Doing the Most in Orlando, FL

Orlando, Florida is a place you go to for a reason–a sporting event, a theme park visit, a conference. It’s NOT a place you go just to check out the culture. Listen, I once lived in Las Vegas by choice so I am not against mass marketed entertainment. I LOVE me an entertainment complex where I can ride a mechanical bull, see Britney Spears perform live, and eat a steak for less than $10 all in the same night.

Orlando is a lot like Las Vegas, but instead of gambling and debauchery, they have theme parks galore. Both destinations encourage nonstop spending, have strip malls full of every chain restaurant you can think of, and attract the kind of tourist that likes to drink Jager bombs all night while still wearing their American flag swim trunks. On our first day in town, we ate back-to-back meals at chain restaurants, the second of which had a menu that included two full pages of Guy Fieri dishes.  But. But! I had a fantastic weekend, side trip to Flavor Town and all.

There were two very good reasons we ventured to Orlando, and they are Peak Kim Nelson:

  • attend the 2019 College Cheerleading National Championships, where Kurt’s niece’s squad was competing.
  • visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter/Universal Studios
We had one day to see it all, so we bought the single day park-to-park ticket and planned for an early arrival. Obviously, spreading the Harry Potter-themed attractions across two parks is all a big scam to force you to buy tickets to both, but as soon we reached Hogsmeade, I no longer cared. I didn’t anticipate the wave of emotion I’d feel upon entering Hogwarts Castle, and I don’t care how nerdy this sounds, but I teared up a bit. My rational adult brain knew that I was walking through a fake castle replicating a made-up fantasy franchise, designed by engineers to push the right nostalgia buttons, all in the armpit of America. But in the moment, I had entered the memories of a beloved book that has given me escape and comfort and catharsis many times, over through multiple re-reads and movie viewing.

a cup of butterbeer in front of the rooftops of Hogsmeade

butterbeers in Hogsmeade

Though we never had to wait in line for longer than 40 minutes, the queues for the Harry Potter-themed rides in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley were actually enjoyable to stand in because of the level of detail in the surroundings. Dumbledore’s pensieve! The Fat Lady portrait! Professor Sprout’s greenhouse! We wandered through the shops of Hogsmeade, drank butterbeer, and took the Hogwarts Express to King’s Cross. In “London,” we saw Kreacher glare through the window of 12 Grimmauld Place. I bought a Ravenclaw jersey with Cho Chang’s number and a Deathly Hallows enamel pin.

a dragon sits atop Gringotts Bank

the dragon atop Gringotts Bank

A few quick ‘n dirty Universal Studios travel tips:

  • Seeing both halves of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in one day is definitely doable. Plan to get to the park as soon as it opens and stay til close, and make sure to end your night back in Hogsmeade for the castle light show, which occurs every 20 minutes once the sun has set.
  • You can purchase an interactive wand which allows you to ‘cast spells’ in various parts of the park notated by a silver plaque on the ground. OR, you can save $60 and stand behind people who bought the wand to see what they do.
  • MUST DO’s: ride the Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade and Escape from Gringott’s in Diagon Alley. Look for Kreacher in the window at 12 Grimmauld Place. Go to the wand fitting presentation (it’s pretty cute). Wear a costume if you feel inclined to do so. There were tons of people decked out in cloaks on a high 70’s day in Florida, and they were among their people. Get a butterbeer.
  • Non-Harry-Potter-related Must Do’s: since we only had one day, we prioritized the Wizarding World stuff, but the park wasn’t overly packed so we had lots of time to do other things as well. The Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster allows you to select a song that plays in speakers on your seat (I recommend going with Beastie Boys “Sabotage”). The Simpsons section of the park is a lot of fun; get a Duff beer and buy a Bort keychain.  Don’t bother waiting in line for the Fast & Furious Supercharged ride; it’s not worth your time (unless there’s no line and you have 20 minutes to kill). That makes me sad to say, as a franchise fan (“Family”), but it’s pretty dumb.
the light show at Hogwarts Castle

Hogwarts Castle during the light show

College Cheerleading Championships
When Kurt asked me if I wanted to go to Orlando to see his niece compete in the College Cheerleading and Dance Championships, that was one of the fastest YESes that ever came out of my mouth. I LOVE competitive cheerleading for reasons I can’t articulate. I wasn’t a high school or college cheerleader (though, ahem, my eighth grade squad was regionally famous on the north suburban  Chicago Catholic school circuit for our choreographed pom routines to Erasure songs) but I love watching cheer competitions on ESPN. They’re a highly entertaining mix of gymnastics, dance, and Jock Jams–I mean, what’s not to love here?? OF COURSE I WANT TO SEE BRING IT ON IRL.

2019 College Cheerleading Championships

Go University of Wisconsin – Osh Kosh!!

As we walked up to the gates of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, the grounds were packed with hundreds of cheerleaders in various bold-colored uniforms. Squads warmed up and practiced moves on every available open stretch of grass. I heard a man say as he walked past, “I don’t see any football players” and I immediately wanted to punch him in the mouth on behalf of all of the incredible athletes WHO DON’T NEED TO CHEER FOR NO MAN.

Inside the arena, I had flashbacks to my days of roller derby weekend-long tournaments. Young athletes huddled in corners, mentally preparing for competition while tuning out the world with their headphones. Teammates on crutches followed their squads, visibly heartbroken over not being able to participate. After finishing the first round, cheerleaders stood in the concession line with ice packs saran-wrapped to their legs. I dodged team prayer circles to get to the bathroom (OK, that never happened at derby tourneys, more like “Thong Song” dance circles).

a coed squad performs at the college cheerleadiing national championships

Division I competition

With our day passes, we were able to move around the grounds to check out various parts of the competition. We watched Division I and II Girls and Coed Cheerleading, Dance (jazz, hip hop, classical), and even a Mascot contest. Chip the Buffalo won my heart by twerking then lying down and refusing to leave the stage.

college mascot competition

Look I went to art school for college so I barely know what’s happening here

The whole day was a blast and I highly recommend going to a live cheerleading competition if you ever get the chance, especially if you enjoy Cardi B, because we sure heard a lot of her music that day.

All in all, Orlando, I enjoyed you! There was one morning we saw a theme park worker in full costume in line at Starbucks, and it struck me how strange it must be to live there full time. Those are the stories I’m always interested in–I want to see the dive bar where all the theme park mascots get loaded together after their shift ends. I want to hear what the chipper cashier in Hogsmeade who spoke to me as if I were the new Seeker on Ravenclaw’s Quidditch team actually thinks about tourists. How many times does the live actor in the Fast & Furious preshow have the same scripted, pre-recorded conversation with a videotape of Ludacris before she slowly loses her mind? I would read a full scientific study about the symbiosis of the Orlando theme park ecosystem.

Travel Pairings
I love reading books set in the location I’m visiting. For all of my future travel-related blog posts, I’m going to share a book, film, and music recommendation to pair with my destination.

Book: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Film: The Florida Project
Music: The Go! Team (cheerleader rock!)

New York, Loss, and Life

I arrive in New York City on a Wednesday morning. I’m traveling for a work conference, then staying through the weekend. Chicagoans tend to have mixed opinions about NYC; maybe it’s the chip on our shoulder from being labeled the “Second City” or “Third Coast.” For better or worse, much like the ubiquitous souvenir t-shirt, I heart NY. I’m staying in an Airbnb advertised as a ‘shoebox’ in Chelsea, and after work when I check in and look out the sole window in this apartment, I see the top of the Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate Pride Month, all red and orange and yellow and green and blue and purple against a night sky. My heart fills and I’m happy to be here. I heart NY.

Each morning, I take a 15-minute walk to the conference. I watch NY residents walk their dogs, which pee on the cement because there’s no grass for them to squat upon. I dodge rivulets of garbage juice leaking from overstuffed, leaking plastic bags left on the curb for pickup, and internally thank the universe for Chicago’s alleys. I wonder how anyone in New York makes the decision to wear any sort of open footwear. In my summery dress on an 84-degree sunny day, I get bombarded by catcalls (I had forgotten that NY is a whole other level of catcalling). And still, I heart NY. I heart the stream of different languages I hear around me at all times. I heart the Pride flag that hangs outside of the Episcopal church I walk past each morning. I heart the beardos on bicycles, the cop taking a smoke break outside his precinct shooting the shit with a passerby, the rumble of the subway rising up through the sidewalk grate, the late night tacos, the impeccably dressed woman on the corner who didn’t bat at an eye at the rat scurrying through the gutter. It’s all beautiful and gross and exhilarating and I’m glad to be here.

On Friday morning, I wake up and stretch out in bed while glancing at my phone and see the news that Anthony Bourdain is dead by suicide. My heart breaks into a million pieces. Scrolling through my social media feeds, I quickly see that I’m not the only one devastated by this loss. So many of my friends had similar reactions, have held similar appreciation and fandom for him. As a writer, I’ve always appreciated his wit, his intelligence, his curiosity about other peoples’ lives and cultures and customs. As a person desperate to live a life well traveled, I’ve been a longtime fan of his many TV programs, from No Reservations to Parts Unknown. I’ve seen every episode of every season, many of them binge-watched in day-long chunks when I’ve been stranded to the couch by illness or hangover, wanting escape and yearning for adventure. Whenever Kurt and I need background television as we knock around in the kitchen or are pounding out work emails after hours on a weeknight evening, we put on an episode of Parts Unknown. Anthony Bourdain helped fueled the wanderlust that drives me to live my own life the way I do.

I wrap up the final day of the conference, then head back to my Airbnb and hammer out some work emails. Once I’m done, I go back outside and walk to the High Line Trail. Alone, I merge into the steady stream of people. Up above the busy streets, on a path lined by greenery and beauty and life, I move among the skyscrapers. Up ahead, the path curves and I can see the summer sunshine glinting on the Hudson River and in the distance, the Statue of Liberty. I feel heavy with emotion because the world is so messy and dirty and convoluted and intriguing and explorable, and in this moment I am totally alone yet also surrounded by teeming, breathing, sweaty humanity. I get annoyed by the tourists who stop dead in their tracks right in front of me to take a photo and yet simultaneously feel like one of them because Holy Shit, this sunlight is beautiful and this place is amazing and this city is alive all around me.

High Line Trail, New York

I move through the crowds at Chelsea Market, and  duck into a bookstore for solace. The titles aren’t registering in my mind at the moment; instead, I walk through the aisles and run my fingers over the glossy covers, searching for comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore, a wave of emotion overtakes me and I want to cry for a man I never met. I want to cry because I know people in my life who have felt this pain and I have no idea how to help or to appease or to comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore amongst millions of words and miles of ink and countless stories that have awakened or inspired or incited, I stand and I breathe. The moment passes. I leave the store, walk outside, and merge back into the moving stream of people.

I still heart New York, and I heart you.

sidewalk graffiti that says "Protect Yo Heart"

Denmark Diaries: Freetown Christiania and Nyhavn

Friday, April 20, 2018

In the morning, we went out with our friend Dani to a place called O’s American Breakfast. When traveling, in addition to trying new foods, I’m also usually curious to see the local interpretation of American staples. Since moving abroad, Dani had been in search of American-style pancakes, and the ones at O’s were big and fluffy, just like what you’d get at a diner back home.

After breakfast, Dani met up with a friend and Kurt and I headed for the Metro to Christianshavn. We were spending our day exploring Freetown Christiania, an autonomous district in a squatted military area. The area is probably most notoriously known as the “Green Light District” because of the proliferation of people buying and selling marijuana on Pusher Street. Weed is not legal in Denmark and the prevalence of dealers in the Freetown area ebbs and flows, depending on whether the community is currently putting pressure on forcing them out. One humorous observation Kurt made was the long line at the ATM next to the Christianshavn Metro stop, as people planning to visit Freetown loaded up on cash.

Christiania street art

I’s frowned up to take pictures of people and the activity in Freetown, so I only snuck a few snaps of street art

The area is filled with stalls and vendors selling t-shirts, jewelry, food, and drinks, so Kurt and I looked around for a little, dodging errant skateboards and unleashed dogs, then grabbed an outdoor table and a round of beers at Cafe Nemoland. Freetown draws lots of tourists and the people-watching was highly entertaining. While much of the crowd consisted of hippies who smelled like Otto’s jacket, I was approached by a 70-something English woman in a skirt suit who politely asked me where the loo was. The other best thing about Nemoland was the bathroom, which was an all-gender room with many stalls and a large aquarium full of fish next to the sinks, and I am sure I am not the first person to see it and want to reenact the scene from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

We got a second round of beers then took a walk around until we came upon a large pond. The banks were lined with people relaxing, smoking, drinking, and enjoying the warm sunshine. Someone had a jam box playing music. We sat in the grass, watching swans swim in the sun-dappled water. Denmark, I’m in love with you.

As we walked past the pond, we saw more of the residential area including houses, art studios and a preschool.

We eventually passed over the canal that acts as the Christiania border, then walked over to another iconic area we hadn’t visited yet, Nyhavn. The colorful row houses along the canal are possibly one of the most famous postcard-friendly views of Copenhagen. In the 17th century, the ‘potato rows’ were built to house shipyard workers, and the canals were notorious for heavy-drinking sailors and prostitutions. The writer Hans Christian Andersen lived there in the 1800’s, and nowadays, it’s a popular tourist destination filled with restaurants and stores.

couple standing in front of the row houses in Nyhavn

Nyhavn selfie

For dinner, we went back to the Nørrebro area for burgers and liquid nitrogen ice cream at Istid. I got banana ice cream with chocolate chips and vegan bacon pieces.

a cup of ice cream

yummmm

It had been a long but perfect day with plenty of sightseeing and food-tasting packed in. I was slightly in denial that we only had one more full day of our trip left, as I could easily stay in this city for much longer.

 

 

 

Denmark Diaries: The Word of the Day is “Beer”

Monday, April 16, 2018

We woke up feeling the effects of our impromptu bar crawl, and a hefty breakfast was in order. Luckily, a delicious brunch place, Sokkelund, was in easy walking distance–and even better, they served coffee refills. I had scrambled eggs with salmon and avocado.

After fueling up properly, we were ready to start our day. The Carlsberg Brewery was a 20-minute walk away, most of it through a scenic park. One of the many things I loved about Copenhagen was the amount of green public spaces. The path wound its way past ponds filled with swans and a tree onto which dozens of people had tied handwritten cards and pacifiers with ribbons. In Scandinavian traditional folklore, once a baby gave up their pacifier  they would write a note thanking it for its service and tie to a tree in remembrance.

tree covered in handwritten notes with pacifiers tied to branches on ribbons

pacifier tree

The area where the Carlsberg brewery is located is currently being developed into a whole village complete with apartments, restaurants, and shops. We arrived at the brewery just in time to miss the tour, so instead, we bellied up to the bar for some samples. Our bartender told us that Chicago was his favorite U.S. city (second time in two days!) and it reminded him a lot of his hometown Glasgow.

plate of oysters

We ate most of these oysters before we took a photo

For dinner, we went to an area called Kødbyen Meatpacking District, or “Meat City.” As the sun slowly set, we sat outside and ate oysters from Kødbyens Fiskebar, then crossed the plaza to check out Warpigs  Brewpub and their BBQ selection. As soon as we walked into Warpigs, I felt like I was in a Chicago bar (which makes sense, given Mikkeller’s partnership with Three Floyds). We got a few different beers, the pork shoulder, pork and beans, and pecan pie, and everything was fantastic.

plate of BBQ pork and beans

We also ate most of this pork before we took a photo

After two back-to-back meals (don’t judge, we’re on vacay), walking to our next destination sounded heavenly. Too bad we stumbled onto the next place we wanted to check out within 400 meters: Fermentoren Beer Bar. We descended the steps into the small, packed bar and knew that we’d struck gold yet again. The bar had an excellent selection of craft beers on tap, so we found an open table where we could squeeze ourselves and camp out for a while.

beer

beer

On the last leg of our walk home, we made one final stop at a bar that totally intrigued us from the outside with its Western-themed motifs and obscured windows, a place called HH Ranch. As we stepped inside, I could swear we just transported to rural kitschy America. The bar was decked out in wood paneling and log cabin decor, and the barstools were made out of western saddles. There was even a Johnny Mnemonic-themed pinball machine(!!).  The place was a total trip. We had one final lager and then called it a night; we had big plans for the next day.

 

Denmark Diaries: Towers, Roller Coasters, and Beer

Sunday, April 14, 2018

I woke up around 3:30 a.m. local time to the sound of chirping birds (apparently, the title of Happiest Country on Earth includes wildlife because those birds sounded chipper all night long). After tossing and turning for a bit, I managed to fall back asleep until…11:30 a.m. Oops! Kurt and I didn’t want to sleep away half of our first full day, but so it goes. We rose and showered, then met up with our friends. The kids were ready for lunch and Kurt and I for breakfast, so we took the Metro two stops over to Nørreport, in the heart of the city. Right by the train stop, we went to Torvehallerne, which is a large market with indoor and outdoor vendors and tons of food stalls, booths, and wares. I went for a traditional porridge breakfast made with fresh organic ingredients from Grød along with my morning (noon) coffee, and Kurt got a Danish sandwich, coffee, and a beer (a.k.a. vacation mode). After lunch, we said goodbye to our friends who had family errands to take care of, and Kurt I headed out to sightsee on our own.

Our first stop was Rundetaarn, or Round Tower, an architectural project of Christian IV built in the 17th century. The tower consists of a 209-meter long spiral ramp, built because the King wanted to be able to ride his horse all the way to the top. I love horses and tales of extreme hubris, so we needed to check it out. About halfway up the tower there’s a coffee shop and art exhibit, and then on the observation deck, you get a fantastic 360-degree view of Copenhagen. Selfies were taken.

skyline view of Copenhagen

Not a selfie.

We wandered around the shops of Strøget for a bit, then found a sidewalk cafe to rest and enjoy a beer. The table seated next to us consisted of two British men around our age, so we ended up chatting with them for a bit, commiserating on the rough state of our countries. When we told them where we were from, they got really excited and told us that Chicago is their favorite U.S. city, which is always nice to hear.

We did a bit more walking until we saw the top of the swing ride at Tivoli Gardens, so we headed in that direction. Tivoli is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world and our friends mentioned that it was a ‘must’ for our trip. We bought entrance tickets, then strolled the grounds and checked out the incredible gardens and classic rides and games. We saw the swing ride that lured us to the park like a beacon, and I couldn’t get over how high up it went. Definitely put the dinky swings at Six Flags to shame.

swing ride at amusement park

a hard nope for me as an acrophobic

There’s an extensive food court adjacent to the fairgrounds, so we got some desserts and hung out inside until a light rain passed through. As the evening grew later, the lights throughout the park turned on, revealing colorful lanterns. I tried getting a picture of Kurt under the lights using his fancy camera, but struggled with the shutter for so long that a random passerby approached and said to me “I can’t take it anymore; go stand next to him and I’ll take the photo.”

couple stands on walkway under colorful lanterns

photo taken by a man tortured by witnessing my ineptness

After leaving Tivoli, we continued our walking streak, burning off the calories from the schnitzel and chocolate mousse I’d consumed. We realized two key facts: we were less than 2 miles from our friends’ house, and there was a Mikkeller bar located on our direct route home. Wins all around! Our nighttime stroll turned into a lowkey pub crawl as we stopped for pints at Mikkeller, followed by a German bar, and ending at a neighborhood bistro.

man sits at small bar table attached to wall

Table for two

We returned home by midnight, the pints helping lull us to sleep (and onto a closer proximation to local time).

 

Denmark Diaries: Arriving in Copenhagen

Friday, April 13/Saturday, April 14, 2018

On a lovely Friday the 13th evening, Kurt and I embarked on a trip to Denmark to visit some friends living abroad and explore Copenhagen. We wrapped up a hectic work week, then took a quick Uber to O’Hare Airport where we’d be departing from on IcelandAir. On the plane, I watched The Greatest Showman  and tried to nap, then we had an hour-long layover in Reykjavík (oh hai Iceland!) before landing in Copenhagen around 12:40 pm the next day.

At the airport, we ran into some confusion when, after picking up our bags and reaching the exit doors to outside, we thought we missed Customs entirely and accidentally snuck into Denmark. (Later, we learned that since we went through Customs in Reykjavík during our layover, we didn’t need to show our passports again in Denmark because both countries are in the Schengen Area.)

We bought train tickets at the billeter machine, then took the Metro to Fredericksberg, a residential area within Copenhagen where our friends live. Once we arrived at the correct Metro stop, we ducked into a Starbucks to get some free wifi and find the directions for the 5-minute walk to our friends’ home.

image of Copenhagen street and a bicycle parking area

Copenhagen!

After settling in and then catching up a bit in our friends’ living room, we all took a walk together around the neighborhood for a tour of some local food, coffee, and bar options. With their two young kids in tow, we grabbed a hot dog and coffees and sat in a park where the kids could play and draw for a bit. I observed two young girls taking turns rollerblading on a 4×8′ apartment building balcony.

For a late lunch/early dinner/whatever meal was closest to mine and Kurt’s whacked-out internal clocks, we went to the Laundromat Cafe. Kurt and I instantly recognized it because we had had a drink at their Iceland location a year earlier. The great thing about visiting friends with kids is that everyone’s up for getting ice cream after a meal, so we followed lunch with a trip to Social Foodies, a dessert shop with philanthropic interests in helping marginalized communities in Africa. (Even more of a reason to eat ice cream every day!)

IMG_9437

Fredericksberg, Copenhagen

The sun was setting by the time we got back to the house, and Kurt and I said goodnight to our friends who began their bedtime routine for the kids. We did some light unpacking, then passed out pretty quickly ourselves after a long day and night of traveling into a time zone 7 hours ahead of Chicago.

Wearing My Traveling Pants: Las Vegas and New Orleans

In the early months of 2018, I planned weekend trips to Las Vegas and New Orleans within 3 weeks of each other. If you are thinking to yourself, this sounds like the best idea ever, you are correct. Traveling as much as possible is on my 2018 vision board (see last post!), and though visiting these two cities in particular did nothing to forward my healthy-eating-and-living-related goals, they were super fun trips and #NORAGRETS. Each trip had a particular in mind–a journey, a quest, a DESTINATION:

Las Vegas
The trip’s main quest was to see Magic Mike Live. Believe me when I tell you that it’s not what you think it’s going to be–it’s one of the most entertaining shows I’ve seen in recent memory. You can read the full review over at Heauxs Magazine.  I lived in Las Vegas the year I turned 21, so it’s a city near and dear to my heart, full of fuzzy memories, bad decisions, and fantastic stories. This past trip is no exception.  Plus, I got to ride a mechanical bull which is my fave thing in this world (shout-out to my former Urban Rodeo League team, the Buckle Bunnies).

Vegas highlights via foto:

Art-O-Mat – local art vending machine

Year of the Dog

Neon Boneyard


New Orleans
The New Orleans quest involved taking an overnight train from Chicago to Louisiana and singing a whole lot of karaoke. I’d never traveled in a sleeper car or eaten in a dining car before; it was very White Christmas (but with no snow and lots of beer) and I loved it. I’d been to New Orleans once before and was eager to revisit it. We hit two karaoke bars (Cat’s Meow and Kajuns Pub), toured an historic cemetery, and ate a ton of amazing food. In Airbnb adventures, I now know what it sounds like when someone drops a 5-lb wad of Mardi Gras beads into a steel drum.

Feast your eyeballs on these NoLa pics:

I made a lot of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” references for you fellow theater nerds

a surly local

tour of St. Louis Cemetery

omg we ate so much delicious food

Furreals, if I could visit both these cities every year until the day I die, I’d be so happy (but only during the winter because I can’t handle extreme hot weather, I’m basically a Stark).  Both cities are all about celebrating in the moment and indulging every whim. The kale salad in the fridge at home can wait for me.