Universal Studios: A Rookie’s Opinion

My family has been visiting Orlando for over twenty years. We are definitely Disney people, but branched out this year and tried Universal Studios (Harry Potter, of course!). I hadn’t been to a Universal park since before having kids so I was excited to see the changes and approach it as a true rookie.

Universal 9

We arrived at the park prior to opening so I could purchase tickets.  Ticket prices for the parks were basically the same as Disney (I paid $124 each for myself and 2 kids and $119 for my youngest). Both parks charge adult prices for kids 10 and up. We only did single-day tickets, but I know they both offer discounts for multiple parks/days.  The nice woman at the ticket office offered me the opportunity to purchase the Universal Express Pass ($60) or the Express Unlimited Pass ($75) so I wouldn’t have to wait in line at most of the rides.  I know there are many people that take advantage of this, but I already spent $500 to enter the gates of the park, I darn sure wasn’t going to spend $240-$300 more. We did, however, purchase a Coca-Cola Freestyle Souvenir Cup (about $15) so we could get unlimited refills of soda, water, and ICEEs while we were there.  We aren’t huge soda drinkers, but I didn’t pack much water so I knew we would use it.

After leaving the ticket counter, we were able to enter the park and we headed straight to Diagon Alley! I read several Universal plans before we went and about half said to go to Diagon Alley first and the other half said to wait.  Haha!  That was our main reason for attending the park, so we just decided to go there and see about the crowds.

Universal 3

We made it back there after taking a few pictures and immediately went to get in line for Escape from Gringotts.  I saw people putting their things in lockers and I knew we would have to do that also.  I had read about the locker system at Universal and was really apprehensive about how much of a hassle it would be to do this at every ride.  I have to say–it was awesome.  The lockers are free (they use your fingerprint to open/close the lockers) and there are so many that we didn’t have to wait at all to get to a kiosk to get one assigned to us.  They are roomy and held our bag/hats/phones/etc.  I felt comfortable leaving my things and just enjoying the rides.


We got in line and waited about twenty minutes before we were able to ride.  The building you walk through is really cool and there were lots of things to look at so the wait didn’t seem long.  The ride was awesome and well worth the short wait.  We got our things and went to Ollivander’s to get a wand.

My daughter read all of the Harry Potter books this school year and was so hopeful that she would be picked for the wand selection process.  We went in a room with about 30 other people and…she was selected!  They went through a fun little “show” of getting her the right wand and then we all were lead into the store, which is TINY.  We purchased the wand (they are expensive, but interactive in the park) and went to go try a spell or two before letting the boys pick somewhere to go.


My guys had enough of Harry Potter for the time being and wanted to go to the Simpsons area.  We went that direction, rode both rides (that simulated coaster ride was kind of harsh–haha), played a carnival game, and took pics with the family.  We then went over to ride the Men in Black ride (fun!) and headed back to Diagon Alley.  The kids wanted to buy some candy and I wanted to try a frozen Butterbeer.  We took care of that and rushed to Universal CityWalk to meet the rest of our family at Margaritaville for lunch.

As you may know, my husband was ill for our entire trip, but he did make it to lunch.  We brought him a Butterbeer and had some great food.  The kids and I felt rested and ready to go back to tackle more of the park!  We did Shrek 4D (they LOVED it), Return of the Mummy (they HATED it–haha), and went to the Spongebob store.  My boys adore Spongebob and were so happy to shop around and take pictures.  I let them play for a bit at the Curious George water play area and we rode the kiddie Woody Woodpecker roller coaster.  Then…we went back to Diagon Alley.  We went in some more shops and my girl tried her wand a few more times.  At this point, we were all tired and ready to head back to the hotel pool.


Overall, it was a good day at an unfamiliar park.  We didn’t go in with much of a plan–I wanted it to be relaxing and fun…and it was.  We rode everything we wanted to ride except for the Minion Mayhem ride because the line was long all day.  I am really glad we didn’t buy the express passes as we did not need them.  There didn’t seem to be much of a crowd at all on the day we were there.

Things we loved:

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is hard to beat if you are a fan.  The Butterbeer was excellent and the atmosphere was amazing.  The interactive wand is a fun purchase and can be shared by all of your kids while you are there.
  • The Coca-Cola cup…seriously.  This was a smart purchase and we definitely got our money’s worth.  We kept it filled up all day with all types of drinks (including water) so we were never thirsty.
  • The non-Disney characters–we saw the Simpsons, Spongebob, Patrick, Gru, and a couple of minions.  My kids liked the change from what we normally see at theme parks.
  • Universal 6
  • The proximity to Universal CityWalk–lots of dining options that seem tastier and fancier than “park” food.

Things we did NOT love:

  • No free fast passes.  I don’t like the extra charge for the express passes.  It isn’t budget-friendly and people have already spent hundreds of dollars to be in the park.
  • The app–I didn’t hate it, but the Disney app is more user-friendly.


I don’t know if Universal Orlando will be in our regular park rotation, but we will definitely visit again.

What did we miss?  Any tips for next time?

Disney · Faith · Travel

4 Things I Should Have Done Differently at Disney

We have been to Disney World several times in the past twenty-one years that my in-laws have been Disney Vacation Club members. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I’m definitely not a novice either. However, I made some mistakes this year. Here are the 4 things I should have done differently at Disney this year:

  1. I didn’t plan ANYTHING in advance–I went in pretty confident, but really unorganized. With the hustle and bustle of school, sports, Vacation Bible School, and church camp, I just didn’t make planning a priority. I didn’t even buy my tickets until we got there. So…we didn’t have much choice when it came to FastPass or dining reservations. Luckily, we can be pretty flexible and we still made it work for us, but I’ll know better next time.  Really, I knew better this time, but I still didn’t do it.  Oops.
  2. I didn’t show up with a customized tee–there were so many cute tshirts when we went to Magic Kingdom! Families had matching ones made to commemorate their trip, there were monogrammed tees, and lots of funny ones.  You can find some cute ones here, here, and here, but there are also a ton on etsy.  If you need something fast, try the men’s section at Target–they have many cute tshirts as well.
  3. I didn’t pack enough snacks. You may know from previous posts that I’m frugal, but feel like living it up (sort of) on vacation. It seemed to me that food prices went up quite a bit since we were there last and we ended up spending way more than I wanted to on meals and snacks. Disney allows backpacks, so make sure you pack lots of snacks for your family, preferably things that won’t be squished in your bag (granola bars, fruit snacks, peanut butter or cheese crackers, etc).  You can also take in bottled water and refill at the water fountains.
  4. I didn’t take enough pictures.  Don’t get me wrong…I took several, but I was so intent on getting my kids to rides that I didn’t pause and get any great photos.  We didn’t take one picture with a character.  Not one.  Luckily, my kids don’t really care about that, but it would have been nice just to have one or two for the photo book I like to make after our trips.IMG_4027

BUT….here are 4 things I did RIGHT at Disney.

  1. I relaxed and let the kids (and the app) guide us.  I’ve mentioned before that I know we can’t fit every single thing in at Magic Kingdom so I make sure my kids each get to ride the one thing they’ve been waiting for all year.  One chose the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, one chose Splash Mountain, and one chose Space Mountain.  We did all of those (and many more) so I call that a success!IMG_3811
  2. I got a Dole Whip!  I almost didn’t.  It was late and the kids wanted to ride Buzz Lightyear.  My husband knew I was torn (haha) so he sent me for the treat while they all rode the ride and I met up with them after.  If you have never had one of these, you have got to try one.  It was perfect.IMG_4061
  3. I took a long mid-day break.  We left the park around 3 and didn’t go back until around 6, so we got a good rest period in there before we returned to shut it down.  If you are staying on-property, I highly encourage you to stop in the middle of the day and let your kids nap or swim for a bit.
  4. I counted my blessings.  Every time we go to Disney, I remind my kids how lucky we are to get to be on these trips.  Not every family gets the opportunity to go as often as we do or even ever.  The only reason we are able to go is because my in-laws are members of DVC. I want my kids to be grateful for our experiences at Disney and they truly are.

Have any advice for Disney newbies?  Have any weird Disney experiences you want to share?  Post in the comments!


Our anniversary getaway

If you have read my posts here and here, you know that my family visited Disney and Pensacola Beach in June…and my husband was sick the entire trip.

Our sixteenth anniversary was last Friday so we decided to spend a couple of nights relaxing in Dallas, Texas. I just love Texas and all it has to offer so I was super excited about going.

We booked our hotel through Priceline and ended up at the Hyatt Regency Dallas.

hyatt regency

The hotel was really nice and clean, with a cool bar area and a few restaurants.

By the time we arrived, it was almost time for dinner so we freshened up and headed to Deep Ellum. We used an Uber for the first time ever (yes, we just emerged from the dark ages) and ended up at the Twisted Root Burger Company. We ordered the Kevin Bacon and Spicy Western burgers and some fries and chips to share. The food was so good. The burgers were cooked perfectly and the toppings were tasty. I loved the atmosphere at this place–very cool and laid back.


I wasn’t able to finish my burger because I wanted one of their signature shakes! We got a Fat Elvis (peanut butter, banana) and it was awesome! No pics because we ate everything before I thought to photograph it. We walked around Deep Ellum for a bit and then headed back to the hotel. Football started back up this week so my husband was pretty tired.

The next morning, we slept in (yay!!) and got around in time to hit up Pecan Lodge for lunch. We drove this time because we knew we wanted to run around after eating. My husband loves the Pecan Lodge and has wanted to take me for a while. To be honest, I don’t love barbecue, but I know how much he likes it, so I went along with the idea.

When we arrived, the line was long inside the restaurant, but I’m told that it often is wrapped around outside, so I guess we were lucky! We didn’t end up waiting very long. I let him order because he always knows what is good. We got some brisket, sausage, okra, and macaroni and cheese…with bacon on it. I’ve been missing out–this food was amazing! Hands-down the best barbecue I’ve ever had. 

We finished up at the restaurant (we took lots to go!) and went to two of our favorite places…Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Haha! We don’t have either of those in our hometown so anytime we are near either or both, we hit them up to drool over the meat/seafood counters or buy some fun treats.

After walking around those two places, we went back to the hotel to lounge by the pool. The Hyatt Regency pool is small, but it was perfect for us. We scored a cabana and laid around for a couple of hours. It was just what I needed!

We headed upstairs and got cleaned up for dinner. We had no idea what we wanted–we just knew we would end up in the Uptown area. We did some research and made the decision to try The Common Table.


common table
Photo from their website


The restaurant had a really relaxed vibe and the food was great. We were still pretty full from lunch so we split an appetizer (philly cheesesteak egg rolls) and a main dish (chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes). I didn’t eat much because I didn’t want to be uncomfortable all night, but everything tasted delicious!

We left there and walked less than half a mile to the Katy Trail Ice House. It is basically a huge patio space with a bunch of picnic tables and twinkle lights hanging off all of the trees. They do serve food, but we came just to hang out and have a drink. The people-watching was great. There were lots of people walking/running/biking the Katy Trail behind us and some pretty fun groups hanging out at the Ice House. Haha.


We stayed for a few hours and just enjoyed talking to each other and giggling at the table next to us. It was so nice just to relax and not worry about what time it was or what else we should be doing.

After getting another Uber, we hit the sack and slept until  9 the next morning! We got ready and got on the road. We ate a quick lunch on the way home and returned to get our kids from the grandparents in the early afternoon.

This trip was exactly what we needed after the crazy year we have had.  Things are about to get really busy for us again so it was nice to have the time away, just the two of us.

Now…after all of the amazing food we ate this weekend, we have to restart the Whole30.  Haha!

Any suggestions of Dallas restaurants for us to hit up next time?

Coach's Cookin'

The Coach’s Cookin’: Jambalaya Eggrolls

When I started this blog, I assured you all that I would not be sharing any of my recipes here, and…I won’t!  I can definitely feed my family, but I’m not a great cook. My husband, however, is awesome at whipping up delicious meals.

One of the things he makes that our kids absolutely love is jambalaya egg rolls. They are as tasty and unhealthy as they sound. Haha. We don’t eat them often, but my youngest requested them for his half-birthday celebration last week so we indulged. Yes, we celebrate half-birthdays. There are no gifts or anything like that. We let the child pick whatever they want for dinner that we can make at home. It’s just something fun for our family to do.

Here’s how to make these easy crowd pleasers….


  • 1 Box of Jambalaya Mix (we like Oak Grove and Zatarain’s)
  • Already cooked sausage or chicken…or both
  • 1 pkg. egg roll wrappers
  • Oil

1. Make some boxed jambalaya mix, following the directions for that specific brand. You can use whatever is available at your local grocery.

2. Let the mixture cool a bit while you heat up your oil. We use the same Fry Daddy we got for a wedding gift, but you can use whatever device/cookware you normally use to fry things.

3. Once the jambalaya mixture is cool enough to work with, roll in the egg roll wrappers. Before rolling, use a brush or your hand to wipe the outside of the egg roll wrappers with water. We usually keep a small dish of water on the counter for this.

4. When all are rolled, fry those babies!

You can eat them just like this, but we like to add a little extra seasoning.

Frog Bone is our favorite, but any Cajun seasoning will do. Just sprinkle as much as you want on top.

To make these even better, serve with some remoulade–we use Arnaud’s.
These things are amazing! We have served them to family and friends many times and they are always impressed, which is pretty good considering this starts with a box mix!

If you need a fun new recipe to try this weekend, try these Jambalaya Eggrolls.  You won’t be sorry!

Book Reviews

Parenting a Middle Schooler: Book Review

Have a middle schooler? Going to have one someday? I taught middle school for seven years before moving to the high school and I can remember having multiple parent conferences where the parents stated, ” we just don’t know what to do with him/her!”

These were not bad parents and they weren’t parenting bad kids. Middle school is tough–for the kids and for the parents (and the teachers–haha). Our church did a study of the book Middle School: The Inside Story last year. We did not attend the classes, but I did get a copy of the book.


This is a Focus on the Family book and while it encourages conservative values, I didn’t find it to be “preachy.” The book is broken up into four parts:

  1. Part One: Changes–this section of the book discusses both physical changes and changes in perspective.
  2. Part Two: Parenting–focuses on what your child actually needs from you at this age, communication, and discipline.
  3. Part Three: Friends and Other Problems–this part talks about fitting in, relationships with the opposite sex, and any red flags you may encounter.
  4. Part Four: School–shares information about learning styles and many other school/homework/teacher issues.

Each chapter includes quotes from middle school students, parents, and teachers as well as sections titled “Here’s a Thought” that contain specific parenting tips.

My husband and I are parenting a middle schooler and a preteen right now and this book has been so helpful! We have both worked successfully with kids for many years, but we definitely can use help with figuring things out in our own family!

My favorite chapter discusses communicating with your middle schoolers. I tend to raise my voice or use sarcasm when my kids push my buttons, but the authors of this book suggest many ways to stay “adult” and not engage in this behavior.

The book can be purchased here (affiliate link).

I hope you find this book helpful.  Any middle school parenting tips you would like to share?


Oklahoma Travel: Pioneer Woman Mercantile

In my opinion, it is rare to find a jewel such as Ree Drummond. She is humble, kind, a loving mother, and a genius in the kitchen. I’ve watched her show for years and read all of her books.  At my house, we reference the cookbooks many times throughout the year when we are trying to find something tasty to make–my husband loves the Marlboro Man sandwich.

Since opening her store/restaurant/coffee shop, my mom and I have dreamed about making a visit. We decided that Spring Break would be a perfect time, so we made plans and added a few to our party. My mom, daughter, sister-in-law, her mom, and my niece hopped in our cars and headed that direction. It was close to a four-hour drive so our plans were to get into Pawhuska, where the Mercantile is located, and just shop around there.


We arrived after lunch, looked around the shop for awhile, and then went upstairs to peruse the bakery and coffee shop. When we got up there, we ran in to Ladd, Ree’s husband! He was so gracious and kind and took pictures with everyone who asked. When a child in line started crying, he went behind the counter and got the child a cookie. So sweet! When we got up to the counter, it was really hard to make our decision as to what to try. I got an iced Spicy Cowgirl coffee and a cinnamon roll to share–they are huge! Both items were delicious.


Our attempt at a selfie.  Haha!


At this point, everybody was pretty tired and my niece needed a nap, so we left the Merc and drove about 30 minutes to our hotel in Bartlesville.  There are not many places to stay in Pawhuska, so we chose Bartlesville because it was the next closest town.  I used Priceline (my fave) to book our rooms.  We relaxed for a short while and then went to a local Mexican restaurant, El Maguey, for dinner.  It was great fun having some girl-of-all-ages bonding time.  After eating, we were all pretty tired so we went back to the hotel to get some rest before our early start in the morning.

Our plan was to be at the Merc by 7 AM for breakfast.  We arrived a few minutes later than that and there was a line already!  Luckily, the staff at the Mercantile was prepared for the large Spring Break crowds.  A nice gentleman brought out several propane tank heaters and a lovely woman came out to entertain us with stories about the history of Pawhuska and the Drummond Ranch.  We didn’t wait very long, but rumor has it that not long after we moved inside, workers took hot cocoa outside to the people waiting to eat.


Once inside, the smell was overwhelmingly good and we couldn’t wait to order!  You can find the current menu here to see why we were so excited to eat.  My daughter and I shared the Farmer’s Breakfast and a biscuit with gravy.  I got another Spicy Cowgirl coffee.  The food was amazing, but I secretly wanted my sister-in-law’s pancakes–they came with three different types of syrup, one being Salted Caramel, my favorite! Don’t worry–she shared.

We shopped a little more after breakfast and then decided to head to the Lodge.  The Lodge is where Ree and her family film her Food Network show.  It is only open for viewing on certain dates (check here) and you have to ask for a “ticket” (directions) at the shop at the Mercantile.

This was something we didn’t really expect to do.  We were all tired and I wasn’t sure our whole party would want to make the drive out to the Lodge, but…it was my absolute favorite part!  The Lodge is absolutely beautiful!  It is nestled right past a little hill, overlooking some homes (not hers–I asked!  Haha) and farmland.  The property is enormous.  I had no idea how big the kitchen would be in real life, but it’s huge.  There are four beautiful bedrooms/bathrooms, a commercial kitchen, and many cool hang-out spaces.  They let us walk around the entire place–we even got to see where Ree does her hair/makeup when filming.  There was a lovely young lady at the Lodge who filled us in on all kinds of fun facts about the Drummond family and the property.





We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and are planning on making a trip back with all of my aunts. I can’t wait for them to try the food and see all of the cool things Ree offers in her store.  Our goal is to do a little more exploring in Pawhuska and Bartlesville and make it to the Merc for lunch or dinner.  Hopefully, we’ll get to take them to the Lodge as well.

This would definitely make a great day (or two) trip if you live in Oklahoma or just happen to be visiting.  For more information or to shop her products, you can access the Mercantile webpage here.


Florida 2017: Part Two

To read about days 1-6 of our trip go to part one of this post.

To recap…we drove for three long days and spent four fun nights at Disney. My husband was sick the entire time we were in Orlando, so we were more than ready to get to the beach! We always tack on a beach trip after our time at Disney and have visited many places, including Cocoa Beach, Panama City, Destin, and Indian Pass.  This was our first time staying in Pensacola…


Day Seven: Heading to the Beach

We woke up fairly early, packed our cars, and headed out of Orlando.  My husband felt well enough to drive until lunch, when we stopped at Zaxby’s (we must love that place).  After eating, his dad took over to do the rest of the driving.  We arrived at our condo around 3, got everything unpacked, and made ourselves at home.  We stayed here and it was gorgeous! My in-laws booked us a 4-bedroom, 4-bath condo overlooking the pool and the beach.  Pictures can be deceiving, but this place was even better in person!


After we hung out for awhile, we headed to Perdido Key for dinner.  My husband’s cousin and his wife just happened to be on vacation in the area at the same time as us, so we met up with them.  We ate right on the water at the Perdido Key Oyster Bar.  The food was delicious (I had the Jerk Mahi) and the atmosphere was great.  We hit WalMart for some groceries and then went to bed, eager to lay on the sand the next day.

Day Eight: Rough Waters

The red flags were flying on our first beach day.  I was really nervous about letting our kids get in the water so I continuously reminded them not to go out very far.  It was pretty hard for me to relax and I encouraged lots of playing in the sand.



My husband actually felt pretty good this day and we were hopeful that he was kicking whatever was ailing him. We went in for a bit at lunch and then spent the rest of the day at the pool.  The guys made good use of the grill that night and we feasted on steaks, salad, and baked potatoes.  Once it was dark, the men and the kids all went crab hunting.  Apparently, it was hilarious watching the kids run around and grab little crabs.  From the room, we could see tons of people and their flashlights all over the beach.  Haha.


Day Nine: Going Backward and…Awkward Family Photos

My husband got up first and made everyone eggs, sausage, and coffee.  We all ate and headed back to the beach.  After about an hour or two, my hubs threw in the towel.  He felt awful and went back up to the condo.  The kids and I stayed on the sand for most of the day before going back to the pool in the late afternoon.


My sister-in-law booked us a photographer to take family photos so we all got cleaned up and ready.  I was hoping my husband would feel better after resting most of the day, but he couldn’t even get out of bed.  This is very uncharacteristic of him.  He hardly ever gets sick and when he does, he powers through and tries to carry on as normally as possible.  I was really worried and did not want to take family pictures without him.  The kids and I made it down to the sand, with the plan of just getting a few photos of them.  I ended up taking one picture with the kids and then an individual with each.  It was pretty awkward to do family pics without the whole family, but the photographer was awesome.  He put us all at ease and his work is beautiful.  If you are ever in that area and need photos, check out Jason G Creative Studios!

Katy & Family-17

When we returned from taking photos, my father-in-law and I decided to take my husband to the emergency room.  He had been running fever for a few days and we couldn’t get it down.  They ran many tests, gave him some fluids, and more antibiotics. After a long night, we got back to our room and crashed.

Day Ten: Our Last Day of Vacay

We all (minus my husband) spent our last day at Pensacola Beach enjoying the water and sunshine.  The ocean was super clear and calm so the kids were able to find lots of seashells and they caught a few small fish in buckets.  I went on a solo walk in the morning and saw a shark swimming really close to shore! I have no idea what kind (maybe a nurse shark?) it was, but a man on the beach said it was just searching for food and wasn’t aggressive.  I took his word for it.  Haha.


Smallest seashells ever?!


My father-in-law rented a kayak for the day and we all took turns paddling around the clear areas close to the resort beach.  I saw absolutely NOTHING on my turn, but my kids got to see fish, dolphins, and more sharks (the dolphin viewing was amazing in Pensacola).


No, we did NOT let them go alone!

We took a short dip in the pool before getting cleaned up for dinner.  The rest of the family made plans to go out, but I didn’t want to leave my husband by himself for very long.  My kids and I went to a local souvenir shop and grabbed a pizza to eat back at the condo.  I gathered almost all of our stuff and when the others got back, we got the car packed up for the next day’s drive.


Day Eleven: The Longest Day Ever

My family of 5 was on the road, headed for home, by 6 in the morning.  Everybody else was flying so we were on our own and…I was driving.  We take our time getting to Florida, but we make the drive back in one day.  By this time, we are tired of eating out and tired of sleeping in hotels.  All we wanted was to sleep in our own beds!  It took us around 16 hours to get back to Oklahoma and I drove the whole way.  Luckily, my husband felt good enough to navigate so I had some help.  My kids were really good so that was a blessing!  People think we are crazy to drive that much in one day, but it honestly wasn’t that bad.  We are so happy to be home!


Overall, we had a good trip and loved Orlando and Pensacola Beach.  We absolutely know how blessed we are to be able to take trips as a family.  Many people do not have the opportunity to travel and we are very grateful that we get to.  My kids had a great time and that was our main priority. My husband and I keep joking that we need to plan another trip this summer because he didn’t really get one.  Our anniversary is next week, so we shall see….