A First-Timer’s Guide to Essence Music Festival

Hello Travel Lovers!

Last night/this morning we returned from 6 days in New Orleans a.k.a. NOLA, where we enjoyed the 20th Annual Essence Music Festival. Every year, Essence Magazine and their bevvy of major sponsors bring together musicians, celebrities and inspiring speakers for 4 days of concerts, exhibits, empowerment seminars, panels, parties and fun. The event attracts thousands of people from all over the country, and I’ve wanted to attend for years. Once this year’s musical headliner (Prince) was announced, I KNEW I had to be there and immediately purchased tickets. It was also a nice way to surprise Mr. B with a birthday gift to see his all-time favorite artist.

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My goal with this post is two-fold: to provide my Essence recap while providing tips for those who plan to attend in the future. We had an amazing time, but I would certainly do things a little differently in the future, if/when we go again.

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A Magical Celebration: Downtown Disney

Our second day at Walt Disney World Resort was dictated by Mother Nature; a cold front had been predicted to make its way through Orlando, with accompanying showers. A 60% chance of rain in Florida is pretty much a sure thing, so we altered our plans and decided to visit the theme parks on Sunday instead of Saturday.

After sitting down for our delicious breakfast buffet at Boma, we decided to take the WDW Bus Transportation over to Downtown Disney. Full of shops, restaurants, and attractions, Downtown Disney offers free parking and no admission charge. It’s a great alternative for non-park goers or for those seeking a day of rest. Downtown Disney features two sections: Westside/Marketplace and Pleasure Island. The bus dropped us off at Marketplace, where we found several Disney character shops, a Ghiradelli store (YUM), a LEGO store, Rainforest Cafe, among other shops. Pleasure Island features more restaurants (Planet Hollywood and Bongo’s Cuban Cafe), attractions such as DisneyQuest and Splitsville, and bars.

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Mighty Ducks Pinball Slam: I came in third!!

Mighty Ducks Pinball Slam: I came in third!!

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A Magical Celebration: Walt Disney World for Grown Ups

The past few weeks have been chock full of good times, travel and excitement, hence my absence from my blog. But never fear: I have enough material from this period of time to write blog posts until the end of the year. I know you’re as excited as I am!

I’m going to start with one of my recent weekend adventures. You see, Mr. B and I celebrated our wedding anniversary in early November and were unable to travel anywhere distant due to our restricted schedules. Fortunately for us, we live a mere hour away from the Happiest Place on Earth, Walt Disney World, so we decided to venture over there for the weekend to stay at an on-site hotel (something I’d never done) and visit the parks. Epcot Center was winding down their annual Food and Wine Festival, so this was the perfect weekend to visit.

Animal Kingdom Lodge - Jambo House Lobby

Animal Kingdom Lodge – Jambo House Lobby

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Travel Tuesday: Visiting Universal Orlando

Post UPDATED for 2014!

My goal with these Tuesday posts is to highlight a specific location or element of vacationing; there is so much to cover and I feel that I’ve been dedicating a lot of time and attention lately to cruising. As you can probably tell, cruise vacations are what I know best and are therefore my niche, but that’s not the only thing I know.
Today, I’m going to focus on an extremely popular family vacation destination that isn’t Walt Disney World: Universal Orlando resort.


First things first: Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World are owned by different companies. Some of you may know this, but many do not. There is no business relationship between the two parks, so if you go to Orlando with plans to visit both parks, expect to purchase two separate tickets.
Universal Orlando resort is comprised of three different elements – two theme parks (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios) and their entertainment complex, Citywalk.
Universal Studios Florida is the original component of this now-vast theme park resort. The park opened in 1990 with the promise of letting its visitors “ride the movies”. And that it does. The attractions at Universal Studios are heavily based on both classic and contemporary films, with featured attractions such as “Revenge of the Mummy” (my personal favorite), “Twister”, “Shrek 4:D”, “The Simpsons Ride” and “Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem”. Over the years, they have redesigned and updated some of these rides to appeal to more contemporary audiences – for example, “The Simpsons Ride” used to be “Back to the Future”. They also added the park’s only bonafide roller coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, in 2009. The park itself is split up into 6 different areas: Production Central, New York, San Francisco **, World Expo, Hollywood, and Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone.

* UPDATE: 2013 saw the addition of “Transformers 3-D” and a full expansion of The Simpsons region, complete with Springfield-inspired restaurants and shops.

Universal Studios is the home of some pretty great annual events that you don’t want to miss! Mardi Gras runs from February to April and features a nightly parade – with beads! – and a “free” concert every weekend by a national recording artist. Mardi Gras 2012 featured Kelly Clarkson, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper and Boyz II Men, to name just a few. (The concert is included with the cost of admission.) Another extremely popular event is Halloween Horror Nights, which runs from late September until early November. The park is transformed with haunted houses and random frights designed to scare the pants off of its visitors; for this reason, this is not the place for the kiddies. Halloween Horror Nights is NOT included with the price of admission; expect to pay a separate entrance fee.

Islands of Adventure is the sister park to Universal Studios Orlando. It opened in 1999 and is heavily focused in thrill rides and your typical “amusement park” atmosphere. This park is also home of the wildly popular Harry Potter attraction – “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” – which opened in 2010. They went so far as to completely reconstruct Hogwarts, which is truly a sight to behold! While Islands of Adventure has attractions that are film-based (Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey), the goal of most of the rides are to get a scream out of the park’s guests (just check out The Incredible Hulk Coaster, which is my favorite ride in the park!!). Islands of Adventure also has Seuss Landing, with several rides designed for the little ones in your family.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

** UPDATE: 2014 will see the Diagon Alley expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which will be situated within Universal Studios and has replaced the San Francisco/Amity region of the park. A real life Hogwarts Express will link the two components together, however a park ticket granted admission to BOTH parks will be needed to experience them both!

Universal Citywalk is the third component to Universal Orlando Resort. The area is filled with restaurants, shops and nightclubs and charges no separate admission price to explore the area. Once you park in the garage, you will be directed into Citywalk before you arrive to the theme parks, which are connected to Citywalk on two different ends. After 10pm, the nightlife at Citywalk begins to pick up and the 8 nightclubs and bars on the property start jumpin’! At this point, the clubs begin charging a cover for entry. If you plan to bar hop, you can purchase a Citywalk Party Pass for $11.99 (which, in my opinion, is completely worth the cost).

In addition to its multiple attractions, Universal Orlando Resort offers three hotels that are located on the property: The Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Two MAJOR benefits to staying at one of these hotels, in addition to your proximity to the theme parks, are the fact that you will earn a FREE express pass with the purchase of park admission (express pass = skip the lines) and early access to” The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Islands of Adventure.

*** UPDATE: Universal’s newest resort, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, opens on March 31, 2014. This is a moderate and value priced resort that will allow families to enjoy the on-site amenities of Universal Orlando Resort in family suites or standard rooms.

 

Wet ‘n’ Wild Waterpark is also owned by Universal, and is located just down the street from the resort. This park is the home to some of the CRAZIEST waterslides you’ll ever see including the Bomb Bay, which will literally drop you 76 feet, almost vertically. If you prefer less action, there’s always the lazy river or the wave pool!

So there you have it – a comprehensive overview of Universal Orlando Resort. Interested? Here are the all-important details about pricing, as well as my personal recommendations on when to visit:

Ticket Prices (for 2014 season):

1 day, 1 park ticket : $92 (adult), $88 (child ages 3-9), 0-2 free

1 day, 2 park ticket : $128 (adult), $122 (child)

** admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

2 day, 2 park ticket: $146.99 (adult), $136.99 (child)

** admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

When to Visit:

Peak tourist season runs, understandably,  from June until September. Additional peak seasons are Spring Break (usually during March or April) and in December around Christmas/New Years. Kids are out of school and many working adults take vacation during these periods, so expect large crowds and long lines. In the summer, also be prepared to melt in the central Florida sun.

Being a Florida resident, we know to avoid theme parks during these peak seasons. If you want a less chaotic and more comfortable vacation, I strongly suggest you think out of the box. If possible, plan your vacation during January/February, or September through November. If this is not realistic for you and your family, aim for the early summer. Many international groups arrive to Orlando in July/August, making the parks unbearably crowded (in my opinion).

Although I love Disney for its nostalgia, I have to say that Universal Orlando is my favorite theme park in Florida. We’ve been there more times than I can count – thanks to annual passes – and have a wonderful time each visit. This vacation is fun for a family with kids or adults who just love having a good time!

Travel Tuesday: Visiting Indianapolis, Indiana

This past weekend I had the opportunity to travel to Indianapolis for a family gathering. Although the circumstances of our visit were somber, it gave me the opportunity to spend time in a city that I’d only previously seen blanketed in snow and sub-freezing temperatures. And I do NOT do well with cold weather!

I must say, I was thoroughly impressed with all that Indianapolis (a/k/a “Naptown”) has to offer, especially in their downtown area. I’ve always been attracted to the “downtown” areas of cities; even as a kid in Cleveland, if my parents told me that we needed to take a trip Downtown, I would get extremely excited. And as a fully-grown adult, I felt giddy inside when I was informed that we would be spending the day in downtown Indianapolis. Some things never change.

And let me tell you: their downtown did NOT disappoint. One of the most important factors to me when I’m assessing a new city is the “walkability” of their metropolitan area. (I know that “walkability” isn’t really a word, bear with me here!). Some cities, such as New York City,  are known for being pedestrian-friendly while others are much more spread out – Miami comes to mind. Indianapolis has everything you need for a lovely downtown experience right within reach, which is a major plus for city dwellers and visitors alike.

Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis

During our visit, we easily found parking at the garage at Circle City Center Mall, although there was street parking available as well. Parking garage rates were cheap to moderate: $1.50 for 3 hours or less, $15 for the entire day. Not too bad at all. I noticed later that much of the street parking was free on Saturday and Sundays; NICE! From that garage we would have been able to walk to Lucas Oil Stadium to watch the Colts play, the basketball arena, indoor ice-skating rink, shops, restaurants – wherever we wanted to go, we could get there on foot.

There is an abundance of shopping in the city, but we were focused on FOOD. We saw a few interesting-looking restaurants: Weber Grill (based on the Weber brand of barbeque grills), Palomino Restaurant and Bar and Tastings Wine Bar. We chose Rock Bottom Brewery, which is a chain restaurant that has no locations in the southern US (where we live). The menu was so enticing that it took me quite awhile to decide on my meal, but settled upon the Bourbon-Glazed Salmon:

SO. GOOD.

This food disappeared off of my plate. It was delicious. They also offered a sampler of their six specialty beers, all for $6. I’m not much a beer drinker so I didn’t order that, but I think that’s a pretty awesome deal.

The next day, we returned downtown to visit the Canal Walk, which I can’t say enough about. The portion of the Canal we visited is a 3 mile loop segment that starts downtown and heads South. We only walked about 1/2 mile before turning around, but had we kept going, we would’ve encountered the NCAA Hall of Champions (which we definitely need to visit, next time) and the Indiana State Museum. You can even access the Indianapolis Zoo, once the Canal connects with the White River. We saw people jogging, biking, walking their dogs and simply strolling on this beautiful September afternoon. We also saw people in paddleboats and gondolas – which could be a nice, romantic way to spend the day.

The portion we toured was the residential segment of the Canal, and I was very impressed with the real estate down there. There’s something about trendy, downtown living that speaks to me! We saw condos, apartments and single-family homes with some pretty cool Canal views; some with balconies overlooking the Canal. And the cost of living isn’t bad at ALL!

In all, this was a REALLY nice weekend in a VERY nice city. Many times when people are planning their next getaway, they look to the extravagance of the Mexican Riviera or the warm breezes of the Caribbean. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with planning that big vacation, they take time to plan. In the meantime, there are usually hidden treasures located just a short drive away from where you live, and I feel that Indianapolis would fall into that category. Sports nuts, art lovers and history buffs would all have something to gain from a visit to this Midwestern City.  Just go while it’s warm! (lol)