We left the park at about 10:30pm and took the monorail back to the Polynesian. On the way back to our room, I stopped and got a couple pins I wanted: one from the Polynesian and one that said 2013. I felt a little bad that I ended up getting the last Polynesian pin because Julia also wanted one, but she was eventually able to find one another day. The girls were both amused to find a T-shirt with the monorail spiel in Spanish.

We also stopped at Captain Cook's- and this time they had the Red Velvet Cupcake (Cupcake #9) so I bought it to bring back to the room since the girls had ended the night on a great note after some precarious moments earlier in the day. We eventually split it 3 ways and all enjoyed.

While Julia was in the bathroom after midnight, I bought some goodies out of my suitcase: a "Happy Birthday" banner, a centerpiece with purple sparkly 16's, and a birthday pin with Stitch coming out of a cake. Megan delayed Julia when she sensed me having issues taping up the banner. It was officially Julia's 16th birthday and I wanted her to start it off right. She seemed touched by the surprises, so the day a happy ending. (although if we'd stayed up for the end of the marathon Phillies game, it would have been tragic since they came back only to ultimately lose after an outfielder with vision problems was pitching and gave up 5 runs in the 18th inning. Really.)

Officially 16. Doesn't feel different.
Monsters University topiary Cupcakes from Starring Rolls Posing with Phineas and Ferb Posing with Wreck It Ralph and Vanellope Meeting Sorcerer Mickey Posing with Sorcerer Mickey New Fantasyland at dusk Napkin in the shape of a rose We got to try The Grey Stuff, in honor of Julia's birthday Meeting the Beast Posing with the Beast New Rapunzel bathroom area- way too pretty for its usage
A couple years ago, I'd made plans to go to Disney World for my birthday. I had planned to spend by birthday going on all my favorite rides at all 4 parks, something I'd never done before. But alas, that trip had to be canceled. When I noticed that the girls had been wanting to stay in the parks longer than on previous trips (when they'd vocally complain about the heat by lunch time), I suggested that we could go to all 4 parks on Julia's birthday if they wanted. They embraced the idea.

And so we had a mission. Despite the fact that they'd had some moments of clashing the previous day, I thought the girls would be able to cooperate since it was important to all of us to succeed, and since we wouldn't have time to idle. But I told them that if either one of them started complaining that her sister was annoying, the quest would be over and we'd head back to the hotel to chill out. (well, technically, since I kept calling them by the name of my cat Ginny when I had to admonish them, I told them we'd be going back to the kennels. LOL)

We were overdue for some good transportation luck, and getting a monorail right away at 8:30 was an excellent start. Our first stop was Epcot and we arrived before the park opened. Because of the seriousness of our mission, we split up: Julia went to get Test Track fastpasses while Megan came with me to get Soarin fastpasses. (I wasn't sure that having the 2 girls together would be a good idea; I chose to head to Soarin because you can go inside a nice air conditioned building to get fastpasses) Julia sped to Test Track and got her fastpasses for 9:40am before we even made it inside the Land Pavilion! Fastpass mission: success! After we snagged fastpasses for Soarin for 9:55am, Julia joined us in the 20 minute standby line.

Next, we used the Test Track fastpasses to create another girly purple car (Ride Photo #1 of 8; our quest included getting photos at each ride where that was an option). Our car is beautiful! Then we headed back to use our Soarin fastpass. After posing for some obligatory Photopass photos at the entrance, we headed out of the park at around 11 and promptly got on a bus for Animal Kingdom. We were making excellent time!

Naturally, we headed to Expedition Everest (Ride Photo #2 of 8) which we rode twice, the 2nd time with fastpasses. The standby line was definitely longer than earlier in the week- and it didn't help that once we got near the front we were at a practical standstill as they'd let in a ton of fastpass people and then sometimes only one standby party before switching back to let in a another ton of fastpass people. I know fastpass is supposed to get you on the ride quickly… but there is something wrong if they are issuing enough fastpasses that they need to bring the standby line to a grinding halt. This letting mostly fastpasses through thing is pissing me off.

We were getting hungry and if we were going to last until late at night, it was important to eat regular meals and to take some breaks to sit down in the A/C. To that end, we stopped at Restaurantosaurus to order a counter service lunch. Once we had our food, I had a hell of a time finding a table- which was especially annoying because I was carrying a tray with 3 bottles of water on it! (yeah, now I realize I should have asked the girls carry the waters…) This brings me to my newest Disney pet peeve: people saving tables before they order. Attention people who are saving tables because it is so hard to find them: you are making the problem worse for everyone else!

Soon after we finally found a table (yay), a nice woman asked if she could sit at the end we weren't using. Before I noticed that she was a Table Reserving Offender, I smiled and empathetically invited her to please join us. Her son sat down and she went back to order their food; she didn't return until we were just about done. So, essentially, she occupied table space for double the time that it was really needed.

Anyway. I was so intrigued with the Macaroni & Cheese Hot Dog on the menu that I had to order it. The bun was a little long, but otherwise? It was one step from a cheese dog and it was quite tasty. Maybe (definitely) not the healthiest choice, but yummy. The fries also hit the spot. Megan had a kid's cheeseburger which came in a bucket that she left behind because she didn't want it. Julia had the Black Bean burger, and was slightly taken aback when the CM behind the counter wanted to make sure she knew it was vegetarian.

After lunch, we rode Dinosaur (Ride Photo #3 of 8) which had a minimal wait and then left Animal Kingdom around 2pm; at this point I knew we'd definitely make it to all 4 parks. We had only a quick wait for a bus to Hollywood Studios as our transportation luck continued. Good bus luck today. Yay!

We headed directly to the Sunset Boulevard section of the park and collected 2 sets of fastpasses for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster before checking into the Tower of Terror (Ride Photo #4 of 8) When we got off, we noticed that it was pouring so we hung out in the gift shop for a bit. I got a Coke Zero because I definitely was in need of some caffeine!

Julia really wanted to try the Red Velvet Cheesecake Cupcake at Starring Rolls. I wasn't sure I wanted to use up the energy backtracking, but it was her birthday and I wanted it to be spectacular. So when the rain lessened a bit, we made a run for it. We got there just as they were locking up at 3pm- noooo! Fortunately, we didn't have to beg too hard to get them to open the door for us. As we walked in, we thanked them profusely and I told them it was Julia's birthday. The cupcake (Cupcake #10) was amazing- red velvet cake, with cheesecake flavored icing- and the piece de resistance was the toffee pieces on top of the icing! We split it 3 ways but since Megan doesn't like cheesecake (she likes cheese and cake… but not cheesecake), we split her icing 2 ways. My birthday's always going to be synonymous with red velvet cupcakes. (because we'd also had one after midnight the previous evening)

Afterwards, we looped through the Tower of Terror until it was time for our RnRC fastpasses. On our 2nd ride, a mother approached asking if her 12 or 13 year old daughter could ride with us because the rest of her family didn't want to ride. I tried to make her feel welcome with our party. We managed to a total of 5 rides in with various poses- for our final pose, we pretended to have a tear in our eyes because we were sad we wouldn't ride it again. All in all, we'd taken 14 trips to the ToT during our vacation. (ironically, it would have been more appropriate if we'd gone on one fewer time.)

As we waited to enter the library on our final ride, I saw some faces who looked familiar- the "Shoe Phone" people from Friday night! Running into the same people caused us to remark on how small a world it is… and we ended up bursting out in a chorus of "It's a Small World" It was just about this time when the door opened to the library; I bet the bellhop CM inside was more than a little surprised to see 7 people entering while belting out "It's a Small World"! We didn't get to actually ride with them because they wanted to wait to ride in the elevator staffed by a different CM. They said they'd ridden 30+ times that week already so I guess they got to know some of the CM's.

When it came time for our 2 sets of fastpasses, we headed to Rock 'n' Roller Coaster (Ride Photo #5 of 8). The first time, Julia sat by herself because there was no one in the single rider line, and I quipped that she was riding with the Towel Monkey. At the end of the 2nd ride, the soundtrack (which features various Aerosmith songs) was playing "Love in an Elevator"- but it ended with the phrase "Love in a Roller Coaster".

Our amazing transportation luck continued as we almost immediately caught a bus to the Contemporary at about 5:30pm. It's 5:30, and our day is only just over half done. From there, we strolled down the now familiar path to the Magic Kingdom… and just after 6pm we'd made it to our 4th park! But we still had more ride photos to achieve and plenty more to do. As we entered the park, we caught a very quick parade on Main Street which apparently was the "Move It! Shake It! Celebrate It! Street Party". It was cute, but nothing I'd plan my day around; it was very short.

The first order of business was to have some dinner. So we headed to an old favorite- Pinnochio's Village Haus (of Silliness). Julia and I split a barbecue chicken flatbread and Megan had a kid's cheese pizza which came with grapes and yogurt. We definitely continued our tradition of silly meals at this venue, and it was another nice break from the hustle and bustle of running around the parks in the humid Florida summer weather. Among "highlights": Megan ate her yogurt with a fork, and I fed Julia grapes.

After dinner, we headed to Tomorrowland and got a pair of fastpasses to Space Mountain. I took advantage of the fact that we had some time to kill to suggest riding the Carousel of Progress which is another nice place to get away from crowds for a bit. I have a sentimental attachment to this ride, partially because it is one of the ones touched by Walt. But mainly because I think it's cute. I had all 3 of us singing and bopping around to the "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" theme song that plays between each scene. So much fun!

On our way out, we found ourselves near a Stitch dance party so we had to stop and join in. It was wonderful to see how Stitch was paying a lot of attention to a physically challenged young girl, and it was heartwarming to see the huge smile on her face. When we'd had our fill of Stitch, we headed to Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin (Ride Photo #6 of 8). It's hilarious how I am looking completely away from the camera in my ride photo! I must have been doing something right, though, since I once again inexplicably had the high score. Utter fail for the 2 teen/tweens who play video games all the time, LOL.

By now it was time for our 2 Space Mountain fastpasses (Ride Photo #7 of 8) It's always a lot of fun riding Space Mountain- I feel so free zooming through the simulated space in the dark building. Although I admit the Disney World version of the ride is slightly lacking when compared with other parks that have a soundtrack for the ride.

After 12 hours in the parks, we checked in for the Fireworks Dessert Party at Tomorrowland Terrance Restaurant. We'd enjoyed this party 4 years ago for Julia's 12th birthday so it seemed appropriate to do it again for her 16th. The party allows you to watch the fireworks without worrying about finding a space or battling the crowds. As a bonus, you can sample an unlimited supply of desserts.

Even though everyone gets up to stand and watch the fireworks from the railing, I was pleased that our table was front and center, probably because I'd reserved online as soon as I saw that bookings had opened for mid-August (unlike most dining reservations which open at a set interval- currently 180 days in advance- no one ever really knows when the dessert party will open for booking; it usually opens for a block of dates at once).

It was slightly chaotic lining up for the desserts; we were told that there were 2 lines that had the same desserts but there were clearly a couple on the other side that our side didn't have. (I'm not sure if they were just temporarily out on the one side, though I didn't really see places for them) I was very disappointed that they no longer served the delectable Pistachio Crème Brulee; in its place was a Vanilla Crème Brulee that was good but not nearly as memorable. All in all, the desserts were yummy, but not spectacular. But the biggest reason to do the dessert party is, as I mentioned earlier, to have a relaxing spot reserved for watching the fireworks. And this was definitely great- especially since this time, Tinker Bell flew over us. (she hadn't 4 years ago due to inclement weather) We also enjoyed the pre-fireworks show where the castle was illuminated.

After the fireworks were over, we decided to head towards Splash Mountain where we planned to end the night as Extra Magic Hours extended the park hours on selected attractions until 1am for Disney hotel guests. On the way, we stopped at the Haunted Mansion. 2 years ago, Julia had been inexplicably spooked by this ride (given that she goes on Super Duper Looper Barfing Coasters of Death without blinking an eye) but she agreed to give it another chance. This time there were no issues, and she couldn't remember why she'd had any problems 2 years ago.Haunted Mansion wasn't so bad... but it's a road I'd rather not go down.

We arrived at the mountain range in Frontierland at about 10:52pm. There was some debate as to whether we should ride Big Thunder Mountain or Splash Mountain first. We had major plans to stay on Splash Mountain until 1am and extend an Occupy Log as long as possible; we'd also decided that for one of our later rides, we'd pose for the ride photo like we were sleeping. It looked like they were just re-opening Splash and there was no line, so at my urging, we headed there for Ride Photo #8 of 8.

As we pulled back in the station at the end of the ride, we couldn't see anyone lined up. Our glee at perhaps being able to start Occupy Log even earlier than anticipated was short lived. When we asked about staying on, we were told that the ride was closed and that it was no longer open for Extra Magic Hours. (actually, we were told that it was never open for extra magic hours but I looked it up and it was open for extra magic hours until August 2012. I only vaguely recall seeing that posted- and seem to remember that the hope/expectation at the time was that it would only be temporarily removed)

The girls were really disappointed that we didn't get to ride it any more times; I told them that I preferred to think that it was lucky we got to ride it at all. If we'd decided to go on Thunder Mountain first, we probably wouldn't have made it to Splash Mountain at all. And that would really have been tragic, because we would have failed in 2 goals: to ride all our favorite rides and to ride all the rides that offered in ride photos.

After riding Big Thunder, we decided to head out of the park. Julia expressed some desire to go back to Space Mountain but neither Megan nor I wanted to walk clear across the park. I suggested that since we couldn't have a photo taken falling asleep on Splash Mountain, we could have one taken with that pose on Main Street. So at least we have that as a visual reminder of our crazy long day- which was amazing even if we didn't stay until 1 am or ride Splash Mountain a zillion times.

As we walked down Main Street, I led us into the stores, which we often cut through. I stopped in front of the pillow Stitch that Megan had originally intended to buy before she decided to spend her money on other things. I directed her to pick one out to take home; I then turned to Julia and told her to pick out something too. I was slightly shocked to hear these words coming out of my mouth; the gesture hadn't been premeditated. But, as I told the girls, they were awesome the entire trip- especially during our long 4 park day- and good things come when you make an effort to get along. Julia started tearing up- I'm not sure if she was moved by my gesture or if it was just getting to her that the trip was ending. (she ended up picking out the dark rose colored T-shirt I thought she would choose; it was a pretty one that she had planned on buying until she decided that it would be better to get a Germany one at Epcot)

We left the park just before midnight with a mix of emotions: the girls were overjoyed at their unexpected gifts (and I was happy to have given them!), but we were also sad that our last full day was over. The parade made me so sad because it's so great and that's the last time we'll see it this trip. I don't wanta leave. :( And of course, underneath it all was a dormant layer of exhaustion that wanted to claim us. There were massive crowds for the monorail- moreso for the express line than the resort line- but we were on one soon enough. After returning to our room at the Polynesian and getting ready for bed, we all slept quite well! Julia and I didn't even take any time to record journal notes.
Celebrating Julia's birthday at Epcot Another girly car we designed at Test Track Test Track ride photo Celebrating Julia's birthday at Animal Kingdom Expedition Everest queue Expedition Everest ride # 1 of the day Celebrating Julia's birthday at Hollywood Studios Red Velvet Cheesecake cupcake from Starring Rolls Tower of Terror: last ride of the trip, with a tear in our eyes Rock 'n' Roller Coaster ride photo Celebrating Julia's birthday at Magic Kingdom Eating yogurt with a knife Pinocchio Village Haus (of silliness) Space Mountain ride #2 of the day Heading into the Fireworks Dessert Party With my desserts at the Fireworks Dessert Party Megan at the Fireworks Dessert Party The birthday girl at the Fireworks Dessert Party My favorite photo of Wishes Splash Mountain, posing like fashion models Tired after a long- but amazing- day Megan shows off her new pillow pal
We somehow got up at about 8am; we didn't have to worry about eating or slathering on sunscreen to get ready since we were just heading to a character breakfast at our hotel. I called down to the front desk and got our checkout extended a couple hours just in case we needed extra time since we didn't need to leave for the airport until 3:30pm.

I'd booked the Best Friends character breakfast at 'Ohana for our last morning because I knew it would be excellent motivation for all of us to get out of bed. And indeed it was. After checking in at the desk in front of the 2nd floor restaurant, we were presented with another set of leis and then we stood in a line to get our photo taken. Printed and digital copies of the photos were included in our PhotoPass Plus package. I love that the photo is of us standing in front of a 'Ohana sign because it symbolizes how we are a family despite not being blood relations- as the quote goes from Lilo and Stitch: "'Ohana means family. And family means that no one gets left behind or forgotten"

We ended up at a table by the window from which we could see the Magic Kingdom castle. It was a fun breakfast, especially because we got to meet some great characters: our favorite Stitch (who liked Megan's small plush Stitch), Lilo (who seemed to approve that I have a cat that shares her name), Mickey and Pluto. Served family style, the meal included scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and potatoes. Someone also came by later with Mickey shaped waffles. After the waitress noticed that Julia and I had devoured the bacon, she asked if we wanted more. Julia said yes. Inexplicably, she also brought us more waffles… even though we hadn't finished the ones we already had! Julia has said that her biggest regret of the vacation was that she couldn't finish the last 3 pieces of bacon from the new plate.

After breakfast, we took a scenic walk back to our hotel room, enjoying one last casual stroll through the grounds. I had my good DSLR camera with me and wanted to take some photos from the top of the volcano water slide to try to capture the view; it's one of those memories I don't want to ever lose.

We packed up our bags, though none of us wanted to leave our awesome room at our amazing hotel in the middle of the wondrous Disney World resort. We're all packed. *sniff* Megan had bought a couple of large plush that wouldn't fit in her suitcase, but fortunately I had my overflow duffle. Once I had myself mostly situated, I announced that the overflow duffle was now accepting passengers and packed the large Minion and the pillow Stitch. Megan tried to toss her crocheted Phanatic but- twice- it bounced onto the ground, so she took it as a sign that my bag would not accept the Phanatic and she found space for it elsewhere.

Once we were all set, we were able to check our checked bags in at a counter in front of the hotel. This was the first time I'd been able to use the service to check in for my flight from my Disney hotel; it was super convenient to be able to bypass the airport check-in counter and not to even have to worry about lugging our checked bags to the airport.

We all had extra carry on bags and we checked them temporarily so we could travel to the parks unencumbered. At about 12pm, we started our final journey to the Magic Kingdom by waiting at the monorail stop.

Naturally, we headed straight to Splash Mountain. We got a couple sets of fastpasses and then got in the standby line, which was about 35 minutes. On our first ride, we were in the back of a log and I was really annoyed because the people in front kept turning around and taking flash pictures; I really don't need a light to keep blazing in my eyes!

The line had exploded to an hour by the time we used our fastpasses. As we waited in the short fastpass return line, we kept hearing announcements that they might have to close the ride due to approaching storms but that they'd keep it open as long as possible. Fortunately, we got all our planned rides in! (though we didn't stop to claim our photo after the 2nd ride to save time) On our last ride, we posed with our hands shaped like hearts to symbolize how much we love Splash Mountain.

As we exited after claiming our 2 ride photos, it was raining. Despite the precipitation, I still wanted to head to New Fantasyland to try some Lefou's Brew- it was the one thing we hadn't done that I really wanted to do. But then, all of a sudden, the clouds exploded with voluminous rain so we headed for cover in the Briar Patch, the nearest gift shop… along with tons of our new best friends. We tried to make the best of it by trying on funny hats, and most people were in similar spirits; there were a lot of rain parkas being sold but I wasn't about to buy 3 of them so close to our return home. So we waited. Julia was thinking of buying some things and I strongly urged her to get anything she could find at this shop since the storm was eating up what little time we might have had left for shopping.

As we- and tons of others- waited patiently, a woman came barreling in with her huge stoller, clearly annoyed that we didn't part for her like the red sea. Never mind the fact that people were doing their best; there just wasn't a lot of room to maneuver. "Jesus F-ing Christ!" she uttered, completely annoyed with the peons who were apparently purposely inhibiting her right to dry space. In response, I mumbled "Merry Christmas to you, too" under my breath as I rolled my eyes. Some people just love to find reasons to be miserable.

Eventually, we got so claustrophobic and annoyed that we ventured out; by this time, the rain had slowed down and would soon halt. We made it to Gaston's Tavern at 2:30 which gave us just enough time to sample Lefou's Brew, a new beverage which is described as "Frozen apple juice with a hint of toasted marshmallow and topped with all-natural passion fruit-mango foam". The drink got 3 thumbs up from us, and we were all glad we'd managed to fit it into our plans. We only had an hour until our airport bus so we carried the drinks as we walked to the exit of the park. I suggested getting a PhotoPass photo holding the drinks and Julia elaborated on that idea by saying that we should hold them like we were toasting; the photo proved to be a great memory of the end of a wonderful trip.

After stopping into the Main Street shop so Julia could buy something (as I hurried her up), we left the park. But not before I made sure we all paused and looked back up Main Street at the castle to bid adieu to the kingdom of magic.

Back at the Polynesian by around 3:10pm, we retrieved our other carry on bags and sat on a bench to await the Magic Express bus to the airport. The skies began to open up again with storms but it didn't matter much because we were under cover. Our bus arrived around the stated time of 3:40pm which was a huge improvement compared to how late it had been 4 years ago!

It was very sad crossing back out of the Disney World gates into the real world- a world that has green highway signs instead of purple ones. And I could have seriously done without the enormous security line at the airport.

We had our traditional last meal at the airport McDonalds; Julia was fine with eating there since it was a tradition but she kept saying how bad the food was for you. (this is a kid who loves Taco Bell which I can't imagine is a huge improvement, LOL) Once again, I had a bad experience with people saving tables- just as I was going to put our tray on a table, someone from the other side of the gate separating the seating area from the main thoroughfare flung a plush onto the table to claim it. Really!?! Fortunately there were plenty of other tables- and I wasn't carrying heavy water bottles. I think I was on edge due to hunger; Julia gave me a hug to try to make me feel better which was sweet. McDonalds food isn't very interesting, but for the record I had chicken nuggets, Julia had a fish sandwich and Megan had a chicken nuggets happy meal. (she left the toy on the table since she didn't want it)

Our flight was on time (6:45pm) and basically uneventful; we had boarding numbers A42-44. There were a lot of people pre-boarding and I felt like we had to walk relatively far back to get our 3 seats together, but then I looked up at the row number and saw that we were actually only in the 4th row. The highlight of the flight occurred when the seatbelt sign got switched off and I took the large stuffed minion out of a bag in the overhead bun and strapped it into the seat for a photo. We'd wanted to take such a photo of the Jumbo Stitch 2 years ago but the seatbelt sign had been on for the entire flight.

Julia was visibly sad about the end of the trip; she is more emotional than her sister. The girls said they'd miss seeing me every day so I started making concrete plans to do stuff with them- nothing huge since I have another trip planned. But since they love theatre and I have a ton of DVD's of musical performances, I started making a list of the videos we could watch together. (potentially with their parents as well)

At one point- and I am not even entirely sure it was on the plane- Julia started to tear up and then apologized for getting so upset. I leaned over, gave her a hug, and told her that we should never be sorry for our feelings; I hope that message came across.

It's sad to leave, but I won't miss the rain, the sunscreen, or the crowds. I actually felt like I was finally doing something with my summer, and now it's almost over. Safe to say, this was amazingly amazing and I'm sorry to leave, but may be happy to be home. Still, it's hard to say goodbye. I hope at some point I can come back. I'm really going to miss this place. I finally understand this post vacation blues business.

Julia and Megan also chatted a lot about their upcoming school year. Megan was going to have some 7th grade teachers that Julia knew, so she gave her younger sister some advice. I would have been happy to have slept through the flight, but I enjoyed their chatter. Julia followed the flight path on her tablet and kept us updated of where we were.

Once we landed at BWI, we had a heck of a time retrieving our luggage. Our flight # ended up getting tossed among 4 different carousels- and there were only 5 in all! After the 2nd or 3rd switch, I remarked to the girls that BWI was rapidly falling down into the list of my least favorite airports. Where the hell is out luggage? This is ridiculous. But eventually we got our bags and they were all present and undamaged, so that's what's important.

And then Caren and Brian picked us up for the ride home; fortunately, the car was well stocked with S'mores Candy Corn and our favorite sodas. I think there would have been a mutiny if there hadn't been any S'mores Candy Corn! But there were 2 bags- the first only lasted us until just north of Baltimore but we weren't able to finish the 2nd one. All the while, we cheerfully shared stories from the past 10 days… memories that I will treasure forever.
Official portrait at 'Ohana restaurant My breakfast plate at 'Ohana 'Ohana breakfast 'Ohana Group photo with Stitch Hotel Lobby View from the top of the volcano water slide View from the top of the volcano water slide The pool has a view of the beach and the Magic Kingdom castle Volcano Pool  Reflecting on the balcony for the last time Splash Mountain #3 of the day: Our hands in the shape of hearts Rapunzel bathroom area during the day- so pretty Toasting the end of our Disney experience One last look up Main Street... Minion on the plane home
Walt Disney World has always been special to me; but now that I've been taking my nieces there, it's even more meaningful because it is a place where I have become closer to Julia and Megan through laughter and common experiences. When I am at WDW with the nieces, I always feel that we belong together, and that we belong there.

We've developed some fun traditions: Tower of Terror must be our first real ride, we must get a reservation at 50's Prime Time Café, we must have a quick serve meal at Pinocchio's Village Haus (of silliness) etc. But the greatest tradition is the general camaraderie we share. We all can feel free to let out our silly inner children, without worrying about being judged by society. We "get" each other and that's all that matters.

Now that we've been to Disney World a few times and now that the girls are older, it's thrilling to see that they are more enthused about experiencing all that the parks have to offer. On our first trip, I sometimes got a sense that they would have been almost just as happy to stay at any hotel, anywhere (even Camden, NJ), as long as it had Disney channel and a pool. I was so pleased that this trip- for the first time since I've been spending time with the girls- there was no TV. At one point, Megan asked about turning on Disney channel and Julia said that it was nice to not have the TV on. And that was that.

Everything about the trip worked our really well. Both hotels were fabulous; each in its own way transported us to another part of the world. They were both as gorgeous and luxurious as they were convenient. No complaints; I'd return to either one in a heartbeat.

The weather was typical "August in Florida" weather: hot and humid with a burst of rain at some point during the day. For the most part, we got lucky with avoiding the storms. But even when we got caught in them, we knew they'd go away and so they didn't really interrupt our plans.

Crowds weren't too bad. At Universal, the Express Passes we had from staying onsite proved to be invaluable the few times we encountered extremely long lines. At Disney, we were able to use the Fastpass system to avoid any huge lines. We had no trouble finding good spots for the evening entertainment shows we saw; I'd definitely suggest seeing the 2nd show/parade if there are 2 because those are always way emptier.

Except for one blah meal at Universal, our food ranged from good to amazing. I tried a few new restaurants at Disney and they were all hits with me: Kona, Be Our Guest and Tokyo Dining. Cupcakes were a huge part of this trip, and some of them were really spectacular.

All in all, it was an amazing 10 days spent with 2 awesome young ladies. And worth every penny.

I can't believe it came and went so quickly, and it's sad to go, but I'm going to look forward to the future and whatever it may hold, never forget my family is always close at hand, relish every moment that we spend together, and remember it forever. I miss you Disney. This trip marked the end of summer, which was one of the hardest things to let go of- harder than getting out of bed, but I know it'll be back before long, and soon enough, I'll find my way back. "Getting up is hard. Leaving is harder." Forgetting is the hardest of all.