Stateside ASD Style

I have been planning this trip of a lifetime to Florida and New York long before autism came into our lives. I think it is important for anyone planning a trip to get as much information as possible beforehand. I thought it would be handy to do a blog post from an autism and or travelling with kids perspective to help others to try and make the trip as smooth as possible.

Top of the Empire State Building

If travelling from Ireland please try and make sure your flight to the US departs from Dublin or Shannon so you get to go through immigration on this side of the Atlantic. The queues on the other can be quite daunting, about two hours long as you are queuing along with every other flight out of that airport at the time and not as friendly in terms of help, I always find an Irish airport that bit more approachable in respect to understanding your situation and if there are any issues you are still at home in Ireland for someone to help. In the States it is very hit and miss and can be very dependent on the mood of the staff you happen to encounter. This unpredictability, as you know can set the tone for the rest of the day or holiday and is something I can be doing without and is a word of advice for those of you braving the trip with an autistic person in your party. Flights can be cheaper out of the UK but it just adds extra length to your journey so take that into consideration when booking, a direct flight out of Ireland is a huge plus.

Make sure you have your ESTA’s completed in time and that your passports are in date. If anyone in your party is travelling with a different surname to yours have a letter from the other parent just to be on the safe side, in case an immigration officer asks for it. Again this is very much dependent on the person you meet on the day. Link for applying here

We flew out of Dublin airport and you can contact them up to two weeks before departure to request a lanyard or wrist band for those requiring special assistance in the airport. Proof of diagnosis is required and necessary to receive the above, which I think is great as it lessens the people who try to take advantage of this service like in other airports, which totally defeats the purpose. You can apply for the lanyard here

My lanyard did not come in time but a quick call and email and it was sorted and left at the OCS desk for me. Our experience in Dublin airport was fantastic, from the moment we went to the OCS desk, a gentlemen accompanied us to the check in desk and walked us all the way up through security, to duty free and showed us where to go for immigration. He asked if we would like to use the sensory room, pointed out the phone to use if I needed any further assistance, I was blown away by their help and it really lessened my anxiety and made our journey so much smoother. I would even consider booking flights out of here in future because of their autism friendly service, I thought it was worth the two hour drive up there to have someone available to walk you through and explain things to you. To know you can pick up a phone and have someone meet you at any stage or open up the sensory room for you to use is invaluable to a parent with autistic children.

Our view from Empire State Building, first morning in NYC

We flew with Aer Lingus to Newark, Aer Lingus have a social story on their website which is very helpful for anyone needing it prior to their flight. They have lots of information here

I would recommend that you request special assistance on your booking to be on the safe side, the day of, you can always opt out if you dont need it but it makes the boarding process that bit more relaxed knowing when the staff call for passengers requiring assistance to board the plane, that you can go up to the desk as it will be marked on your booking. Some parents like to go on last and some like to board first, this is completely dependent on your child’s needs, some simply will not be able to sit and wait. We find it a huge help to board first as we typically have hand luggage and find that there is little to no space when boarding last which adds stress to our journey as we need access to our bags overhead for items such as ear defenders, blankies and sensory items which help to self regulate.

The flight to the States is typically 7 hours and can be a bit of a struggle, something I would find hard myself as an adult, the tight leg room space and close personal space with others is something I find difficult and not being able to get up and walk around would be something that one of my children would have a hard time with. This can lead to them being overwhelmed and not being able to understand why they are upset. Prepare for the airplane food especially if your children are very regimental about their diet, bring your own items as 7 hours is too long to go without. I think a social story about this part of the journey may help, as the airplane can be quite stuffy and smells can be overbearing when the airplane food does come out so a little distraction and warning can help. They also provide pillows, earphones and blankets. Again these may make someone who is used to their own, a little uncomfortable as the material can be quite scratchy, if there is room for it in your hand luggage bring your own, this will prove invaluable for your trip to have their home comforts instead of trying to deal with them becoming massively overwhelmed and it impacting on them not being able to enjoy themselves.

Ears will pop, some children may not understand the process of having a hard boiled sweet or a drink for take off or landing so this may be something you may need to think about, as blocked ears are no fun for a child who doesnt understand or like the sensation.

Make life easier for yourself and organize transport to and from the airport who are there ready to meet you when you come off the plane. Autistic people like myself, want to go from A to B seamlessly, any delays or faffing around will send anxiety through the roof. It is worth the extra money to be able to walk out of baggage claim and into a large comfortable car instead of dragging your luggage in a ball of sweat, trying to grab hands and then wait in a queue for a cab and have no control over who the cab driver is. A company can be told in advance about your requirements and will be more than happy to help you out as you are paying for a service.

SUV Transfer

New York is a busy city, before making plans to visit here, maybe sit down with who is travelling and decide on what it is you all would like to do. It is very fast paced and can be quite busy in terms of crowds especially in Manhattan. Have things pre booked but don’t have your day back to back with things to do, make sure there is a little rest time to break up the day at some point to go back to the hotel and have some quiet time. Make sure to check out website like viator for discounts on sightseeing, they can have a lot of savings especially if you plan on doing a few things on your trip i.e. hop on/off bus, Empire State, Statue of Liberty, World Trade Centre, Top of the Rock etc.. I like to check Madison Square Garden for the dates I want to travel to see what is on there, a basketball game is a fabulous experience, albeit loud and not for young kids but I thoroughly enjoy it when I am there and my 9, 12 and 17year old really enjoyed it also.

Harlem Globetrotters, Madison Square Garden

Accommodation in New York is not cheap but having stayed here in various locations throughout the years I would recommend that you pay for central accommodation. You may find cheaper deals further out but you will end up paying out for transport what you would have paid for the dearer hotel stay. There will be a lot of walking involved so it is not a time for your child to wear the new shoes or clothes, the more comfortable they are the better as they will have a lot to contend with in terms of noises from food stalls, subway, salons, restaurants as you walk past and a lot of noise from traffic, music and people. There will be queues in shops that can be overwhelming and there can be a lot of security in certain sightseeing places which can be a bit daunting as they can be a bit overbearing and loud. All things to be aware of ahead of time.

The weather is seasonal, it can be quite cold or warm depending on the time of year. Yet you can go from freezing weather all bundled up, into a shop with heating on and it can be hard to regulate your body jumping from one temperature to the other. Best to dress in layers as you do not want to be sick away, take it from me when I got a bad throat infection there one year, I was lucky that I knew a doctor over there who was able to give me something.

The food will be different than at home but you have plenty of same style restaurants like McDonalds, Burger King etc.. which will be recognisable and a happy sight for a child who likes plain chips and a milkshake.

The time difference as New York and Florida are five hours behind can be confusing especially after a long flight. I would recommend you take melatonin in your checked in luggage and stay up until bed time (local New York time), take the melatonin and not go to bed too early, as you will knock your body clock completely out of sorts and have a child up at 3am raring to go and in horrible form for the next day ahead when they want to go to sleep at 4pm for the night.

This was my first time travelling solo with my children to the US, I have been to NY eight times over the years and normally walk everywhere, bus it but avoid the subway as it freaks me out completely but I dont splurge on transport as I know my bearings and only have myself to look out for. This time I made the decision to get a driver to take us to locations throughout the city one morning so the girls could see more of New York and not be freaked out, as there were times that certain parts of the city were a bit much for them. The security of getting in and out of a car and being able to go where we wanted with no stops for other passengers was invaluable. I cant control other people (there are a few unique characters out and about) and public transport (not knowing who will sit down next to you, the smells, the worry of getting on and off the right stops and minding your bags as well as your kids) which had the possibility of taking from the actual outing. So the driver was invaluable and money well spent.

Having a hot dog near the Brooklyn Bridge

The hotel was great, it was in between the Empire State and Macy’s, within walking distance of all we wanted to do, the street it was on was a little dodgy at night for the girls as they aren’t very street smart but the hotel itself was very art deco, clean, comfortable, friendly and safe. There was a restaurant onto it which was a bonus as it meant that we didnt have to go in search of somewhere to eat at times which can cut into your limited New York time. We did have to buy an extra bag for our shopping but it was well worth it and can be picked up in any NYC souvenir corner store or in Jersey Gardens which is one of my must go to places when in New York for shopping, although it is actually in New Jersey. I had explained to the girls about the walking and the shopping and to be fair I didnt shop as much as I normally would alone, as I was conscious of at least two bored faces about 2.5cm up my ass around the place asking if I was nearly done. So I literally just scanned and browsed what I could but didnt do nearly as much as I wanted to. They also dragged me into a dress shop when we were over and caught me for a Debs dress and a confirmation dress which had me in the thick of all the New Jersey Housewives with their daughters in changing rooms for their prom dresses or sweet 16th birthdays. It was an experience to say the least “whaddya gonna do?”

The internal flight from Newark to Orlando was one I was dreading but actually worked out to be the less stressful as United Airlines take your baggage outside the building and you check it in before you even enter the terminal. Having the six bags checked in and only having to navigate the airport with the girls and hand luggage was a huge relief. United charged for baggage but I knew about this before travel, a tip for the guy processing the bags meant no extra fees and someone who is going to look after your bags. It is a 2.5 hour flight so this wasn’t quite as bad as the first.

I didnt find any of the US airports to be any way autism friendly. They dont recognise the lanyard and I came across one very rude member of staff but that was for the whole trip so all in all we did well. Again having the special assistance marked on your whole journey means that you can board when they call out for those passengers needing assistance. They dont want to know why, just a swipe of your passport or a glance at your booking and they can see it is booked and you can board. A lot of staff have zero interest in their job and it shows but there are a few friendly ones dotted about.

Again make sure you book your transfers to and from the hotel in Florida also for the same reasons noted above in New York. I would add that waiting with bags in 28 degree heat outside is not very agreeable with children who are not used to the climate. We used a company that advertise and are used regularly by people on a Facebook group for Orlando and they were friendly and helpful. It was a little step down from the SUV in New York and it was like Tetris trying to fit our luggage into a mini van on arrival, not to mind departure, but it worked and we got there.

When it comes to Orlando this is a whole other level of planning and a different type of holiday. You really need to plan what type of holiday you want here as there is so much to offer. As we are big Harry Potter fans I knew that Universal was where we wanted to go and as we were going for 7 nights I wasnt going to entertain the idea of Disney in Orlando. Disney has five parks and you need a mortgage and a month to navigate those with ease. We had visited Disneyland Paris last May so I know it is a more supersized version over but I decided when booking that we were going to give that a miss.

I researched Orlando, Universal and the whole set up for months before we left. I would advise anyone to do the same as what appeals to one family may not appeal to all. With seven nights I knew we would do Universal at our pace, as we had passes for Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and also Volcano Bay, we could have one or two pool days and also get in a shopping day. This was achievable without feeling like you are in a constant rush. The passes were valid for 14 days and my decision to stay on site was invaluable.

Poolside at the Royal Pacific

First of all I had never been to Orlando and did not want the added stress of having to trek to a park by bus or uber every day. I wanted to be able to walk there safely with the girls to and from the accommodation. I did a lot of research in terms of a disability pass V an express pass and an express pass won for me.

For those of you who visit Disneyland Paris you may be aware of the green and orange passes for those with special or additional needs. How you need proof of diagnosis, a GP letter and other forms of confirmation to access the passes which are worth their weight in gold.

However in Orlando they dont exist. This is mainly due to people abusing the system and paying those with disabilities for their passes. They scrapped this method and introduced a DAS where you do not provide any form of paperwork, nor do the staff want to know the ins and outs of your predicament. They simply ask the person who the pass is for a few questions as to why they need it and then they make the decision on the day about whether or not they feel they need it. You do not get a DAS pass due to mobility issues and they are strict and can say no. I knew that any unfamiliar people asking my child about their issues would cause them huge anxiety and they would be overwhelmed and upset, this would impact their day and the trip possibly and I felt that they were at an age where it could also cause them unnecessary embarrassment answering personal questions, so I opted to go for the express pass.

Another thing about the DAS pass is that you go to the cast member of the ride you want to do and they give you a time to return at. This method would not work for us at all, as my child would become very agitated about walking up to a ride and then walking away again and not doing it. You are not allowed do another ride in the meantime using the pass so that means a lot of trying to pass the time which is not our idea of fun.

The express pass worked just as well as a green pass for us. I chose to visit in February as it was one of the quietest times to visit and although on some groups it says that the express passes arent necessary for this month, I would say four out of the seven days we were there, the parks were shoulder to shoulder with people and it was extremely busy and the passes were an absolute god send. February is when they also celebrate Presidents Day and Mardi Gras so weekends were particularly busy we found.

You can purchase express passes separate to your park passes or book into one of the three Universal Hotels who include it with their stay. There are obviously a number of Universal Hotels to choose from which suit all budgets and suit different age groups and so on but only three include the express pass, they are the Hard Rock, which is situated at the park entrance and is the closest to the parks. The Portofino which is slightly further out and the Royal Pacific which is about a five minute walk, which is what we opted for due to recommendation from someone I know who stayed here.

Royal Pacific Hotel View

What I loved about the Royal Pacific was that it made you feel like you were in Hawaii, on a completely different trip to visiting theme parks, the smell, the music, the relaxed vibe was just what we needed and a welcome from the hustle and bustle of the crowds at noisy parks. You could travel to the parks by water taxi or walk the safely lit paths into City walk, which was the promenade outside the parks which was full of restaurants, bars and a few shops. Before getting on the water taxi you went through security or if you walked you went through security before entering City Walk. Security also cycled the path at night and it was nice to be able to just walk to things when you liked and not have to be dragging the kids on and off a bus.

We went to a Luau one of the nights which was a really fun night out and an island experience, receiving our Lei’s, dining on a pig on a spit and watching dancers, listening to the music and seeing the pyrotechnic display. It has amazing food at the pool bar which is great to order coming back from the parks, as you are on a sun lounger and the kids are in the pool. It has a gift shop with your basic travel toiletries, snacks and necessities in the lobby area as well as a mini mart where you can buy things like cereal, crisps, wraps, pasta, beer etc for take out. It has three restaurants which have different cuisine on offer to suit everyone. They seem to have a huge area for conventions and there was one on when we were there for a tyre company in the States. I was just gobsmacked at how the company rolled out the red carpet for its employees, hired out Universal for an evening which meant it closed to the public earlier so the employees could avail of it, they hired out a restaurant another evening and there seemed to be no expense spared. I didnt anticipate some private events on in the parks, I think it happened two or three times on different occasions when we were there.

At the Luau

The staff were very friendly in the Royal Pacific, on check in you were given your express passes which were also the room key for your hotel room. They do hold a credit card charge for your time there to be aware of that. I am not sure if it was my jet lag, the walking and the humidity but their beds were one of the most comfortable I have ever come across, I would describe it as the closest thing to a cloud I have ever slept on. Housekeeping were in every day, the place was immaculate, the pools always had at least five lifeguards around, three always on guard and another two in the background. Towels are provided so it is one less thing for you to pack. They do provide a club level accommodation which is extra per day and provides breakfast, mid afternoon snacks and buffet dinner but at certain times during the day. So if you are like us and dont want to be tied down to having to be back to the hotel then it isnt worth it especially if you have children who wont eat the food anyway but it is definitely worth checking out when booking. Our friends availed of it and used it, they loved the copious amounts of red wine, so it depends on the person.

The concierge and guest services were great and when I enquired about going to one of the outlets they handed me two referrals signed to be handed in at the information desk when we arrived there to receive a discount booklet. The day we went to go shopping I asked the concierge about a taxi and was told that the hotel had their own cars waiting outside to take guests where they needed to go, this was a huge surprise and relief to me, there was a charge but it made the whole day so much easier and relaxed. When we were dropped off the driver simply handed me her card to call her when we wanted to come back and we did and she was there in minutes. I had to laugh as I asked her if there was anywhere we could stop on the way back to the hotel as one of mine wanted to get Lucky Charms. So she circled around and rang a local CVS automated machine which asked what she wanted to talk about today as she shouted in “Lucky Charms” and she waited in the car park while I ran in to get them, something we still laugh about. I didn’t come across any Irish at the hotel, I think the day we were leaving there was a lady next to us with three children and she had a Dublin accent and they were the only ones we came across the whole trip. The rooms fit 4 people and can take up to 5 with a rollaway bed but I think the extra bed would make for a tight squeeze. They also do interconnecting rooms which our friends availed of as they were a family of six.

Meeting the main man himself

If you wanted to avail of the express passes for two days you can always stay elsewhere at a more budget friendly accommodation, there are so many to choose from if you are driving and have a car. Then what people do is stay at one of the three hotels who provide express passes for two nights so they keep their costs down but also get to avail of the passes in the parks for three days and then go back to their other accommodation. There are villas, hotels, other Universal accommodation dotted all around and Disney is a whole other blog post as that has its own village.

You really need to sit down and figure out what you want to do here, you have the amazing beaches on both coasts, International Drive is the main strip of restaurants, accommodation and things to do but is 16 miles long, the hotels here are much cheaper but then you have the added cost of either a rented car or downloading Uber and using that as your method of getting around or using the Ihop bus which goes up and down International Drive from the parks all day. You have NASA, basketball games in Orlando, swimming with manatees, everglade boat rides, Clearwater beach which some people go and stay on for a different experience of Florida, the choices are endless.

The Knight Bus, Universal Orlando

Staying on site and having the express passes, meant we could get up in the morning and check the weather and opt to stay by the pool for a few hours or go to the park in the morning and return to the pool for the afternoon. As the weather varied slightly from a dead 28 degrees to a cloudy cold drizzly 16 degrees. On one or two nights the girls even went for a swim in the heated pool at night as the pool was open until 10pm and it showed movies on a giant white screen which was a great way to relax before bed.

Before arriving I had to sit the girls down and explain that everyone would have a chance to get to do what they wanted to do but noone was to complain when it wasnt their day. One was more interested in Volcano Bay, one was dying to go shopping and one was interested in parks and swimming so it was trying to juggle everyones needs which proved to be testing at times.

Volcano Bay is the water park and can be tricky to navigate, when you arrive you are handed a Taputapu which resembles a fitbit for all the world, with this you can queue virtually for rides, a for example if there is a ride with a 45 minute wait, you simply place your TapuTapu at the button at the ride entrance or in your private cabana (will talk about that in a minute), it will confirm your queue entry and a minute or two before the time is up your Taputapu will vibrate letting you know you can now use that ride. You go to the ride, place the Taputapu at the button at the ride entrance signalling to the staff that you are allowed go on. You cannot use another ride or get in another queue until you finish the previous one.

TapuTapu

We met up with friends of ours from New York in Florida and as there were ten of us in total, they hired a private cabana. By the time you paid for lockers, towels and so on for so many of us a cabana seemed like a better option. This was amazing, we had our own waiter, could join the queues to rides within the cabana and didnt have to leave to go to the rides to queue. The lockers and towels were provided, you were given a flag to place up should you need assistance, food and drinks were delivered and a huge welcome basket on arrival. It really made the day. We had great fun and I loved the fact that the water was heated everywhere which made the rides that bit more bearable.

Cabana, Volcano Bay

My one bug bear for Universal was the use of ear defenders. One of my children requires the use of ear defenders as she becomes very overwhelmed by noise initially, when she knows what to expect she can cope with blocking her ears at certain times as she is prepared.

It should be noted too that there are lockers at the entrance for most rides in the parks as a lot of rides have seat restraints and are motion simulated, so you have to queue to get a locker and then get into the queue and its a whole ball of stress. The biggest tip I can give you is to get a bum bag from Penneys for under a tenner and make sure it has a three prong clasp and you can get onto all rides (besides Hulk and Rip Ride Rocket which are the rollercoasters and you are not allowed on with anything at all in your pockets) with these easily as you slide it to the side in the seat and the restraint comes down with ease over you. Also a lanyard where you can put your express pass and or park pass into as you have to present this at each ride to be scanned. You can easily use the one given to you in Dublin airport and simply take out the Important Flyer card and replace it with your park pass/express pass and replace it again when returning home.

The ear defenders are an issue with cast members as they are inexperienced when it comes to sensory issues and are simply looking at them as a risk of accident if they come off which is fair enough. My issue is that they stop you at the entrance or we had one incident which held up the whole ride and was embarrassing for my child. They ask you to step to the side until they page their supervisor to come to make a decision on whether or not they can be worn. I didnt have time for this bullshit and to be honest it really singled us out and made more of an issue than what it was in terms of my child wanting to avoid being singled out as being different. On both occasions I simply talked her around and kept her calm and was able to thankfully put the ear defenders into a bum bag as I insisted we all wear one each. When they held up the ride though it was horrible as they signaled for the restraint to be lifted off of us which indicated to everyone else behind us who was holding the whole thing up. I again had to take them off and put them in a bum bag in order to continue with my other children and not have to step aside and wait. I think for another child or even adult who relies on them in loud places such as theme parks this may be a non negotiable thing and maybe something to be aware of beforehand or at least be prepared for a wait after the queue to speak to a supervisor each time.

Bumblebee communicates through using music, he is meant to represent autism, so I made it my mission to find him

The express passes proved invaluable, I think we waited a max of ten minutes for two rides over the course of the week, for the rest we walked on more or less. Not to say that they werent needed, as the normal queues were up to 75 minutes on some rides which is something that would have ruined our trip as I would have two children in particular who would not be able to wait it out and then it would impact the rest of the day for the rest of the party who may have to forego the ride.

The upside though is that characters walk around and you can meet them easily, their locations and times they will be about are on the programmes and it is way more relaxed than Disney. Also if you want to go on the Hogwarts Express train from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade to the castle then you will need a park to park pass, a pass for both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure which are two different parks. The journey on the train back and forth are two different scenes and well worth going on. We preferred Islands of Adventure for rides and make sure if you are going to do any water rides that it is warm as you will be saturated through and through. Do not wear runners or anything heavy as it will be impossible to dry out by the time you go home. Keep those rides until the last in the day before you return to the hotel.

I get asked a lot about taking young children and if it is worth it and if they would enjoy it. I toyed with the idea last year about taking Bodhi naively thinking if we had a green pass he would enjoy it. More fool me. The combination of the long flight, the time difference, the humidity, the walking, the having to wait, the not doing what you wanted to do all the time, the different foods, the sleeping arrangements, the crowds in the parks would not be at all fun for any child under the age of nine. That is my personal opinion and this is in terms of Universal.

Obviously Disney caters to all ages and younger children love the Disney parks but again you have to weigh up the amount of money you are forking out for that trip for them to not actually enjoy it and you to pull your hair out. There is alcohol served in the parks, so adults can be walking around with a beer in hand, Disney is pretty full on in terms of plan plan plan and queues. I would seriously consider a trip to Disneyland Paris with the short flight to see how you go as you can get a trip there for a family of four as the same price for just Disney park passes in Orlando, not even adding in your flights and accommodation or spending money.

Universal Studios Orlando

We walked 27,000 steps one day, just to give you an idea, they do provide strollers and you can do child swap on rides but that is still a lot for a small child to do and expect them to enjoy.

Universal shops are expensive, magnets can be $10, hoody’s are $50, a frozen butterbeer is $7 so if you can, try and hold out and pick bits up in CVS, Walmart or the outlets as you will save a lot by taking a look around. I always clock what I have my eye on and if I havent seen it anywhere else by the end of the time and I still really want it and have the money then I will buy it.

In terms of restaurants, this is what Citywalk is made up of, there are menu’s outside all of them so you can see what is on offer. The kids menus typically are made up of the same combination of mac and cheese, pizza, chicken fingers, burgers with sides of fruit, salad or fries. Be prepared to wait up to an hour for a table at certain times during the day, I would strongly suggest making a reservation for somewhere you really want to try for a night during the week. Go into the park in the evening, catch the light show before park close and then go for your dinner reservation.

City walk is open until 2am and the water taxis run until this time back to the hotels. There are lots of pop up bars, Universal is big on doing souvenir cups and you just paying for a refill bringing the cup back in a lot of places and as you are buying asking if you want to do a shot for 3dollars. I cant complain though as I was asked for ID in front of my teenager.

Getting asked for ID made this drink 100 times sweeter

In both New York and Florida you are estimating for 2 adults and 2 children roughly $70 for breakfast, $100 for lunch and $150-180 for dinner. Let it be noted most days you wont have three meals you may have a brunch and a dinner so you wont spend all of that but just to be aware of the costs or picking up snacks. Hotel shops will be more expensive, you can purchase from stores and have it delivered to your hotel room which is handy as your rooms have a fridge and it can store what you need for the week even for breakfast to grab and go. If you have children who are very particular about the foods that they eat then this may be the way to go for you to ensure they actually eat something and you arent stressing over there trying to locate something for them as they get hangrier and hangrier.

Most places have an 18% gratuity fee included in your bill which means you dont have to tip as its included. Tipping is huge in the States and expected, it can also make a fine dent in your budget if you dont account for it and it can be up to 20% of your bill. Normally $2 per bag for the bell boy bringing luggage to your room or from the car to your room etc.. If you are staying in the hotel look after the staff and they will look after you.

I would recommend anyone visiting be open to being flexible, weather dependent, using suncream one day and looking for a hoody or a poncho the next, have some sort of a plan made out for the day or a back up plan in case it has to change and let the kids know what is happening as anxiety stems from the not knowing.

There are lots of shopping to choose from, you have the florida mall, mall of millenia and the premium outlets which is where I got a referral from concierge to receive the booklet from, there were huge savings, they like to ask for your email address in order to give the discount, give it to them as you get lots of discounts you can always unsubscribe when you get back but you get massive savings on top of the deals in store. I received $116 discount alone in one shop due to the vouchers and the emailed discount. If you aren’t sure of where to go, simply look up store directory of places and see which suits your taste more, be prepared to spend a day there, I would hate for you to go and it not be your taste as you need to use your time wisely when there, they are typically open from 10am until 9pm-11pm depending on the place

Leaky Cauldron lunch receipt, Universal Orlando, it was delicious and the best fish and chips I have tasted in a long time

Have separate money for the kids spending and explain how they need to space it out over the course of the holiday. Be prepared for them wanting wands and robes as they are immersed in Harry Potter but explain before they go there how these things cost a lot of money and they wont be used when they leave the park. The wands are $50 each and the robes are $125, if you think that this advice will fall on deaf ears then pick them up on ebay or amazon before you go. The only thing I will say is that the wands there are interactive which means they can do spells throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade but you could spend a day doing that alone and sometimes the queue to do it can take the fun right out of it after watching 25 children before you do the spell already.

I strongly suggest to figure out when you want to go, January and February are their quiet time of year but speaking to locals recently they have said that it wasnt quiet or didnt slow down at all. You really don’t want to be shoulder to shoulder with people in parks, its no fun, factor in the hurricane season which is typically June to September and remember everything stops in bad weather and there arent any refunds!

I would say the only thing I regretted spending money on was Toothsomes chocolate emporium outside Universal and TGI Friday in NYC, totally overrated and expensive and the food was shocking!

Let’s Roll Out, Transformers Ride, Universal Studios Orlando

The best money I spent was on the VIP tour in Universal, this is a separate cost to the park tickets, it cost $189 plus tax per person but was absolutely worth it. You checked in at 10am for breakfast in the VIP area, you met your tour guide and the rest of the group you were with for the day. The max number of people in a group is 12. We had a lovely group, a family of four who we are still unsure of the dynamics of and another guy with his young daughter and his elderly parents from New York. You had breakfast and the tour started at 10.30, the guide runs through what you would like to go on so he can try and accommodate everyone. I am not going to lie one of the main reasons for doing this tour was to access the new Hagrid’s ride, I have been watching this for months as it only opened in June 2019 and you cannot use an express pass for it as it is a new ride. The average wait time is 2.5 hours and it can be very unpredictable and can close early for the day so getting on it is tricky.

Our guide PJ got us on it first thing and it was one of the highlights of my trip, I felt so lucky to get to experience it. I held my breath alone about the elderly couple who were in the front row ahead of me not realising what the hell they were sat on and what was ahead of them. I think it took that woman the bones of two hours to recover from. They were from Long Island and great craic to be fair, still skitting at her robbing toilet roll from the restaurant in the VIP area and her sons eyes nearly bursting out of their sockets indicating for her to put it back. The VIP tour consists of walking you front of the line of the rides, going behind the scenes, seeing how the rides work, getting insider info, going into the control room, lunch and an amazing day out. You typically do about 7 rides and we did 11 the day we had the tour, PJ was working there for 12 years and he was a movie buff you could tell the man was living his dream as movies and Universal was his life. He was one of the staff chosen to show the Harry Potter cast how Diagon Alley worked when they got to first visit and showed us a video of that day. He brought us to where the Spiderman ride worked and informed us about each cart costing $1 million, that there are 22 carts in total on the ride and one is missing at any given time for maintenance for a month, as it takes 15 days to take one apart and 15 days to put it back together. He told us 2000 people go on the Spiderman ride per hour and that he estimated just the Spiderman ride alone to cost in excess of $100 million.

Phoenix, with her American Girl doll we also found ear defenders for in NYC

Phoenix’s mouth was open, hanging onto every word her little fact finder brain could carry, as she interrupts him and says, “so, the carts alone cost $22 million?” to which PJ replies “yeah” to which she says “Jesus I cant even afford a bunch of bananas”, cue hysterical laughter from me, her sisters and the elderly man from Long Island who says “Hey, Im with you kid”

Full highlights including videos of our day to day in the US can be found on my Instagram page outinthestickswithsix

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