When we first became parents, we set some limits on ourselves that we thought would benefit our kids. These rules were based on observations of other parents, both adopting elements of parenting we admired and rejecting those we thought were inappropriate. One rule was that we would never take our kids out of school for an extended period to take a family vacation.

We violated that rule four years ago when we went to Disney. We justified that by telling ourselves M was only in second grade, C only in kindergarten, and L still in preschool: we weren’t setting them too far back. And this was a one-time trip anyway.

Well, we did it again. We spent last week in Florida, first spending two-plus days in Orlando then two-and-change near Jacksonville. This time we felt some guilt. So much so we tried to keep the trip a semi-secret at school. But more about that later.

We had some solid justification for the trip again this time. S’s dad and step-mom purchased a home south of Jacksonville late last year. They spent some time down there after closing, but officially made the move south after Christmas. We wanted to go visit them. However, S has to work the week of St. P’s spring break this year.

We decided that since our trip to Disney in the slow times of January was so successful four years ago, we would make a jaunt down to Universal Studios to do the Harry Potter thing and then go check out the in-laws’ new place. We figured it was early enough in the semester that the girls wouldn’t get too far behind in school and would have plenty of time to make up for missed assignments and tests. Plus, they all got really good grades last quarter, so we felt they could handle the catch-up process if we gave them plenty of help.

We flew to Orlando Tuesday. We stayed at the Hard Rock hotel right at Universal. The girls thought the hotel in general, and our room in specific, was really cool with all the rock memorabilia decorations. Even though we had to tell them who most of the artists that had their costumes, records, or guitars displayed were. We didn’t have park tickets that day, so we spent the afternoon at the pool. It was sunny, 75-ish, and a perfectly fine day for us Midwesterners.

Wednesday was our first of two days at the park. We got in right at 9:00 and high tailed it back to the Diagon Alley Harry Potter section. I had done a binge viewing of the movies the previous week to augment my reading of the books late last year, so I was well-steeped in the visuals of the series. I have to admit, all the Harry Potter stuff was amazing. The rides were super cool.[1] The buildings are amazing. The marketing is, of course, way over the top. But I also give them credit for really bringing the series to life. Everything that was sold in the books and movies can be purchased in the park. For a premium, of course. But that’s half the fun, right? We got C and L robes before we went – C is a Hufflepuff and L is a Gryffindor – and all three girls got the interactive wands that allow you to do various “spells” around the Potter areas. Those are kind of tricky, but once they figured out where to point them, I think they enjoyed having them over the basic wands. M got a Ravenclaw shirt because she’s too cool for a robe.

C especially loved it. She had been watching YouTube videos by people who had visited the parks for weeks. Car rides to practices and games before we left usually meant she was reciting the list of all the things you can do and see at Universal. She really was in heaven.

And it was fun to watch M loosen up, have fun, and act like a kid again. She is often way too cool or disinterested in what the rest of the family is doing. But she walked around with a big grin on her face most of the time, too.

We took the Hogwarts Express over to the other park, which held the Hogsmeade side of things. Again, so much fun. The parks weren’t overrun the two days we were there, but the Potter areas were by far the busiest sections. Just a big, fat reminder of how popular the series was and still is.

While L wasn’t down with the fast rides, M and C loved them. We did Escape From Gringotts twice, and the Forbidden Journey ride three times over our two days. And M, C, and I did the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster ride. It’s a compact, quick roller coaster, but still not a kiddie ride. I sat alone in front of them. For the entire 30 seconds or so the ride lasts, the girls totally played to type. M screamed at the top of her lungs. Happy screams, but still high-pitched wails. And C just laughed her ass off the entire time. They weren’t quite ready to do any of the big, scary roller coasters like the Dragon Challenge or The Incredible Hulk. Not sure they ever will be, to be honest.

The other ride that was a big hit was the Jurassic Park River Adventure ride. The last drop is a doozy. It’s probably good L didn’t see how steep it was before we got her on or she would have never gone. I don’t know that she loved it, but she also had a look of "Well, that was kind of fun“ after.

As with Disney four years ago, we struck gold in terms of crowds. We rarely had to wait more than 10 minutes to ride anything. We pulled out our Express Passes a couple times, but they weren’t absolutely necessary. On several rides Thursday, after we navigated the lengthy wait corrals, we walked right up to a waiting car and strapped in.

One thing I thought was really interesting about our visit was how much Portuguese I heard. I bet a third of the people there were from Brazil. I suppose it is their summer break, and late January is a pretty lean time for Americans to visit. But it still seemed odd to hear that language be so dominant.

Wednesday night we ate in one of the restaurants in the hotel. During our meal, someone in a full-sized Homer Simpson costume made the rounds of all the tables. The girls loved it, but we also had to explain who he was, what his name was, etc. The same person returned moments later in a Bart costume and we had to do the same explanations again. We thought that was pretty funny. I wouldn’t be upset if they wanted to start watching The Simpsons, something I stopped doing in ’91 or so.

Both days we returned to the hotel for an hour or so at the pool in the heat of the afternoon. It was 75–80ish, so perfect.

Friday we rented a car and drove the 2.5 hours up to Ponte Vedra where my in-laws are now living. They’re in a brand-new place in a nice community. It had begun to cool off that day, but was still sunny and pleasant upon our arrival. We took a drive to a beach that was not too far away. It was far too chilly to get into the water, but we walked around, the girls looked for shells, and we saw a guy fishing who reeled in a stingray, which the girls thought was amazing.

Saturday was cloudy and chilly so it became a mostly family-time day. We watched E.T., which the girls had seen a few years ago, but they enjoyed even more this time since we had gone on the E.T. ride at Universal.

Sunday we had an uneventful flight home, and arrived to spitting snow and temps below 30.

Oh, there was one last highlight of the trip. As we walked to baggage claim, we heard some kind of chanting. S, seeing a group of high school or college kids in letter jackets, said, “Is that cheerleaders?” As soon as she said that, I figured out what it was. “No, those are protesters.”

We took the escalator down to the claim area and several hundred people had gathered to protest President Trump’s immigration executive order. While we waited for our bags, we explained to the girls what was going on, and how even though we as a family are not fans of Trump, we thought the biggest takeaway should be this wasn’t a protest against a person, but rather against a bad policy and for protecting the rights of innocent people. I think they kind of enjoyed all the chanting. Their first political protest!

S and I enjoyed the folks who sat by us in the Jacksonville airport, who loudly proclaimed their support of Trump in Florida, stewing next to us as they waited for their bags.

It was a very good week. I won’t say it was a desperately needed break, as the holidays aren’t that far in the past and January has been warm and rainy for the most part. But it was still good to get away. We’re used to going somewhere in late March/early April and then spring quickly arriving after. Now we have a long slog before we get to the warmer, longer days. I guess that’s my only regret of the trip: we were diligent with the sunscreen and not outside long enough to really look like we spent nearly a week in Florida. A little more of a tan would have been nice.

Between a short first week of the quarter, MLK day, and our trip, the girls have not had a five-day school week yet this year. Until this week, that is. Spoiled rotten, those girls are.

Oh yeah, about school. When we booked the trip last fall, we told the girls not to mention that we were going to Universal around school. They promised not to. In my first library shift of the new year, the librarian said to me, “So, I hear you’re going to Universal!” “Who told you that?” I asked. “Oh, L told me all about it.” Jeez.

The week before we went, I was in the library again. As I was signing out in the office, I told the ladies up there we were going to be out of town for a few days and asked if I needed to send an email in each day, or if a note at the beginning of the week was enough to excuse the girls. One of the ladies immediately blurted out, “Are you going to Disney?!?!” Not in an accusing or negative way, but like she was totally excited for us. I admitted we were going to Universal. So the word was out. At basketball practice, girls from the other St. P’s teams would harass me about wanting to go with us to Harry Potter World.

But the girls’ teachers were all great. They each got a lot of work to bring home and knock out so they wouldn’t be too far behind. Again, I think it really helps that they all get good grades and are well-behaved. And that we don’t do this often. Because we all know there are some families that do this on a fairly regular basis.

We spent the final weeks of January 2013 and 2017 in Florida, going to amusement parks. Not sure we have it in us for January 2021, when we’ll have a sophomore, an eighth grader, and a sixth grader. But you never know.

  1. Amazingly L does not like rides that go fast, are dark, or that she thinks might flip her upside down. In every other aspect she’s the most daring kid in the family, but not when it comes to rides. She was not a fan of the Escape From Gringotts ride. And I had to walk out of the Forbidden Journey ride with her because she was having a meltdown.  ↩