Best. Vacation. Ever!!!
Adam and I decided it was time we both were in desperate need for a fun vacation, perfectly timed to celebrate my birthday! He suggested Universal Orlando because he is the best boyfriend ever - he knows how much I love Harry Potter!!! My sisters and I had been in discussion for a while now trying to figure out when we all could go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter &/or Disney World (and other Disney parks), and though my sister Valerie couldn't go with us (she and her husband visited the Christmas markets in Germany last December, so they were still rebuilding their vacation funds), my youngest sister Allison jumped at the opportunity. She rode the 10 hours down with us on a Saturday in late August and flew back on Tuesday evening, while Adam and I drove to St. Augustine, FL, on Wednesday to spend a few more days.
We booked a package directly through UniversalResort.com, staying at their Cabana Bay hotel... everything was perfect! We ended up with 4 day park-to-park tickets (their current deal is 2-day 3-park-to-park tickets + 2 days free). Saturday afternoon when we arrived, it was in a torrential downpour. As I checked in, the (super friendly) guy at the counter said that even though the weather forecasts all said the rain would continue all week, he had a feeling the rain wouldn't last, and he was right! It did rain off and on a little throughout our visit, but it was summertime in Florida, so it's to be expected.
First off, our hotel: PERFECT. Cabana Bay is Universal's "cheap" option, but it really didn't feel that way! I love love love the 1950s/60s decor- the classic cars, the music, the turquoise everywhere! *emoji heart eyes* There was a scheduled shuttle running from the hotel to the CityWalk park entrance every ten minutes, but we only had to wait for it once during our entire stay. Super duper convenient. Allison and I did take the walking path from the park to our hotel one afternoon, and it's a lovely walk, but after walking around the park for 4 straight days, any extra walking gets old reaaaal quick. I accumulated over 23,000 steps that day (for a woman who sits at a desk and rarely gets above 7,000 in a day, that's quite a few).
Secondly, Universal's CityWalk: I really like how they have everything set up, though there was pretty much nothing explaining the process ANYWHERE. We just followed the crowds like little lost sheep and hoped they were leading us in the right direction! They did. The process is extremely smooth and efficient: first, all shuttles, taxis, and parking lots funnel foot traffic into a central security station just outside the CityWalk. No tickets needed at this point! The crowds are then directed into a covered walkway over the road to get into CityWalk, which has tons of restaurants and small shops, and stays open much later than either park. From there, you head left to go to Islands of Adventure and right to head to Universal Orlando. Easy breezy pass through the ticketing station on either side, and you're in!
We visited the Universal side on our first evening, since they were open a bit later than Islands of Adventure, and I'm extremely glad we did! Initially our plan was to take photos and get some souvenir shopping out of the way that evening, since we weren't able to get into the park until 6ish... but with the rain, we decided we would just use the time to explore everything. We headed straight for the HP section of the park. Diagon Alley is just... amazing. I seriously want to live in Diagon Alley. If they had apartments available above the shops, I would be first in line to move in. The atmosphere was intoxicating! The subtle smells, the perfect soundtrack, the attention to detail - this girl is in love! We were able to ride the Escape From Gringotts 3D/indoor rollercoaster ride. So cool! We were in the front row of our cart which, after riding it again later and sitting in the back row, makes a huge difference in experience. Since we were so late getting in to the line (8:50ish) and the park closed at 9, by the time we left the ride, the park had pretty much cleared out. In my opinion, this was the most magical time to be in the park! The cobblestone roads were still wet with rain, reflecting the street lights and the warm glow from the shops... just mesmerizing.
I could go on and on and on about how much I loved every single aspect of our time in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but this is already shaping up to be my longest post to date, and I haven't even mentioned the Alligator Farm we visited yet! Hogsmede (in Islands of Adventure) is wonderful, too, but Diagon Alley was my all-time fave.
Moving on to the 2nd half of our trip: St. Augustine. Neither Adam nor I had visited St. Augustine before, but when I was trying to find somewhere else we could go on our trip (preferably somewhere with a beach...), I ran across an article mentioning St. Augustine as the oldest continuously inhabited town in the continental United States. Yes please! We stayed at the oceanfront Hampton Inn St. Augustine, because it's pretty much the only oceanfront hotel on the island of Anastasia. Another hotel (much larger than our little hotel) is in the process of being built, though! The beach was nearly deserted, even though the weather was clear and sunny and the temperature was in the mid 80s; it was a little disconcerting! I thought maybe people knew something I didn't know and was avoiding the beach for a reason! The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that 1) I'm used to Myrtle Beach where there are a bazillion people in all directions at all times, 2) it was the beginning of September and most people had finished vacationing, and 3) Florida has a ton of beaches, so it makes sense that people are more spread out. The beach was beautiful and the water warm, so I didn't mind one bit I was nearly alone!
St. Augustine has so many incredibly interesting places to visit, we were only able to check out a couple. Unfortunately, everything is also pretty expensive! It was $15 - $20 per person every place we went to, and it only takes about an hour and a half to thoroughly see everything there is to see at each location, so that adds up pretty quickly. We could've visited a Disney park (or stayed in Universal) for less money. Who knew?! The one thing I would absolutely recommend should you have an opportunity to pass through St. Augustine is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm & Zoological Park. Worth every penny! You can feed alligators, see every specie of crocodilian on the planet, and view tons of wild, Florida-native birds in their natural habitats! I think I took several hundred photos at the alligator farm; it was just that cool. I'm pretty sure the alligator farm was Adam's favorite part of our vacation!
Driving back home, we decided to spend a night in Myrtle Beach to split up the long drive. Our hotel was... well... terrifying. It was Labor Day weekend (Saturday night), so nearly everywhere was booked up. I found a last minute deal online through booking.com - the reviews were a bit deceptive - after our stay, I searched further and realized you really had to dig to find the negative reviews of our specific hotel, even though there were far more negative reviews than positive. Yikes! I usually do such thorough research, but I just jumped at the deal since I was having such a difficult time finding anywhere else. Totally my fault! Oh well, it was definitely an adventure. I'm ashamed to admit this, but we ended up paying $155 for one night at this place... safe to say, they were most definitely price gouging due to the holiday weekend. On the following Tuesday, the rate dropped to $28 per night. It was definitely a $28 hotel!
Here are a few of the photos from HP world (taken by either Allison or myself):
We took sooooo many more photos. Allison's pictures turned out way better than mine (her's are a lot of the daytime shots, mine are predominately the nighttime shots)... but it's cool to see how different everything looks at different times of the day!