Universal Resorts Orlando – Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Our primary objective for our trip to Orlando – see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. H and I were ready to feed our obsession – custom shirts from Etsy pre-ordered (hers even came from the UK). And with all the planning, stalking of the blogs, multi-day park-to-park passes – I’m still not sure we saw everything.

Two sections in two parks

The Wizarding World is divided up between Diagon Alley in Universal Studios, and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Also important to note – these sections are on the “backsides” of the parks. So getting from one part to another requires park-to-park passes and either a ride on the Hogwarts Express or walking out of the park you are in and around and through the other park.

Hogwarts itself is in Islands of Adventure and in a way it sneaks up on you once you get off Hogwarts Express in Hogsmeade. I do wish that I had gotten the picture of my daughter when she first laid eyes on the castle.

The Rides

There are three rides, four if you want to include the Hogwarts Express (which is a slightly different experience depending which direction you’re going).

Two rides are in Islands of Adventure – which is the Hogsmeade side of the Wizarding World.

Flight of the Hippogriff is a small roller coaster and worthy of the 10 minute wait we had each time. You’ll walk through decor of Hagrid’s Hut for a quick roller coaster ride that my daughter adored.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey became my favorite ride. Inside of Hogwarts is where you’ll walk through to get to this ride that’s part 3D and part roller-coasterish. You’ll hear other blogs telling you about the details inside the castle. I can only tell you about parts of it because each time we zipped through the line rather quickly (I genuinely don’t have any pictures we zipped through so quickly). If you can slow down and enjoy it – my son was impressed with at least one of the holograms inside – and he’s hard to impress. He also smiled and declared the ride awesome. My daughter apparently has a thing against dementors and declared herself over it. I thought she was kidding until the picture from the ride came through (sure enough she was covering her eyes)

Hogwarts Express can get you over to Diagon Alley for the other Harry Potter ride. Now the ride from Hogsmeade to King’s Cross is dementor free but the ride in the other direction not so much. Remember you are switching parks and will need to present your park pass.

You are riding an actual train but your experience is based on the screens as opposed to looking out actual windows. The wait experience is different in each station as well. King’s Cross offers some British based snacks (and I’m pretty sure I saw an adult beverage even) and fully covered wait line. Plus you get to walk through 9 3/4 (hint – have a member of your party hang back to try to take the picture – the effect isn’t the same up close)

We ended up riding three times eventually learning that when the wait time hit 40 minutes was probably better time spent walking around to the other park after having enjoyed traveling in both directions.

The last ride – the one that got a “must repeat” request for last day fun was Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Waits for this ride tended to be longer but worth it. Again you’ll see amazing details as you wait inside Gringotts bank. You’ll also have your photo taken during the wait – not during the ride. Extra hint – my tweens wanted individual pics of their own – so we asked on the second round and they were more than happy to take a group and their individual pics. Both kids declared this their favorite Harry Potter ride – I dislike snakes so Niagi’s appearance didn’t thrill me.

The bowl cut on this one cracked my son up

The Wands

The interactive wands were discussed much prior to arrival. And almost purchased before – except everyone said the same thing “the wand chooses the wizard”. And in the Wizarding World at Ollivanders if you’re lucky you can be selected to have help with that. We ended up going through twice for Olivanders in Diagon Alley and managed to get two different experiences but never selected for wand selection.

So instead we selected our own. The shop walls are lined with box after box. There are two kinds – basic and interactive versions of character wands or more general wands of certain wood types.

This one decided to spend souvenir money and get a second one

Even after all the times looking online it still took a while to make choices
Once selected it was time to use them. Each wand contains a map – for Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley – to find locations to cast

spells. (Hint – if you’re coming back a second day – take a photo or two instead of dragging the map around)

Extra side hint – in Knockturn Alley – there are some backlights for a reason

I’m fairly certain we got all of the spells in both sections – somewhere definitely more entertaining than others… I think our favorite involved a skeleton in Knockturn Alley

There’s rumors of secret unmarked spots – we may have found one… asking around Ollivanders or one of the helpful witches or wizards may score you more:

Step to your right after you wingardium leviosa…

Other Must Dos

It is amazing at every turn in both areas the stunning details. But a few extra surprises to try out and look for

– Dial the Ministry of Magic – outside of Diagon Alley is the bright red British phone booth

– Watch for Kreacher to peek out of the window at 12 Grimmauld Place. He looks around every couple of minutes.

– Visit the Knight Bus

Stand in line – chat with the driver and shrunken head (take video as our chat was pretty funny)

– Get Gringotts Bucks in the Money Exchange (Diagon Alley)

This was a little boring but we didn’t have a wait. The goblin is supposed to be responsive but he seemed off when we went though. FYI – don’t forget you have it or else you have a slightly expensive souvenir – and it can be used elsewhere in the park just like cash.

– Fire Breathing Dragon (Diagon Alley)

Sigh – I never once caught a picture. It is not on a set time and I only saw it once because we were in the shops or outside the view. Succeed where I failed.

– Check out the shops – including Knockturn Alley

The details in the shops are every bit as amazing as everything else to the books and brooms in Dervish and Banges to the talking mirror in Madam Malkin’s Robes.

My daughter may have asked for death eater masks.

– Send an Owl Post (Hogsmeade)

While the Hogwarts stamps are cool they are pricey (over a $1 each and you have to buy a full sheet). However you can buy the postcards and they will still stamp the Hogsmeade postmark on them for you to send later.

– Shows – we saw the Frog Choir (Hogsmeade) and Celestina Warbeck (Diagon Alley) only by chance – both were highly entertaining and gave a reason to pause our clamoring to next spot

– Shutterbuttons – (Diagon Alley) want pictures in robes without having to buy robes – want to have your own moving just like in the magical world? Prepare to a shell out a few extra bucks but I own pictures of me dueling wands with my kids – mommy nerd level fully achieved ūüôā

– Nighttime Lights at Hogswarts

It truly is a very pretty site and I’m glad we went that way to see it. A couple things we learned. People crowd the area early but the lines for the rides go way down. And… well we didn’t time things quite right and were in line for Flight of the Hipporiff when it started. The view from the ride was actually amazing and they paused us as we were returning back so we could see more of the lights.

I didn’t get any pictures of the castle lit up but the whole area at night just feels a little extra magical.

And after all that I still feel like I didn’t cover everything. My advice to anyone going – go slow, enjoy all the details. And plan your next trip as soon as possible.

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Universal Resort Food – the good and the gigantic

1) The Lard Lad Donut – mmmm donut – a al Homer Simpson, the giant pink donut was a fan favorite on our trip. A short trip from Kings Cross led us to the land of the Simpsons. The Lard Lad was visible from across the way. For $7 he offered a pink frosted monster donut about the size of a small dinner plate.

We ordered two because one of us wanted a food challenge. He won – but I don’t think he’s looked at another donut in the last 3 weeks. She and I got through maybe a quarter of it. Helpful hint – it does not survive well in a backpack all day.

2) The Cotton Candy – a friend of mine who has an annual pass sent me a message “are you getting them the giant cotton candy?” – and then we found our afternoon walk out of the park through Suessland. Snookers and Snookers in Islands of Adventure is the place to find the biggest cotton candy you’ll ever see.

Yup that’s an adult who’s hidden behind all that cotton candy. It’s made to order so expect to spend a few minutes in awe watching them create these masterpieces. Again for the price of $7-8 each – these are worth the fun ūüôā for the record neither child finished their cotton candy. They will give you a plastic bag to manage the left overs.

3) the giant soft pretzel – this one can be found on Citywalk at the NBC Sports Grill and Brew. Our waitress was kind enough to warn us to start from the bottom for structural integrity. Everything else we ordered from here was great. Extra helpful hint – see if the foozball tables are open. Your dinner table will be an extra round of entertainment while you wait.

In the realm of slightly less over the top food…

4) Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck – nachos

Someone walked past us with those nachos and well they looked delicious and we knocked them back pretty easily.

5) Lunch at Hard Rock Cafe, Citywalk

My daughter loved the kids plates. My son loved his burger. And I love the souvenir photos ūüôā It’s a nice sit down experience and going at a later lunch meant we didn’t have to wait.

6) pizza at Red Brick Oven, Citywalk

My son spotted this place on our way into the park and said it needed to be done. One late evening we made it happen. He declared it good pizza. As a general connoisseur – I suggest that’s a a pretty good rating.

7) late lunch at Leaky Cauldron

Our first day was an evening meet up with a local friend – a thousand miles away -at the Leaky Cauldron. Chicken sandwich, mini Shepard’s pie, some chips – oh and the Frozen Butterbeer (a bit sweet for my taste) and Fizzy peach drink that my dear daughter swiped from me. All in all good food and quick service at 4:15 in the afternoon.

8) Florian Fortescue’s Ice Cream and Eternelle’s Elixir of Refreshment

Ice cream in Diagon Alley is quite popular and was often packed full when we stopped by. We snuck in at 10 am on our last day to have the place to ourselves. Splurge for a sundae to get a ice cream cup as a souvenir ūüôā

Eternelle’s had a spell on us. One that had us buying Gillywater (plain water) and a potion to add to it. Mix the two to get a kool aid/ gatorade flavored drink. Keep the potion container just for fun.

9) the long wait lunch at – Krusty Burger, Cletus’ Chicken Shack – Here’s our worst food experience and only for the wait. My first thought was this is great we can all get food we like in one spot. And then we got in line, to get in line, to get in individual lines. The food was really good – the wait was something like one of the rides.

10) meal plans – I never did quite figure them out totally. It’s one of the extras that I would have considered more if I didn’t have to spend extra time dealing with it.

However, the refillable mug – this was a lovely purchase. For 3 I paid $12.99 each on the first day, then $7.99 each for additional days. The machines were easy – everyone got what they wanted. My daughter even got icee for her refill – although we did need to actually get someone to set us up with that. One of her food fails was missing the chance to get Moose Juice.

Our food fails – we missed our chance to try the Kebabs in Islands of Adventure. And my kids reminded me that they never did get their Cinnabon requests – and me I never got my Starbucks. But all in all there’s lots of food choices and the app is helpful to have filters for quick searches.

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The Trip To Universal – 2 parks, multiple days – part 1 of 4 – general tips

In case you’ve never experienced travel with me, I’m a planner. So immediately after booking flights and hotels, I went into Pinterest search extraordinaire about planning the trip to Universal in Orlando, Florida.

I read blog post after blog post of 10 or 20 things to see, do, not miss. I researched. I asked friends. Spreadsheets and word documents were involved, yet I was still not fully prepared to handle all the things the parks had to offer. So now I guess it’s my turn to share my wisdom of what worked, what I wish I had known, and what I would’ve done different.

Just like the parks themselves, it’s too much to do all at once so I’m going to offer my thoughts as: general hints and tips, the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the rest of the rides, and food stuffs (a nod to my son).

Begin at the beginning

1) THE TICKETS – tickets and hotels – I had more than a few hotel points accumulated from work travel and opted to burn through some. What I would do different – the hotel and ticket packages really do seem like a good deal. I opted to buy tickets from undercovertourist.com with a 5 day 2 park hopper pass. Even with that good price, the hotel package wouldn’t have been much more and most of these hotels have early access passes that would be worthwhile.

I will note for you the key part for Harry Potter – it’s split across two parks. Yes it is worth it to get the park hopper passes and yes you need the two park passes to ride the Hogwarts Express.

2) ARRIVING – getting in to the park – issue one: our hotel had a shuttle, but the shuttle didn’t run mid day and you actually had to reserve seats on the morning shuttle. In theory we were about a mile away from the park – a reasonable walk minus the 6 lanes of highway to cross. My kids got their first Lyft ride (with a driver who reeked of smoke) and later I got my first ripped off by a taxi driver trip. So many firsts and a bit of a first visit fail.

What you need to know about arriving at the park. You are dropped off at a “central” spot where you go through security. Security moves super fast and wasn’t a problem at all. Going through this takes you to Citywalk, which is shops, food, movie theatre, and is easily an event of its own and doesn’t require a ticket to any of the parks.

Once through most of Citywalk, you must make a decision. Bear left and go to Islands of Adventure or stick right and go to Universal Studios. My kids would warn you you are doing quite a bit of walking before you’ve even entered a park. Extra note – Universal Studios has another small exit/entrance that’s right behind the Hard Rock Cafe.

2) THE APP – This is where the app comes in handy really fast. The app was my friend – a lot. Because as the shirt says

The app is great not only for showing that the little dot that is me is now going in the wrong direction, it also gives clues to how long the ride wait times are. I stalked what I thought would be our favorites doe several days before arrival just to get an idea. It was pretty close to the trends I was seeing throughout the day. Afternoons are the craziest waits while early morning and dinner time seemed to calm down some.

Quick note – the parks have WiFi and when on the WiFi, the app had one small flaw that it would always default the map to the park we were in and it was an effort to look up the map for the other park.

Link to the app – Universal Orlando¬ģ by NBCUniversal Media, LLC


3) ARRIVE EARLY – Which leads me to advice I got over and over again – get to the park early. It was true and clearly some of the best advice I could take. Sadly my pre-teen who is practically nocturnal did not like this advice. But it did mean that we were less than 15 minutes in line for Gringotts on our final day and that we walked into the overcrowded ice cream shop to instead be there – alone (yes yes ice cream at 10 am is perfectly acceptable on vacation). Arriving at the park opening time really did mean a less crowded park especially if you are aiming for Harry Potter, which is in the back of both parks.

4) PHOTOS – As an add-on you can do a myuniversal photos package. The quick run down – this package provides you access to their photographers who are stationed at different parts of the parks at different times, as well as ride and character photos. Universal posted a link to a $59 package (sorry it seems like this was a promotion they aren’t doing at the moment) – 5 days, unlimited downloads plus a couple of prints. As my children have varying temperaments about me taking photos, this really was my best shot of a group photo of happiness. The results were varied but I would say I got my $60 worth out of it. What I wish I had done – more research on locations for photos (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/my-universal-photo/index.html#universal-photos-participating-locations), asked to see the quick previews (my son scowling in at least 3 and I can’t crop him out), not waited until our last day to do the prints. You can see all the photos through a website or an app as the day progresses but I kept wondering if we would get just one more that would be better. Also I pre bought the package but couldn’t get it started until I went into one of the locations inside the park.

5) PLAN – there are various one day or two day plans that can help you get the most out of the park(s). But we spread our 4 days with 2 half days and 2 full days. My full planning mode didn’t kick in until our last full day and it was an impressive checklist that we finished but by the end of the evening we couldn’t rally enough to see Hogwarts lit up again. My suggestion is make that “must see” checklist much earlier in the trip and map it out. If wait times aren’t working for you, then counter clockwise your map and plan. Also truly be prepared to eat ice cream at 10 am to avoid lines.

6) SOUVENIRS AND PACKAGE PICK UP – so many choices. And add in the ease of package pick up, it would be easy to try to buy the whole place. Package pick up sends your purchases to the front of the park to save you from lugging things around. Useful for chocolate things especially. Just note it takes at least 3 hours before you can pick it up. So if you buy at 4 pm, plan on a 7 pm pick up. What went well: each kid was given a gift card pre loaded with souvenir money. Mom didn’t have to try to track who spent what and was it equal. What we goofed on: pressed pennies – waited til we were done and did them at the front of the park with few selections. Decision making paralysis did me in and kept rethinking a shirt I wanted and the Harry Potter Christmas ornaments – don’t let your preferred souvenirs slip through your hands because doubling back to get them isn’t going to happen.

7) BACKPACKS – I carried the “parent backpack” that I normally bring onto flights as a personal item. It contains my “be prepared” kits of everything (pens, marker, first aid – seriously I won’t list everything here I have a literal full page checklist of things that go in). It was a tight squeeze in a few of the free lockers.

Oh and most of the rides have free lockers – nice touch to make it a little easier. But not all are free – I’m looking at you Dudley do Right. I’m bitter still about this cost, especially since they were super small and we had to get two. By our final trip to the park both kids had small back packs (my son was wearing a camelpack type thing and my daughter was keeping her wand and some other items in her own mini pack).

What else to throw in your parent pack – poncho. Florida weather. Most of the time it behaved as per normal “oh look blue skies and it’s kinda raining”. But our last day – deluge… like cats, dogs, birds, small woodland creatures. And we still needed to get our photos and package pick up. My daughter reached for her rain jacket and told me I was a genius (it’s not on video but I swear it happened)

They had packable rain jackets already. I donned the ever slimming totes poncho. Wisdom for later – I could’ve gotten away with a kid sized poncho

If this were in dementor black I could’ve pulled it off better.

But Florida weather being what it is – have a plan for a rainy day or hour – and keep those weather app alerts on.

It took us a bit to find our groove for walking in the right direction but by our final day we knew which way to find what and had set in our hearts what we wanted to be sure to do (or to do one more time).

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‘Tween our travel tips

Travel season has officially ended for the kiddos as they made their way back to school this week. And I’m lucky enough to also have a break from travel for work even. So as I stare at the semi-unpacked state of things – I’m rather impressed that so far the tally of missing things is: two pairs of sunglasses (one of which conveniently looks like my daughter’s pair that are still around), one thing of nasal spray, a change wallet (mine and mostly empty), and just a smidge of my sanity.

We usually only do one major road trip but this year we added a second in August. All told we estimate about 3,000 miles in the car, 6 states plus the District of Columbia. In a mid-sized sedan. And they didn’t kill each other. Miracle.

We are on year 9 of doing our summer beach vacation so the kids have reached near pro level of packing their stuff. Last years checklist might get minor updates but we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.

As far as car travel itself, in the past we’ve also learned a few things and repeated them – like the travel binders and the surprise activities every hour or so. What I’m slowly grasping is that any activity with more than 3 parts is never successful (like all art kits and craft kits). Also overdosing on library books also doesn’t go over well.

But new ideas are always welcome and I did my usual stalking of Pinterest. Here’s the break down.

Things we tried this year that went over “meh”

– using suction cup shower organizers on their windows. All in all they held up surprisingly well. Kind of a pain though when someone wanted to roll down a window.

– few pre-printed travel books – from Amazon I grabbed these: Ultimate Sticker Puzzles: License Plates Across the States: Travel Puzzles and Games and National Geographic Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas: Maps, Games, Activities, and More for Hours of Backseat Fun – these were about 15 minutes of interesting for them. I was told I do a better job of finding fun facts – who knew.

– three sets of games – metal puzzles, spot it travel edition and the good ole triangle puzzle from Cracker Barrel. The triangle puzzle opened and played with for a few minutes. The metal puzzles were finally opened and fun when we got back. And spot it game remains unopened to this day. Again I think really it comes down to anything with more than 3 parts, just doesn’t go over well.

Things we tried this year that did go over well:

– using the pass thru to put snacks in the trunk (non meltable kind). It helped free up valuable space in the backseat as well as created less more of “mom can you put this up front with you” requests.

– tervis straw lids – no one seemed super impressed until I went to take it away to wash it. Apparently they worked super well.

– audio book – my youngest finally got bit by the Harry Potter bug. So on one leg of the trip everyone was listening to the end of book 4. When I travel alone, I’m into various podcasts and audio books so for our next venture I’ll take up the challenge to find more books for everyone to enjoy.

The thing I’ve found most successful for family trip survival – giving the kids choices in advance. It’s a bit of a joke at this point since it looks like a travel agent’s intake sheet but I give them a list of things to choose from before a long travel trip. It includes things like: snacks in the car, meals at the condo, activities and spots to go sightsee. They are given a checklist of sorts with options – to be returned or no votes will be counted. It helps me plan and helps make sure everyone gets to choose something about the trip.

As for me and my personal travel organization, I’ve tried to up my game a little. New cord organizers and a travel cord keeper – have been great in preventing me from leaving cords behind – blank organizer spot helps me realize something is missing. My new other favorite travel discovery – Lush brand shampoo bar. I was hesitant and now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get the matching conditioner bar.

So as I sit here on the cusp of soccer tournament weekend – luckily local – I prep the backpack for two days in the sun on a field. But it dawns on me that next year, our travels will probably put us on planes – and I get to level up for travel planning. Maybe just maybe, if I start Pinterest this weekend I might be prepared for next summers’ vacation.

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Tie dying eggs – with actual ties

Once again Pinterest sucked me in for Easter. I’ve been waiting a whole year to try this one. Silk ties and boiled eggs.

Here’s the link to instructions I pretty much followed:

The basics

– silk neckties (I fetched mine for $1 each at goodwill)

– cotton cloth (a tired old pillow case met it’s end)

– a way to tie the cloth on (the twine disappeared…no one is claiming knowledge of said disappearance – so we used floral wire)

– pot of water

– vinegar (she recommended a 1/4 cup, some suggested less which I can’t recommend)

The pitfalls

– dissecting those ties took longer than I planned (I used a seem ripper which now has me realizing I really only needed the bottom of the tie because that’s where it’s wide enough to get a full size square)

– fabric size – she recommended 7 inch squares (others say 5 x 7) – either way I must have mismeasured or the large eggs in Ohio are extra large because I just barely covered a few of them

– fabric placement – I realized it about half way through wrapping that I was doing it wrong – trying to gather all the fabric at the top (narrow point of the egg) because it wasn’t going to transfer the pattern evenly on any part but the bottom. Wrap the egg “sideways” to ensure at least one very lovely pattern. Definitely keep the cloth tight to the egg shell surface.

– fabric selection… I didn’t read all labels carefully… also I chose some lighter color fabrics which I realized quickly that was a mistake. Dark colors transferred much better and ones that I knew were silk.

– boiling time and vinegar… I started my timer when I turned up the heat and I wasn’t great in measuring vinegar which I’m going to suggest might have cost me some brightness on a few patterns

A dark color with a great pattern but couldn’t confirm it was silk

Was excited to see the color transfer onto the cotton

But the egg itself came out quite faded

The final results

Fun and different with varying levels of success 

The paisley remains my favorite

The 3 most successful fabrics were these ones – all double checked to be silk. 

The pale blue surprised me but the pattern does have dark dye in it

Besides the pitfalls – if I were to do this again I would use blown eggs (she mentioned this in her post – and every year I say I should try blown eggs and yet never do). This is mostly for the return on investment of time and that the eggs aren’t edible due to the dye.

But I think next year is my year to try food-based dye. Turmeric and beets and red cabbage – oh my!

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Back to School – MOOC for Mom

It’s time to ship the kids back to school. And I’ve had a solid year of no homework since finishing grad school. So naturally I became jealous of the kids’ school supplies and was feeling a little bored. The most logical solution – try an MOOC (massive open online course).

Never heard of MOOC? Simple explanation – universities of varying notorarity have opened up their online courses for you to take for free (as an audit) or a for a fee (for either a grade or certificate).

Why try one of these courses? First – you can do them for free. Second – it’s a huge world of learning that is right at your fingertips. The course catalogues cover a huge range of topics.

Where do you find MOOC info?  MOOC-list.com was my starting point. Put in a few key words to search and voila – list upon list of possible courses. They aren’t the actual providers though. I ended up on edx.com and coursera.org and had to register at each of those sites. What is nice is that each course you register within the site can be taken through courserra or edx. Which is especially nice when you sign up for 5 courses – I’ll add decision making 101 to the next round.

Only one of the courses I’m taking is self lead – and that’s the Spanish course through edx. The other 4 are scheduled and two started the Monday after I signed up. The other two started the following Monday – and I had forgotten about them until a nice email came through to tell me class was starting. I might have added two more since then.

The classes vary in length with two of them as short as 4 weeks. The Spanish is meant to be 16 weeks but it’s self lead.

What’s my impression so far – well since I added two more, I guess you could say I like it. I’m auditing so I’m skipping (locked out of) some of the major assignments. Reading the boards though I’m seeing an interesting note – some of the classes are relying heavily on peer reviewed grading. And some people are very unhappy about that. I’m also noticing that we have assigned mentors – who are not necessarily the instructors. So if you’re buying the course – take a moment to find out what you’re actually buying.

All that said, other than me recklessly signing up for too many, I’m enjoying the courses. They are largely video based, so I can retreat back and rewind to listen again. The videos are shorter clips (most are 5-7 minutes) so I can watch just a little and come back later when I have more time. 

Don’t want to be tied to a laptop or wi-fi? Both edx and coursera have apps – and you can download the content for offline viewing. Helpful for waiting during soccer/baseball/insert after school practice.

Time to finish my first course. And try not to sign up for anymore ūüôā

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Traveling with the not-so-littles – 1200 miles in a car

I did it. We did it. 3 hotels, 1 condo, 8 days, 7 nights. 1200 miles in the car. Me, two kids, 4 states and the District of Columbia. My sanity and my data plan still mostly intact. It’s taken me a week to finish unpacking and recover ūüôā

We’ve been doing this trip for several years. This was the 7th to be exact for this particular route. And several more travels with long car rides. So the kids aren’t novice travelers. ¬†But it’s still a long trip and the journey is part of the adventure.

The last two years I’ve tried to mix it up and make it more interesting. This would be after the year of the data plan disaster. The time they somehow went through a gb of data in less than an hour and mom had to put massive restrictions on data usage.

As always Pinterest to the rescue…

Our first year ideas that we picked up and found successful.

– the “tray” – yes the simple dollar store baking sheet. It was a success and has remained in the car ever since. Useful for dining on the go. Hard surface for writing and the occasional craft. Dry erase markers were fun. But other markers made themselves permanent after baking in the sun.

– the “surprise” packets – there were a total of 8 – meant to be opened about every hour… The only packet that I really remember doing really well was an m&m guessing game. Mostly because the results were eaten. The rest were opening and considered for some time and set aside.

For year two I needed to up my game РI had a future middle schooler in the car now.

First – ¬†I¬†upgraded their space – a shared seat in the back of a sedan. I went for the back of the seat organizers. They had different options to choose from – with or without the tablet viewer. My son sent me back to find a hybrid that had a tablet holder and had plenty of pockets. She had picked a different one and switched over to his after she saw it. The final choice was this one –¬†https://amzn.com/B00UO6DDVS – large enough for two older kids, and smart enough to have openings for the charger and headphones on the tablet pocket.

Second – I decided to try to do a travel binder this time around. (note binder should be minimum 1 inch – the pouch alone took up most of the space)

– binder basic contents – a zipper pouch with: new markers, colored pencils, glue stick, post it pad, pencils and pens plus scissors, pencil sharpener; blank lined paper, blank three hole punched paper, a few page protectors, in the back pocket some regular plain paper and a small 5 x 7 envelope that they could use to put trinkets in

– dividers – I created a few sections in the binder to help keep things a little more organized…

1) maps of the trip – we actually had multiple stops so multiple maps. These went over surprisingly well. ¬†Not so much of the “hey how much time do we have left?” and more of “did we pass such and such yet?”)

2) a travel section with information about each state we were traveling through. Most of the pages came from education.com. ¬†There’s quite a bit here including a fun page for each state. ¬†However both kids (now headed into 4th and 5th grade) felt those pages were better for younger kids. The¬†favorite was a print out of fun facts about DC (helpful that the Lincoln Memorial was on our list of things to see and yes, there really was a typo). More of these are requested for next year.

3) travel fun pages – a checklist of I spy type things for bigger kids (http://travelwithkids.about.com/od/Free-Printables/ss/Free-Printable-Travel-Games-for-Kids-in-the-Car-or-on-the-Plane.htm#step11 – this one we completed, but this one we did not http://carlaschauer.com/travel-scavenger-hunt-for-tweens/) ; a license plate hunt (42 out of 50 states – not too shabby) ( we used this one, simple checklist – but wish a bit we had used this one, as coloring on a map takes a few more steps ); and a few word searches that were ignored.

4) travel journal pages Рconcept good, execution was meh. I tried using two different kinds (all one page Рand multiple pages Рfor more options Рtry this page). And of course my daughter wanted what her brother had. They were initially intrigued but nothing was written in past the first day.  They liked the options to circle things.  Neither wanted to draw pictures.  I may try to design my own version for the next trip.

5) some typical word games Рsheets for hangman, tic tac toe, and battleship. I put one extra in the page protector for reuse with the dry erase marker.

Third – I went for the surprise packages again. Different options this time.

Рpostcards for friends and family Рthis went over decently with my daughter. I had some instruction sheets (http://www.time4english.com/aamain/school/Vac/v3_postcard.pdf and https://learnenglishteens.britishcouncil.org/skills/writing-skills-practice/postcard-new-york ) and ideas for what to put on a postcard (https://www.postcrossing.com/blog/2013/02/05/20-ideas-of-things-to-write-on-postcards) . I included postcard stamps and a few starter postcards (I travel through the area for work and had a stockpile). For good measure threw in a few articles on the history of postcards (http://siarchives.si.edu/history/exhibits/postcard/postcard-history and http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/photography/History-of-Postcards.html). Plus a  few addresses of friends and family. Educational and fun. (Side note Рpostcards that are bigger than 4 x 6 require full first class postage, so grab a few regular stamps)

– pressed pennies – simple enough – a binder clip with enough quarters and shiny pennies to do a few pressed pennies along the way. This one made everyone happy. (Side note – there are never enough quarters on our road trips – the arcades are highly adored by my two, so having these specifically set aside made it easier to ensure pressed pennies for all)

make your own comics – this had potential but my kids asked that I make something a little more generic for them to use next year

Рpuzzles and mazes and brain teasers Рby far their most favorite were the rebus puzzles. And they blew through them in less than 5 minutes.  Mom has promised to find more and more challenging ones for next year.

calculator riddles – entertaining for 2.3 minutes when she figured out how to read the riddles without the calculator…

– I Spy Challenger books – my daughter loves to play I spy – however in a car with a driver who can only look so many directions and a brother who bores of the game quickly – the books made a good 30 minute dent in her time.

All in all – worth the effort to keep them off the devices and the data plan for at least some intervals. ¬†Not saying that I’m not pricing hot spots and pay as you go options for the next big travel at Christmas, but it was nice to have them enjoy a few bonding moments over staring out the window on the look out for¬†license plates and random searches. And my daughter is still looking for those last 8 licenses plates.

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Easter egg hunt for tech kids – QR code hunt

As they’ve gotten older, the kids have turned the holidays into 10 minutes of frenzied activity and then a feast of chocolate for breakfast. Last Easter, I attempted to slow them down a bit through the use of technology.

Once again Pinterest was my guiding light – from this pin – leading to this blog post http://blog.bitsofeverything.com/2014/04/smart-phone-easter-egg-hunt-older-kids.html

What you’ll need:

  • A piece of technology hardware – iPod, iPad or tablet, iPhone or other smart phone
  • A QR reader app – I tend to use RedLaser
  • A QR code generator (if you don’t use the clues in the original blog post) – this is the site I used – http://www.qr-code-generator.com
  • A printer
  • A plan
    • How many eggs? What are you clues to where you’re hiding them?

Quite frankly the plan is the hardest part. In the original blog post – she uses the QR codes to link back to clues in images in her website.  My tech savvy oldest would have busted the easter bunny for sure on this, so I needed to generate my own codes and clues.

If you aren’t familiar with QR codes – they look like a series of dots inside of a square.  And basically that’s what they are – the QR code reader reads them and translates (think of a bar code in a different shape).  The result can lead you to a website or text or any number of things depending on the complexity.  To keep it simple, I’m just using text.

Step 1. – Come up with your clues. (  Number them.

Step 2. – Go to your QR code generator. Type in your text and generator your code.  Save the code image with a name (and a number) – such as Clue1.  Repeat until you’ve coded all your clues.  

 Step 3. – Print your clues.  In our case, we started with a letter from the Easter Bunny explaining the hunt and what they needed to do to find their clues.  Then the other clues (qr codes) were printed separately.

Step 4. – Hide your clues.  The clues fold up nicely inside of the eggs and the code should be able to handle a few small creases.


Helpful Hints

1) Watch your locations and your clues. I have two kids and I managed to make two clues arrive too close to each other nearly creating a snafu.  Luckily along with the note for the kids, the Easter Bunny conveniently left a note for mom just in case a code broke so no eggs would be left unfound.

2) Test your clues.  Before hiding the clues, double check that you have the right words showing up at the right time.  

3) Pre-download your QR code reader.  My kids are old enough to download on their own safely but just in case…


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Easter egg coloring with shaving cream 

Ah the smell of vinegar and the hands of many colors Рit is the time of coloring the Easter eggs. Last year we decided to deviate from the path and try something new. Pinterest idea Рthe shaving cream method.  The end result some marbled-looking eggs with a side of messy fun.

It’s really quite simple

  • Containers that are deep (2-3 inches) and wider are preferred to be able to utilize multiple colors
  • Food coloring dye – colors of your choice (McCormick has neon colors now – which my daughter gravitated to immediately)
  • A can or two of shaving cream
  • Hardboiled eggs
  • Rack to dry them on
  • Newspaper for managing messes
  1. Hard boil those eggs and cool
  2. Put shaving cream into container
  3. Drop a few drops of no more than 3 colors into the shaving cream (if you try to go past 3 colors Рyou kind of end up with a solid color)

4. Put the egg into the container and swirl it around in the colors


5. When satisfied transfer to a rack to dry (hint: put something under rack to catch drips).


6. Based on the pinterest comments – the longer you leave them to dry the more intense the colors. ¬†We left ours out overnight – since we had already figured we weren’t going to eat them.

7. All in all Рafter 24 hours, there was just a little bit of left over shaving cream to wipe off.  The colors were pretty stunning.  It was a little disappointing because the initial look of the eggs is really cool and the end result is a little more smooth than you might expect.

Lessons Learned:

  • this is messy and fingers will be all kinds of colors – just like when you do normal dying
  • choose some strong contrasting colors
  • once the colors “blend” change out your shaving cream
  • the dye-able craft eggs at places like Michaels and Target don’t lend well to this (soaking in liquids for extended periods – and quite frankly they didn’t manage well in the regular dye-bath either in our opinion)

I saw a suggestion to try “cool-whip” instead of shaving cream so you have edible eggs. ¬†I think we’re going to give that a try this year.

Ratings from the kids:

  • 9 year old boy actually participated in this and this only – he was too bored to do the normal coloring of eggs
  • 7 year old girl – artist creative type – liked it a lot but was a bit disappointed that the very distinct designs were lost at¬†the end
  • Both said they would like to try it again
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DIY Chalk Paint Attempt

“You don’t have to prime or sand” – this is where chalk paint got my attention. ¬†I had decided I wanted to try to make a version of this –¬†http://pin.it/73xIDxX

Chalk paint looked to be my answer. ¬†On the amazing land of pinterest I found several recipes using unsanded grout, plaster of paris, and even chalk itself. ¬†Some were even nice enough to show some comparison results like this one –¬†http://inmyownstyle.com/2012/08/testing-1-2-3-versions-of-chalk-paint.html and¬†http://howtodistressfurniture.net/definitive-guide-homemade-chalk-paint-recipes

(side note – calcium carbonate seems to be the new one to try and wasn’t really on the radar when I attempted this)

I had grabbed doors from an old cabinet and some lighting a la Ikea to attempt to make the pin happen. My choice for the chalk paint – though having bought all of the items – was plaster of paris.



Other than a quick wipe down with a wet paper towel, I did NO PREPPING of the surface of the cabinet door (it was dusty from basement storage). ¬†Mixing was pretty easy with the ratio – using inmyownstyles recipe – 3 parts paint, 1 part plaster and water to mix in to get a decent consistency. ¬†The first coat has me squealing with crafter joy. ¬†It covers super well and looks pretty darn good (let’s just ignore the fact that I failed to note the holes in the door and plug them)


Then it’s that dilemma – do I stop here or do I keep going? Not knowing when to say when, I opt for another coat.


With some of the darkness of the wood stain still bleeding through I was pretty pleased all in all with the second coat and merely touched up a few spots.

Things to Note:

  1. This stuff dries faster than the average paint job.
  2. Have on hand disposable materials including: plastic stuff for measuring, sealable container for mixing (as I mentioned – this stuff dries fast!!)
  3. Plaster of paris is way cheaper at the hardware store – but you’re going to have way more than you need
  4. I recommend¬†to get the small sample size paints at Lowes/Home Depot for experimenting with. Catching them even more discounted on the “mixed wrong” rack makes it even more fun.

My uh-oh moments:

  1. discovering that I forgot to plug the holes where the cabinet handles had been
  2. forgetting that I hate the feel and touch of a chalkboard – when the paint was dry it drove me crazy to touch the doors as I have yet to put wax or any other coating on it
  3. when I attempted to mount the lighting (first they ran the wiring through the back, then again when I attempted to figure out the best spot given that the doors had inlay, and finally when I failed to measure the proper length of screws)
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