My best friend and I turned 30 with a mission: we were celebrating, we had one weekend, and we had a few things we needed to cross off our bucket list. Sara and I have known each other for as long as I can remember, and declared we were best friends in the sixth grade. We’ve been best friends ever since, long past the point when an adult calls anyone their capital B, capital F, Best Friend. One thing that united us as kids was our mutual love of all things Disney. In high school, we still quoted Winnie the Pooh lines to each other; we could watch Aladdin on mute, reciting the lines and singing every song. So it only made sense, when talking about a great way to celebrate/ mourn turning 30, that we decided to go to Disneyworld. It was only after much discussion that we decided we couldn’t go all the way to Orlando and not also go to Universal to acknowledge another (albeit much later) childhood obsession with Harry Potter. Theme park birthday weekend it was going to be!
First, a warning: this weekend is not for the faint of heart. Probably not for people travelling with children, despite the location. Our itinerary was based on priorities, limited time away from work, and maximizing fun and the realization of childhood dreams. It meant there were some heartbreaking omissions, but 3 very full, completely magical days. In the end, we only spent one day at the Disneyworld, and two days at Universal. We were going to Orlando looking for magic, which meant that the Magic Kingdom was THE place, to the exclusion of the other Disney parks like Epcot or Animal Kingdom. The magic would continue at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with the important addition of more thrilling rides than what Disney could offer. There were some tough choices made here, folks. We booked our flights for the Thursday evening before a long weekend, giving us Friday through Sunday to go full steam through the parks, then heading home on the holiday Monday, minimizing the amount of time we needed to take off work. Strategically, we chose to go at the beginning of September, after peak kid-season.
No one goes to a Disney/ Universal as a cheap trip. Those park pass costs are a hard pill to swallow, a task made even more difficult when the exchange rate is not in your favour. We spent a lot of time crunching numbers, trying to decide the best configuration of passes. Still, once we made up our minds to see this through, Sara and I both 100% agreed it was worth splurging on the 2-day Park-to-Park + Universal Express passes at $330 USD each. This let us skip the line at most rides, as well as travel between the two Universal parks. A day at the Magic Kingdom set us back $105 USD each for passes. Disney has a slightly different system; rather than paying more to skip the lines, their FastPass+ system lets you choose 3 rides for which you can skip the line during predetermined time slots. Add that to flights, food, souvenirs, and cabs, and it’s a pretty pricey little weekend.
The September long weekend was a great time to go. It meant missing the biggest crowds of kids on summer vacation; the compromise was that, like clockwork, every day at around 2-3pm the clouds would part with tropical rains that would grind the rides to a halt. This ended up being great times to explore the shops, but even then we found ourselves waiting for the weather to let up and for the fun to start anew.
Other than that, this trip could not have been better. As much of a sucker as I am for Disney, nothing could have prepared me for how magical it felt. Is it all totally fabricated? Of course, but knowing that it was just some sweaty teenager in a bear suit didn’t stop me from getting excited to meet Winnie the Pooh. If anyone can make a manufactured experience cause some very real emotions, it’s Disney. Both Sara and I were pretttttty surprised to find ourselves getting all verklempt during the closing ceremonies. Disney played with my childhood heartstrings like a fiddle.
Meeting our favourite characters and finally getting to see what all the fuss was over famous rides like Space Mountain were as awesome as expected. More surprising was how much we both enjoyed the parades. I’ve seen parades in my time, but I’ve never seen anything like the singing, dancing extravaganzas of Disney parades.
After the first day at Disney, I thought Universal was going to be disappointing. I knew the two Universal parks would have the edge when it came to the rides, but I was not anticipating how incredible Harry Potter world would be. Disney was magical, but Harry Potter world was so completely immersive that you couldn’t help but feel like you would run into Harry at any minute. The effect was helped considerably by the number of visitors who came in full wizard regalia. You can spend all day discovering all the little tricks and references they’ve included. Making your way through Diagon Alley, riding the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade, climbing up to Hogwarts, it’s all there. I’m not ashamed to say that I insisted we go to Ollivander’s twice so that I could try to be chosen by the wandmaker (failed, both times, though I still came home with a wand), or that we drank our weight in Butterbeer (seriously, so tasty), or that we waited in line three times to Escape from Gringott’s. The rides in the rest of the Universal parks were great and all, but 95% of my memories of the two days we were there are of Harry Potter.
Final verdict: I have never been so exhausted than the flight home on Monday. I’ll be honest, I thought that once I had been once and crossed it off the bucket list, I would have no interest in going back to Disney or Universal. And yet, I still find myself wishing for another day of magic. Childhood dreams were realized, and I can’t wait to go back. Theme park birthday weekend: success!
*Apologies for the picture quality; I was travelling light and was not about to bring a camera, never mind a good one, into the parks. All pics are from my iPhone.