Meeting French President Nicholas Sarkozy

Meeting French President Nicholas Sarkozy

I met French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Nice, France, in May 2010.

For the final weekend of my semester abroad, I took a short trip to the French Riviera. I had not planned on meeting President Sarkozy. I did not anticipate that my final European vacation that year would bring me face-to-face with the French president. My dad and I were unaware that we would be in the same city as Sarkozy. We did not have any intention of attempting to meet him. Nevertheless, as the city of Nice got ready to celebrate its 150th anniversary of uniting with France we found ourselves shaking hands with President Sarkozy himself.

Want to read about another one of my crazy adventures? Click here to learn about The Time I Tried to Go to Nicaragua!

A Weekend in the French Riviera

I studied abroad in Strasbourg, France, in the Spring of 2010. At the end of the term I had about a week of free time before flying back to the States. My dad flew over to France to help me carry back the extra items that I had picked up during my semester. Because of his help, he got to pick the destination of my final vacation. Though I had already been to the French Riviera twice that year, my dad really wanted to return to Nice, France, so we flew down for one last weekend.

Nice

The weekend began in downtown Nice. We rented bikes and rode along the shoreline on the Promenade des Anglais. It was a beautiful beach day, but the beaches in Nice are made of small rocks rather than sand! I tried to lay out in the sun, but it was too uncomfortable having just a towel between me and the rocks.

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For dinner, my dad and I found the best outdoor restaurant area I've ever been to. Tucked away in the Old Town on Place Charles Félix were dozens of outdoor seating venues. Awnings, tables, and chairs available for patrons to sit at once they had selected their restaurant for the evening lined the pedestrian road. The menus all looked so good; we knew we wouldn't go wrong whichever place we picked. The fresh seafood from the Mediterranean Sea and  produce from the fields of Provence did not disappoint.

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Cannes

During this trip to the French Riviera, I was determined to visit Nice's neighboring city Cannes for the first time. The train ride down the coast took less than an hour. We saw gorgeous views of the sea the entire way. Once in Cannes, the open air buses were a great way to see the city quickly. After my dad and I took our tour, we walked down a few side streets with stores offering everything from cheap souvenirs to luxury products, like tiny earrings for over 5,000 euros! We ended our excursion with a drink at a seaside resort lounge before taking the train back to Nice.

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Typical side street in Cannes

Eze

In the opposite direction from Nice is the medieval city of Eze. Perched high on a hill overlooking the water, visitors can hike up to the castle and enjoy the views along the way, or take the less strenuous route to the top with public buses or taxis. My dad and I chose to hike up. Once we reached the fortress we meandered through the tiny streets that were home to the Romans, Moors, Greeks, Italians, and French over the past 4000 years (though the current fortress was built in 1388). There were many shops, restaurants, and hotels available for tourists mixed in with the houses residents still live in today.

 

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The hike up to Eze!

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Views from a resting spot on the hike

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Medieval City of Eze

Official Happenings in the City

All weekend my dad and I noticed an excitement that had not been present on previous trips to the French Riviera. Official-looking cars drove around town with the flags of various Francophone African nations sticking out from them. We also noticed a giant structure covered in a cloth and a giant French flag in the Parc Esplanade George Pompidou that was not there before.

A few inquiries to shop owners told us the official-looking cars held African leaders attending the 25th Africa-France Summit that weekend. As a scholar of international studies, I hoped to see some history in action or at least a famous African president after hearing this.

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Gathering of official-looking African leaders on the Promenade des Anglais

The new structure covered in cloth was a monument constructed for the 150th anniversary of the unification of the country of Nice with the rest of France. It would be unveiled the following day. My dad and I made note of this, but had no affirmative plans to attend the unveiling ceremony.

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Covered structure

Meeting President Sarkozy

Little did I know we would be both meeting a famous president - though not an African one - and attending the unification celebration.

Preparing for the President's Arrival

Around 3:00 PM in the afternoon on May 31, 2010, my dad and I were walking along the Promenade des Anglais in search of some gelato. It was a beautiful day with many tourists in town, with all the shops and restaurants open for business. Or so we thought. As we walked, I realized that all the storefronts on the Promenade des Anglais were suddenly closing in the middle of this beautiful day.

We approached a gelato shop as the owner was wheeling his sidewalk freezer filed with ice cream inside. I asked him in French "what is going on?" and he urgently replied "Le Président!" Uncertain to what he meant, and suddenly questioning my ability to understand French, I asked "what do you mean the President?" to which he replied "Le Président vient!" ("The President is coming!"). Still confused, thinking maybe he meant one of the African presidents, I asked whether we could still get two cones of gelato.

Though the owner did not look pleased at our request, he served us two large cones of gelato. We took our ice cream cones and walked back down the Promenade. A large crowd had formed in the area by the Parc Esplanade George Pompidou.

Entering the Secure, Ticketed Area

Traffic on the promenade was halted and a large enclosed area set up on the road facing away from the Mediterranean Sea. Two policemen stood at the entrance to the area checking bags. As my dad and I approached, I handed my dad my gelato cone and opened my bag for the bag check. Seeing I had no restricted items, the police waved us through into the gated area.

We made our way up to the front of the crowd awaiting the arrival of some president. We could see the large covered structure in the park and the road in front of the structure from our vantage point in the second row. As I looked around to get a sense of what was going on and when it might begin, I noticed that everyone else around was very well dressed. Though it was a hot spring day, the women around us were wearing dresses and the men all had pants. In contrast, I had a tank top on over my bathing suit and my dad was in a t-shirt and shorts. We also were not holding the pamphlets or tickets everyone else had.

We clearly did not belong in that area. It was also clear that something important and exciting was happening, so we were not about to leave. In any event, the policemen had let us into the area despite our dress and lack of tickets. We waited in anticipation for whatever was going to happen next.

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Media photo from Nice Cote Azur showing the crowds along the Promenade awaiting the ceremony

Arrival of French Ministers, including President Sarkozy

We waited a while before anything happened. After about 30 minutes of standing around an official-looking car drove down the Promenade des Anglais. It stopped right in front of us and a few French ministers got out, including then-Minister of Finance and current head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde! The officials walked towards the crowd right where we were standing. They shook hands and took pictures with the attendees in our area! I used my best French accent to say Bonjour to Christine Lagarde as I shook her hand, for fear of being found out and ejected before the event began.

A few more cars arrived with French officials who also greeted the crowds upon their arrivals. About fifteen minutes later, an even nicer car drove down the Promenade des Anglais with a large police escort around it. The crowd roared. The anticipation for the guest was high. The car stopped right in front of where I was standing, and out stepped President Nicholas Sarkozy!

As the other officials had done, President Sarkozy came over to the crowd in the gated area, walking directly towards my dad and me. I scrambled forward to shake his hand. Though he will never know my name, who I am, or even that I had been there, I was still very excited for my first meeting with a foreign leader. In my haste to get through the crowd to the front row I got some beautiful pictures of the trees in front of us instead of the President himself. I will never forget this memory.

Anniversary Celebration for Nice's Unification with France

When Sarkozy joined the celebration, the French national anthem played and the local children's choir sang. Local dance troupes performed traditional dances. A few prominent officials, including the Mayor of Nice, gave speeches. Finally, the cloth was removed from the giant structure to reveal nine giant rust-colored columns. Neuf Lignes Obliques or "nine leaning lines" symbolizes the nine valleys of the Country of Nice, which united with the rest of France in 1860.

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Media photo from Nice Cote Azur showing President Sarkozy, the Mayor of France, and other officials at the ceremony

The celebration was an interesting diversion during my third trip to Nice in as many months. Though I had wanted to experience a new country on my final trip in France, nothing could have topped being part of French history with Nice's celebration and my meeting President Sarkozy!

If you're planning a trip to Nice and wondering where to stay, I highly recommend the Hotel Suisse right on the water!

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I accidentally met then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy during my last trip to Nice! Find out how, as well as other details about the French Riviera, in my blog post.
How to Visit the Great Wall of China

How to Visit the Great Wall of China

Visiting the Great Wall of China is one of the most popular day trips you can take from Beijing. If you travel halfway across the world to China's capital city, you should make time for a trip to one of its most famous landmarks, the Great Wall. I was not sure what to expect during my visit. I was awed and impressed by the Great Wall and had a fun day exploring the area. A visit to the Great Wall of China is not to be missed!

For more great stories about adventures in Asia, read these articles about What to Expect on your Ha Long Bay Cruise and How to Visit Angkor Wat!

Note that this page includes affiliate links: this means if you make a purchase using the link I receive some compensation at no additional cost to you. Thank you!

A Brief History of the Great Wall of China

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Construction

The Qin Dynasty began building the Great Wall sometime between 221 and 206 BC. The Ming Dynasty, who ruled from 1368 to 1664 AD, completed the wall during their reign. Though its building spanned millennial, the wall you see today was built mostly by the Ming Dynasty. Few remnants of what was built by previous dynasties still exist. When the wall was no longer needed to protect China from the Hun invaders from the North - and it is unlikely it ever offered protection to begin with - it fell into disrepair. Restoration efforts in the 1980s brought the wall back to the state in which we see it today. In 1987, UNESCO declared the Great Wall a World Heritage Site.

Facts

The Great Wall of China is between 13,170 km and 21,196 km long. It contains many sections, with some looking like your typical Great Wall photos and others like mounds of dirt. The main tourist area near Bejing has ten sections. The most famous sections for tourists are Badaling and Mutianyu. There are many tours available to choose from that bring tourists from Beijing to visit the Wall. Alternatively, you may embark on your own adventure to visit the Great Wall using public transportation or a private driver.

Deciding which Section to Visit

There are many sections to choose from when visiting the Great Wall from Beijing. Most visitors find themselves choosing between Badaling and Mutianyu.

Badaling is the most famous section likely because it is easiest to get to from Beijing. This also makes it the one most tourists visit, meaning it is often very crowded. For this reason I do not recommend visiting the Badaling section if the others are accessible to you.

The Mutianyu section, on the other hand, is not yet overrun with tourists. In fact when I visited on a beautiful day in September there was almost no one there! It contains a quiet village at the bottom of the wall, a chair lift up to the top, well-preserved stone walkways, and a toboggan slide down.

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Getting to the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is about an hour North of Beijing by car and two to three hours by public transportation. Visiting the Wall will take at least half a day. Once you decide which section of the Wall to visit, the easiest way to determine how to get there is to use the Rome2Rio website, which provides directions between any two places in the world, including Beijing and the Great Wall.

Badaling

Rome2Rio identifies many options of transport between Beijing and Badaling. The easiest way to reach the Badaling section of the Great Wall is to take the Beijing subway to the Huangtudian Railway Station. From here you can board a train that will take you directly to Badaling. This trip is the easiest and most direct way to visit the Great Wall from Beijing, which is why so many tourists opt for it.

Mutianyu

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My experience getting to Mutianyu was slightly different. I was fortunate to have my friend Dong as a local guide. I met Dong in law school in the United States. She grew up in Southern China and lived in Beijing. Dong asked me to meet her at the Dongzhimen bus station around 8:30 AM the day of our visit to the Great Wall. We planned to take a public bus all the way to the Great Wall for about $3 USD with just one transfer.

Travel by Local Bus

The ride out of the city provided a unique perspective on life in urban China. We traveled through smaller cities around Beijing using both highways and local roads. From the looks of things around us we could have been driving through somewhere in the United States: it would have looked the same except for the Mandarin writing on the signs.

The bus made multiple local stops in the different towns as we approached the wall. Looking around at the other passengers, it was clear this was transportation used mostly by locals rather than tourists. My dad, who was along with us, and I were the only non-Chinese people on the bus. We clearly stuck out as foreign tourists.

Transfer to Private Car or Taxi

At one stop, a man from outside saw us on the bus, boarded the bus through a back door, and approached us speaking broken English. Not knowing what he wanted, I tried to ignore him and pretend I spoke another language. Dong was sitting behind my dad and I, and we heard her speak Mandarin with the man. Suddenly she told us to get off the bus and quickly. I had no idea what was going on. Were we in danger?

To my surprise, as we left the bus we followed the man and got in his car! It turns out he was a taxi driver. It had been obvious to him that two white people on the local bus in that area were trying to visit the Great Wall. Had we remained on the bus it would have taken another half hour to reach the Great Wall. With our new taxi driver we were just a five minute drive away from the entrance.

Visiting the Wall

A visit to the Great Wall of China includes much more than just wandering around an elevated stone path for a few minutes. At most sections you will find a small village, information about the Wall, and transport up to and back from the landmark.

Reaching the Wall

In the Mutianyu section visitors purchase access to the wall at the main entrance. Your ticket includes a chair lift ride up and either a chair lift or a toboggan ride down. We all opted for the toboggan ride ticket seeing as that was one of the main reasons I had chosen to visit this particular section of the wall.

The chair lift from the village to the top of the wall took about ten minutes. As an avid skier, I had been on many chair lifts before. I sat back and enjoyed the views of the surrounding Chinese countryside during the trip up. If you are not accustomed to riding on chair lifts, make sure you lower and raise the safety bar at the appropriate times (there are signs), sit all the way back in the seat, and don't rock the chair! If fear of heights is an issue, just watch the chair in front of you. There will be plenty of time to take in views of the area from the top of the wall itself.

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"Climbing" the Wall

The night before our visit to the Great Wall, Dong took my dad and I out to dinner. When we discussed our adventure planned for the next day, she kept talking about "climbing" the Wall. I kept imagining us having to climb up the side of the wall from the ground! I was very pleased, though slightly confused, when I selected the chair lift option at the entrance and learned we would be dropped off on top of the wall.

The climb to which Dong was referring occurs once you are on the wall. Because it was built many centuries ago, the architecture of the wall is imperfect. Additionally, the expanse across which it stretches is marked by rolling hills. These factors mean visitors must exert some effort  to hike along the wall between the watch towers. At various points you travel up or down along the paths on top of the wall following the hills. In some areas there are stairs to climb. Other areas are not well kept and are tricky to navigate. The stairs are not always evenly spaced. I thought this was a result of bad technology or architecture at the time, but this was often done on purpose to throw off intruders trying to run up and down the wall.

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If you are not expecting an active hike, you can still visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. The chair lift drop off was intentionally set at a part of the Wall that is flat and well-maintained in almost perfect condition. If you are able to travel further and make the hike you will be well-rewarded with the natural beauty of the surrounding area, the uniqueness of each historic watch tower, and the thinning out of crowds as you travel further from the entrance point.

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Descending the Wall

One of the most unique features of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is its toboggan ride to the bottom. Though you have the option to return to the village by chair lift, complete your visit by taking the toboggan down. Even Michelle Obama chose this option during her visit! Each rider rides in their own toboggan with a handle to hold onto that also contains a break. You use the break to control your own speed. The track looks like a metal luge or skeleton racing track traveling through the woods from the wall back to the village. The ride down takes five to ten minutes depending on your chosen speed. All three of us visiting the Wall that day took advantage of this option.

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bejing; great wall; china; visit the great wall of china

Mutianyu Village

Complete your visit to the Great Wall by exploring the shops and eating in the restaurants in the Mutianyu Village. Though the area may seem touristy, we had delicious authentic food served to us in a village restaurant, and then bought a few trinkets by which to remember our visit.

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At the end of our time in Mutianyu, we met our taxi driver - who had waited for us the whole time! - who took us back to one of the main bus stops in the area where we boarded our public transportation back to Beijing.

I highly recommend selecting the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall to visit. Regardless of which section you choose, make sure to add this day trip to any itinerary of a visit to Beijing.

Planning a trip to Beijing and looking for a great hotel? Check out the options here: Beijing City Hotels.

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Learn how to visit the Great Wall of China with my travel tips and advice!
Learn how to visit the Great Wall of China with my travel tips and advice!
Learn how to visit the Great Wall of China with my travel tips and advice!
My Experience with Spirit Airlines

My Experience with Spirit Airlines

Thinking of flying Spirit Airlines? Then this review is for you!

Last month I took my first flight on Spirit Airlines, an American "ultra-low-cost" or budget airline. I am not a stranger to budget airlines. When I lived in Europe, I took dozens of flights on airlines including RyanAir and EasyJet. I also used budget airlines to travel around Asia. However, my experience on Spirit was my first with an American budget airline.

*N.B. this article contains affiliate links. That means that if you make a purchase after clicking one of these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

Booking

Pricing

Being a budget airline means you the passenger get a really cheap base-price ticket on Spirit, but then have to pay for any and all extras that may typically be included by a mainstream airline. This is true of most budget airlines: for anyone that has flown on RyanAir, perhaps you remember the flight attendants selling lottery tickets during the flight to increase revenue. I'm glad Spirit doesn't try that, but I've heard rumors they may start charging a fee to use the lavatories.

If you are willing to forego or pay for flight extras, Spirit Airlines is worth the low price. Many people falsely believe that budget airlines lack safety features that mainstream airlines provide. They do not. All airlines operating at U.S. airports must pass the exact same safety tests. Airlines cannot cut corners on safety for price savings. Instead, they pay lower airport "rental" fees which means they will be last priority for take-off if there is a delay, for baggage claim after a flight, and for other similar operations. There is no need to be more concerned about safety when flying on a budget airline such as Spirit Airlines than you would be on any mainstream airline.

Purchasing Flights

My experience purchasing flights on Spirit Airlines was as easy as with any other airline. I needed two seats on round-trip flights from Hartford, Connecticut (BDL) to Orlando, Florida (MCO). When I searched for one seat, the price was $409 USD, but when I searched for two seats, the price was $472 USD each!

Note: this will happen on any airline selling a set of seats at one price and the next set of seats at a higher price if there is only one seat left. All seats in a purchase will be quoted at the higher price.

Knowing this, I booked the two seats separately for an average price of $440 USD. The next cheapest flight for my itinerary on a mainstream airline was over $600 USD, so the savings were significant. The purchases were made smoothly. I did not experience any glitches with the website or issues with the purchasing process.

The BAG Decision

Most travelers in America are used to being charged extra for a checked bag, while being allowed to bring a personal item and a carry-on into the aircraft cabin for free. Spirit Airlines only allows one personal item for free. You must pay for your carry-on item in addition to any checked bags. The fees for these bags are much higher than mainstream airlines as well.

The one upside to Spirit's baggage policy is that the personal item allowance is very generous at 18 in. x 14 in. x 8 in. My standard long-weekend Longchamp travel bag is 17.75 in x 13.75 in x 9 in, with soft sides. With a little squishing I could get it to qualify as a personal item on Spirit and avoid the baggage fees. This is true of many small backpacks and large tote bags or purses. If you are going on a short trip to a warm locale, you may not need to pay for any bags on Spirit.

Check out my post on How to Travel the World with One Carry-On to get more tips on packing light for any vacation!

Spirit charges different bag fees depending on the flight you book. Their website offers a bag fee calculator for your specific flight. For the Hartford to Orlando flight, a carry-on selected during booking would cost $32 per passenger, and a checked bag would cost $37 per bag. My travel companion and I decided to purchase one checked bag to share and no carry-on bags. The price to check a bag or carry it on increases at each process point until you board the plane, so it is beneficial to decide early. I've heard stories of Spirit Airlines charging almost $100 for a carry-on when the passenger decided she needed it as she was boarding the plane!

 

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Bag checkers near the boarding gate

 

Check-In

Online

Online check-in for Spirit begins 24 hours before the flight departs. This is typical for most American airlines. When I travel, I almost always check-in online and use a mobile ticket. When I do this, I sometimes get worried about losing my Internet connection just as I reach the front of the security line, so I save my mobile boarding pass to my Apple wallet, take a screenshot of it, use the airline's app, and make sure the email is loaded. I assumed I would do the same for my mobile boarding pass with Spirit Airlines.

My travel companion always prefers printed hard-copy boarding passes, so he printed his out. I did not. On the drive to the airport, I tried to pull my boarding pass up on my iPhone. The emailed boarding pass would not show the QR code (similar to a barcode on paper boarding passes). I checked online and found that this is a common error with the Gmail app. I tried to open the boarding pass using Gmail on the Safari web-browsing app but had the same issue. Forwarding the boarding pass to my ancient Yahoo! email account did not help either. The Spirit app was completely defunct so that wasn't an option either. It was starting to look like I was out of options.

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This is all my boarding pass on my phone looked like: not very helpful.

At the Airport

At this point I was worried I'd have to pay a hefty fee to have a Spirit agent print my boarding pass for me. I saw a number of Spirit check-in kiosks in the arrivals terminal, so I gave one of them a try just in case. As with all mainstream airline kiosks, I pulled up my reservation and printed my boarding pass for free! I used this same method on my return flight from Orlando to Hartford, and it was once again free.

I highly recommend printing your Spirit boarding pass before arriving at the airport just in case, but know that you should be able to obtain one for free at an airport kiosk if necessary. Either way, you probably will not be able to use the mobile boarding pass option.

Dropping off the checked bag was a breeze. There is a 40 lb weight limit. Our bag was weighed for both flights, and I saw one woman trying to readjust her belongings to make the limit, so it is enforced.

Boarding

The boarding process was a bit of a fiasco. I have no idea how we left on time. My travel companion and I were in Zone 2. When we arrived at the gate, we  had at least five minutes before boarding began. Despite this, the entire plane of passengers was crowded around the boarding lane. The agent at the desk was simultaneously telling them to move back and trying to handle pre-flight issues. Nobody would listen to her. I understand if you are a Zone 1 passenger milling around the lane entrance, but there were too many people for that to be the case.

When boarding began, the standard "passengers flying with small children and those who need extra help boarding" were invited on the plane first followed by military personnel. Seeing as Spirit does not have a "First Class" section, Zone 2 was called shortly after these passengers. My companion and I made our way through the sea of passengers surrounding the boarding lanes to get on the plane.

On the Flight

The three-hour flight experience was reasonably pleasant.

BIG Front Seats

I was planning to sit in a normal economy seat. I booked a ticket for an (unassigned) economy seat. However, over Christmas dinner a well-traveled family member recommended upgrading to the BIG Front Seats. I was hesitant, seeing as I was flying Spirit Airlines in an attempt to save money, but my travel companion convinced me the upgrade was worthwhile. He was right!

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We paid $55 per person per flight for the upgrade. This was the price quoted us after booking the flight but before check-in. I expected seats similar to "Premium economy" on mainstream airlines. This would provide another 2" or 3" of pitch and 2" of width on the seat. Instead, we were treated to large, comfortable First Class type seats. Yes, they looked old, worn, and a little dirty, and no they did not recline, but for $55 I couldn't complain. Plus, every other economy seat on the plane also had those attributes. I have yet to sit in the economy section of a Spirit Airlines flight, but this review from The Points Guy explains that the BIG Front Seat is worth the upgrade.

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My travel companion - my dad - and I enjoying our BIG Front Seats!

Refreshments

Spirit offers refreshments for purchase on their flights. These include the standard non-alcoholic beverages that are free on mainstream airlines. The menu offerings and prices look similar to what's available on mainstream airlines. Though $3 for a can of Coke seems expensive, knowing they have a monopoly in the sky Spirit could have charged $10 for that same can of Coke and people probably would have purchased it.

Being aware of this issue, my travel companion and I purchased sandwiches in the airport to bring on board with us. I also made sure to fill up my water bottle, since even water was not free on Spirit. My travel companion purchased one soda on the flight using his credit card. He was given the entire can plus a plastic cup with ice in which to pour his drink.

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In-Flight Experience

As a "no-frills" airline, Spirit provides no in-flight entertainment. There are no seat-back multimedia screens. A flight tracker is not available. The flight attendant does not play a 20-year-old classic film for the entire plane using drop-down screens. There isn't even a ten-song rotation on an obscure airline radio station to plug in and listen to. It's how I imagine flying in the 1970s may have been.

This is not a problem so long as you are prepared for it. In my purse I brought my iPhone for music, my iPad for a offline games (both charged ahead of time, since there are no in-seat charging ports on Spirit's flights), an eBook on my iPad and a hardcover book. I also had my Harry Potter coloring book and set of 50 colored pencils in case the plane hit bad turbulence and I needed a distraction. I was determined to keep myself occupied on the flight. It turned out not to be an issue because I fell asleep within a half hour of take-off and awoke as we were making our descent. Had that not happened, I am sure all the items I brought with me for entertainment would have kept me busy for hours, or at least the three hour duration of the flight.

Looking for more must-have travel items? Check out my post on 15 Luxury Travel Essentials!

Baggage Claim

Baggage claim was the worst part of my Spirit Airlines experience. I never check bags, so I don't usually have to deal with baggage claim. I did not know what to expect for timing of retrieving our bag. Because of its low airport "rental" fees, there are only two Spirit baggage claim carousels at Orlando International Airport. Bags from all of the incoming Spirit flights arrive on the same two carousels. You never know when the new set of bags is from your flight.

It took over an hour from the time my travel companion and I left the aircraft to the time we retrieved our bag. To me, that was an unreasonable amount of time. When time is money, you should compare the cost-savings of checking a bag with the time-cost of standing in an airport's baggage claim area. It may not be worth it.

Our bag arrived with our flight and everything was in one piece, so it could have been worse. It was not the best start to the vacation, though, and something that could have easily been avoided with a carry-on.

Spirit Airlines Review Conclusion

I was not deterred by the minor hiccups during my first Spirit Airlines experience. As I normally do, I signed up for a frequent flyer number with Spirit. I intend to fly them again soon. I will be testing the personal item versus carry-on strategy and hopefully will not have to pay $100 at the gate to bring my bag with me! Regardless I don't think I would check a bag again. So long as you know what you are getting into, are aware of the rules that could cost you extra money, and are willing to pay for all extras, flying Spirit Airlines is a great deal.

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My first experience flying with Spirit Airlines, a low-cost American airline
My first experience flying with Spirit Airlines, a low-cost American airline
New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part II

New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part II

Check out Part I here!

Epcot on New Years Eve Day

The main purpose of going to Orlando was to spend New Years Eve at Epcot. I think my love for world travel draws me to Epcot more than the other Disney parks. It features miniature cities (called pavilions) from eleven countries as a main attractions. While I also love Magic Kingdom and enjoy visiting Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, if I had to pick just one park to visit it would be Epcot every time.

The lack of crowds at Epcot early in the morning surprised me. I took a picture of the iconic Spaceship Earth from the center of the park with no people in the picture! Unfortunately, when my dad and I tried to go on the Test Track ride, we learned where all the people were: waiting in line for the rides. The line for Test Track was four hours long, and the single riders line was two hours long. At that point I realized I would only get to go on one ride at Epcot that day. I chose the new "Frozen" ride.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando

Norway

The "Frozen" ride is one of the most popular rides in the park. As a fan of the "Frozen" movie - and as a Norwegian - I was excited to go on the ride. The line was forty-five minutes long. Guests in line wander through the castle, a village, and Oaken's Trading Post. Once on the ride, riders see scenes and hear songs from "Frozen."

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; norway; frozen

The ride was fun, but it was exactly the same ride as the Viking one that had previously been in its location! Having been on this ride multiple times before I was disappointed there was absolutely nothing new about it. Even the boats we rode in were the same Viking boats. The only difference was the wait time: the "Frozen" theme draws a crowd whereas I walked right onto the Viking ride every time before. If you are a huge fan of "Frozen" or have never been on the Viking boat ride, then a line less than one hour long is worth waiting in. If you are expecting something drastically new and different, don't wait in line.

China

Whenever my dad and I visit China, or "China," we end up doing things we didn't plan to. In Beijing, we accidentally saw Mao's embalmed body. In Epcot's China, we accidentally watched a 13 minute 360-degree film about the country.

China is one of many world showcase countries I've visited in real life since the last time I was at Epcot. It was neat to see reconstructions of real Chinese buildings I had seen recently in Epcot's showcase. One such building was the Temple of Heaven structure. In Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is a park with a circular structure surrounded by a concrete plaza. Many people take photos in the plaza but no one is allowed to enter the structure. You can look inside to see an altar but the entrance is locked.

At Epcot, the Temple of Heaven structure is open. My dad and I walked in, passed the exhibits, and made our way through the building. We expected to find shops that we could walk through and exit on the other side. Instead, we ended up in a giant circular theatre. There were about 50 people already inside leaning on banisters in the center of the room. We soon realized what we had walked into, but not quickly enough. The exit doors started closing just as we were about to leave. We were stuck: we would be watching the film about China.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; china; temple of heaven

When you go to Epcot, if you have a strong interest in China or a familiarity with the country you may want to watch the film. It is only 13 minutes long and the effects of being in a 360-degree theatre are pretty cool. It was also interesting to see Beijing represented in the film after having traveled there. However, if your intent for visiting Epcot is to enjoy the Disney-related elements, perhaps a documentary on a foreign country is not the best way to spend your time.

Japan

My dad and I were hungry for lunch when we arrived at Japan's pavilion, even though it was only 11:00 AM. I heard that the restaurants on the second floor of Japan's pavilion were phenomenal and wanted to check them out. All dining reservations in Epcot that day were fully booked months in advance. Our only opportunity to try Japan's restaurants was to arrive when they opened.

We were luckily immediately seated in Tokyo Dining at a table next to a window overlooking the World Showcase Lagoon. From our table, we could see each of the country pavilions and Future World. We could also see and hear the Japanese percussion show performed across the way on the Pagoda's platform. The food was good too! Not wanting a heavy meal, we each ordered a miso soup, followed by panko-crusted shrimp for my dad and a large spicy-crunchy maki roll for me. I would recommend either dish for lunch. The portions were large enough to fill us up for the rest of our day at the park.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; japan

View from Tokyo Dining

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; japan; sushi

Maki Lunch

Morocco

The final country I want to highlight for you is Morocco, though I recommend visiting all eleven country pavilions. I have not yet been to real Morocco so I cannot compare the pavilion to the country itself. Nevertheless, I feel confident in its authenticity. When the Kingdom of Morocco learned Epcot planned to include its country as a pavilion, it funded and oversaw the construction of the entire area. To this day, the Moroccan government pays for and oversees upkeep and restoration. The next time you visit Epcot, keep this in mind as you wonder at the mosaics and visit the souks in Morocco's pavilion.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; morocco

Fountain in Morocco

Secret Passageway - The International Gateway

My best tip for Epcot is to use the International Gateway entrance and exit. Located between the France and England pavilions, and a short walk from the Disney Yacht Club Resort, this entrance is not well-known so few people use it.

If you are using Disney transportation or taking a ride share, get dropped off at the Disney Yacht Club. Walk through the lobby to the beach and then go left up the path. Stay left as you go over the bridge and you will soon find yourself at Epcot's back entrance. There are ticket booths available if you need to purchase your park ticket. The best part: no lines!

More important than a quick entrance is a less-crowded exit at the end of the night, which was especially important on New Years Eve! One of my only stressors for this vacation was how my dad and I were going to get back to our off-property hotel after midnight. I had heard horror stories about exiting the park through the main gate, hours-long waits to board Disney's monorail, and traffic jams that turned Google Maps from red to purple. This "secret" exit away from the park's main gate was one key in having an enjoyable end to the night.

Disney Springs

To avoid staying at Epcot for 15 hours and relying on the different fast food areas within the park for dinner (as there were no reservations available), my dad and I went back to the hotel for a few hours in the afternoon to enjoy the resort pool and then went to Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) for dinner.

Disney Springs was bustling at night! There were many people heading to dinner or settling in to enjoy the New Years festivities. Live bands were setting up on various stages for performances later in the evening. As we walked by some of the bands after dinner, it seemed like it would be a fun evening. I can only imagine what the midnight celebration was like!

The Boathouse Restaurant

OpenTable's list of the 100 Most Scenic Restaurants in the USA included Disney Springs' The Boathouse. I did not realize the restaurant was part of the Disney complex at first when I saw the list. As I was considering where to make dinner reservations for New Years Eve, the recommendation on the list convinced me to make a reservation at this restaurant. I'm so glad I did! Not only did the reservations fill up entirely before we arrived in Orlando, but its scenic views were matched only by the quality of the food. Both were incredible! My dad and I sat at a table on a dock over the water. As a Northerner, this was my first time enjoying New Years Eve dinner outside, and in a tank top no less!

As we were enjoying the fresh warm rolls covered in honey-butter, a car drove by. This caught my attention since we were surrounded by water. My dad was enthralled: he had not seen an amphicar in over half a century! Apparently these cars, similar to the duck boats, were a fad in the 1960s. They can drive on land but are also watertight with a propeller that allows them to function as boats. Rides were $125 for about 10 minutes so we did not take a ride, but it was fascinating to watch the cars float by as we were eating.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; dinner; boathouse; disney springs

Dinner on the water!

Epcot for New Years Eve

After dinner we took a Disney bus back to Epcot for the New Years Eve festivities. Using our newly-discovered secret entrance at the Yacht Club Resort, we were thrust into the party as we entered the park in the World Showcase. The world pavilions had transformed from quaint villages during the day to party scenes at night.

DJs and Dance Parties

England hosted a Queen cover band that led the crowd in a "Bohemian Rhapsody" singalong. Italy featured a DJ leading a proper European rave. When we snaked through this crowd I was immediately transported back to the clubs I encountered during my times studying abroad. The atmosphere was very authentic. China had a more varied musical selection. Its main attraction was a colorful electronic dragon that spewed steam and fire over the heads of the dancers. A live funk band  played at America's stage. People were dancing in the area in front of stage while many more weary revelers rested their legs in the amphitheater seating while watching the entertainment.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; china

Chinese Party and Dragon

There were two dance parties at the entrance to Future World. One was a Silent Groove. Participants took headphones provided by the prak and listened to music played by the DJs. If you did not have headphones you could not hear the music or the DJ's commentary. I did not participate but it was fun watching for a while.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; silent groove; dance party

Silent Groove

My favorite dance party was the main party in front of Spaceship Earth. The DJ got into the groove playing the best music and feeling the crowd. After spending some time wandering around the world showcase, I loved watching this DJ in his element dancing to the music along with thousands of strangers.

Midnight Celebration

My dad and I stayed at the main dance party until 11:40 PM. We then went back to the World Showcase in search of champagne and a place to watch the special New Years Illuminations show. Of course the best champagne was in France. After making our purchases, we watched the Epcot globe light up the lagoon with pictures from around the world.

At five minutes to midnight there was a special presentation for each World Showcase country that had already celebrated the New Year. Each country was recognized individually with fireworks shot off from its pavilion in the colors of the country's flag. The group of us watching from France cheered extra loud when it was France's turn! Disney timed the celebration perfectly: after going through the eight previous countries, we had a 10-second countdown for the USA, Mexico, and Canada. As midnight struck, the largest fireworks finale I've ever seen went off! It was an amazing New Years celebration.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; fireworks; midnight

Exiting the Park

Ten minutes after midnight everyone headed for the park exits. My dad and I had strategically placed ourselves next to the International Gateway exit and left quickly with thousands of people. The night before, an Uber driver left us behind because I ordered the ride too quickly, anticipating traffic at Universal Studios' pick up. Hoping to avoid the same fate, I waited until we were back on the Yacht Club property to order an Uber. There were none available in the area! One driver finally accepted the ride only to cancel when he saw we were 20 minutes away.

Our brilliant exit strategy was failing. I had not accounted for the supply and demand problem with ride shares just after midnight on New Years Eve. We also weren't the only ones who planned to make our exit by Uber from the Disney Yacht Club. About 50 other people were also waiting in front of the hotel for rides. I was exhausted from two days of constant walking and was getting deflated about our chances for getting home at a reasonable time. I looked to the curb for a space to sit down.

The Kindest Strangers Ever

I must have looked pretty weary because a man offered me his curb seat, insisting he would rather stand anyway. After sitting I explained the Uber situation to my dad. The now-standing man's wife, who was sitting next to me, asked in which direction we were headed. I named our hotel, not knowing in which direction it was. The couple immediately offered to share their Uber with us! The woman had ordered an Uber about twenty minutes prior on the walk from the park and their ride was almost at the resort. I assumed their hotel was near ours. Considering that our chances of getting a ride in the next few hours were almost nothing, my dad and I took the couple up on their offer.

Due to a few international glitches (her Canadian Uber and Venmo apps would not recognize my American phone number), we had to pay the couple in cash for our part of the ride. I'm hoping our contribution was sufficient because the couple was staying about 5 minutes away, just outside Disney park limits, whereas my dad and I rode in the Uber for another twenty minutes. Without a communication method, though, I had no way of knowing. As the couple left the Uber, I thanked them profusely (again). They said they were just building karma for the New Year and were happy to help. I can only imagine how long we would have been stranded at the Disney Yacht Club Resort had these kind strangers not offered to share their ride with us.

Saying Thank You

Though I've tried, I have no way of getting in touch with the couple again. The woman, Maureen, gave me her business card in case anything went wrong during the rest of the Uber ride. I am posting her business website here as a small thank you: if you have the ability and interest in patronizing her, please do so! Magnolia and Vine - Maureen's website.

Overall the trip was a success! I had a great time and would definitely visit Orlando for New Years Eve weekend again. I would reconsider being in a park at midnight as I think the celebration at Disney Springs would have been just as good, but I loved every second of the vacation.

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Guide to Epcot, Orlando, for New Years Eve
Guide to Epcot, Orlando, for New Years Eve
New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part I

New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part I

Two months ago, I was not planning to spend New Years Eve in Orlando. I hoped to go skiing in Canada. However, when I suggested this to my dad - my travel companion for the weekend - he requested that we set our sights on a warmer locale.

The flights to and hotels in Orlando were surprisingly cheap for New Years Eve weekend. Furthermore, I had not yet seen the new half of Harry Potter World at Universal. I also suspected that Disney would have an awesome midnight celebration. After reading this article from blogger Tessa Koten about New Years at Epcot I was hooked. My dad and I booked our flights a few days before Christmas and we were on our way to celebrate the new year in Orlando!

Spirit Air Flight

Spirit Air; new years eve orlando; budget airline

The flights were surprisingly cheap in part because my dad and I flew budget airline Spirit Air. We chose Spirit because the airline offered direct flights to and from Orlando at reasonable times of day.

This was my first flight on Spirit Air. I had flown other budget airlines in Europe and Asia before so I was not as concerned as first-time budget travelers. Still, I set my expectations low.

Upgrades

When you fly a budget airline you must pay a fee for everything on top of your ticket price. The "upgrades" my dad and I paid for were one checked bag and BIG Front Seats. One checked bag was cheaper than two carry-ons. Plus, we wouldn't have to carry bags through the airport and we could bring full-size liquids. This upgrade was worth it until we had to get our bag from baggage claim in Orlando.

Checked Baggage

Many people (falsely) believe that budget airlines are cheap because they are not as safe as mainstream airlines. This is not true. To operate flights in the US or Europe, all airlines must pass the same safety inspections. Budget airlines are cheap because they make you pay for "extras" and they pay the lowest airport fees. Low airport fees means last priority when there is an airport-wide delay and when the baggage handlers need to unload checked bags.

It took almost an hour to leave the airport from the time my dad and I disembarked the plane. I don't normally check bags so I thought maybe this was normal. The other passengers made it clear this was an excessive amount of time. Because of this time, and because the personal baggage allotment is pretty large (the size of a small carry-on), I recommend against checking a bag on Spirit Air.

BIG Front Seat

spirit air; big front seat; first class; new years eve orlando

Enjoying our BIG Front Seats on the way to Orlando!

I do recommend booking the BIG Front Seat option. One of my cousins recommended this upgrade to my dad and I over Christmas. I hesitated to spend any additional money on what was supposed to be a budget-friendly vacation, but my dad convinced me it was worth it. The BIG Front Seats look like they are former first class passenger seats from Boeing 737 aircraft that Spirit bought at a discount. They are large and comfortable, but do not recline and do not offer in-seat entertainment. They also look used. Despite all these drawbacks, I felt like a first class passenger sitting in the seat, even though I had to bring my own food and water on-board.

Hilton Orlando Resort

After my dad and I finally obtained our checked luggage, an Uber took us to our hotel, the Hilton Orlando resort. I was amazed by this hotel. The lobby was huge. It included three restaurants, a cafe, and hotel shop. The outdoor area was even bigger. There were two giant pools, three hot tubs, a great lazy river, three-story water slide, pool bar, and outdoor games like volleyball and cornhole. Although the property was somewhat out of the way of everything, I am glad we stayed there. I would absolutely stay again next time I am in Orlando.

Outdoor Pool Area

hilton orlando; new years eve orlando; resort

I have been to Orlando numerous times before, so I expected the hotel to have a pool as most Orlando hotels do. The pool area at the Hilton Orlando was more than just another hotel pool. The main pool was about 100 meters long. The three hot tubs were well-spaced and large enough for multiple people to use them comfortably. The pool bar was centrally located and provided delicious food and drinks. It also had about six big-screen televisions broadcasting the college football bowl games. The water slide was as good as any you would find at a small water park.

The best part of the pool area, and the place where I spent most of my time, was the lazy river. It was warmer than the main pool but still refreshing. It allowed you to be in the water while still doing something, either sitting in an inner tube holding a drink or swimming along with the current.

Indoor Cafe and Restaurants

The cafe on the first floor of the resort was key to my vacation. It provided coffee and espresso drinks each morning. There was cheap drip coffee available in the hotel room, but purchasing a large iced caramel latte to begin the day meant I could stay on-the-go exploring the theme parks for 12+ hours without needing a break to either rest or get more coffee.

The on-site restaurants were decent as well. I only had the chance to try David's Club Bar & Grill, but it suited mine and my dad's needs perfectly. David's had two giant TVs in its lounge area with over-sized chairs and low tables in front of them. At the end of a long day of travel or day at the parks it was great to be able to settle into a chair, order a nice glass of wine and appetizer, and watch a few quarters of football on the large screen.

hilton orlando; resort; football lounge

Watching sports at David's Club

Universal Studios Orlando on New Years Eve Weekend

Six years ago I visited Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure park to see Harry Potter World. About four years ago, Universal built a second Harry Potter World in Universal Studios park and added a ride on the Hogwarts Express connecting the two. You can only access the Hogwarts Express if you have a multi-park ticket. I was determined to ride the Hogwarts Express, so I insisted on buying the one-day Park-2-Park ticket. I have no regrets.

Harry Potter World

My first visit to Universal Studios was in 2001. My middle school best friend was spending her February vacation in Orlando, so my parents agreed to go on vacation there as well. We spent a full day going on rides like Back to the Future, JAWS, and the Hollywood Studios Tour. None of these rides exist anymore. Instead, areas depicting real places like New York City, San Francisco, and London have been created.

The London area was very well done. Though Kings Cross Station is miles from the Leicester Square Station tube stop in real London, I was impressed that everything looked very authentic.

After admiring the authenticity as I walked along the typical London street, I quickly found myself moving away from London and into another city. I stopped to pause. Where was Diagon Alley? And the Escape from Gringotts ride? How had I missed them?

I asked a nearby vendor where the entrance was to Gringotts (the Harry Potter Wizarding Bank). She pointed to the Leicester Square Station entrance, a large red brick building. Standing in front of the station, I peered into a large opening in the front wall. A second wall was set back a few feet. It looked like the entrance to the bathroom at an airport or sports stadium. I expected to find a long line of people waiting to go on the Escape from Gringotts ride on the other side of the wall.

universal orlando; harry potter world; new years eve orlando; diagon alley; london

London street and entrance to Diagon Alley

Inside Diagon Alley

Instead, as my dad and I turned the corner around the stack of bricks, Universal Studios Orlando disappeared and Diagon Alley opened up before our eyes! I don't know what type of illusory magic Universal used to create this effect, but I definitely couldn't see the four blocks of three-story wizard buildings from the park, and aside from the occasional helicopter passing overhead, I thought I was in Diagon Alley, London, while standing in its square. Magical shops lined the streets, including Honeydukes sweets, Olivander's wand shop, the Weasley's Wizard Wheezes joke shop, Borgin & Burkes, and the Leaky Cauldron pub. In the center of it all was Gringotts with a dragon perched high on the roof.

gringotts; diagon alley; harry potter world; universal orlando

First View of Diagon Alley, with the dragon on top of Gringotts shooting fire every so often

honeydukes; diagon alley; harry potter world; universal orlando

Every kind of magical sweet you could imagine was available at Honeydukes! I bought the Fizzing Whizbees

weasley; diagon alley; universal orlando; harry potter world

Weasley's Wizard Wheezes inviting shoppers in

harry potter world; vanishing cabinet; borgin and burkes; knockturn alley; diagon alley; universal orlando

Vanishing Cabinet in Borgin & Burkes

Most of the tourists were wearing various forms of Harry Potter paraphernalia, while children dressed in full wizard robes. Olivander's was selling interactive magic wands that would cause different effects around the Alley, such as making a stone frog fountain squirt water at passersby. Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Orlando exceeded my expectations. It felt as real as an imaginary place could be.

Escape from Gringotts

The Escape from Gringotts ride is a 4D adventure inside the wizard bank. It follows the story from Harry Potter book seven where Harry, Ron, and Hermione break into Gringotts bank to visit an evil wizard's vault. They have to spontaneously come up with an escape plane when the bank's security devices remove the enchantments the trio used to break in.

gringotts; escape from gringotts; universal orlando; harry potter world; diagon alley

Watch the goblins work as you wait to enter the bank's vault

Thirty minutes after the park opened the wait for the ride was already four hours long. There was no way I was spending almost half my day in line for one ride no matter how good it was. Luckily there was a "single riders" line option. Theme park rides that offer single rider lines are the best. Individuals in these lines fill empty space in carriages on rides to ensure ride efficiency. Unless you really want your souvenir photo screaming on a roller coaster with your friends there's no reason not to use the single riders line. My dad and I bypassed the four hour wait and were on the ride in 15 minutes!

Hogwarts Express

hogwarts express; harry potter world; diagon alley; hogsmeade; universal orlando; islands of adventure

My expectations for the Hogwarts Express were mild. Because this was my only opportunity to ride on the "Hogwarts Express," I wanted to experience it. I expected the ride to be a normal train that would slowly move between the two parks in a couple minutes. Instead, Universal made it into another ride experience.

To get on the ride at Kings Cross, guests go "through" the wall between platforms 9 and 10 to platform 9 3/4. Universal set up an illusion glass in the train station so approaching guests see those ahead of them disappearing into the wall. Such a neat effect!

Once on the train the compartment door closes and scenes of London streets are shown out the window. The streets turn to the English and Scottish countrysides. The scenery includes the Glenfinnan Viaduct and dementors flying by. On the other side of the compartment, shadows of Harry, Ron, and Hermione pass by. When the train reaches Universal Islands of Adventure in Hogsmeade, Hagrid greets you as you arrive. For someone who grew up always wanting to receive my "letter" and be whisked away to Hogwarts, this was an incredible experience. Universal did its best to make it as real as it possibly could be.

london; hogwarts express; diagon alley; hogsmeade; hogwarts; universal orlando; islands of adventure park

Watching London's streets pass by in the window

Hogsmeade Village and Hogwarts

I did not spend much time in the Hogsmeade area, having already visited in 2013. Almost nothing had changed. The one difference I noticed was the Dragon Challenge roller coaster ride was missing. It was demolished in 2017 to make room for a new Harry Potter roller coaster attraction, hopefully opening soon.

My dad and I wandered around the village, went on the Forbidden Journey ride in Hogwarts Castle (still the best Harry Potter ride I think), then grabbed some Butterbeer and left Harry Potter World to look for better food and explore the rest of the park.

Universal Islands of Adventure Park

Islands of Adventure has eight different "lands" within the park. For lunch, we went to the Lost Continent for some healthy Mediterranean food: a gyro, a Greek salad, and a hummus plate. After lunch we sought out a mild ride to go on while digesting.

Poseidon's Fury

poseidons fury; islands of adventure; universal orlando; new years eve orlando

I did not know what the Poseidon's Fury ride entailed when we got in line for it after lunch. The park guide at the entrance said we would be standing on our feet the entire time. We entered the first room of the "ride" after about 20 minutes in line and the show began. As soon as the actress started talking, I knew I had done this ride before. I thoroughly regretted going on it again.

Poseidon's Fury is not really a ride. It is a show with an actress pretending to be a junior archaeologist who "wakes up" Poseidon and his rival Greek god. She gets the group stuck underground in a dig site where the gods engage in battle. Guests go into a few different rooms, which involves walking through a somewhat-cool water tunnel. They see a final performance with a lot of water and fire effects that are sort of neat in the last room. I would skip this attraction if you are looking for anything more exciting during your visit.

Jurassic Park

jurassic park; universal orlando; islands of adventure; orlando new years eve

The next land my dad and I visited was Jurassic Park. We went on the river raft ride in 2013, but the giant log flume ride provided some action and entertainment, so we went on it again. This was another ride where the single riders line potentially saved us hours of waiting in line. Admittedly I'm not a huge fan of rides that include a large drop. I closed my eyes at the top of the crest when our boat went down the flume, but it was still fun! My dad, who is much more afraid of heights than I am, made fun of me afterwards because he kept his eyes open the whole time.

Skull Island

Our final stop for the day was the Kong ride on Skull Island. This ride always has a long wait. We decided to wait this time because we had never gone on it before and it seemed highly popular.

skull island; king kong; universal orlando; islands of adventure

One of the features to distract guests while waiting in line

WARNING: If you cannot get on the Kong ride within 15 minutes, do not wait in line. We must have been on our feet for two hours going through the twists and turns Universal uses to prevent guests from seeing the long line around the corner. In the end, the ride was three-minutes long. King Kong appears on some screens next to you and the large caravan you're in shakes a little.

Waiting so long to go on this unimpressive ride did us in for the day. We took the Hogwarts Express back to Universal Studios, walked through a few more areas of that park, and then went back to the hotel to get some dinner and relax.

Part II: New Years Eve Day at Epcot coming soon!

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Learn about the good and bad available
Learn about the good and bad at Universal Orlando's Harry Potter World and Islands of Adventure through stories about visiting on New Year's Eve weekend.
How to Celebrate the Christmas Season in London

How to Celebrate the Christmas Season in London

London is my favorite city in which to celebrate the Christmas season!

When I was in law school, I had the privilege of spending a Fall semester studying at University College London and living in Holland Park. During this time, I experienced my first Christmas season in London. I had no idea an entire city could be so festive and enveloped in the Christmas or holiday spirit!

In the United States, most people feel that we Americans must wait until after the Thanksgiving holiday to begin our Christmas celebrations. Because the British do not have this restriction, they begin decorating and celebrating around the second week of November. This provides ample time to enjoy the city's decorations and participate in all its Christmastime activities. While the Christmas season is ending soon, if you ever have the opportunity to visit London in November or December, definitely take advantage of it and enjoy celebrating Christmas in London!

Trying to plan a trip to London? Check out this post about the best ways to get there!

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

If you only have time for one Christmas activity in London, you must go to Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland! Filled with Christmas markets, refreshments, music, and activities (including an outdoor skating rink), Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland has something for everyone. This market was the highlight of my time in London, and will be the first thing I do the next time I am in London for Christmas.

winter wonderland; hyde park; london; christmas

Entrance to the Winter Wonderland Park

winter wonderland; hyde park; london; christmas

Salmon filets being smoked on cedar planks over an open fire in the market

winter wonderland; hyde park; london; christmas

Me posing with a wood-carved viking while holding delicious mulled wine

winter wonderland; hyde park; london; christmas

The entrance to one of the rides in the carnival part of the market: my friends and I never learned why the signs were in German.

winter wonderland; hyde park; london; christmas

One of the many outdoor bars in the market, this one with an apres-ski theme

winter wonderland; hyde park; london; christmas

Enjoying drinks on the moving carousel bar in the center of the market

Best Christmas Decorations in London

The entire city of London is decorated for Christmas. Some of the best places to enjoy the decorations are on the streets of the city center and at the department stores, where you can enjoy both the window displays and the interior decorations.

On the Streets

Canarby Street; london; christmas

Giant birds welcoming you to the Christmas in Canarby celebration on Canarby Street

regent street; london; christmas

Giant light sets over Regent Street

Department Stores

liberty london; christmas

Liberty London department store adorned with its lit Christmas trees

 

harrods; london; christmas

Harrod's Christmas window display featuring a glamorous train ride

harrods; london; christmas

Harrod's Christmas window display

selfridges; london; christmas

A window display at Selfridge's, featuring hot items among winter landscapes (here Beats by Dre)

selfridges; london; christmas

Play Dough spilling out over a Christmas landscape in another Selfridge's window display

selfridges; london; christmas

Christmas decorations are put up inside Selfridge's as well

 

London Christmas Markets

Germany may be the country best-known for its Christmas markets, but London offers over a dozen to pick from throughout the city. Each market is unique. Though I would recommend visiting as many as possible - even just to wander around with a cup of mulled wine - so long as you get to one you will have the unique London Christmas market experience.

southbank market; london; christmas

Wooden cabins are erected for each shop at the Southbank Centre Christmas Market along the South bank of the Thames River

southbank market; london; christmas

Christmas markets stretch for many blocks and each hut contains unique gifts for purchase, like Himalayan salt candles and alpaca capes.

notting hill; london; christmas

The Christmas celebrations extend out to other areas of London, like Portobello Market in Notting Hill. There, this Caribbean Santa and his drummer bring a tropical element to the market with carols played on a steel drum.

mulled wine; chirstmas market; london; chirstmas

Vats of mulled wine are a must at any British (and European) Christmas market.

Christmas Activities in London

Once you have had your fill of walking around London's Christmas markets and looking at the decorations, you can continue to enjoy the other activities available throughout the city. Finding an outdoor skating rink is one of the most popular activities. You may also happen upon a street party, as I did on the opening night of Carnaby Street's Christmas festivities. Westfield London helps children and families visit Santa's Grotto each year. There are always the typical London highlights to partake in as well, such as going for a ride on the London Eye or seeing a show in the West End, made extra special with a Christmastime flare at this time of the year.

ice skating; london; christmas

Ice skating at the outdoor rink next to the Natural History Museum is one of the most popular Christmastime events.

canarby street party; london; christmas

A scene from the Canarby Street Christmas opening party

santas grotto; westfield; london; christmas

Santa's Grotto, which you can find at Westfield's shopping centre in Shepherd's Bush

Christmas Dinner in London

Starting in September you will see British restaurants advertising for customers to make reservations for Christmas dinner. Many locals will celebrate Christmas in London with their friends in the weeks leading up to December 25th by going out for a proper dinner.

I was fortunate to attend two such gatherings when I lived there: a party at Little Bay Farringdon with my school program and a celebration at The Oak in Westbourne Park with my roommates. (N.B. the Farringdon location has since closed, but the restaurant still has locations in Battersea and South Croydon). Christmas dinner is something Londoners place great emphasis on. Be sure to make your reservations early and enjoy this popular tradition!

Discover more Top London Restaurants in this post!

oak christmas; london

Pre-Christmas dinner drinks at The Oak

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My school group ready for the 4-course prix fixe Christmas dinner at Little Bay Farringdon

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The best things to see and do in London at Christmastime
The best things to see and do in London at Christmastime
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