gringotts dragon

You know the wait time is enormous these days at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, so if you want to go, we have some tips to make sure you don’t spend half the day in the park waiting for this one ride, though we have to say, it’s worth the wait.

First:  Stay on property.  This will get you in the parks an hour before everyone else.  The Express Pass won’t currently work for the Harry Potter rides, so getting into the park early is helpful.

des payne first in diagon alley

Go straight to Universal Studios Florida and walk past everything else–go directly to the Gringotts Bank ride.  You can stop and check everything else out later.  And trust me, you’ll want to.  When you step off the ‘streets of London’ into Diagon Alley, you’re going to be blown away by all the wonderful Wizarding World attractions.  But the ride you want to take most is Harry Potter’s Escape from Gringotts Bank.  The entrance is right under the massive dragon perched on top of the bank.  The guards at the gate will tell you how long the wait is.  If it’s under two hours, do a happy dance.  If it’s longer, you might want to consider getting in the single rider line.  It’s quicker.

Then, once in line, go ahead and make friends with the people in front of you and behind you, because standing next to them for the next few hours, you can’t help but start talking to each other.

Don’t worry if you get hungry or thirsty…there’s a food stand while you wait in line.  And if you have to go to the restroom, it’s ok if you come out of line and leave the attraction for the restroom—just be sure to get one of the yellow tickets from the guards at the bank so that they will let you back in line and everyone else will know you’re not skipping them.

This ride is going to blow you away.  Promise.  My children still say the first Harry Potter ride—in Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure—is their favorite, but I like this better.


The Hogwarts Express is also pretty amazing.  You can’t help but feel like you’re one of the students headed to Hogwarts when you climb aboard.  You’ll catch different scenes as you travel from London to Hogwarts (or from Hogwarts to London if you’re catching the train back to Diagon Alley).  You are literally going between parks on this ride and are required to have the park to park admission to board.  But when you get off on etiher side, you’ll be able to enjoy a Butterbeer and other attractions that your kids will love (oh admit it, you’ll love them, too).


If you are a real Harry Potter fan, plan to spend half the day in Diagon Alley, if not longer.   The shops sell all kinds of great Harry Potter memorabilia, including school capes (or robes, depending on what you call them, but these are high quality and cost about $115) that match whichever school you would be part of if you were a character in the book (do yourself and take the quiz on to find out before you go…you’ll feel like instant family with others wearing your school colors in the park).

Have lunch at the Leaky Cauldron (the food was actually really delicious) and get an ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlor.


Splurge on a wand—and get the interactive one that they now offer.  There will be spots around both Harry Potter Worlds where you’ll be able to use them to make it rain on people, or light up monuments and more.

dragon fire night

Inside Diagon Alley, you’ll find amazing treats, from the fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringotts (it’s still for about 15 minutes, then you’ll hear a roar and then see the fire a few seconds later), to the snake speaking Parseltongue outside the Magical Menagerie (you have to stand in an exact spot and listen carefully).

gringotts money

You can bring muggle money to Gringotts Bank and the Goblin will transfer it to Wizarding money which can be used anywhere in Diagon Alley.

double bus

Even off Diagon Alley, on the streets of London, you’ll find more fun, including the double decker Knight bus that was famous in the Harry Potter stories.  The conductor and Dre Head will even talk to you if they’re around.

no creature   creature at snapes window

Kreacher the House Elf can also be spotted peeking out of the window at 12 Grimmauld Place (look in the upper right window), and true fans will spot the billboard at the entrance to the train station and recognize it’s resemblance to that you also see in the movie.

train sign

We were able to jump on the Hogwarts Express about 20 minutes before the park closed one night and had absolutely no wait.  Then, we ran over to ride ‘Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’…again, with no wait at all.  If you still have any energy left that late, I highly recommending trying to ride then.  That same logic won’t work in Diagon Alley, though, because they close the line down sooner, taking the long wait into account with the closing of the park.

Of course, there’s plenty more to see in the parks, but this should help the biggest Harry Potter fans make the most of their day.

If you want to know how to save money and still be a VIP at the parks, read this.



by Desiree Miller on August 24, 2014

universal entrance

If you want to make the most of Universal Orlando, you really must buy an admission ticket to both parks—Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure–located adjacent to each other at Universal’s City Walk.  There are a few reasons for that, but the biggest is that the best attraction at Universal, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Diagon Alley, or more specifically the Hogwarts Express, requires passes to both parks in order to ride.

And, for reasons I’ll spell out below, you’re also going to want to buy admission for at least two days.

My family recently visited and only had about a day and a half to enjoy it all.  We learned some valuable tips on how to cover all the territory—and how to save money while still feeling like a VIP.

For example, with minimal time, you’re going to want the Express Pass for everyone traveling with you.  The rate for that pass is based on the day you go (it varies each day), but averages about $100 a person.  That’s on top of your park admission (which also varies, based on if you’re buying park to park, one day, two day or more), but that extra expense is very worth the cost if you don’t have more than a couple of days in the park.  It essentially lets you walk to the front of any line that the pass is accepted for in the park, so you’ll be able to enjoy other parts of Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure without the wait.

But if you don’t want to pay that extra $100 per person (per day if you want the Express Pass more than one day), there is a way to get it for free for everyone in your party.  You just have to stay on property at one of the ‘deluxe’ hotels, the Express Passes come with your stay.  It’s important to note this does not include the ‘moderate value’ Cabana Bay hotel.  However, all hotels will get you access to the parks one hour earlier than everyone else.  With wait times that approach four hours for the Diagon Alley ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts Bank, that hour can make a huge difference in your day.

It’s also important to note that if you stay just one night at the deluxe hotel, you get Express Passes for free the day you check in and the day you check out, so if you have four people in your party, that could add up to $400 savings each day!


(Loew’s Portofino)

Of course, you have to figure in the price of that one night in the ‘deluxe’ resort.  For Loews Portofino, that may be about $295.  A night at Cabana Bay will most likely run about $125 each night. But there’s a way to pay less than that for the hotels—and still save on park admissions, food and souvenirs around the park.  That’s with the Annual Pass.

Florida residents pay less, but everyone else can get an Annual Preferred Pass for about $260.  With park admission at about $130 per person (for park to park, one day admission), it pays for itself within two visits.  The savings on the resort and other discounts becomes icing on the cake.

The key to all of this, though, is doing it in the right order.

You’re going to want to get the annual pass first.  You can purchase it online.

Then, you can book the resort at the reduced rate for annual pass holders.

Stay in the deluxe resort (expect to pay about $200 instead of $295 with your annual pass) for one night to get the two days of Express Passes, then reserve your next night at the Cabana Bay (which will run closer to $79 with your annual pass, compared to $129 a night).  The resort will move your bags for you to the next resort if you request it before you leave for the park that morning.

When you check in at the deluxe resort, you’ll be able to print your Express Passes.  Be sure each person in your party is with you because their photo is taken when the passes are printed.

You can purchase your park tickets in the hotel at that time, too.

It sounds confusing, but it’s not.  Just do it in the right order.

What do you do when you get there?

Read this post for tips on how to maximize your time in the parks.

universal sunset

 (Universal Orlando at sunset)


Cool New #KidQApp Keeps You and Your Kids in the Know

by Desiree Miller on August 24, 2014


(Note to readers: I was asked by Scholastic Parent & Child to write this post and compensated for this review.  My opinion—as always—remains my own.)

Why is the sky blue? How come dogs have toenails? Is it true that bullfrogs don’t sleep?

As a parent, you just never know what question could come out of your child’s mouth next, and it is often humbling to find out just how little you know when they hit their curiosity stage.

When my children ask me a question on a topic I never stopped and considered before, I like to suggest they look it up online.  It’s unlikely they’re going to run to a computer and log on in search of the answer, but a new children’s phone app may have their answers at their fingertips, no matter where we are.

The KidQ app from Scholastic Parent & Child is packed with answers to the kinds of things your kids want to know…and even though it’s designed for little ones, I believe kids of all ages (even me, as an adult) will find interesting.

I get a kick out of learning new things with my children, and they have a lot of fun finding out about things that strike them as odd and interesting (things they may never be tested on in school, but could ignite a new hobby or passion).

Go ahead and download the free app by clicking here.

Spend five minutes playing with it with your children and let me know if you didn’t learn SOMETHING new.

The key is to make sure you do it together…to make this something that gets you talking with your kids.  You never know where this one question and answer could lead in the conversation that follows.  There are fun facts that follow each answer…we find those as interesting as the answers.

The app is even set up so that you can have a question of the day sent to you each day at a specific time.  I set mine up for 6:40am, right when we’re getting ready for the youngest to head to school, just to get her mind in gear for learning—and to remind her that it’s fun to find out new things.

Today’s question: Why do feet smell?

Now you need to download the app to get the answer (when you search, be sure you plug in Scholastic Kids as part of the search or you may end up with the wrong app).  Feel free to come back and comment below about what new thing you learned with the app.


(Video) Holman Ranch Review, Carmel Valley, California

by Desiree Miller on August 24, 2014

(Note to readers: This post is by guest contributor Angela Walker. She visited Holman Ranch as a representative for and her stay at the resort was covered. She was not otherwise compensated and her opinion expressed below is her own.)

If you are looking for the kind of getaway where you can disconnect from electronics and reconnect with your spouse, Holman Ranch can offer that kind of retreat. 

Located in California’s scenic Carmel Valley, Holman Ranch sits perched looking out over rolling verdant hills and its own vineyard.

Its history runs as deep as its vineyards, dating back to when it was a mission and a part of Mexico. From ranch hands to businessmen, Holman Ranch has many stories to tell and you can get a more detailed scoop by visiting their site.

The rooms were recently renovated and have a rustic appeal.  If that’s what you enjoy, you’ll be thrilled, but know up front they are not promoting a five-star luxury feel or the crazy fun of some all-inclusives.  if you’re looking for wild, you may want another resort, because the town shuts down by 10 p.m. In fact, the only thing wild about Holman Ranch and Carmel Valley would be the flowers.

Carmel Valley is a small town complete with a working-class bar, a mix of specialty shops, and dimly-lit restaurants where visitors can dine on juicy filets. This is also where Holman Ranch’s tasting room is located, staffed with knowledgeable and friendly representatives.

While I enjoyed the retreat from reality with my husband, I craved a bit more action. You know, a night life that extended beyond my kids’ bedtimes. Holman Ranch has a pool, but it’s not heated. In Northern California, that’s like owning a fur coat in Miami-it’s beautiful, but you can’t use it.

In a wine region that is off the beaten path, Holman Ranch gets high marks for its scenery, but left this mom still yearning a chance to cut loose a bit more with more opportunities for manufactured relaxation, such as mani/pedi or a mini night out-on-the-town.


Wine and Whine: Celebrating Birthdays or Any Day Via Skype

by Desiree Miller on August 24, 2014


(Note to readers: This post was sponsored by Microsoft, but my opinion–as always–remains my own.)

Birthdays used to mean a great excuse to get your favorite friends and family together to celebrate another spin around the sun, but my closest friends are now scattered around the globe, and the reality is, it takes more than a birthday celebration to book a flight for a visit.  We have kids, jobs, responsibilities that make ‘dropping everything’ a whole lot harder than it used to be.  But some of my pals have found a new way to ‘see’ each other and spend time together, on our birthdays and beyond.  We Skype.

Maybe we’ve had a rough week.  We call for a ‘Wine and Whine’ session… we each pour a glass of our favorite beverage (in my case, coconut rum and coke can transport me to a tropical island in no time), dial up each other’s video Skype at a specified time, and have a group chat where we can sit and vent.  We can get serious or be silly, but it’s as close to being in the same room with each other as possible.  Last week, we even shared an impromptu lunch over Skype.

It was short and sweet, and scheduled at the last minute, but it was nice to be able to ‘check in’ like that with each other—to see each other’s face and know by the look in their eyes, the way that friends know—that we were ok or not.  In this crazy, busy world, it’s good to have a friend say they care, even if they can’t reach out and hug you.  The Skype session serves as a virtual hug of sorts.

There are lots of other uses for Skype.  Spend ten minutes on the Skype blog and you’ll see teachers incorporating it into their classrooms, parents checking in with their college students (my son barely tolerates texting with me, so I’m jealous of the moms who get to Skype with their kiddos), and long distance loves keeping their relationships alive through Skype.  I know I would have loved this option over the expensive long distance phone bills I endured when my boyfriend moved far away back in my early 20’s.

It’s so simple to Skype, too.  You just need a computer, tablet or cell phone, an Internet connection and a Skype account.  It’s free and easy to set up.  And it’s a great substitute for an expensive flight when what you want most is a visit with a friend.


The Birthday Card That I Just Can’t Open

August 21, 2014

My dad was never big on birthdays or holidays, saying they were ‘just another day’, but my mom was the complete opposite, taking advantage of every day on the calendar that she could turn into a celebration…sometimes even making her own holiday, like the days we’d come home from college (she’d hang ‘Welcome Home’ signs on the door and have our favorite donuts waiting in the kitchen). As kids, she’d dress us up in clothes to match the celebrations, from green shirts on St. Patrick’s Day to velvet dresses for […]

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(VIDEO) College Football Hall of Fame Set to Open in Atlanta

August 20, 2014

We all know college football is HUGE in the South, and now, Atlanta, Georgia, is home to the shrine of all things awesome in the sport with the opening of the College Football Hall of Fame.  The 94,256 square foot building is located adjacent to the Georgia World Congress Center on Marietta Street, next to Centennial Olympic Park and near the Georgia Dome. I was able to get a look inside before it opened as part of a media day and have to say, you are going to LOVE it!! […]

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Alabama Shakes Performs in Mercedes-Benz Evolution Tour (VIDEO)

August 16, 2014

Catching a live concert of one of your favorite groups is always great, but when that concert only includes a couple hundred people, like the Alabama Shakes performance for the Mercedes-Benz Evolution Tour, great doesn’t come close to explaining its awesomeness. The tour is making its way around the country now and you can win tickets online (that’s the only way to get in the door).  It’s pretty simple if you follow the steps for uploading a photo or making a comment online.  Click here for the link for tour […]

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The ‘Other Side’ Speaks Out; I’m White and Outraged, Too

August 14, 2014

America is a great country that stands for equality for all, but we sure aren’t living it these days. I am a white woman.  I have children, including a 20-year old son.  I do not worry that my son will be shot down by police if he happens to be walking in the middle of the road late one night. I also have a 24-year old brother.  He is African-American.  For about a year, he lived with me in my small town just outside of Atlanta.  I worried every single […]

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Waterpik Spray Shaper Review

August 14, 2014

(Note to readers: I was sent a sample of this product to be able to give you a proper review. I was not otherwise compensated and, as always, my opinion remains my own.) I’m a water baby. I admit it.  I just feel better when I’m in and around the water, and luckily, that includes baths or showers at home.  But that does not include when you don’t have the right kind of shower head.  You know what I’m talking about… shower heads can be a little like cars…you have […]

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