There was a commercial that used to play at the beginning of Disney movies—it was some kind of variation of a little boy and his brother packing up their oversized suitcase, getting ready to travel to Walt Disney World. I remember watching it and feeling the magic calling.
Several years later, I got to go. I went with my mom, brothers, and my future sister-in-law when I was 14 (my Dad had recently started an insurance agency and couldn’t leave). I remember extreme humidity and heat and crying babies and lots and lots of rain.
When I was 18, I got to go on a trip to Disneyland in California with my parents, as part of a reward trip for top performing agents and their families. (Funny how the tables turned!) This was one of my favorite vacations of all time. We explored every inch of the park that we could, enjoyed the California Adventure options, and really soaked up the magic.
And now, this past week, I got to return to Orlando with my parents, as a guest on their insurance trip. My husband, Chad, had a friend’s bachelor party during the dates, so he stayed behind in Colorado. My parents and I stayed right by the resort, and enjoyed day trips to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and a surprise trip to Universal Studios.
For this vacation, we got to stay at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort (which is connected to The Swan, so is often called the Dolphin and Swan Resort). Though technically owned by Marriot, this hotel duo is located on Disney grounds and follows suit in terms of theme—from the music to shops to hallway décor, there were tasteful odes to the company legacy. They have an app which we used extensively, with dining, shopping, Disney, and other grounds info.
The outside grounds were lush and beautiful, with a lake, waterfall grotto, tropical flowers, incredibly large fountains, sculptures, and easy access to boat transformation and the Disney Boardwalk. I enjoyed taking long walks around the property, and even accidentally wandered to the entrance to Epcot, only a mile or so away.
Inside, the nicely air-conditioned hotel was huge and dazzling with many luxury touches and plenty of meeting and corporate spaces. There were several wings and areas, with designated activities for kids as well as more adult audiences. There’s a spa and expensive steakhouse, but there’s also a 24-hour arcade room and an ice cream stand.
We spent most of our meals at the hotel. We had:
- Taqueria-style tacos at Picabu
- Ice cream (more than once, for me) from the Fountain Ice Cream Stand
- Hot dogs and burgers (veggie for my mom) at the sit-down Fountain Restaurant
- A luxury steak and seafood meal at Shula’s Steak House
- Individual pizzas at Picabu
- Frozen drinks pool-side from the Cabana Bar and Beach Club
- Morning coffee and pastries and afternoon snacks from Fuel
- A final fine dining Italian meal at Trattoria Il Mulino
You could also order room service with mobile dining through the hotel’s app.
During our stay, we enjoyed a few different fun activities. We spent time with other insurance agents and management, especially in the lobby area. My parents got to go to a Kelly Clarkson concert, and they allowed the “guests” to watch via live stream in our rooms! They even gave out free popcorn for us. This was honestly amazing, and felt like I was right there with them.
Note: I didn’t even realize how many Kelly Clarkson songs I knew! So many hits over her impressive career.
At the pool
We enjoyed a few hours at the pool, and loved every minute. With crazy hot temperatures, there’s nothing better than large lagoons with clear blue (and cold) water. My parents and I also ordered frozen cocktails via the mobile ordering app, which resulted in refreshing frozen daiquiris.
Disney World: Magic Kingdom
We dedicated one day to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Though my mom and I had been here before, we wanted to make sure that my dad got the legitimate Disney World experience on his first trip here.
Overall, we had fun. However, we noticed that it’s almost the same layout and experience as Disneyland, and that seemed a little repetitive. I found myself remembering all of the rides and that kind of removes a layer of excitement. We were also gravely disappointed to realize that Fast Passes were no longer a thing, even though we swore we had bought them. (Our stomachs dropped realizing we’d have to wait in the 90-minute-and-up lines). However, it’s still the Happiest Place on Earth (lol) and we had fun seeing all of the characters that meant so much to us at different parts of our lives.
As for user experience, the Disney World App was incredible. We utilized this tool throughout our entire day, looking up wait times, ride information, resort maps, and checking out directions to specific attractions. It’s a must, and the free wifi was a nice touch.
We rode several rides and were impressed by the “line management,” and how they were always moving and twisting and turning. Plus, the wait times were rarely as long as they were listed, which was a huge morale booster. We went on:
- Swiss Family Robinson tree house (not a ride, but a very cool exhibit to explore)
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- Big Thunder Mountain coaster
- Country Bear Jamboree
- Splash Mountain
- Haunted Mansion
- Tomorrowland Speedway
- Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin
Overall, my favorite ride was probably either the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which was like a boat tour of different scenes from the movie with lots of music and life-life machinery or the Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster, which was mining-themed and really exciting. It was also so cool to see the princesses riding down the main street in a glass-like castle, as well as Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger do a little drive by. Very sweet!
On the lower end of the spectrum, my least favorite ride was probably the Tomorrowland Speedway, which was kind of lame. It was like go-karts except on a track, and you could only really control when to stop.
Food-wise, we had a lunch reservation at the Crystal Palace. The food was alright and the air conditioning, lemonade, and break from the sun were incredible. Thank god for my mom’s foresight with the reservation! Otherwise it might have been an impossible wait. We also bought waters and orange-flavored Dole Whip ice creams later on.
A huge surprise was going to Universal Studios with my parents! We initially said no because of outrageous pricing, but they got us tickets as a major fun surprise since I’m a huge Harry Potter fan (especially when I was younger—I reread all the books over 10 times because they were so magical to me. I credit them as the path I took to loving reading and changing my life for the better). This was the entire highlight of my trip and I’m so thankful to my mom and dad for this adventure!
This theme park also has an app, and we used it extensively. It wasn’t quite as interactive as Disney’s, but I liked that you could “favorite” rides and save the information for later.
Well, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Our arrival was extremely bumpy. We tried to get in almost 5 times, each time being turned away because we didn’t have the right information. First, needed to print out tickets because they weren’t showing up on the app. Second, realized that we never even bought tickets—they were just the “express” tickets that made the line shorter (and were x3 times expensive than a normal ticket!!!). Then, we had to get in line to buy actual tickets. Then, we tried to be tricky and buy them online and print them out from a kiosk. Then, they wouldn’t accept our confirmation number. Then, back to the guest services line to have them sort it out. Then, a confirmation email that said the confirmation number should work. But then after waiting in another line, it didn’t! So frustrating. We finally figured it out with a PDF of our tickets, but Jesus Christ lol, it was the most disappointing and frustrating saga of always and forever.
Once we finally got inside (almost crying tears of relief and feeling so bamboozled and nearly bankrupt), the park was amazing. Everything is vibrant and exciting. It’s very commercialized and consumer-oriented, but it works.
There’s a shopping and entertainment area located before the park, which is a great place to hang out for free after going through the metal detector security or before you head out to the parking/ride share area. We enjoyed Margarittaville margaritas to-go after exiting the park. So delicious and refreshing!
Our real first mission was to find Diagon Alley and start with the magic of Harry Potter. We slipped through some British-looking buildings and were suddenly transported to a bustling scene that replicated the movie scenes exactly. Stores, restaurants, cobblestone, buildings, signs—the attention to detail was absolutely incredible. I was blown away. I felt emotional, and like I could burst to tears at any moment. The yearning I used to feel so strongly to experience this fantasy place, came to life in the most wonderful and satisfying way.
We ate at the Leaky Cauldron (the longest line and wait of the day), and I ate a British meat and potato pie and ordered literally every form of drink available. Frozen, straight, and hot butterbeer were a dream come true. I also drank pumpkin juice, which was a wonderful surprise. It was so worth the wait for this experience. I was blown away.
Another magical highlight was the Escape from Gringotts roller coaster ride. Amazing. Fun. Exciting. Thrilling. I was initially nervous about the coaster aspect, but the 7-year old next to me was very reassuring lol. It was probably my favorite ride and attraction from the entire trip, and I highly recommend it.
We were able to ride the Hogwarts express train (a mix of ride and literal transportation) that took us to a different theme park, Islands of Adventure. This was also a very special experience and captured the thrill of riding the Hogwarts Express from King’s Cross Station.
Outside of Diagon Alley, we rode several other rides (even another Harry Potter-themed one). I loved them all!
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
- Escape from Gringotts
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Jurassic Park River Adventure
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
- Skull Island: Reign of Kong
- Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges
Each and every ride was impressive and had incredible attention to detail. The music playing and the scents and environmental effects all made it seem as though you were truly a character in each scene. It was an unbelievable display of technology and I loved every single experience. Plus, as much as I hate to say it, the Express Passes are a must. Some lines were barely a line at all, while the standard lines were all over 90 minutes. It would be hard to get much in that way.
My favorite attractions were the Harry Potter and water rides, which really, really got us wet. I wore my jean shorts and they were soaked so badly that I could not wear them to the airport the next day as planned. I honestly loved it, but it was shocking. The only ride that I didn’t love as much was the King Kong ride, but it was still cool and very sensory.
Though I missed Chad and Wally and am glad to be home, I had a wonderful time and was happy to “get the band back together” with my parents. This was an incredible trip and I already have a list of additions and tweaks for my next visit to Orlando.
I’m feeling very, very lucky. 🙂