Category Archives: amusement parks

Coney Island Nostalgia

coney island Home to the first enclosed amusement park in America, the famed Nathan’s 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest,  and the site of countless American tales Coney Island, New York was once billed as “Heaven at the end of a subway ride.” After decades of neglect, this once vibrant seaside attraction has been given a major facelift, but has that caused it to lose its historical charm?

My first trip to Coney Island was almost two decades ago when my husband – a Brooklyn native who grew up blocks from the famous boardwalk— and I spent a quasi-honeymoon weekend eating Nathan’s, watching a guy hammer a nail into his nasal cavity and holding on for dear life in Deno’s Spook-A-Rama. For a kid from the California coast, this place was a dirty, gritty, run-down piece of nostalgia. You could almost see actual fleas in the Flea Market. It was every stereotype I’d imagined Brooklyn to be… and I loved it!

In the years since that first visit, many of the things that gave Coney Island its uniqueness have vanished. The Nickle Empire, a nickname it earned back in its heyday when visitors could enjoy a knish and rides for five-cents each, is quickly becoming a Jackson Hole. {try to get out of there without spending at least $20} Gone are the rickety stalls selling oddities and baubles, carnival games with chipped paint facades and character. In their place sparkle the glowing beacons of chain stores and restaurants.

Come to Coney Island, eat at Applebees?

My youngest daughter sitting in the same spot her dad loved growing up, but seeing a far different Coney Island
My youngest daughter sitting in the same spot her dad loved growing up, but seeing a far different Coney Island

As Goliath thrill rides designed by the same folks responsible for Six Flags crowd into the new Luna Park, I wonder how long the Cyclone has left {not that I’d actually ever get on the thing}. It’s not that the “new” Coney Island won’t be a wonderful place in its own right, but rather that with the gentrification of the area comes the end of an era.

Certainly, there must be enough chain restaurants to sustain the appetite of those who love an afternoon outing at Applebee’s, endless breadsticks and bottomless appetizers. As dubious as eating fresh oysters from a stand on the Brooklyn boardwalk may sound, I’d still rather give those a go when in Coney Island.

The thought of heading to Whalburgers for fries in the shadow of the Cyclone is simply bonkers. Then again most people in Brooklyn are Mets fans and might not have a problem with South Boston’s own serving them up meat on a bun. You Yankees fans should be ashamed.

It seems that progress is steaming along down Surf Avenue. Sigh

Coney Island Mermaid ParadeI suggest you go visit Coney Island now. Soon the only mermaids marching in the parade may be Disney princesses and not Drag Queens.


6 Secrets at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Secrets RevealedWindswept clouds kissed with fading sunlight drift low in the sky yielding slowly to magic on the wings of the night. The air around us heavy with wonder, we boarded the Hogwarts Express bound for Hogsmead Village. The crowds had gone, the park was closed,  we had the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and all its secrets to ourselves.

When my oldest {now 21 – talk about magic, blink your eyes and POOF!} was still small enough to cuddle up next to me and beg for a story, I started reading him a tale told of a boy who lived. Through three more children, seven books and eight movies, the world created by J. K. Rowling has been a part of our family since that very first page. 

You can imagine how excited we were to return to that world for an insider’s peek behind the magic at Universal Studios Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There is so much to see, so many details, that we could go back every year and still not see it all. Here are a few secrets we learned on at VIP tour with Universal and our friends from Family Forward, that you won’t want to miss when you visit.

We may all be Muggle born, but magic lives in us.

“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”  ~ Albus Dumbledore

#1 Leave Your Muggle Money Behind

Head over to Diagon Alley, tucked in a corner to the right of Gringotts {aka Escape from Gringotts – the ride} is the money exchange. Here you’ll have your name taken and placed in the goblin ledgers by a cantankerous goblin banker who interacts with you before approving the exchange of your muggle money for wizarding currency. YES you can spend it at Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes to buy a skiving snack box – though I can’t vouch for the potency of the puking pastilles. 

note: spend it all, as you can not take your wizarding cash with you back to land of muggles.

#2 Run At The Wall Between Platforms 9 & 10

The line to board the Hogwarts Express headed for Hogsmeade Village is an almost unnervingly exact replica of Kings Cross Station in London – all the way down to the ceiling tiles and adverts. Just like in the books, you’ll have to pass through the wall to get on the platform at 9 3/4.  Have someone in your group linger around the corner and catch a video of you as you disappear through the wall.  

#3 Let The Wand Choose You {or not}

Olivanders Wand Shop is one of the most popular attractions on the Hogsmeade side of the park. While the experience of having the wand choose you is AMAZING {we’re talking “backfiring” spells, boxes popping about, and whispering wands} that wait can be anything but. You can skip it if the line is too long and buy a wand in the shop. If you do, opt for the optic wand it really is magic.  

The enclosed map leads you to points around the park where, if you have the proper flourish to your wand skill and use the proper incantation, magic happens! Make water spout from the walls, open the box of an enormous chocolate frog, set a Phoenix aflame and more.

#4 Keep Your Eye on the Willow

As you head from Hogsmeade Village back to London and Diagon Alley, be sure to keep an eye out the window. Only in this direction can you see the “Easter Egg” hidden in the English countryside. As the sky darkens and the thunder rolls, keep your eyes on the willow. Lighting strikes and a gnarled tree becomes He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named for the span of a flash.

Head Quarters of The Order - Wizarding World of Harry Potter

#5 Who’s That in the Window?

Keep an eye out when you stop for that selfie at Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, you might just get photobombed. I’m being sirius there is someone luring behind that black curtain. Ha!

#6 It’s Getting Hot in Here

She’s escaped the dank caverns of Gringotts, and the cruelty endured therein. Now perched atop the bank, this Ukrainian Ironbelly {yes, I’m a proud Potter Nerd who knew this!} is so angry she’ll breathe fire. When you hear the rumble, it’s coming. Get out of the way – or better yet get a better spot to snap a picture in. I suggest standing near the exit of The Leaky Cauldron.

Secrets of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter RevealedSome Extra Tips

Both Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley {which, by the way also includes Knockturn Alley} are located towards the back of their parks – you’ll need a park-to-park pass to visit both – and you’ll want to bypass all the other attractions and get there first as they fill up FAST!

Not riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey? You can still go into Hogwarts and explore. See the talking portraits on the walls, visit Dumbledore’s office, stop into Defense Against the Dark Arts class.  Also, there are child waiting rooms on the more “grownup” rides where one parent can wait with the kids who can’t {or in my case won’t – whimps} ride while the other does, and then you can switch out.

Eat at The Leaky Cauldron! The food is wonderful, and not just by theme park standards, but by picky Food Snob families like mine.


All rides at Universal Orlando have wheelchair access. Some even have specially built cars and platforms designed to allow family members with special needs to fully enjoy the park just like the rest of their family and friends. 

Secrets of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Revealed


Disclosure: We paid for this trip. That said, as attendees of the Family Forward Conference, discounts were provided and a number of VIP experiences were afforded to us as attendees. As always, my opinions are my own, because you deserve nothing less! 

Diagon Alley!

It is no secret that I am a 40-something mud blood still waiting for my letter from Hogwarts. I remain convinced that a wolf ate the owl that was headed to my house, letter in beak. Further proving that I am no muggle, Universal Studios has finally announced the opening date for the NEW Diagon Alley at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter… July 8th, 2014

My Birthday!!!!