Happiest place on Earth!

Now what can possibly be happier than being on a cruise ship to the Bahamas! If you ask Manasi – cruise or not – she would probably say the Hogwarts castle at Universal Studies, Orlando! So she was pretty excited when we decided to add a couple of days buffer before and after the cruise – air travel these days, with flight delays, crew shortages and a myriad other things that can go wrong! 2 days in Orlando! – bring it on!! Again, with the large group – the hardest part is deciding which parks to go to – of course, a day at Universal Studios was the unanimous choice – but we had 1, possibly 2 more days to fill. The grandparents would have liked a day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom – but the kids were united in their disdain – sadly, all of them seem to have outgrown the joys of Mickey Mouse! Trying to find a balance between high-adrenaline rides, and other all-age-friendly milder attractions – Animal Kingdom ended up checking all the boxes!

The biggest attraction at Animal Kingdom was the Avatar ride, so we headed straight to Pandora where the wait at the Avatar ride was a whopping 180 minutes! Well, what did we expect? 4th of July weekend – peak Disney season!! Didn’t want to wait 3 hours as soon as we got in, so we decided to go on the gentler Na’Vi River journey which would work for everyone – a mere 60 minute wait for this one. Although the ride was so sedate, almost boring – we found a way to at least let the senior citizens avoid the long waits for some of the rides. This was classic Disney – where all the attendants go above and beyond to provide the best Disney experience possible! When the situation was explained to the attendants at the start of the line, they told the rest of us to get in line. As we made our way forward, right before getting onto the ride, when we reached the next attendant checkpoint – send a picture back to our waiting group – and then the first attendant would bring them via the FastPass lane. So essentially, they let us use the FastPass lane, without actually paying for a FastPass! This little desi jugaad worked really great for the rest of the day! We did make it back to the Avatar ride at the end of the day – we had almost given up on making it, as the park closed at 8pm – we didn’t realize that as long as you were in line before 8pm, we could go on the ride. The ride itself? – definitely worth the wait!!

Heading to Asia next – we were treated with a gorgeous view of a tranquil riverside temple. Stone steps leading down to the water, backdrop of Mt. Everest and other Himalayan peaks, little tea stops dotting the paths – perfect place for the seniors to hang out while we braved the Kali River rapids – a thrilling, whitewater rafting trip! Make sure your valuables are stowed away – no matter where you sit on the raft, you will absolutely get drenched!! Also in Asia is the Expedition Everest ride – a traditional roller-coaster, a run-away train through mountain passes. Only Manasi and her cousin, Y, dared to go on that ride – yup, Ajey and I are officially too old to go on roller-coasters! Of the several shows that were scheduled during the day, Festival of the Lion King was high on the not-to-be-missed list – and like so many of the other Lion King shows we have watched over the years, this one did not disappoint!! There is something about the whole story, the songs, the costumes that goes straight to the heart – hands down, Lion King is my all-time Disney favorite!!

And, of course, it’s Animal Kingdom – so there’s plenty of animals, and plenty of viewing options. The Kilimanjaro Safari is a ride through the Harambe Wildlife Reserve – a chance to see wildlife up-close in their natural environment. Rhinos, hippos, elephants – and even a herd of my favorite giraffes! The majestic royals – a lion and a lioness lounging on rocks was the highlight! In addition to the Safari, there are a couple more walking trails – the Gorilla Falls exploration, and the this one I would have loved to go on – the Maharaja Jungle Trek to view the magnificent tigers! Truth be told, these animals looked bored out of their minds – yes, they have been provided with their natural habitats, but what about their natural activities and lifestyles? I’m always conflicted – I love watching these animals, and this is probably the only way that these species can be saved from extinction – but it’s a little weird to see them reduced to mere entertainment for us humans.

At the heart of Animal Kingdom, is the Tree of Life – a massive banyan tree, a true representation of the Circle of Life and the vast diversity of nature. Its branches and roots are elaborately carved with all kinds of animals and birds – and a walk around the tree, discovering the hidden pools and pathways is one of the more calming activities at the park. We barely had a half day at Animal Kingdom – still, felt like we made the most of our time here! Truly, the magic of nature at Disney’s magical park! Happiest place on earth? – well, maybe a close second…

And finally, we were at Universal Studios!! Back in 2018, we were here for a magical 2 days – you can read all about that here – but that hadn’t dimmed our enthusiasm even a little bit! And there was the new Hagrid’s Motorbike ride to look forward to as well!! We only had a day, and bought the 1 day, 2 park ticket – with Fast Passes for Manasi and Y – last time we were here in March, this time peak season in July – and the tickets are horrendously expensive! The kids made full use of the Fast Pass, and went on almost all the rides – as the rest of us did selected rides, they were able to go on 3 rides by the time we stood in line for 1! King’s Cross, Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, Hogwarts – even better than we remembered! We did go on the favorites – Escape from Gringotts, the Forbidden Journey – and the new Hagrid ride – was super fantabulous (and all other superlative adjectives you can think of)!

The new Fast & Furious was a bit of a disappointment – the movies had certainly raised expectations quite a bit! But the Spider Man ride was as awesome as it had been several years ago when we first went in Osaka! The kids used their Fast Pass to go on the roller-coasters – Incredible Hulk and the Jurassic Park River adventure – and after eyeing the new VelociCoaster all day – Manasi finally summoned up the courage to go on that one as well. Ajey and I stood in line with her for almost 2 hours – no Fast Pass for the new rides – and she went by herself, which was a little scary for her – and absolutely terrifying for us!! It was a scorchingly hot day – and a little tip for those seeking relief from the Orlando sun – head to Richter’s Burger company – a cool oasis in Universal Studios. Grab a table under a fan, order burger and fries from a mobile app, and cool off!

It was a very long day – and in the end, we were glad that the grandparents had opted to sit this one out. We chalked up a whopping 20,000 steps that day – and were utterly exhausted at the end of the day! And as we were walking out – after the glittering light and fireworks show at Hogwarts Castle – our hearts full, knowing we would be back at the earliest opportunity – truly, the happiest place on earth!!

Pulling together a vacation like this is a huge, huge undertaking – right from coming up with the whole idea, to the planning to the final execution – not to mention the coaxing, convincing and mood-wrangling of so many strong-minded people with so many different opinions! Even when it came precariously close to falling apart – the whole Canadian visa fiasco, and what seemed to be impossible schedules – there was one person who with a single-minded determination kept the momentum and excitement going! More often than not, as I blog about our colorful adventures – this engine that keeps us all going, this unsung hero of our travels – remains, well, unsung! So this one’s for you, Ajey – it may not be said enough or out loud, but we all notice the million myriad things you do (especially on this vacation) to make life just that little bit more comfortable! Here’s to traveling the world with you!! Santé!!

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