I just became the world's best grandma. It was easy; I took my grandchildren to Happy Central, aka Orlando, Florida.
Now it's easy enough to head for Disney World, but we explored Mars at the Kennedy Space Center; we stepped into Diagon Alley at Universal Studios; and we were turned upside down at WonderWorks.
After four days, Sarah (age 12), Ben (age 11) and the twins, Josh and Maggie (age 7) were hard-pressed to say what they loved best. Well, to be fair, for Maggie there was no contest – she has read all the Harry Potter books.
To Infinity and Beyond….
"That was amazing," Josh squeals as we leave the Destination Mars exhibit. "It's like I was really on Mars and I could look all around me, even the ground." We had donned Microsoft HoloLens™ virtual reality glasses and literally walked on the surface of the red planet, led by astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the Mars Rover. These aren't just imaginary, but based on data gathered by the Rover while on Mars. It's an extraordinary experience.
Some 35 years ago, my daughter and I visited the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Back then, it was exciting to see moon rocks gathered during the1968 landing on the surface. This time, through the magic of technology, we went back in time to those early missions – the frightening failures and the awe-inspiring success of the moon landing. I asked the children if they would like to go into space. After seeing so many rockets explode on the launch pad, they were hesitant. But then we met Jerry Ross.
Between 1985 and 2002, Commander Ross flew a record seven missions into space, including one with Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield. Ben asked him if it was scary relying on technology.
"In our world, we rely on technology all the time. Sometimes it fails," Ross replied, adding with a laugh, "The only difference is that it's a longer walk home from space."
He described sleeping in space (in restraints like a sleeping bag), the games the astronauts invented at zero gravity (racing through the space lab tunnel) and the worst thing about the trip ("Having to come home.")
After our chat, Maggie conceded that she 'might' go in space.
Ross signed a copy of his book, Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA's Record-Setting Frequent Flyer (Purdue University Press, 2013). And when Sarah asked him what had been the most frightening part of the trip, he replied, "The launch itself."
We had the opportunity to experience a little of what Ross was talking about. Technology allowed us to safely launch in a virtual space shuttle just like the Atlantis. Afterwards, we took turns in astronaut training simulators to dock it ourselves.
At KSC we got a close-up look at the huge rockets which powered the US into space history. And our hearts swelled with pride at the sight of a Canadarm, the robotic arm Canada developed for working in space. My grandchildren thought these were "cool", but the significance of each numeral attached to Apollo is emblazoned in my memory.
Right Side Up
"It's an upside down building!" Ben couldn't believe his eyes. This is WonderWorks, a unique blend of science learning centre and theme park and the upside down theme continues inside – the basement is on the top floor!
We learned about natural disasters. At the Earthquake Cafe (specialty: milk 'shakes') we could experience a 5.3 magnitude quake – and its scary aftershocks.
In the Hurricane Shack we withstood winds of 74 mph, though in a bad hurricane, they told us, winds are double that!
In a poignant illustration of what those escaping from the sinking Titanic would have felt, the children tried to keep their hand in freezing water. Sarah managed two whole minutes, but admitted it hurt when circulation returned. The lesson was clear.
From the children's viewpoint, there were things to touch, buttons to push, exhibits to explore, and even challenges to face. From grandma's viewpoint, this is a relatively safe place where I can relax and discover new things myself while the kids enjoy themselves.
Well, perhaps relax isn't quite true. They insisted on climbing to the rope walkways high above our heads. Well-tethered, they tested their fear and their balance as they walked narrow beams and rope bridges. No, grandma didn't join them – and this would not be the last time during this trip that I would prove reluctant. I did, however, ride the Canyon Coaster, a 3D motion theatre experience, which was quite terrifying enough, thank you!
The Fun is Universal
Here is where terrifying takes on a whole new meaning. Even the most innocent sounding ride – the Simpsons Ride for example – proves to be a virtual coaster through canyons and tunnels with a massive 'drop' when the track breaks. It's wild and fun, but the warnings about motion sickness are real. The good news: one can close ones eyes and mitigate the effect significantly.
I drew the line at the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket, which they told me afterwards allowed them to pick their own music and special effects to accompany a ride that goes straight up and includes the world's first non-inverting loop. I'm not sure what a non-inverting loop is, but one look at the structure was enough for me. Grandma's comment: "No way! Never going to try that one!" The verdict from the children: "That was the coolest ride ever!"
What I really loved was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You don't have to read a single book to be enchanted as you step into Diagon Alley. Maggie and Ben each bought a wand at Olivander's, then stood on the many small brass plaques where they could use these to create magic. A wave of the wand might bring a virtual skeleton to life, or silence a singing bird in a shop window, or make it rain under an umbrella. It's all charming fun.
The Hogwarts Express departs from Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station, connecting Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade and a second Harry Potter world of rides and magic. Every detail has been lovingly rendered and even lining up for rides is fun as there's so much to see en route.
What a day! We encountered Minions (Josh's favourite), Transformers, Shrek, E.T. and more. I was entranced by Seuss Land inhabited by the Cat in the Hat and all those marvellous Seuss characters but my grandchildren wanted excitement. The point is, Universal is a movie studio, so they excel at bringing movies to life in exciting ways the kids seem to take for granted, but this grandma was blown away.
· We were a large group for hotel rooms, so we stayed at Reunion Resort, where we had a whole condo (with more than one bathroom!). We ate a healthy breakfast. And we were able to enjoy their free Water Park when we needed a break.
· At Universal, buy an express pass for an extra $50. This may seem expensive but it takes you to the front of the line and can save hours of wait time on popular rides. This means you can see much more in a day than you normally would and maximize your experience. Note that express pass doesn't work with Harry Potter rides.
· IIf you plan to buy a wand ($50), do it first so you get the most out of it through the day.
· At Kennedy Space Centre, book tours like Mars at the beginning of the day. Spaces are limited.
· At WonderWorks, add the dinner and magic show. The dinner is salad and pizza, but the show is terrific fun and often amazing. The audience are pulled into the experience.
Liz Campbell can be found at ForkOnTheMove.com. Follow forkonthemove on Twitter and Instagram as well,