That time we raced a hurricane and won....
Since they started building it, I’ve dreamed of going to Harry Potter World. We had planned to go do Orlando theme parks in the summer of 2020, but... you know. Originally, we were going to drive down through Atlanta and back, but Cari had a great idea to make a loop around the Carolinas and visit more places along the way. My friend from work (thanks Ms. Rovira!) gave me some good tips on locations, so we used that to plot out a course up the coast.
With everything booked, tickets bought, etc. etc.... We’re about to set off... Reports come in about Hurricane Elsa to make landfall in Florida the day after we’re supposed to arrive... By the way, what butthead decided to name a hurricane “Elsa” that is set to brush by Disney?
Great, so, a hurricane. I am not trying to be insensitive! I know and sympathize that there are FAR WORSE and terrible things that happen due to hurricanes than a ruined vacation, but still... It was a scary prospect. Had to do some risk analysis as we went. Many of our plans were non-refundable.
July 4 – St. Louis, Missouri to Nashville, Tennessee
Cari and I set out from St. Louis early in the
morning. We saw a Superman statue and made a stop to take some selfies. We also
stopped by of the Grand Ole Opry for sight seeing.
Before knowing about Elsa, I had thought leaving July 4th could be fun, so we could do fireworks in a different city. Turns out, Nashville claims to run the biggest fireworks show in the country. Brad Paisley performed a concert, then fireworks were set off, timed with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. It was pretty great!
July 5 – Nashville, Tennessee to Atlanta, Georgia
We drove pretty hard all day, waking up late. We were tired after the fireworks, also driving in Atlanta was stressful. We had planned on doing some historical exploration, but we were beat. We instead opted for swimming and eating dinner at the hotel (most of our hotels were Drury, so we always had a pool and they do a “free” dinner/drinks each night).
Also, we watched the weather reports and
formulated a decision. Basically, the hurricane was hitting the shores of
Florida (a good ways north of Orlando) on July 7th, and then passing
above Florida to the Savannah, Georgia area. So, the choice was wait it out
another day or two in Atlanta, or get to our hotel in Orlando tomorrow and outrace
the arrival of the hurricane and hope it doesn’t suddenly turn toward us. We
chose to go for it!
July 6 – Atlanta, Georgia to Orlando, Florida
We were serious about making the 8 hour drive as quick as possible to avoid Elsa, so we ate breakfast and made good time. We blazed through the drive. Had about 5 minutes of Florida-type rain, but the rest was clear skies and an easy drive. We got to the hotel and swam, enjoyed our evening. We made some stops to enjoy the palm trees and catch some rays.
July 7 – Orlando, Florida
I opened the curtains early and it looked stormy and windy... but that passed quick. The hurricane completely missed us, basically. Far north of us. Anyway, that was that, and it was Harry Potter World/Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure day! It only really rained in the morning, and the lines were pretty short (probably due to locals cancelling plans for Elsa).
I’ll take a moment here to say I know Harry Potter
is going through a problematic phase due to the author’s dumb opinions on an
important matter that she is 100% wrong about. I have very complex thoughts in
regards to supporting Harry Potter as a franchise (but I don’t want to go into
them here, but I would discuss it with anyone who wants to message me privately).
Regardless, I had an amazing time seeing Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, and
everything. Special, magical, full immersion into my childhood’s literary
escape. I will say, I liked pumpkin juice more than butter beer, but the butter
beer ice cream was fantastic. We also rode Transformers, Jurassic Park’s River
Adventure, Skull Island Reign of Kong, Shrek 4D, Revenge of the Mummy, and a
special surprise was how amazing the Bourne Stuntacular was (we got in right
before our shuttle back to the hotel came)!
Overall, we really lucked out, missing the hurricane. Whew!
July 8 – Orlando, Florida
Our original plan was to hit up the beach and rent a goft cart, rest up before more parks tomorrow... but David got the bright idea to switch it up and do Disney’s Animal Kingdom instead.
I REALLY loved Animal Kingdom! I think it’s the best designed park out of all of them, for this reason: constant shade. This park was just pleasant to walk through. Lots of plant coverage, between rides and animal exhibits. We did Kilimanjaro Safaris, The Lion King show, Kali River Rapids (the first and last ride of our day!), Maharajah Jungle Trek, Expedition Everest.
About mid-day, we had lunch under this sheltered area, and it proceeded to DOWNPOUR rain pretty hard... but honestly, it felt WONDERFUL and cooled the park off for the rest of the day. Also, as soon as we were done eating, the rain stopped and didn’t return (we timed it well!). We rode Dinosaur the Ride, Bug’s Life Show, Na’vi River Journey. The Flight of Passage’s lines were 2 hours, so we skipped and rode River Rapids again. Overall, just a fantastic day at a park we hadn’t originally planned on going to.
July 9 – Orlando, Florida
Magic Kingdom – a hot day, but we got it all done! Cari surprised me by pulling out a Minnie Mouse skirt and shirt that matched my Mickey shirt. She had me do her hair in Minnie Mouse ear-buns. I did my best! I called her Cutie Mouse all day and she blushed (not deleting that, sorry, Cari!).
We headed straight for Pirates Of the Caribbean, did
Jungle Cruise, Tiki Tiki room show, ate some snacks then went to Splash
Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain. Country Bear Jamboree was dead. We did
Mickey’s Philharmagic to cool off, then It’s A Small World. We explored the
castle, then did Space Mountain (ride half-broke down, so it took longer), Buzz
Lightyear’s Space Ranger. We had a fancy dinner date at the Liberty Tree
Tavern, then the fireworks show began right after. Truly a magical day!
July 10 – Orlando, Florida
Our final Theme Park day was at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Yes, I got my 7am queue for Rise of the Resistance. I really think this was the best ride/ride experience I’ve ever had! I LOVED it! We did Star Tours, Smuggler’s Run (top three best rides EVER), and explored the Galaxy’s Edge. Muppets were broken down, sadly, but we ate lunch at Rizzo’s Pizza (Pizza Rat) which was awesome! During lunch, we heard everyone in the restaurant gasp, yell, or shout... turns out it was the second and last shot to get in queue for Rise of the Resistance, and everyone was either really happy or sad. The virtual queue experiment is frustrating to me. There’s got to be a better way.
Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway was phenomenal (top three best rides EVER). The projection mapping + trackless ride is such an amazing experience. We did Toy Story Mania, watched more shows, and of course, the Tower of Terror. Another hot day, but I think Runaway Railway, Smuggler’s Run, and Rise of the Resistance were the best rides ever in any theme park. So awesome!
July 11 – Orlando, Florida to Savannah, Georgia
Before setting out to Savannah, we headed to Cape
Canaveral to do the NASA visitor’s center. It was really fantastic. Gotta thank
Cari’s aunt for the idea to go. Took a bus tour, watched some shows. Saw a
spacecraft or 6. We ate space ice cream. Definitely go do this if you have an
extra Florida day to use! It was a nice break from theme parks with an
We didn’t get
to spend as much time downtown Savannah as we wanted, because we were sleepy after so much walking. But the hotel was nice!
July 12 – Savannah, Georgia to Greenville, South Carolina
Before heading to Greenville, we stopped at Tybee
Island in Georgia and went to the Lighthouse Museum. We climbed to the top,
explored several houses with furniture/items from the era. We then headed off
to the beach and took in some sun. We waded through the ocean, then enjoyed a
moment at a beachside restaurant. I collected some seashells. I had found Tybee
while browsing Google Maps. Definitely recommend going for a chill day of
Lighthouse and beach! Wish we had another night here, actually.
Got to Greenville, ate, and swam at the hotel. Relaxed!
July 13 – Greenville, South Carolina to Asheville, North Carolina, then to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
From Greenville, we drove to The Biltmore Manor, a
giant home that housed some extremely wealthy people. We took the manor tour
and did a wine tasting. A fantastic day, really. Drove through the Blue Ridge
Mountains a bit on the way.
After, we drove to our next hotel in Pigeon Forge, staying at a place with three swimming pools, two hot tubs, a splash pad, and an entire lazy river. We stopped on the road and got Bojangles, which is a food place that one of our favorite Youtubers talks about. It was a big box, so we took the rest with us.
The rest of the drive was beautiful, as we headed through the Smokey Mountains. Stopped several times at some viewing spots and took in the majesty.
July 14 – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Our first full day here, we took a down day. We mostly enjoyed the hotel pools and hot tub (which we had to ourselves). Ate the rest of the Bojangles. We went out to drive up and down the Pigeon Forge strip, which is a giant tourist trap, but I love tourist traps so there’s that. We stopped at some shops (some were so bad we left immediately). Cari saw a Wax Museum, so we did that. After, we headed to our reserved dinner at the Pirate’s Voyage Dinner and Show, which was absolutely fantastic. Lots of special effects. Great food. Great talent! Makes me want to create something like that for my students...
July 15 – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
With our Wax Museum tickets, we got entry into three other activities. One was a robot 3D shooting game/ride. Then we did a Zombie-themed haunted house, and after was a really good house of mirrors. The lighting in the mirror house made all the difference. Like, mirror mazes can be cheesy, and they did have a discount Fiona, but the house was well painted and lit up.
We went back and swam in our hotel pool, and then we headed to Dolly’s Stampede Dinner and Show. It had nearly the same food at the Pirate’s dinner, so that was annoying. The show was fantastic, but not nearly as good as the pirate one (plus, it smelled bad). Kinda felt awkward to be in a North vs. South show, especially since it’s 2021. It all ended with a “We’re ALL united in the USA!” type song, which is weird considering the premise, but OK. We sat with the North and the North won. So, history, it seems, has not changed.
July 16 – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to Louisville, Kentucky
We headed for Louisville to our next hotel. Unpacked, finished some pizza we got on the road, then did a Mega Cavern tram tour. I figured at this point, we’d enjoy doing something that drove us around (our feet were dead), and a cavern tour sounded different from anything else we’ve done. The underground tour took us below the grounds of the zoo, and we saw a stockpile of road salt that was enormous. Lots of mannequins displays there, and a random movie about nuclear fallout. I enjoyed it! Cool and refreshing!
July 17 – Louisville, Kentucky to St. Louis, Missouri
We wanted to drive by the Churchill Downs before heading home. The Downs were beautiful, but the surrounding neighborhoods were pretty run down.
We drove home and enjoyed a night in a soft bed!
I’m editing a big video from the vacation, so I’ll be posting that soon!