Before my family visited Walt Disney World in spring 2013, I went a little crazy.
I poured over hotel room plans on Disney planning websites before we even selected a site. I studied restaurant menus and booked all our major meals at 180 days out. I joined multiple Disney forums, talked to countless helpful people, and actually made friends that I retain to this day.
As a family, we watched every Disney movie I could get my hands on. I haunted the Disney Store website for sales. I made tie-dyed T-shirts with Mickey heads on them. I made Mickey-shaped cookies. I made Mickey-shaped pancakes.
Yes. Just a little crazy.
This spring, we’re going to visit Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in Orlando, spurred on by a pair of little boys who love Harry Potter, Spider-Man, and the Jurassic Park movies. (OK, I just might be a little excited about the Wizarding World myself.) After we made the decision, I immediately jumped online and started to look into all the wonderful possibilities for researching and obsessing and planning and counting down the days. Did I have enough time to make dining reservations? How many hotels were there, again? What sort of touring plan would we want?
I was, perhaps, a tiny bit dismayed to find that obsession and long-range planning isn’t quite as necessary with the Universal parks. Dining reservations might not even be necessary with the dates we had planned, let alone reservations made 180 days ahead. Touring plans were much looser, if they were needed at all. And there didn’t seem to be many ideas for the build-the-excitement type activities I love so much. I saw a few tales of parents surprising their children with letters from Hogwarts. That was about it.
What’s a planning-happy mom to do?
Create her own, of course.
ONE: The Reveal.
A magical trip needs a magical reveal, right? We didn’t do one for the last trip, and I wasn’t going to let the chance pass us by this time. Christmas morning seemed like the perfect time.
A stop at the gift shop at our local zoo produced a stuffed snowy owl. A free font website gave me access to a Potter-inspired font. A few searches offered up sites from which I could obtain a printable Marauder’s Map and customizable Hogwarts letters. I printed clues, map, and letters on cardstock and aged them up using brown ink. (I love Tim Holtz’s Distress Ink by Ranger and used the Vintage Photo variety for this project.) On Christmas Eve, I squirreled the clues away around the house, tucked the map under the Christmas tree skirt, and popped the “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” soundtrack into the boys’ CD player.
After presents were opened the next morning, I hit “play” and pointed out the corner of an old-looking piece of “parchment” that was just barely visible. They exclaimed over the map, followed the clues around the house, and returned to the living room to find stuffed Hedwig “perched” in our Christmas tree, Hogwarts letters emblazoned with their names (start of term: the date of our trip) tucked under her talons.
There was much glee.
You’re welcome to adapt our clues if you wish. Please forgive my lousy poetry.
“Here is a clue to start you on the right path
Where do you sit when you’re taking a bath?”
“Good job; you found it; here’s a new clue to take:
Where does Mom put cookies that still need to bake?”
“Go up the stairs, turn right and look for something new.
In (older son’s) closet you’ll find the next clue.”
“Hedwig is an owl, you know that is true.
At the top of the tree, she is waiting for you!”
TWO: Movie Nights.
It was altogether too easy to put together a weekly family movie night starting months before our trip for Disney. Universal was a little more challenging, and the properties were definitely geared toward older kids. Still, it’s a great way to make sure they’re familiar with the stories behind the rides, shows, and characters they’ll see at the parks.
Some are obvious: All eight of the Harry Potter movies. The four Jurassic movies. (Or at least the first one and Jurassic World.) Men in Black (at least the first movie). The first Keppeler family viewing of E.T. Despicable Me I and II, and Minions. X-Men (at least the first movie). Some variation on Spider-Man. (We went with one of the newer cartoon series instead of the movies here for various reasons.) An episode or two of The Simpsons. We’re still deciding whether to track down some old Transformers cartoons or watch the first “live-action” movie.
For younger kids, you could factor in Barney episodes (the Purple One was banned in our household), SpongeBob SquarePants, Curious George, and Dr. Seuss cartoons (we own a DVD with an animated Green Eggs and Ham and I think there’s a The Cat in the Hat out there somewhere).
YouTube is a great resource for old clips of Popeye and his cohorts and even Dudley Do-Right. (Now, that was a blast from the past.) If you’re planning to watch Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-Up Show, you can also find clips of old horror movies like The Wolf Man.
The boys got to see one musical number from The Blues Brothers. We skipped the Mummy and Terminator movies this time.
THREE: Involve Them in Planning.
I can plan all I want (and, oh, I will), but nothing includes the kids in the excitement like, well, including them.
YouTube is also great for this. There are countless Universal videos there, from official ones to ride point-of-view clips to peeks at resort rooms to “this is how long the walk is from Islands of Adventure to the Royal Pacific resort.”
My older son likes to see the hotel where we’re going to stay, especially the pool. My younger son has watched a POV video of the Jurassic Park river ride countless times, along with videos of kids getting “chosen” by wands at Ollivander’s (one of his dearest wishes at the moment) and the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes shop. The Loews hotel site offers 360-degree views of the various on-site hotels, too.
The videos can also be a good way to help make the decision if your child is ready for a ride or not. Does it look dark and spooky to them? Does the drop turn their stomach even when viewed on the screen? Or do they squeal, “Cool!”?
We may not have to make decisions on where to eat just yet, but they like to see the menus from the possible locations. (Although I think the younger plans to subside on butterbeer while we’re there.) If they have questions I can’t answer, we look online. (GeekMom has some wonderful info on the parks here.)
They’re already considering the books and things they’d like to take on the airplane. In fact, I think they may have packed already.
In 2013, about 50 days from the start of the trip, I created a paper-link chain from which the boys could remove a link a day. Each had a Disney-themed activity written on the inside. Again, a Universal one was a bit more challenging but quite doable. (A printed Hedwig holds the top of the chain this time, as opposed to a Mickey silhouette.)
I incorporated the movie nights into this list of items, as well as weekly chapters from our illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Readings of The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham were also included; the boys may be older than the usual age group now, but one never really stops loving Dr. Seuss.
The shoebox that once served as a Disney-themed treasure chest was found and repurposed with Potter graphics and lettering. Three times during the countdown, the boys will get to go on “treasure hunts” throughout the house to find the box, which will be stocked with a handful of small items (generally small, useful things themed to Universal properties) from a local party-supply store. For example, the first lot will include Jurassic Park and Spider-Man plastic cups and a later one will include drawing materials and books for use during the flight.
I like treasure hunts, OK?
You may have to fill out the days with smaller activities, such as “Little brother’s turn to pick a YouTube video!” etc. I used “Figure out what Hogwarts house each family member is in!” one day, which led to a rousing debate. (Turns out we’re a four-house house. Younger son is a true Gryffindor, while I’m a Hufflepuff, my husband’s a Ravenclaw, and older son is probably a Slytherin. It makes for an interesting life.)
FIVE: Create a Journal.
Keeping a trip journal is a fun family activity, and it can also be useful for kids who need to keep up on some form of their studies. This time, we’re making one for our younger son to keep and one for the family in general–both Harry Potter-themed, of course.
I use standard composition notebooks (the ones with the marbled black and white covers) for trip journals. Trace the cover and back (except for the binding) onto pieces of scrapbook paper and cut out. You’ll need pieces for the front and back of both covers. Adhere them using scrapbook adhesive or glue. (Take care if using the latter; it can wrinkle the paper, especially inside the notebook.)
I used letters printed in a Potter font, yet again, for the title of this journal. There are various printables available from various reaches of the internet; I used some obtained via this GeekMom post.
Inside the journal, I grouped the pages into so many for each day of the trip. Periodically, I adhered three or so of the pages together for sturdiness and attached scrapbook-paper pockets to them using a tape runner on the sides and bottom of each pocket. We’ll tuck maps and menus and other interesting things we pick up on the trip in there. More bits of scrapbook paper are attached to the edges of each section as tabs.
For every day, there are journaling prompts: What was the weather like? Where did we eat? What was your favorite thing you tried today? What was your favorite moment? Did we meet any interesting people? Every night, we’ll fill out the journal (each family member gets to add their own response) and talk about the day.
Years later, we’ll be able to go back, read it, and remember how much fun we had.
And isn’t that the whole point of all this planning?