Wednesday, September 3, 2014

TRAVEL: Family Bonding and Summer Fun at the #FamilyForward Conference at Universal Orlando

The Family Forward Blogger Retreat at Universal Orlando provides bloggers and their families with hotel, food, park passes, and unique experiences at a significantly reduced price. All opinions are my own.

My son and I bonded over super heroes and shared experiences at Universal Orlando
The Family Forward Blogger Retreat strives to build Super Hero Families....

Now that my son is 14 years old, I feel the clock ticking down on his childhood.  I remember just yesterday when he was baby and now he is starting high school - YICKS!.  As his adulthood draws near, I find myself looking for ways to hold on just a little longer to the cute kid I love more than life.

So when I found out about the Family Forward Blogger Retreat at Universal Studios Orlando, and how their conference is designed to help the 50 families in attendance to bond over shared experiences, I thought it would be the perfect way for me and my son to end the summer at a place where everyone gets to be a kid at heart.

The Family Forward Blogger Retreat is 5 days and 4 nights of total fun, luxury, and once in a lifetime experiences all hosted on the property of Universal Orlando over the long Labor Day holiday weekend.

Until this trip, Universal Orlando was not on my radar when I thought of places to stay for an extended time in Orlando, Florida. But after five days at the Family Forward conference, I now know that Universal Orlando is a super fun travel destination with luxury and moderately priced hotels and excellent theme parks that has a little something for kids of all ages.


Italy, Dinosaurs, and Harry Potter

My son and I traveled to the conference along with Laura from the blog and her two sons. Since there were 5 of us, we skipped paying for a shuttle bus to the hotel and instead took a taxi van. The total cost was $60 with tip and we arrived at the hotel in only 25 minutes. If we had taken a shuttle bus, it would have cost $20-$25 per person and the shuttle would have stopped at multiple hotels increasing our travel time to upwards of 90 minutes.

Day one of the Family Forward Conference was fun from start to finish.  After arriving at the Orlando International Airport to 80 degree temperatures, a short 25 minute cab ride whisked us to the conference host hotel - Lowes Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort.

The Lowes Portofino hotel - a slice of Italy in Orlando...
Lowes Portofino is a luxury hotel designed in the style of a Tuscan villa in Italy and I was highly impressed from the moment the cab turned on to the lush grounds to the moment we opened the door to our room.  The Lowes Portofino is simply a beautiful hotel.

Relaxing at one of the pools at the Lowes Portofino hotel...
After a quick change into our bathing suites, we were out the door to one of the hotel's two pools where I lounged while my son had a ball on the water slide and in the hot tub and then ordered lunch which we ate poolside.

We had Jurassic Park at Universal's Islands of Adventure all to ourselves...
Later that evening, it was time for the conference kickoff and then on to board the buses for the Welcome Reception Dinner at Jurassic Park at Universal's Islands of Adventure Theme Park. We had the park all to ourselves for a private dinner right in front of the Jurassic Park interactive kids area.

The beautiful view of the theme park from our table.,,,
As a band played and the kids danced and learned about dinosaurs, I looked out at our perfect view of of the entire theme park while enjoying my dinner with a big smile on my face.

The Hogwarts Express is a must ride...
After dinner, we walked from Jurassic Park over to the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to ride  Hogwarts Express, which travels between Hogsmeade Station in Universal Islands of Adventure and the Kind's Cross Station in Universal Studios.  Once you board the train, you are transported right into the world of Harry Potter just by looking out the magic window in your comfortable train compartment.

Gingotts Bank is the entrance to "Escape from Gringotts" ride and it's guarded by a fire breathing dragon- yes that is real fire coming out of the dragon's mouth!!!
And to end Day One, we rode the most popular ride in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Escape from Gringotts, which is one of the best simulator/coaster rides in the park.  Since we had the ride all to ourselves (thank you Universal!!!) we made sure to ride it more than once before we explored Dragon Alley to try some Butterbeer.

Comcast Xfinity customers will love that Xfinity Wifi is available inside the parks at Universal Orlando where you can connect devices for FREE to do anything from checking email to streaming a movie to looking up the wait time for rides.


Day Two -
Play, Pilots, Shared Tables, Animals, & Blue Man

Day two of the conference started early with all families sitting down for a fabulous all you can eat breakfast sponsored by Universal Orlando in the Lowes Portofino Bay Ballroom followed by a day of family building workshops.

We got to try of Hasbro's new design compound called DohVinci
During our first workshop, all the families worked together to create a design masterpiece using a new design compound from Hasbro called DohVinci. Even though my son is not much into crafting, he really loved using the DohVinci and all the different colors and design tips to create a one-of-a-kind photo frame.

The Southwest Airlines presentation was very entertaining...
During our second workshop we were introduced to the Southwest Airlines "Adopt-A-Pilot" Program where actual Southwest pilots lead a discussion about the mechanics and teamwork it takes to get a plane up in the air.  My son loved this workshop and was fascinated by the science of how planes fly.  The pilots were friendly and very engaging with both kids and parents.  I could not believe how fast the hour went by.

Barilla's Share the Table got us to vow to more family dinners....
Our third workshop was actually the preparation for our lunch, which was sponsored by Barilla Italian Pasta and their "Share the Table" initiative where they encourage families to sit down for dinner more often. Barilla 's executive chef was on hand to walk us through preparing Barilla Penne Salad with Roasted Peppers, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Arugula, Fresh Mozzarella and Basil.

My son loved helping to prepare the meal (I could not believe it).  As we sat down to eat our lunch, we vowed to eat more as a family and my son says he will be helping with dinner more often - I should have come to this conference sooner :)

We found out the difference between an alligator and a crocodile...
The last workshop of the day was a presentation by animal enthusiast Dr. Brady Barr sponsored by Animal Jam, the online children's community where kids can learn about nature while playing with their friends. Dr. Barr is one of the scientists inside of the Animal Jam community and kids can use the community to ask him questions about animals.

Once Dr. Barr started bringing out real live animals, he was like the pied piper of Family Forward with all the kids following him where ever he went in the audience.  That is until one of the alligators got loose - I have never seen people run that fast before in my life :)

Universal Orlando's newest hotel - Cabana Bay Beach Resort is HUGE!!!
After the workshops ended, we all boarded buses to go to a pool party and dinner over at the newest Universal Orlando hotel - Cabana Bay Beach Resort. This is Universal Orlando's moderately priced resort property where everything is designed to transport you back to the 1950's and 1960's but with all the comforts of present day 2014.

Classic cars from the 1950's and 1960's are parked outside the resort...
I was floored by the size of the Cabana Bay Beach Resort - it is HUGE with 2 zero entry pools, a lazy river, and a 10 lane bowling alley. Unfortunately the weather did not allow us to swim for very long. But although the swimming got rained out, the Pizza party was a huge success.  My picky eating son loved all the hand made pizza at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort and ate an entire one all by himself.

My son loved the Blue Man Group show from beginning to end...
We ended day two by putting on our rain slickers and taking the water taxi from our hotel to the Universal Orlando CityWalk to be the guests of Universal Orlando for their 8pm Blue Man Group show.  I had never seen the Blue Man Group perform live before and I can honestly say that the show is awesome and I could not believe how fast the 2 hour show went by.  My son loved every minute and especially loved meeting the Blue Man group after the show was over.  It was the perfect end to a wonderful day.

TRAVEL SAVING TIP #3 - Invest in a good rain slicker BEFORE you travel to Orlando. The weather can turn bad at a moment's notice and you will need to rain slicker unless you like getting soaked to the bone. To save money, buy one on sale before you leave home and save yourself some cash.


Day Three -
Flash Mobbing, Park Fun, & Giving Kids the World

Even a teenage gets happy around Scooby=Doo and Sponge Bob :)
We started out day three with a wonderful breakfast at the Universal Studios Sound stage 33. As we exited the buses, we were pleasantly surprised by tons of characters waiting for us outside of sound stage. Even at age 14, my son was loving all the Universal characters from The Simpsons, to Scooby-Doo, to Sponge Bob to Bumble Bee from the Transformers.

Once breakfast was over, Universal had a surprise for us - we were going to learn a dance routine to be part of a Flash Mob in the park - Say What??? Yep, for one hour we danced it up to the song "Happy" and then went out into the hot Florida sun to surprise the park goers with our dance moves.  While it was not the performance of the century, I loved spending time with my son to do something totally out of the ordinary.

The coasters and simulators at Universal Orlando are awesome!
After the flash mobbing was over, it was time for us to get our "Park On" with 3-day Park-to-Park Admission Tickets with Express Passes for Universal Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Orlando. To say that my son had a wonderful time is a total understatement. We hit all the rides and with the Express Pass option we were able to go to the front of the line for almost every ride. It was a wonderful day.

We visited "Give Kids the World" to see the great work they are doing with helping families with ill children...
To end day three, we boarded buses for a 30 minute drive to attend blogger day and a BBQ pool party for a charity called "Give Kids the World." This charity partners with other charities like "Make a Wish" and give families with ill children a place of refuge while visiting the theme parks and attractions in Orlando, FL.  We met some of the families that have stayed at "Give Kids the World" and their stories were both heartbreaking and also heartwarming.

There is one star on the ceiling for each child who has stayed at "Give Kids the World"
One of the common buildings features a ceiling covered in gold stars - one for each child who was stayed at "Give Kids the World" - it was an unbelievable number of stars that have to be organized by using a software program. Without tons of volunteers, donations, and corporate sponsors, this organization would not be able to meet the needs of families who are experiencing some of the worst times in their lives.


Day Four -
Italian with a Twist and Fireworks

VIVO! Italian Kitchen on the Universal Orlando CityWalk
Day four marked the official end of the conference.  After spending the day at Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure to ride our favorite rides again and again, we were the guests of Universal Orlando for dinner at their brand new restaurant VIVO! Italian Kitchen.

Can you tell that we loved the food?
We were served family style from a sampler menu of the restaurant's featured dishes including Chicken Parmesan, Lasagna, Grilled Pork Loin, Squid in Pasta with Seafood, and Capellini Pasta with Marinara Sauce. I think you can tell by the photos that we enjoyed our meal :)

Day four ended with a dessert reception overlooking the water which had a perfect view for the Universal 100 Years of film making celebration. It was the perfect night for fireworks and movie magic.


Day Five - 
Goodbye Universal Orlando!

They say that all good things must come to an end and unfortunately so did our stay at Universal Orlando for the Family Forward conference.  But since our plane did not take off until 7pm, we headed to the park to ride our favorite rides one more time, get some souvenirs and soak in the sun and fun before returning to Detroit.

And another wonderful thing happened as we were leaving the hotel - We were able to get a ride to the airport in a shiny black leather interior Cadillac Escalade for the same price as our initial ride on day one - HOLLA!!!

Thank your Universal and MomItForward for an wonderful trip...
I think you can tell that we had a total blast.  And I want to take a moment to thank MomItForward for organizing such a wonderful blogger family retreat and Universal Orlando for being the event host. My son is already asking if we can do it again next year - I think the conference did a wonderful job helping to build our super hero family.

TRAVEL SAVING TIP #4 - Our last day at the park was on Labor Day. We thought the lines for the park rides would be incredibly long, but they there were actually ridiculously short. We asked our driver on the way to the airport about the short lines and he told us that holidays like Labor Day usually attract fewer guests. Who knew?


Follow FREEISMYLIFE on Facebook

blog comments powered by Disqus