FLORIDA DECEMBER 2019
Dates: December 26, 2019 - January 2, 2020
People: Mark, Sarah, Luke, Jonah, Seth, Anya
- 12-26 (Travel Day)
- 12-27 (Travel Day)
- 12-28 (Universal Studios)
- 12-29 (Universal Islands of Adventure)
- 12-30 (Universal Studios / Islands of Adventure)
- 12-31 (Free Day)
- 1-1 (Kennedy Space Center)
- 1-2 (Travel Day)
THURSDAY DECEMBER 26
We left the house at 11:57am for our Florida trip. Mark's parents were also there having just spent several days with us to celebrate Christmas. They were helpful in getting us out of the house today as well. We hit the Wendy's drive-thru in Monroe for lunch and were on our way down I75. This was Anya's first time not in the baby carrier, but rather in a large infant carseat. It looked more comfortable for her. We brought along the Yakima cartop carrier for this trip and loaded all of our duffels in there as well as a sleeping bag and mattress pad.
Our first stop was for gas in Bluffton, OH. We then made great time again moving along, hitting the Kentucky border via Cincinnati at 4pm. We hit a rest area in Georgetown, KY for bathroom and diaper. We rolled along the north and east sides of Lexington, KY. We hit supper at a Fazoli's in Richmond, KY. It really hit the spot to go in and eat some good pasta with breadsticks.
We made great time again after supper. Mark ended up driving the whole way today. Anya also travelled like a champ, only fussed a few short moments but otherwise did so well. We hit gas in Kodak, TN after leaving the highway just after Knoxville. We then drove through all the lights and tourism traps of Pigeon Forge. Gatlinburg following become a seemingly quieter and more beautiful arrival. We hit our Sleep Inn in Gatlinburg at 9:39pm. We had a king suite with two sofa beds and a two-person hot tub in it, scored quite a nice room.
FRIDAY DECEMBER 27
We did our best to get packed up and out the door this morning, it was just after 8am when we got rolling. We made the drive south on US441 through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We drove up to Newfound Gap at 5000ft. We stopped here for photos and a hike.
After Newfound Gap we headed down and then followed the Blue Ridge Parkway for awhile. We eventually made it over to US40. We hit Asheville and I26 at 10:34am. We entered South Carolina at 11:09am. We hit the welcome center for bathrooms and for Sarah to start driving. She drove til our lunch stop in Columbia at a Salsarita's. We sat there and ate for 45 minutes.
Upon leaving Columbia we departed US26 at the advice of the GPS. I95 southbound had some serious backups due to a major accident and the backups went for 30 miles or so. We took US321 south to drive to avoid these. It was a 50/50 coin toss as to which would be faster. We stopped in Fairfax, SC for a gas break.
We finally gained I95 in Hardeeville and we hit a mess of traffic in town there. I wonder if Google Maps had a ton of other people also taking our detour and when everyone tried to regain the interstate it was a mess. It took forever to get through it all.
I drove us until the Florida welcome center at 7:10pm and had Sarah drive the last 30 minutes into Jacksonville. We hit the Walmart near Lisa's apartment at 7:40pm to stock up on baby stuff and to grab supper at the McDonald's. It was a quick and quiet evening as Lisa wasn't feeling well and we were tired from the long day's drive.
SATURDAY DECEMBER 28
We made plans to attempt to make it to Universal at park opening at 8am. That didn't quite work. We left Lisa's apartment in Jacksonville at 6am. We made a stop in Palm Coast for breakfast at McDonald's. It was 8:55am when we made it to parking at Universal Studios. Parking was up to $26 this year and was our first clue of the cash grab this whole experience would be.
We used the Universal Studios Resort app this time around to keep track of wait times on the rides and also as a map to navigate around the park. We went counter-clockwise to start around the loop that is the park. We walked by a new Bourne experience which is coming early 2020. We walked through the small Simpsons Springfield town. It was interesting to see several Springfield locations put together for this park. We hopped in line for the Simpsons ride, a 35 minute wait, 30 in actual. Mark, Luke, and Jonah did it. They set it up as a ride at Krusty's theme park but Sideshow Bob is sabotaging things. They put everyone in a car with three rows. The vehicle lifted up and then you watched with 3D glasses a screen in front of you simulating the whole experience. The car would tilt and move a bit to help simulate the motion. It was a decent ride.
We walked from there to Diagon Alley to take in the Harry Potter experience. This was quite interesting to see all the design work to bring DIagon Alley as well as Gringotts to life. We tried the frozen butter beer which was quite tasty. From there we started walking around to the west side of the park. Sarah and the boys did the Shrek 4D ride as it only had a 40min wait. Mark and Anya went walking around in the meantime. Mark found a slice of pizza to try for lunch ($9.99). At 1p the rest of the group hit the Monsters Cafe for lunch. Soo expensive. We tried their Coca-cola drink special where we got 3 cups (1 for Lisa) for like $38 and we could refill them the whole day. The cups had a small chip in the bottom which would tell the Coke drink machines that we were authorized to use them. We could refill every 10 minutes and it would track this.
At 2pm we hit the Transformers 3D ride. It listed as a 90 minute wait but we were pretty sure it would be shorter. This was Mark, Jonah and Luke. It turned out to be 57 minutes. It was an awesome ride. We loaded into a car with 3D glasses and it would move from room to room with different 3D visuals in each room. The whole premise was trying to escape with the Allspark while the Decepticons chase you down. It was fun.
At 3:40p Sarah and the boys got in line for the Minions ride. It listed as a 60 minute wait. We think it turned out to be almost 80 minutes. They gave mixed reviews on this. They said it was frustrating in line as they would sit and wait for several minutes at times as they'd let like 50 people from the express line go through. Universal doesn't do the FastPass+ like Disney does. For like $85/person/day you can buy their express pass and get in the express lines for all participating rides. And even after dropping all that money it still looks like they would have some waits for their rides. While the others did Minions Mark and Anya walked around again. They hit the Live Action Animal show for a few minutes and then sat on the turf grass in the park. That was a great choice as Anya could get down and think about crawling and Mark could lay down and rest.
When the group was back together we walked around a bit and then decided to head out for supper. We hit the Universal hub area thinking we could do Burger King or Panda Express. Their lines were pretty bad and we grew tired. We decided to call it a day and head out of the park. We headed to the Cici's pizza near our hotel. Fitting with the theme of the day, they too were overly crowded and it was difficult to get the pizza slices we wanted.
When we finally made it back to the hotel we took the boys swimming a bit in the outdoor pool and we watched some of the CFP semifinal between Ohio State and Clemson.
SUNDAY DECEMBER 29
We learned from yesterday that when you arrive at the park too late you miss out on opportunities for short lines. Today we made an effort to get to the park by opening. We left the hotel at 7:25a and then waited in some slow lines for parking. We were into the park at about 8:10am and the boys and I made a beeline for Escape from Gringotts. We made it there and the wait listed as 20 minutes. It turned out to be 25 minutes but we were okay with that since the line would never be that short the rest of the day. The wait lines walked through the lobby of Gringotts and then down into the vaults, it was interesting. The ride was pretty great. They simulate you in a mining car making your escape from Gringotts. You have Bellatrix and even Voldemort trying to chase you down as well as a dragon at one point. It was well done.
After Gringotts we saw the line for Transformers was low at 5mins and so decided to hit that again. We walked through and found there to be basically no wait, so the boys and I enjoyed that again. When we got out the line now said 15 wait and Sarah seemed interested, so Jonah and Seth went in with her to do it again while Luke and I watched Anya.
Today we made good on the drink cups we had purchased yesterday and reactivate each for $10. This was about the only thing at the Universal parks we found to be a reasonable deal for the money. For a family of 5 (+1) to use 2 cups to refill drinks all day worked well. It does end up being a lot of sugar but it kept us hydrated and with varying flavors for the day.
At 10am we went to Kings Cross station to ride the train over to Islands of Adventure. It said 15 minute wait and that was about right. They checked tickets to make sure we did indeed have the multi-park ticket. On the ride over they simulate things going on outside the window as well as silhouettes of people in the hallway walking by and talking. It was well done.
When we arrived in Hogsmeade we found it very crowded. The artistry and architecture were very well done and it was visually stunning. So also was the model of Hogwarts within view of Hogsmeade. We made our time walking through and enjoying it and then headed out to the Jurassic Park section of Islands. Sarah and the boys hopped in line for the Jurassic Park River Adventure (10wait) and enjoyed it. Only Jonah got really wet, the others just took a few splashes. I then hopped in with Jonah and Luke to do it again, this time a 30 wait, which ended up being 28 minutes. Again we took just a few splashes but not much else. It was a decent ride showing off several dinosaurs and trying to scare you with the t-rex at the end just before going down a hill.
We did lunch at noon in the Comic Strip cafe and there were no lines so that worked great. The food was decent and the prices about $12/person. I had their bacon cheeseburger and fries.
After lunch we hit the Dudley Do-right Ripsaw Falls. This had about a 50-minute wait which turned out to be true. This ride pretty much guaranteed you'd get wet and we did. 3 or 4 spots along the ride pretty much drench everybody. We were soaked from head to toe. I would stay wet the rest of the day except for my shirt.
At 2p we all worked through the crowds in Hogsmeade and tried to get into line for the Harry Potter Incredible Journey ride. It was very confusing but we finally ran into a Universal team member who was so helpful. We wanted to do child swap with this ride and so needed to find stroller parking and also find the beginning of the line. She helped direct us and get us all into the right place. The wait was listed at 90 minutes, the longest wait we would tackle. We patiently waited through the first 45 under canopies outside. We then moved into Hogwards castle and this was quite fascinating. In the first hall the ride ran into a pair of delays which probably lasted 20 minutes. We then moved into the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom where Ron, Harry, and Hermione would talk to you about meeting in the Room of Requirement. In that room they talked about putting us on a flying couch and helping us fly out onto the quidditch pitch, the basis for the ride. The last room we hit was Dumbledore's office where he talked to you. It made the waiting go by, but it still took a long time. When we finally hit the front of the line we'd been waiting 129 minutes. I went into their holding room with Anya while the others all rode. 5-6 mins later Sarah found me and then I got to hop on the ride. It had a lot of movement and I could see where quite a few people get motion sickness. It was a great ride though with all the visuals and the simulation of flying and probably worth the wait.
After getting out, Luke, Lisa, Jay and Jonah hopped into the line for the Hippogriff ride. It listed as a 50 min wait, turned out to be about 42 in actual. Sarah, Seth and Mark went to the Jurassic Park adventure center. Seth tried a few activities in there. Mark wasn't feeling as great and so was happy to just sit.
When the others joined us it was nearing 6pm and we were all ready to call it a day. We made the walk out of the park and headed out to the car. We met up at the Buffalo Wild Wings near out hotel and had a nice supper together enjoying a few beers. We hit the hotel after supper and just relaxed the evening away.
MONDAY DECEMBER 30
Having seen the benefits of early arrival yesterday, we set out to get into the parks even earlier today. We targeted hitting the hotel breakfast when it opened at 6:30a and then to leave by 7am. We knew parking and then walking would take time and so wanted to be early.
It ended up being 7:15 when we left the hotel, packing up and checking out just took a little longer. Parking however went quickly today and we were walking up to the gates for Islands of Adventure by 7:40am. They were letting people in but what we found is you could only go so far once you were in. Its smart as it alleviates some of the bottleneck at the ticket check to start that early. At 7:50a they opened things up early and let us start into the park.
We had hoped to hit the new Hagrid's ride but as we walked into the park a PA announcer said it was experiencing delays opening and had a 4-hour wait queue already going. So we bailed on that. We went to the Hulk coaster instead and found the wait non-existent. It listed as 5 mins but we walked the lines and pretty much got on the ride without wait. Jonah and I got the front row while Luke, Lisa, and Jay ended up further back. It was a great coaster. Does an immediate climb to start and 2/3 up the climb they rocket you forward and through a corkscrew heading down, picked up some good G forces. The rest was a nice set of hills, loops and twists. We enjoyed it so much that we hopped right back in line and did it again. The wait listed as 15 mins now but we still had no wait. Lisa and Jay hit front row the 2nd time around. Great fun.
From there we walked over to the Spider-man adventure. It listed a 10 minute wait but once again we walked through the lines and had no wait when we reached the loading area. This was another ride where you're in a car with 3D glasses and go from room to room seeing some great 3D visuals. Plenty of spider-man villains as well as Spider-man saving you several times along the way.
We hit Skull Island Kong Adventure next. It said 10 minute wait but again we had no wait. It had everyone loaded into a large expedition truck with like 8 rows. 3D glasses again used and they took you through several scenes with digital images recreating scenes similar to the Peter Jackson King Kong movie from 15 years ago. Our family did the first run through while Jay and Lisa watched Anya. We did a second run through with Lisa, Sarah, Luke and Jonah. I stayed out with Seth watching Anya with Jay. The second time around they did have about a 10 minute wait.
By this time most of the lines were starting to go up in Islands of Adventure. We decided to hit the train out of Hogsmeade over to Universal Studios. Not much wait yet by the time you walked all the lines. Once again they had visuals out the window and different ones from the ride in the other direction. Its a great enjoyable ride.
On the Universal side we found that the Gringotts ride had gone up to about 2 hour wait so we bailed on hopes of hitting that. Instead we saw the Mummy ride had only a 30 minute wait so we hit that. The wait turned out to be only 24 minutes. Mark, Luke, Jonah, Jay and Lisa hit this one. It was an inside rollercoaster with several elements from the Mummy movie trying to build up suspense.
After the Mummy we followed Sarah, Seth and Anya over to Diagon Alley where we fed Anya a bottle and relaxed a bit. Most lines were going up and we weren't sure our next move. We caught the 11am showing of the Tales of Beetle the Bard. It ended up only being the one tale of the three brothers (the deathly hallows). It was short but well done.
At this point we all pretty much decided we were done for the day. We spent about 25 minutes hitting some gift shops and were out of the park by 11:57am. We made plans to meet up at a Fuddruckers just north of downtown for lunch. This was Jay's first time at a Fuddruckers. We left there at 1:43p to drive back up to Jacksonville. We rolled into town at 4:15p. Sarah's folks had already arrived and were getting some items at the Walmart. We hit the apartment while Jay and Lisa went to get Chomper from the dog boarding place.
We spent the evening relaxing. We ordered pizza from dominos and grabbed some beer to drink.
TUESDAY DECEMBER 31
Today was our free day and so we tried to sleep in a little bit. That sorta worked. I was up at 7:45am with Anya who was going early today. We spent the first couple hours of the morning just relaxing and getting breakfast. At 10am Sarah, Anya and Lisa left with Karen to go wedding dress shopping for Lisa. At 10:45am, Mark and his boys left to go hiking.
Timucuan Preserve at Fort Caroline
On our way back from the hike we hit a Subway for lunch. We had debated eating leftover pizza from the night before but wanted to save some for Jay and weren't sure how much would be left for five of us. Sarah and the ladies hit Chick-fil-A for lunch. The boys and Mark watched episodes of Ninjago and relaxed the afternoon away.
At 4:30pm or so we had everyone back together in the apartment and did our Kern family Christmas. It was fun sharing gifts and watching Anya open a few. She grew tired and hit naptime pretty quickly into our Christmas and so we put her down and she finished her presents later in the evening. We also watched the Navy-Kansas State Liberty Bowl game.
Supper was super. Lisa made an italian beef recipe in the crockpot. The meat came out very tender and juicy. It didn't have the texture of a Portillo's but the flavoring was still good and a little heat made it quite nice. I had corn with it.
We played some family games til midnight hit. Jonah and Seth were already asleep. I napped from about 11pm til 11:50p and just happened to wake up in time to bring in the New Year at midnight. We didn't stay up much past midnight.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 1
We left the apartment at 7:30am this morning for the drive down to Cape Canaveral. Our family was together in our van while Jay and Lisa drove with Dave and Karen. We hit breakfast at a McDonald's just south of Jacksonville. We made it down to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex at 9:52am. The Kern's were about 20 minutes behind us. The parking was $10. Lisa had prebought tickets for everyone and so she got us in with her military discount which I believe came to about $50/person for the day.
We entered the park and toured the Rocket Garden first. It was quite interesting. They had models of the mercury, gemini and apollo spacecrafts that you could crawl into for a sense of size. We next toured the Nature and Technology Center which gave a brief look at the combining of space tech and the nature and geography of the Florida coast.
At 11:15am we hopped in line for the bus tour which is really the highlight of the place. With Karen in a wheelchair we got moved into a handicap line. They called a special bus with a lift which they could lift her directly with the wheelchair into the bus. The tour took us all over the Kennedy campus including by the Vehicle Assembly Building and the major launchpads like 39A and 39B. It was really interesting to get closer looks at these famous places. SpaceX had one of the pads all converted over for their uses.
The bus tour ends at the Apollo-Saturn V center which was equally amazing. Outside they have a newly built garden with memorials to each of the Apollo missions and statues of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. When you first enter the building you go to two different rooms with videos. The first is a recapping of the space program up to the Apollo 8 launch. The second room puts you into stadium seating overlooking the original launch control here at the Cape. They simulate a bit of the launch of Apollo 8 and what the countdown was like. You then enter a large room with banners for the Apollo missions and an actual Saturn V rocket. It was pretty spectacular. We did lunch at the cafeteria here and toured the room taking it all in. They had a museum of artifacts and a video room. They also had a lunar lander on display.
From the ASV we left at 2:50p and took the 15 minute bus ride back to the main campus. We then entered the Atlantis space shuttle building where Atlantis is on display. Plenty more interesting information to take in here and learned a lot about the shuttle program. They had a great informative video here too to get things started. While there Sarah, Luke, Jonah, Lisa, and Jay did the Shuttle Launch Experience. They had a memorial in the building for the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters.
We finished up in there about 5:30pm and decided we'd had a day. We headed for the car and then decided to meet up at the IHOP in Titusville for supper. We had a nice meal there and then began the drive back to Jacksonville. We got gas in Daytona Beach and made it back to the apartment around 9pm.
THURSDAY JANUARY 2
We set out today with a strict goal of hitting the road at 7am and then to see just how far we could make it. We would follow I95 and I77 all the way up to the Ohio border, and then cut across through Columbus over to I75. Google Maps said it was just under a 15 hour drive. We figured there was a chance we could make it home in one long day's push.
We made our breakfast stop at 7:40am in Kingsland, GA at a Chick-fil-A. We put together our order on the mobile app and just pulled into the drive thru to pick it up. Unfortunately they had a pretty long line which slowed us up. Our next stop was a quick bathroom break at a rest area at the South Carolina welcome center. Our 3rd stop of the day was at 11:40am for gas in Blythewood, SC. We did lunch an hour later at another Chick-fil-A in Rock Hill, SC. Here to we tried to make a quick stop using the mobile app. We had lunch in the car.
Sarah picked up driving after lunch and got us through Charlotte and into North Carolina. We drove through some light rain. We hit a rest area at 2:25p and Mark picked up driving again. We continued on for an hour and a half until Anya was crying pretty heavily and so we stopped for Sarah to move into the middle seat by her and put Jonah up front. At 6:13p we hit Kroger for gas in Ripley WV and then had supper at Taco Bell. We ate in the restaurant for supper to get a break from the car and to feed Anya.
Sarah picked up driving after Ripley as we moved into Ohio and she ended up driving us the whole rest of the way home. She drove us 4 1/2 hours straight getting us home at 11:38pm. She did awesome. We were amazed at how well we made time today and how smoothly the drive went. The boys were great and patient and for the most part Anya proved to be a real trooper travelling well with a minimal amount of fussing. It felt so good to avoid the hassle of a hotel for a quick night.