An “Ice Cream Sunday Tour”of Lena, IL

What better way to spend a lazy summer Sunday than with a cool, creamy and unapologetically calorie-laden tour of Lena, IL?

Cafe 217’s “playdough” is one of the many scrumptious flavors of ice cream to devour in Lena, IL.

I’ve called this close-knit community “home” for most of my 39 years, so you can only imagine how much ice cream I’ve consumed within its village limits!

Recently, Lena has experienced a bit of a growth spurt as fresh, new faces in the business community join  beloved, familiar ones.  The other day, I realized there was one thing a number of them had in common: an exceptional menu of delicious ice cream options.

Even better… just like the sticky finger prints covering a half-eaten sugar cone, no two ice cream menus here are the same!

And it got me thinking…

…how delightful would it be if someone organized an “Ice Cream Sunday” tour of Lena? Note to self: Contact Lena Business Professionals with this tasty concept.

Here is what Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s ice cream tour would include:

Lena Mercantile Eatery

 

What: Hand scooped Muller-Pinehurst Ice Cream

When: Year Round

What makes it special:

Nestled in back of an enchanting antique and collectibles shop, its perfectly vintage surroundings will transport you back to simpler times, inviting you to put down the cell phone and pair your ice cream with a decadent piece of fudgy layer cake or homemade pie.

Don’t be surprised if you hear shopkeeper Ruth whistling a happy tune in the background.

Cafe 217 Espresso & Bakery Shoppe

 

 

What: Hand scooped Ashby’s Ice Cream

When: Sunday evenings all summer long

What makes it special:  Owner Ruby’s cute-as-button trailer has already captured the community’s hearts and taste buds, thanks to her yummy beverages and gourmet baked goods.

Lemon Raspberry Cupcake Sundae, anyone?

On warm Sunday evenings, Ruby brings out her ice cream trailer and it becomes a gathering place for families seeking a sinful Cupcake Sundae or playful Playdough Waffle Cone.

Splashland Foodcourt

What: Soft serve ice cream treats

When: Seasonally

What makes it special: Every kid and parent knows the Lena Community Park District’s summertime food court is the super handy and affordable resource for hungry pool-goers.

On select Sunday evenings, even non-swimmers get in on the tasty fun as they grab a soft serve cone  or candy-mixed slider to enjoy during Music in The Park, a free live concert series.

Cream & Sugar Beanery

 

What: Hand scooped Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream

When: Year Round

What makes it special: When Angie expanded her custom furniture & gift shop, Sugar Bowl, to open a café & eatery next door, she hit all the right notes, blending rustically inviting yet chic surroundings with a sweet and savory menu.

Angie’s daughter Alex can often be found behind the counter at Cream & Sugar Beanery while her mom takes care of business at the Sugar Bowl next door.

 

The ice cream options please all ages with flavors like the über chocolatey Zanzibar and bourbon-infused Exhuasted Parent! If you’re not sure what to order, just ask for a sample!

Lena Drive Inn

What: An extensive menu of ice-cream treats

When: Seasonally

What makes it special: The carside ice cream parlor has been around for as long as I can remember.   I even worked as a carhop there in the mid-90’s (my former boss and Drive Inn owner Jody can still be found most days behind the counter).

I order the same thing now as I did then: A cookie dough flurry with chocolate ice cream, though I highly recommend the upside down banana split (I switch out the pineapple for chocolate and strawberry toppings). However, my daughter gives their new poppin’ cotton candy flurry two thumbs up!

Sweetie Me Candy & Gift Shop

 

What: Dippin’ Dots and snow cones

When: Year Round

What makes it special:  Parents may pretend they’re visiting this sweet tooth mecca for their kids’ sake…

Remember collecting a pile of cereal labels to mail in, so you could have freeze dried ice cream shipped to you? I do! Now you just can swing by Sweetie Me if you want to snack like an astronaut!

…but their true motivation is the vast and nostalgic selection of sweets  that makes grown-ups want to squeal like giddy 8-year-olds.  ( I personally dig the Guava/Mango Chili flavored Nerds – I wonder how they’d taste sprinkled on ice cream?)

If you opt to go the snow cone route, go with the Blue Raspberry!

The only thing more sweet and cheerful than the store itself are its lovely owners, Ralph and Brittany.

Parting Thoughts…

This wraps up Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s “Ice Cream Sunday Tour.” This particular blog is dear to my heart and here’s why: All the businesses on this list are not chains but one-of-a-kind enterprises. All of them (aside from the park’s Splashland Foodcourt) are privately owned businesses.

The owners and their family are often the friendly faces greeting and serving the customers who walk through their door. 

I had an absolute blast running around town and chatting with them for this blog!  I can recommend their business with absolute confidence, not as a one-visit tourist but as a regular customer who has a great affection for the ice cream and the people who serve it. 

So with that in mind, I invite you to visit my beloved hometown on this or any summer Sunday to enjoy a one-of-a-kind ice cream tour of Lena, IL!  

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How Trippin’ Midwest Mama Got Her Groove Back

Today I checked in on my Trippin’ Midwest Mama wesbite, and it occurred to me that I haven’t written a new blog since May. It isn’t for lack of good intentions or subject matters.  It’s for lack of a time-creating device that adds hours to my day.

As many of you know, I launched a new gig as a travel agent earlier this year. Tabby Travels with Simply Mouse Vacations has taken off in ways I’ve never expected. What some of you might not know is that I already have steady work as a freelancer specializing in healthcare writing. This has been my main career for the last 17 years. Add to that the fact that my daughter was going through her fourth knee surgery this summer. Hopefully, those darned patellas will stay on track now.

The real kicker is that I have plenty of things I want to write about and a ton of travel plans in the works.  I try to share quick tips regularly on my Trippin’ Midwest Mama Facebook page, but I have these big itineraries and loads of travel tips bumping around in my head, and I’d love to get them out!

So here’ s my solution: I’m going to start making more frequent but pint-sized entries day-to-day on the blog. Instead of investing an entire day in a chapter-sized post, I might spend a hour in the morning offering a bit of insight on a particular topic.

For instance, I’d love to explain the perils of being a travel agent…most notably that you come across so many amazing deals, you turn into your best customer. And while I couldn’t possibly share details about EVERY opportunity that has tempted me, I’ll tell you the story of how  I’ve come to book a Bahamian cruise on RCL’s Symphony of the Seas for next year, which happens to be one of the latest and greats ships on the ocean. I honestly didn’t think this big boy would be in my budget, but I’ll soon share the incredible deal I got.

Hard to believe I’ll actually be cruising on this ship next fall!

Or tell you about my upcoming and fourth trip to New Orleans – this time, with my book club. But instead of detailing THE LONG LIST of things I adore devouring and drinking while I’m visiting this food mecca, I’ll start by telling you why a visit to the legendary Commander’s Palace, the go-to spot for Haute Creole cuisine, is always on my itinerary.

A visit to Commander’s is a must when in New Orleans!

I could also tell you about the many spots in the Midwest we love to visit, including my town of Lena, Illinois, and how the number of retail and taste bud treasures are growing just blocks from our home. But since I’ve yet put together a blog about ALL of my favorite hometown spots, maybe I will just focus on one treasure at a time.  The mere fact that Zanzibar ice cream is now available at the Cream & Sugar Beanery has rocked my son’s world.  Now he doesn’t have to wait until our next visit to the beloved Union Dairy in Freeport to nab a scoop of his favorite ice cream.

Good thing Union Dairy, Freeport’s nostalgic ice cream mainstay, has plenty of paper towel dispensers! And now my kids’ faces can also get messy just a a few blocks away from home at Lena’s Cream & Sugar Beanery.

So stay tuned, because there is so much more to come, from Midwest gems to ocean adventures. I might be dishing it up in smaller servings, but I promise the adventure and wanderlust it inspires will taste just as sweet.

Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog to get the newest articles delivered straight to your inbox!  It’s free, easy and full of great travel tips!

5 Unforgettably Cool Experiences at Field of Dreams Movie Site

If you build it, they will come…

My son actually dressed as a junior Ghost Player for the 25th anniversary celebration and was immediately welcomed into the fold by the real Ghost Players.

And come they do—thousands come each year to a baseball field situated among the cornfields of Dyersville, Iowa.

From fans of the classic Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams, to baseball fans in general, a visit to this nostalgic property is always time well spent!

We first fell in love with this unassuming farmstead during the movie’s 25th anniversary celebration in June 2014.

Bob Costos leads a cast discussion panel for the 25th anniversary at Field of Dreams Movie Site.

From meeting with the cast to cheering on celebrities as they played ball, it was the kind of weekend that just sticks. Even with all the anniversary hubbub, there was a beautiful simplicity to the place that makes visitors want to put down their smartphone and put on a catcher’s mitt.

Even though the anniversary celebration is now long past, there is still plenty of baseball magic to be found at Field of Dreams Movie Site. Here are five unforgettably cool ways you can experience some of that magic with your family and friends:

1) Enjoy a Ghost Player performance:

Our family has enjoyed many memorable visits, but it was our interaction with the friendly Ghost Players (a number of whom were in the movie) that we’ve talked about the most. Every other Sunday from Independence Day weekend through August, Field of Dreams Movie Site hosts a Ghost Sunday Show, a 90-minute, family-friendly comedy routine, at 1 p.m. Admission is free, though you can upgrade to a VIP experience.

2) Tour Ray Kinsella’s home:

Okay, so maybe Ray Kinsella won’t be hanging around the house during the tour…but then again, you never know.

The Field of Dreams Movie Site has now opened the home year-round for tours. During the 30-minute experience, your guide will share stories about the home from its early days as the Lansing family homestead in the early 20th century to its rebirth as the set for the Kinsella family. Cost is $12-20.  Hardcore fans can go one step further and actually rent the home for about $2,000/night.

3) Meet your sports hero:

Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa. But during the Team of Dreams event, it was heaven for my friend Irene. I snapped this shot when she met her lifelong baseball hero, the legendary Andre Dawson.

Every September, Field of Dreams Movie Site hosts a Team of Dreams event.  It usually starts with a celebrity breakfast at Hotel Julien in nearby Dubuque, then the Field opens up for festivities, which include a Team of Dreams game, autograph session and a Q&A.  This year’s event happens to take place on my son’s birthday weekend, which is perfect because his favorite sports icon, Dick Butkus, will be part of the 2018 Team of Dreams on September 2.  General admission starts at $20, with kids 12 and under free.

4) Watch the movie that started it all:

Who doesn’t love the movie Field of Dreams?  And that ending…*sniff*…gets my allergies acting up every time.  You can actually watch this beloved film on the field where it all happened.  TheTeam of Dreams event organizers include an evening movie screening to close the annual event.  The film will also be shown June 16 for free at dusk in honor of Father’s Day weekend, and concessions will be available.  I highly recommend packing up a few blankets and lawn chairs to experience this surreal cinematic opportunity.

5) Hey Dad, wanna have a catch?

What is it about a simple game of catch that so perfectly celebrates a parent-child bond? I don’t care how old you are or what your athletic abilities might be, there is just something about the satisfying rhythm of the baseball smacking the leather glove that brings families together to live in the moment. And there is no better place to “have a catch” than on this peaceful Dyersville baseball field.

General daily admission to the Field of Dreams Movie Site ball field is free. So grab your glove, round up your family and go make a memory this summer.

Enjoy what you’ve read? Have questions or tips of your own to share? Go ahead and drop me a comment! And don’t forget to subscribe, so you never miss a blog. You can also follow Trippin’ Midwest Mama on Facebook and Twitter!

When Disney’s Free Dining Hits: A 5-Step Guide to Mealtime Magic

A visit to Gaston’s Tavern is never sweeter than when you’re using free snack credits!

There are two simple words that never fail to bring a hush over a room full of Disney travel agents: “Free Dining.”

If character meals are a must, “Free Dining” is the sale for you!

This is the heavily sought-after sale that pops up without warning to offer a Disney package that includes free dining, transforming a Disney visit into a discounted, all-inclusive vacay.

And this morning, Disney just launched it under the “Delicious Free Offer” for select dates in August, September, November and December.

Free dining has me dreaming of Sunshine Season’s strawberry shortcake!

What better time for Trippin’ Midwest Mama to offer you a 5 step guide to navigating “Free Dining” at Disney:

  1. Use an agent specializing in Disney to book it.  Within moments of the sale being announced, Disney sites were crashing and call wait times were in the hours, not minutes. For families going through an agent, that wasn’t their problem. It was their agent’s. Bonus: when it comes time to make those popular dining reservations, you can also hand over that task to your agent.  (Insert shameless plug for Tabby Travels at Simply Mouse Vacations)
  2. Don’t hesitate even if you’re uncertain. Not sure if the dates work or if everyone in your party is on board? Your agent can place a temporary, no-obligation hold for up to 3 days. While you sort out the details, this hold is your best friend…and your best chance at dates and hotel availability.
  3. Book now, pay later. Perhaps your vacation is months away. Perhaps you’d like that time to save money for it, but you’d still like to take advantage of a limited time sale.  You got it! It’s only takes a $200 refundable deposit to get started.  Then you have up until 30 days from your trip date to pay the rest.  Proof that you can have your Mickey waffle and eat it too!
  4. Free dining plans differ by resort category.  Disney value and moderate resorts come with quick service dining (no reservations; you order at the counter). Disney deluxe comes with Disney dining (a must if you’re wanting character or fine dining).  HOWEVER, if you are staying at a value or moderate resort and want Disney dining, you can upgrade for a fee.
  5. Be flexible with your resort or dates. Limited rooms are allocated for free dining.  This is where things get tricky. There may be rooms available at Pop Century or Caribbean Beach Resort on your travel dates. But only a certain number of those rooms, resort locations and dates are allocated for certain sales. The availability shifts and even disappears constantly as people make and release holds.  Hence the importance of points 1 and 2!  

Interested in taking advantage of Disney’s free dining plan this fall? You me at   tabbytravelssmv@hotmail.com for a free quote or visit my travel agent Facebook page!  Availability is limited and filling fast. Sale ends July 7.

Oahu’s Top Tourist Attractions: Which fits your VPT (vacation personality type)?

Aloha  Trippin’ Midwest Mam readers!

Welcome to the third and final installment of Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s Oahu series. We’re going to have some fun chatting about the island’s top tourist attractions and determining if they are the right match for your “vacation personality type.”

The words “Tourist Attraction” might conjure thoughts of the dreaded  “3C’s.”

Crowds, Cost and Commercialism.

But here’s something I’ve learned about Oahu’s top tourist attractions:

-COST: Many are free or low cost; others can be pricey, but provide guided tours, specialty meals or high quality, live entertainment.

-COMMERCIALISM: Not so much. With this much natural beauty, authentic culture and meaningful history going for it, flashing lights and billboards only get in the way.

-CROWDS: Sure, you’re sharing Oahu with other people. But many places are designed to accommodate plenty of tourist traffic. If crowds are your greatest deterrent, take advantage of the time change and arrive at opening.

 

1) Diamond Head State Monument:

Your vacation personality type: You love amazing views from great heights, aren’t scared of some exercise or sweat and don’t mind crowds.

Cost: $5 per car or $1 per pedestrian

This extinct volcano was once a military station. Now  over 3,000 people visit each day to take the .8 mile hike to the edge of the crater and gaze over stunning views of Oahu’s coastline.

Quick Tips:

Wear comfy shoes. Portions of the hike can be narrow, uneven and quite steep (especially at the end).

Many little stop-off points along the way allow people to take photos or rest.

Don’t be intimidated. Even though it’s a bit of a hike, there were people of all ages and sizes on this hike, from seniors to babies in carriers to chubby travel bloggers.

 

Just pace yourself, and you’ll get there.

And yes, it’s crowded. Especially at the top.

Sorry. You have to share Diamond Head with other visitors.

Without a doubt, bring water.  You will be sipping it at every stop along the way up.

While it’s open until 6 p.m., the last hikers are allowed to start their journey no later than 4:30 p.m.

2) Kualoa Ranch:

Your vacation personality type: You enjoy guided tours through jaw-dropping landscapes; you are a Hollywood movie buff; you don’t mind sharing tours with multi-lingual crowds and guides; you love a variety of tour/transportation options.

Cost: Varies. Anyone can swing by the ranch at no cost, but tours start at $45 on up.

If you’ve seen any of the Jurrassic Park movies, you’ve already sampled the scenery at Kualoa Ranch. This place is the go-to spot for Hollywood blockbusters featuring a tropical setting or exotic backdrop.

While it’s somewhat commercialized to draw tourists, the scenery is unspoiled and jaw-dropping all the same.

Quick tips:

Each tour has its own mode of transportation. Dress accordingly, because what may be appropriate for a boat or bus tour won’t suffice for a horse or ATV ride.

Keep in mind if you’re on an ATV or horse, you’re not going to be racing about freely with the wind on your face. Instead, you’ll be part of a long line-up of guests with a guide setting the pace.

Kualoa Ranch is extremely popular with Japanese visitors, so don’t be surprised if Americans are the minority on a tour. No worries! Either way, guides are provided for both languages.

If you’re there for the ranch’s cinematic connection, you’ll want to select one of the movie tours.

3) Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

Your vacation personality type: You love stunning scenery; great snorkeling; beach lounging.

Cost: $7.50 plus $1 to park; 12 & under free

Formed inside a volcanic cone, Hanauma Bay is considered one of the best locations for snorkeling. Past crowds have threatened the pristine marine ecosystem, but enhanced education and tighter management have turned things around.

QuickTips:

If you are super thrifty and hate crowds, get there at the 6 a.m. opening. We not only skipped the required video and entry fee, but we got to watch the sunrise over the Bay!

The parking lot does fill up; you can wait in line with the other cars to get a spot or try alternate transportation options.

Even if you are early and skip the educational video, remember to AVOID physical contact with the coral (it’s a living thing, after all) and respect all the marine life. We saw some guy actually standing on the coral in the middle of the water.  And everyone else on the beach agreed he was an idiot. Don’t be that guy.

While you’re packing your beach bag, include a small cooler of drinks and snacks.  While they sell food at the top of the hill, once you hike/shuttle down to the beach, there are no food vendors at the beach.  Oh, and no big coolers allowed.

You can rent snorkel gear, but if you plan on doing any other snorkeling, I suggest you bring your own. Grab a swim shirt and water socks while you’re at it.

Hanauma Bay is closed every Tuesday. Check out their FAQ page for more details.

4) Waimea Valley:

Your vacation personality type: You love leisurely strolls through lush, green surroundings; always dreamed of swimming in a waterfall; want to learn more about Hawaiian culture.

Cost: $16 adults; $12 students and seniors; $8 kids 4-12

Ancient Hawaiian history, sacred religious traditions and natural beauty are all part of the Waimea Valley story.

Quick tips:

The entry point has shops, dining options and a variety of colorful, feathered locals wandering about.

There’s a calendar of special events, which includes a Farmer’s Market every Thursday at 2 p.m.

You can purchase a shuttle ride to or from the falls. But I think the mellow  1.5 mile roundtrip walk was my favorite part. Wide paths are stroller friendly.

You are permitted to swim at the waterfall with a life vest (rental available) if conditions are suitable. Call (808) 638-7766 to check first if swimming is important.

If you’re interested in Hawaiian culture or botany, consider taking one of the corresponding complimentary walking tours.

5) Polynesian Cultural Center:

Your vacation personality type: You love history and interactive cultural demonstrations; enjoy relaxing for a bit while taking in a big stage production; are looking for an excellent luau option; are up for a little retail therapy with a cultural twist.

Cost: $72-$240 (depending on age and ticket package); some free options (see tips)

“PCC prides itself on being historically and traditionally accurate, which is why our Aliʻi Luau is award winning and one of the best luaus in Hawaiʻi,” Rachel Sipes, public relations, explained in an email to Trippin’ Midwest Mama.

The entry to the Island Buffet. We didn’t have time to tour the “islands” or do a luau, but we did enjoy the marketplace and the nighttime show.

While the Polynesian Cultural Center is famous for its luau, you can easily spend an entire day here as you travel through time to experience the heritage and culture of six different island nations. You’ll want to set aside plenty of time to experience the many interactive demonstrations, exhibits and shows.

Quick tips:

The night show that follows the luau, “Ha: Breath of Life,” earns rave reviews, and if your schedule is tight or you already have dinner plans,  you still can consider show-only tickets like we did ($67 for adults, $55 ages 4-11).  No, you won’t find them online, but you can purchase them at the box office or check with your resort concierge.

Hukilau Marketplace, at the entrance of the Polynesian Cultural Center, is free to the public. Here, you’ll find charming array of  shops, restaurants, live entertainment and local craftspeople.  Even if you have no tickets, it’s really just a fun place to spend a laid-back evening.

Sports fans will also want to swing by the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, which is also open and free to the public.

6) Pearl Harbor:

Cost: Free, unless you purchase a tour upgrade option.

Your vacation personality type: You’re a war or history buff; you want to pay your respects to our nation’s fallen heroes; you want a better understanding of the events that led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and what followed.

Oil still bubbles to the surface above the USS Arizona, which is the final resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed on the battleship.

For many visitors to Hawaii,  Pearl Harbor is at the very top of their “must see” list.  Pearl Harbor allows guests to thoughtfully reflect on the series of events of that led to the US entering WWII while paying their respects to the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in a surprise attack by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. Many visitors to other Hawaiian Islands fly into Oahu for a day just to visit this historic site.

Tips:

Only 1,300 tickets are released per day, so they often sell out. You can either purchase 2 months in advance, or wait for the 24-hour window when the park releases additional tickets. While it’s more of a gamble, during both of my recent visits, we were able to secure the 24-hour tickets.

Many resorts offer Pearl Harbor tours at a higher cost with transportation included. If you can drive or Uber there, secure your own tickets and visit at your own pace, I really don’t see the point of spending the extra money.

Your free ticket includes campus/museum access, a short film, and a US Navy operated boat ride to the USS Arizona Memorial. Upgrades include a headset/audio tour or access to the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, the Battleship Missouri Memorial, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. These can increase your cost significantly, but make for a full day of activities.

If you only have a couple hours, opt for only the free USS Arizona tour; however, I also recommend the audio tour upgrade (only $7.50 extra) to hear personal, first-hand accounts from the survivors who experienced it.

If the conditions aren’t accommodating, there’s  chance your boat will sail by the memorial site rather than dock.  That actually happened to us on my second visit, and I won’t lie. It was disappointing, but the visit was still worthwhile.

Years ago, there may have been issues with noisy, clueless tourists behaving less than respectfully at Pearl Harbor; that has changed.  Tour guides and the film make it clear that this is a place for thoughtful, respectful reflection.

Travel light, because bags of ANY SIZE aren’t allowed. If you can’t fit it in your pocket, leave it behind. However, in a pinch, there is storage available at $3/bag.

Parting thoughts:

There’s a reason these six sites are at the top of a tourist’s itinerary. From historical significance to dream-like scenery, each has something special to offer visitors who make the journey to Oahu.

The good news is that with proper planning, visiting them doesn’t haven’t to break your budget or cause undue stress. And each experience can be adjusted to fit your schedule, whether you’re looking spend a full day or a couple hours.

Guess what? This concludes my 3-part Oahu series.  Mahalo for joining me on my Oahu adventures! Hope you enjoyed tagging along as much as I enjoyed sharing it with you.

You can find links the the other two here:

Part 1: The Beautiful Beaches of Oahu

Part 2: Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s Taste Bud Tour of Oahu

You may also be interested in:

How to Plan a $4,000 Hawaiian Vacation for $150

If you have any questions, comments or advice of your own to share, please leave a comment! I love to hear from my readers.

Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s Complete Guide to Universal Orlando

Since launching Tabby Travels with Simply Mouse Vacations , I’ve noticed Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s Universal library  just keeps growing and growing.  So, as part of my spring cleaning, I’ve  updated the blogs with the most current information, and decided to create a single spot here with links to each of them.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort.

I expect this guide will grow over time, because Universal Orlando is always shaking things up!

So far, here’s I’ve got so far:

 1 Day in Universal Orlando

I share my personal itinerary from a single-day visit with my teenage son, which includes a ton of attraction details and time-saving tips.

5 Game Changers Coming to Universal Orlando

New of some of the big changes and additions at Universal as of Dec. 2017.

10 Way to “Chillax” at Universal Orlando

Think a trip to Universal has to be a non-stop, action-packed thrill ride? Here’s how to save time while setting aside time for some R&R.

15 Tips to Know Before You Go

This blog is loaded with insider tips I learned from my own experience at Universal.

A final note:

I’ve poured a ton of personal time and research into these blogs for the simple reason of making my readers’ travel plans run smoother.  I only ask that if you are planning a visit to Universal, consider booking with Tabby Travels at Simply Mouse Vacations. You can read all about that here in my blog, “Announcing my New Venture…”.

If you’re interested in learning how I can support your Orlando vacation plans to Universal, Disney or Sea World, you can reach out to me on my travel agent Facebook page or email at TabbyTravelsSMV@hotmail.com for a no-obligation vacation quote. My services are offered free of charge to clients booking with me.

 

Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s Taste Bud Tour of Oahu

There are some advantages to visiting Oahu, the most populated of of the Hawaiian Islands.  One of them is the food. Restaurants on this bustling island are varied and cater to all tastes.

The small plates at Haleiwa Joes are sure to satisfy a wide range of palates!

You’ll find Asian cuisine has a major influence here, where it’s often fused with tropical flavors. But if you’re not into sticky rice, stir fry  and sushi, never fear. There are plenty of other delicious choices on Oahu’s collective menu.

Goofy Cafe offers eggs Benedict with the twist of Hawaiian pulled pork and local veggies.

Speaking of tropical flavors, eating pineapple is a must while visiting its natural home. My husband doesn’t care for pineapple, until he enjoyed some on our Oahu visit.  He’s declared eating fresh pineapple in Hawaii to be a completely different experience than eating it in the Midwest.

The grilled pineapple at Seven Brothers is a novel take on this celebrated local fruit. But, if you ask me, fresh is still the best!

If you’re staying on resort in Waikiki, you’ll have no shortage of beachfront restaurants to choose from.  While you won’t go hungry, you will be paying more than any local would.

Do you yourself a favor, and ask your server where their favorite places on the island to dine might be. Chances are good it won’t be at a resort.

You can be sure the line outside Koko Head Cafe includes plenty of hungry locals.

I was lucky to experience Oahu as a resort-dwelling tourist in the fall and a house guest of residents who’ve had some time to investigate the food scene. This list is a mouth-watering compilation of my favorite experiences.

North Shore

Haleiwa Joe’s

 Best for Small Plate Sharing

 

This is the perfect place to chill while visiting the quaint surfing community of Haleiwa, and it’s a great choice for lunch or dinner.

While there are plenty of tempting entrees to pick from, I recommend selecting from their small plates menu.

While we devoured a little of everything, the sizzling mushrooms and balsamic glazed flatbread stole the show. The Korean style beef short ribs were pretty tasty as well.

 

Cafe Haleiwa

Best for Waffles

The view from the back parking lot. Expect some local feathered friends to be strutting their stuff.

When I visited last fall, this was our last Hawaiian meal, and it was a hit. They describe themselves as “American Diner meets California Mexican with a Local twist.” I describe Cafe Haleiwa as “Yum.”

The impressive Belgian waffle menu caught my eye, with offerings like toasted caramel pecan or tropical delight. I settled on the day’s special: hazelnut spread on a waffle drenched in coconut syrup, topped with strawberries and whipped cream.  i’m happy to report the waffle tasted as good as it looked.

We loved everything about this bustling cafe, and it was the ideal way to enjoy some parting flavors before leaving North Shore.

Seven Brothers “at the Mill”

Best for Coconut Shrimp

If you Google “Seven Brothers, Hawaii” you’ll find there’s multiple locations. Do yourself a favor, and set your GPS for “Seven Brothers at the Mill.”

You’ll find a number of shrimp spots along the North Shore, where freshly caught seafood goes from the ocean to the kitchen to your belly.

Some people have described Seven Brothers’ famous coconut macadamia shrimp as “life changing.” I wouldn’t protest that description.

Instead, I’d just add a side of their perfectly prepared potatoes and call it a day. A very good day.

Honolulu

Agu

Best for Ramen

So, full disclosure, ramen really isn’t my thing.  But if it was my thing, the award-winning Agu probably be my favorite restaurant on the island.

Since  owner Chef Hisashi opened his award-winning ramen bistro, it’s been so successful, he’s branched into Texas.

There are broths, spices and styles of ramen so far beyond those microwavable cups of my college days, I didn’t know where to start.  No worries if you’re unfamiliar as I was; just ask your sever to give you a crash course, and you’ll be on your way to ramen heaven.

Or study this helpful menu before hand.

Pioneer Saloon

Best for “Japan meets Hawaii” Cuisine

Take your time to look the menu over and make your choice before you’re at the front of the line. I say this because it could be a hard decision to make, and the frequent visitors behind you are probably ready to order.

From eel to ox tail, the meat choices are endless. Fortunately, their is no wrong choice.

We settled on sirloin and teri chicken. And even with those generous portions (you could easily split an entree), you may not want to share.

This quirky, rustic eatery stays busy, so don’t be surprised if you have to wait in line to order at the register. But the wait was short for us…and well worth it.

Koko Head Cafe

Best for Celeb Chef Breakfast

Consider Koko Head your breakfast splurge, even though it costs the same or even less than most resort breakfasts. But seriously, you are in for a treat.

You may recognize Koko Head’s Chef Lee Anne Wong , as she appeared as a constant on Season One of Bravo’s Series “Top Chef.” A rising star in the restaurant world, the New Yorker moved to Oahu five years ago, where she offers her “global fusion” cuisine to lucky locals and informed island visitors.

I can confirm the French-style scrambled eggs in the Chicky and Egg skillet are like silk, because I sampled from my  friend’s plate.

However, I was in the mood for something on the sweeter side, so I went with the popular cornflake french toast served with billionaire’s bacon and frosted flake gelato.

Great. Now I’m getting drool on my keyboard.

Leonard’s Bakery

Best for Malasada Puffs

Speaking of sweets, Leonard’s Bakery is sure to satisfy any sweet tooth with a vast selection of delectable baked goodness. But, lets be clear, the malasada is the star of the show.

A malasada a Portugese doughnut without a hole, fried to golden brown perfection. Leonard’s offers a variety of malasada puffs, but if you ask me, opting for a filled malasda is a no brainer. We went for custard (there’s also dobash (chocolate) and haupia (coconut), in addition to seasonal options.

If you don’t make it to the bakery, you can keep your eyes peeled for the Malasadamobiles at Waikele Shopping Center, Pearlridge Shopping Center and Koko Marina Shopping Center.

 

Waiola Store

Best for Shave Ice

There is no shortage of shave ice (I call it “shaved,” but it seems the locals drop the “d”) options in Oahu. But the question remains, which is the best?

I suggest saving your shave ice encounter for a trip to the Waiola Store, which my friend insists is the best of the best.

She isn’t to only one.  In addition to its rave online reviews, Waiola Shave Ice has been featured on Travel Channel, Huffington Post and many other media outlets.

Shave ice is different than a snow cone. The shave is finer, so the texture is fluffier and smoother, delivered in a variety of flavors and styles.

The hardest part? Deciding which style and flavor to go with.  I checked with the staff, and they recommended the custard.  After a group sampling, I had to agree the custard was the winner in my book.

Duke’s Waikiki

Best for Resort Brunch Buffet

Situated at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, Duke’s Waikiki is the only resort-located restaurant I’m mentioning in this blog.  Named for local legend Duke Kahanamoku, who  popularized the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing, the ocean front Duke’s Waikiki is one of six restaurant locations (they’re also popular in California).

For $18, the breakfast buffet is served from 7-10:30 a.m. It offers a tempting selection of traditional breakfast foods presented with Hawaiian flare.

Banana pancakes served along side coconut syrup. Fresh tropical fruits bring juicy color to your plate. And of all your a.m. favorites are provided with a relaxed ocean front dining experience. And super friendly service.

Even after the buffet wraps up, you may not want to leave. In which case I recommend an ocean view mimosa.

Goofy Cafe & Dine

Best for  Natural/Local/Healthy Fare

Located a short walk from the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Goofy Cafe & Dine serves up a fresh feast for the senses all day long.

When I researched breakfast options in Waikiki, I kept coming across Goofy’s.  I heard it could get busy, so we headed there shortly after they opened.  Seating was already filling up, and while we had only a brief wait, the line outside behind us kept growing and growing.

Trippin’ tip: Don’t enter the building until you are called. 

Our breakfast was as beautiful to look at as it was to taste.  The food was anything but ordinary, so if you’re looking for a conventional menu, look elsewhere.

While my eggs Benedict with Hawaiian pulled pork was a savory delight, the honey french toast served with chocolate lava was the belle of the ball!

Winward

Moke’s Bread & Breakfast

Best for Lilikoi Pancakes

Okay, so the photo (that’s right, singular, as in only one) that goes with this review is a little pathetic.  For good reason.

You’ll understand if you ever get to Moke’s and have a Lilikoi Pancake placed in front of you. You won’t be thinking, “Oh, I need to take a photo.” The only think you’ll want to do is EAT. THAT. PANCAKE.

Then when you are done eating that pancake, you will lick the plate. Nobody at Mokes will judge you, because they know.

Moke’s is a great spot for all sorts of satisfying vittles before or after an a.m. visit to the stunning Lanikai Beach.

If you’re staying in the area all day, you may also want to try an evening visit to the pricier Buzz’s Original Steakhouse, which is rumored to be one of Obama’s favorite restaurants in Oahu. Unfortunately, when my husband and I tried to visit, it was a holiday, the lot was PACKED and we had a plane to catch.

Oh well, I guess that means I’ll just have to go back and try again.

Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s Taste Bud Tour of Oahu is part 2 of a 3-part Oahu series. You can find part 1: “Beautiful Beaches” here. Check back soon for part 3 for tips on visiting Oahu’s most popular tourist destinations.

Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s Guide to Ireland…at Home and Abroad

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve compiled my “Celebrating the Emerald Isle” blog series into one neat and tidy piece.

While a couple of the pieces contain a wee bit of information relevant to 2017, most of the details are anything but malarkey.  Whether you’re looking to add a little Irish to your Midwest travels or you’re considering a visit to the Emerald Isle, you’re sure to find a bit o’ luck in this delightful series!

 

7 Steps to Touring Ireland in Galena

My behind-the-scenes tour of the Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel and Frank O’Dowd’s Pub in Galena to learn what makes this place so authentically Irish. And make sure to check out their current calendar for a complete lineup of entertainment.

7 Lucky Facts that Surprise American Tourists in Ireland

Some fun and surprising tidbits I picked up during my visit to Ireland! It’s been a while since I’ve visited, but I still consider this one of my favorite trips–one that really fueled my love of of all things Irish.

Summer Family Fun at Milwaukee’s Irish Fest

A look back on my interview with Milwaukee’s Irish Fest organizers and a couple of dads who love attending with their families.  This event claims to be the “World’s Largest Celebration of Celtic Music & Culture !” You’ll want to visit their 2018 page for updated plans!

Guest Blog: Irene’s Irish Adventure

Irene takes Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s readers along on her journey to Ireland! I so enjoyed her itinerary, insight and photos. This blog is sure to inspire you to start making plans for your own Irish adventure.

A parting Irish blessing as you go about your St. Paddy’s Day plans:

“May your thoughts be as glad as the shamrocks. May your heart be as light as a song. May each day bring you bright, happy hours. That stay with you all the year long.”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Trippin’ Midwest Mama!

 

Beautiful Beaches: Oahu Series Part 1 of 3

Join me as I whisk you away to the sandy shores and stunning horizons of Oahu.

True, some folks feel that crowds, traffic, and high rises have compromised the paradisal aura of Hawaii’s most heavily populated island.  But now having visited twice, I think it’s the ideal place to go for a little bit of everything.

The fact is, you need not travel far to find lush, mountainous landscapes and stunning skylines where ocean blue meets sky blue.

And when it comes to beaches, you’ll find Oahu is a little bit country and a little bit rock n’ roll.

Beautiful Beaches of Oahu

Honolulu Beaches

Waikiki Beach

When you say “Oahu” and “beach” the first word that comes to mind is “Waikiki.”  The most famous of Oahu’s beaches, it teems with tourists, many of whom are staying in the giant resort complexes that line Honolulu’s shorline.

You’ll find surfing, canoeing, snorkeling, swimming, boogie boarding, sand combing and all sorts of stimulation aimed at visitors to the island. A popular, free hula show across from the Hyatt Regency takes place  Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening, weather-permitting from 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm.

When we stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, I quite enjoyed sitting on the beach to take in all the action and people watch. We even enjoyed an afternoon cruise on the The Spirit of Aloha.

They also offer a  fireworks dinner cruise and sea turtle snorkel lunch cruise. In the same area, Atlantis Adventures offers a submarine tour where guest can  explore life “under the sea.”

When visiting Waikiki, expect to have plenty of shoreline drink and dining options…and expect pay to pay top dollar for them!  The Barefoot Snack Shack, located by the beach at Hale Kao Hotel  is one of the more affordable options, offering hot dogs, burgers and other beachy eats under $5.

Kaimana Beach

If you’re looking for a beach in the Waikiki area with fewer tourists and a more local vibe, Kaimana is a great option.  A public bathhouse allows showers, clothing changes and restrooms breaks.

My friend warned me to not be alarmed if you see a few homeless folks in or around the bathhouse, though that wasn’t the case when we visited.

This was a great beach to just veg out, picnic, and wade into the cooling waters.

Ala Moana Beach Park

Located next door to busy Waikiki, this is a local favorite in Honolulu.  Long distance swimmers and stand up paddle boarders come here burn some calories.

While the shallow waters have a rough, rocky start in most areas,  visitors can wade in via sandy pathways that give way to larger expanses of smooth beach floors.

With very little wave action, it’s also great place to simply float the day away.  This was our last beach stop before packing up for our departing flight, so we sent off our leis by plucking the orchids from the string and returning them to nature.

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

This snorkeler’s Camelot is also one of Oahu’s top tourist destinations.  Sadly, decades of overuse harmed the coral and threatened  the sea creatures that called it home.

However, with more careful management and tourist education, Hanauma Bay is once again providing a top shelf snorkeling experience.  Even if you don’t care to snorkel, it’s just as lovely to relax on its sandy shores and visually devour this pocket of paradise.

It may grow crowded as the day progress, but we most recently visited on a lovely Sunday afternoon, and I didn’t mind sharing the beach with plenty of other tourists. However, if the parking lot fills up, you may have to wait in line to park or if the line is too long, park elsewhere and hike up to the entry point. There is also shuttle service for $25.

When I visited with my husband last fall, we made the most of the time change and arrived at Hanauma Bay near its 6 a.m. opening time.  Not only did we beat the crowds (skipping the otherwise required educational video and $7.50 entry fee), but we were able to watch a spectacular sunrise.

Keep in mind Hanauma Bay is closed every Tuesday to give the preserve a little break from the crowds.

North Shore Beaches

No visit to Oahu is complete without a visit to the North Shore. With a scenic 45 minutes drive, you can leave city life behind  for this famous surfing destination. While winter months bring higher waves, there is still plenty of sun, sand and snorkeling to enjoy year round.

Shark’s Cove   

It may be considered one of Oahu’s top snorkeling spots, but it’s probably not the best place for beginner snorkelers, and when the waves are high, it’s downright dangerous.

However, during my March visit, the waters of Shark’s Cove were as smooth as my friends have ever seen it.   And the snorkeling was FANTASTIC.

I was so excited to get in the water, I forgot to take photos. However, you can come along on my underwater adventure in this YouTube video, courtesy of our most excellent hosts and friends, Erin and Holly.

Shark’s Cove is at the 3:25 mark, but I suggest watching the entire video if you have 6 and a half minutes to spare, as it also includes footage from many of the beaches mentioned in this blog, as well as my shark snorkel.

This was perhaps my favorite place to snorkel, due to the varied sea life (thick schools of tropic fish, sweet sea turtles and colorful eels) and the deeper waters. Once I got out further, I never felt crowded by coral, even though it was all around me.

Pupukea Tide Pools

Located next door to Shark’s Cove, the shallower Pupukea Tide Pools are a great place for novice snorkelers.

The tide waters overflow into Pupukea, so visitors are more protected from pounding waves.

There are still stunning displays of sea creatures, though you will have to watch your step , settling your feet for the sandy spots as you wade into its coral-covered shoreline.

Laniakea Beach, aka Turtle Beach

While this rocky, little beach isn’t great for swimming and, with no signage, is easy to pass by, it may be worth a stop all the same if the time is right.

If you see a gathering of people at Laniakea Beach, do yourself a favor, and pull over. Chances are good that sea turtles are sunbathing on its shores.

When these beloved, sleepy sunbathers arrive, volunteers set up a rope barrier and keep watch, so visitors can view the the sea turtles from a respectful yet fairly close distance.

Kuilima Cove

Located next to Turtlle Bay Resort, visitors can simply park in the free public/beach access parking lots.  In fact, even non-resort-guests can enjoy lounging on Turtle Bay’s comfy lounge chairs, if they’re available.

While it was plenty wavy when we stayed at Turtle Bay last fall, I still couldn’t resist some snorkeling, knowing sea turtles often visit its waters. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Just make sure to give these mellow “honu” their space, as it’s illegal to touch or harass them!

Windward Beaches

If you’re coming back from the North Shore, I highly recommend extending your travel time and driving along the Windward Coast.  And if you’re driving a convertible, even better. You’ll want the top down to take in the scenery, as the road falls between two stunning views: endless, blue ocean and unbelievably lush, green mountains.

Before you turn towards Honolulu, you’ll want to visit the community of Kailua. This residential area is where the Obama family prefers to vacation (you can rent the same vacation home they did at a mere $4,500/night).

Lanikai Beach

Located just south of Kailua and next to the lovely Kailua Beach, Lanikai Beach is what many people consider one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

Because it’s not in a commercial area (just accessing the beach can be a hunt for those who don’t know where to look), you’ll find locals and in-the-know tourists at this beach.

While you can snorkel here, it’s not the reason to visit, as there are better snorkel spots.

Pack a picnic. Bring a beach read. Apply the sunblock.  And relax as you sink your toes into powdery sand that is so exquisitely smooth, it almost qualifies as creamy.

Parting Thoughts:

  1. Oahu’s beaches are utterly diverse, so I suggest exploring all coasts if you have the time.
  2. All of Oahu’s beaches are open to the public, meaning there is no private beach off limits.
  3. Respect the marine life. Remember, the ocean is their home, and you are only a visitor. If you are fortunate enough to see a sea turtle or monk seal,  do not touch or harass it. Not only is it bad manners, but it’s a crime punishable by law.
  4. Avoid contact with the coral, for your safety and its safety.  It’s a living thing, and the human touch can damage or kill it. It is also often covered in spiny sea urchins.
  5. Leave the beach the way you found it. If anything came to the beach with you, it needs to leave with you or be disposed of properly.
  6. Come prepared.  In addition to a towel, a hat, sunglasses, water, snacks and sunblock, if you plan on spending time in the water, I recommend investing in water socks and a swim shirt  for sun and abrasion protection, as well as snorkel gear (click on the products for affiliate links to my Amazon picks).

This concludes part 1 of of Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s 3-part Oahu series! Check back later this week for part 2 “Local food favorites,” where I explore the delicious flavors of Oahu that many tourists often overlook.

 

 

10 Ways to “Chillax” at Universal Orlando

Last year, we made our first visit to Universal Orlando. The visit was a huge hit with my 13-year-old, and this summer, my 9-year-old is excited to join the fun for an extended stay on resort.

While I LOVE all the fast-paced, heart-pounding adventures that awaits at Universal, I also want my vacation to be just that…a vacation.

Luckily, I learned a Universal vacation doesn’t have to be a nonstop adrenaline rush. Here are 10 ways you can keep a trip to Universal chill even as you enjoy the thrills:

1) Make it a 4-day trip.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -Hogwarts Express (photo credit Universal Orlando)

If you haven’t been to Universal Orlando in recent years, you may think it’s something you can experience in one day.  Sure, a single day spent at Universal is going to be a blast, but a) it’s NOT going to be terribly relaxing, because you’ll have a packed itinerary from morning to night b) even with a park-to-park ticket, you will have to miss out on some attractions because this place has GROWN in the past decade.

And I don’t just mean Harry Potter…

New rides and attractions are sprouting up constantly, like my two favorites: the crazy fun Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon and the heart-pounding Skull Island: Reign of Kong.

You actually feel like your visiting Kong in his neck of the woods (photo credit Universal Orlando)

Last year, Universal opened their mind-blowing water park: Volcano Falls—a perfect way to cool down between visits to Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. So you’ll really have no problem finding ways to spend your time.

Often, the 4-day ticket often doesn’t cost much more than the 3-day, and if you make it park-to-park, you’ll be able to visit different parks throughout the day (not to mention ride the Hogwarts Express between IOA and USF).

2) Speaking of Volcano Falls…

This new water park aims to remove the hassle of tube-toting lines. (photo credit Universal Orlando)

Don’t overlook this cutting edge water park! Not only was it designed to incorporate plenty of relaxing areas (with a beautifully themed and seriously impressive lazy river that you’ll never want to leave) but the folks at Universal thought of brilliant ways to remove the less appealing features of water parks.

The waterproof TapuTapu wearable will enhance fun and remove hassles. (photo credit Universal Orlando)

For instance, their waterproof wristband function holds your place in line virtually, so you can forget about spending the day waiting for your turn on the slides; you can also link the wristband to your credit card, so you don’t have to be fussing with your wallet. You can even avoid lugging tubes up staircases to slides, because they are already waiting for you at the top.

3) Weigh your meal options.

The Leaky Cauldron at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley is a must dine for any Potter fan. (photo credit Universal Orlando)

Unlike Disney, Universal is not really known for their restaurants… but they are working to change that. The result is that while some dining options can be underwhelming, many of the newer ones are a superbly themed experience.

You won’t want to miss out on the Three Broomsticks (IOA) or Leaky Cauldron (USF). And they’ve just rolled out a Marvel character dining experience at  Cafe 4 (IOA). Oh, and don’t forget to pick up a giant doughnut at Lard Land (USF) that would make Homer Simpson green with envy.

Then of course, there’s the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium at City Walk, that is on my daughter’s must-visit list this summer.

City Walk’s immersive dining experience – The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen. (photo credit Universal Orlando)

4) Consider the interactive Harry Potter wand experience.

Visitors to Ollivander’s wand shop are in for a treat! (photo credit Universal Orlando)

The opportunities to cast spells with your wand not as visually obvious as the immensely popular Potter rides, so if you don’t know about them, they’re easy to miss. You’ll want to start with the wand demonstration show at Ollivander’s Wand Shop (during which a wand chooses a witch or wizard), and maybe someone in your party will be the lucky participant, like my son was.

From there, you can decide to purchase a wand. It’s worth the extra money to get the ones that come with the map/guide to perform tricks throughout both IOA and USF.  At around $50, it is a bit of a splurge, but one your kids will love using any time they visit the parks and consider it their favorite keepsake once back home.

We love this low-key activity that allowed us to really explore and appreciate the remarkable surroundings of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

5) Take in a show. The parks offers several. We opted for the Terminator Show, as my son is a huge fan. He loved it. I found it to be outdated, but it was an opportunity to sit indoors and relax.

The Hollywood Horror & Makeup Show has earned excellent reviews, so that’s on my agenda for this year!

6) Download the Universal App.

Fast & Furious: Supercharged guests will experience a high-octane journey based on the films. (photo credit Universal Orlando)

Not only does this app tell you the estimated wait times throughout the park (so you can head to the less crowded attractions) but it allows you to reserve your spot in line virtually. Currently, Race Through New York has a virtual line and the soon-to-open Fast & The Furious: Supercharged will also feature this option.

7) Take advantage of single rider lines if possible.

Flying solo sometimes saves time at Unviersal! (photo credit Universal Orlando)

If you are visiting with adults or older kids and wait times are running over 20 minutes, check to see if the attraction has a single rider option. These typically move faster, and while it by definition means you’ll be split up, over half of the time my son and I still ended up sitting together.

However, I highly recommend riding MIB: Alien Attack as a group so you can compete with one another as you search for alien invaders.

8) Stay on resort:

The family-friending Cabana Bay Resort is one of many Universal resort options that put you right next to all park action. (photo credit Universal Orlando)

There are so many benefits to booking a room on resort. The most obvious is the transportation, as the hotels are literally right next to the parks, and the shuttle schedule is stellar.

Secondly, Universal Resorts offer early Harry Potter admission.

Thirdly, they’re really nice hotels. Even the value resort, Cabana Bay, has earned rave reviews and offers a ton of appeal to guests, like movies at the pool, a bowling alley or the option of affordable family suites.

Fourthly, staying on resort makes it easy and time-efficient to plan an afternoon time-out from the parks, when the crowds get thicker, the sun gets hotter and the kids get tired.

9) Weigh your line jumper options: Universal offers two kinds of express passes for an extra free: standard, which allows you to skip the line once on each of the participating rides, and unlimited, which lets you skip ahead all day long.

Loews Royal Pacific Resort may be a bit of a splurge but you stay includes the Universal Express Pass! (photo credit: Universal Orlando)

You can purchase these passes by the individual day, but depending on your family’s size, it may be worth staying at one of the 3 deluxe resorts (Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort) that included express passes with your stay.

10) Schedule an adult evening out at City Walk.

Universal Orlando’s Blue Man Group show is perfect for a date night or the whole family! photo credit  paul@paulkolnik.com

Speaking of the deluxe hotels, they have kids club programs, where kids can play the night away while parents enjoy a little one-on-one time.

While CityWalk has plenty to offer the entire family, it’s also the perfect date night venue. Check out the Blue Man Group show or enjoy one of its many restaurants or bars.

Interested in booking a visit to Universal Orlando but you prefer to have someone else do the research and planning? Hop on over to Tabby Travels with Simply Mouse Vacations, and learn more about how you can receive concierge level travel planning at no extra cost with your next Universal vacation!