my 30th birthday, orlando in january

Last summer, when I was feeling stressed about work and life and anxious about being a few months away from 30, I had this sort of pipe dream to go back to my “roots”… whatever that meant. I sat around one night and thought what I really wanted was to feel like a kid again. I had a magical childhood and some of my favorite memories are from trips to Orlando, with my parents and sister a couple times, with my middle school chorus friends three years in a row, and even once with my aunt, uncle, and young cousins. I loved the thoughtfulness and open fun of the theme parks, the shows, the rides, the childishness of it all, and even the crowds. So after a lot of research and little bit of smooth talk, I convinced Eric we should go right after the new year to celebrate my 30th birthday. Then I planned and saved like a crazy person for months.

Eric and I went once to Disney World in college, another hair-brained idea of mine. We drove all night without sleeping to arrive at the parks right as they opened. We park-hopped all day, even through the summer afternoon rain, and left after dark to drive to the Red Roof Inn in Kissimmee. I remember falling asleep instantly before and our pizza delivery man had to bang on the door to wake us up. Other than that one day, Eric’s had been to Disney only one other time, also for just a day. I wanted him to have the full-on Disney experience where we stayed on property as well as experience new things together, like eating with dining reservations and drinking at the parks (hey-oh!) for the first time. 


After watching the ball drop with my parents New Year’s Eve, we woke up at 6 a.m. to catch our flight to Orlando… again, not my best idea, but the flights were cheap. We flew in to MCO and took Disney’s Magical Express shuttle to our resort. They pick up and deliver your suitcases separately, so we made sure to pack shorts and our MagicBands in our backpacks. Since I booked the trip six months in advance, we were able to take advantage of a package deal where we got a dining plan, our tickets, and our room in a “moderate resort” – a first for me because I was an All Star resorts kid. After checking in early to Port Orleans Riverside, we checked out our empty room, changed, and caught a bus over to Epcot for the afternoon. 

Jess in front of the Epcot ball, Disney World
Jess and Eric Pendergrass at Epcot Disney World 2019

We walked through the front of the park over to the World Showcase section and took a stroll around the different countries. I really wanted to see the a cappella singers Voices of Liberty perform in the America section, so we walked through the first half of the countries just in time to catch their last performance of the day. My favorite soprano was sadly not performing with the group that day, but they were still fantastic and it was a nice break from the New Year’s crowds still wandering the rest of the park. We had a FastPass for TestTrack, so we wondered back up to Future World before dinner. It’s been years since I rode it, and while we had fun, I could have probably skipped it given I’m a pretty anxious driver/passenger these days. 

Jess and Eric Pendergrass selfie at Epcot Disney World 2019

In hopes of pumping Eric up for the rest of the trip, I stalked the MyDisneyExperience app for weeks trying to get a dining reservation at Le Cellier, the fancy steakhouse in the Canada pavilion. It was a fun and indulgent meal but besides our steaks (which were amazing), the rest of the meal was so-so and we were glad we had used dining credits on it as opposed to paying cash. 

Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot Canada pavillon, Disney World

Epcot was “closed” by the time we finished, but since we were staying at Disney and could take advantage of the Extra Magic Hours, we were able to stick around for another couple hours. We refueled with coffee and made our way slowly back to the front of the park to ride Soarin’. We wandered around a little more but were feeling pretty beat, so eventually headed back to our room (and suitcases, yay!) for the night. 

Epcot ball at night, Disney World


Again with the bright ideas and Extra Magic Hours, we tried to get up before the sun and catch a bus to Animal Kingdom when it opened for resort guests at 7:00. We walked in around 7:30 and headed straight for the very popular but supposedly amazing Avatar Flight of Passage ride standby line. We found it wrapping around the park and went to the back of the line, where we were told by a Cast Member that it was an approximately 3.5 hour wait already. No, no thank you. Instead, we went for coffee. We had a FastPass for Expedition Everest later in the day, but because the wait was so short that early in the morning, we popped in that line. It was our first roller coaster of the trip and exactly what we needed to wake us up. 

Jess Pendergrass in Animal Kingdom in front of the Tree of Life, Disney World

After grabbing Mickey pretzels for breakfast (highly recommended), we had a FastPass for the Kilimanjaro Safari. The animals were super active and we got to see a couple rare things like a hippo out of water and a lion perched up on a rock roaring – so cool. It ended up being one of our most favorite parts of the entire trip!

Jess and Eric Pendergrass in Animal Kingdom after Kilimanjaro Safari, Disney World
Jess Pendergrass in Animal Kingdom in front of the You are Most Beautiful Wall, Disney World

We grabbed a drink at the Dawa bar and walked around some of the animal sanctuaries before lunch at Yak and Yeti (so good and also definitely recommended), then over to our FastPass for the other Avatar ride – Na’vi Rivers of Light. It was a beautiful ride but I’m glad we skipped the two-hour line for it. Since we had already rode Everest, we traded our late FastPass for the Bug’s Life show, which brought back fun memories for me but probably wasn’t the best use of it haha. 

Jess and Eric Pendergrass in Animal Kingdom in front of Avatar Pandora waterfall, Disney World
Avatar Pandora waterfall, Disney World

The crowds were rolling in still by the late afternoon, so we actually went back to our room and took a glorious nap. That evening, we took the ferry boat from our resort over to the Disney Springs area. We had a couple drinks as we walked around, grabbed dinner at the Morimoto Street Food, and wandered through the shops. Eric picked up a nice cigar, then, as we were about to head back to the hotel, I saw it: a big, beautiful, three-story Coca-Cola store. I obviously wanted to go inside to take a look, but then I saw it had a rooftop bar and practically ran the three flights. With a whole menu of drinks that incorporated Coke to choose from, I settled on an “adult Coke float” to enjoy on the patio overlooking Disney Springs. It was the best nightcap I could have wished for. 

Eric and Jess Pendergrass in Disney Springs
Eric and Jess Pendergrass in Disney Springs


Day 3 was my actual birthday, and I had a few big goals for us including riding all three “mountains” at Magic Kingdom and seeing both my favorite castles (Cinderella’s in Disney and, obviously, Hogwarts in Universal). I read a tip online that if a Disney park didn’t open until 9:00, you could sometimes get a reservation for breakfast at 8:00 and you’d be let in early. I scoured the Disney app for a couple weeks before securing the precious 8:00 slot at Be Our Guest in the new Beast’s Castle. We got into the park right around 7:45, which was just enough time to take pictures on the almost-empty Main Street in front of Cinderella’s Castle before we walked around it to breakfast. 

Jess Pendergrass in front of Cinderella's Castle in Magic Kingdom, Disney World before it opens
Jess and Eric Pendergrass on Main Street U.S.A., Magic Kingdom, Disney World

The atmosphere in Beast’s Castle is really cool and the food was really great. I’d also read online that we should head to the new Seven Dwarfs ride next door when we were done, as the wait time quickly exceeds two hours once the park opens. We did just that and were on the ride at 9:05. 

Stained glass window with Belle and Prince in Beast's Castle at Be Our Guest Restaurant, Magic Kingdom Disney World

Our first FastPass wasn’t until 9:30 or so, and we started to walk to Frontierland when we saw there was only a 15-minute wait for the Haunted Mansion. We jumped in line to knock it out before Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and, using the raincoats I had packed in my backpack, Splash Mountain. I saw the Sunshine Tree Terrace that serves the orange version of Dole Whip, so we stopped by there and ate our orange ice creams on a bench by the water. 

Citrus Swirl Float from Sunshine Tree Terrace, Magic Kingdom, Disney World

Another one of my favorite rides, Pirates of the Caribbean, didn’t have too long of a wait, so we jumped in line for it too before heading over to Tomorrowland. After we rode Space Mountain, it was only 2:00 and we had done everything I had on my Magic Kingdom birthday bucket list, so we went back to our hotel for lunch and a quick change. 

Jess and Eric Pendergrass make pirate faces in front of Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Magic Kingdom, Disney World
Jess Pendergrass in front of Cinderella's Castle, Magic Kingdom, Disney World

We called a Lyft to take us over to Universal Studios, opting to be dropped off outside the park where Eric proposed exactly four years earlier. We walked around trying to find the exact spot and recreated some of the pictures we had taken that day just for fun. We planned on walking the rest of the way to Universal when a bike taxi stopped and asked if we wanted a ride. Eric thought it would be fun and said yes right away, so we made small talk with the nice driver and were at the entrance in just a couple minutes. 

Eric and Jess Pendergrass selfie

For the sake of being transparent, I’ll go on and say this is where my magical plan went a little off the rails. We went straight to Hogwarts to see the castle like I wanted, but as soon as we entered the Harry Potter area of the park, we could barely move through the ridiculous crowd. The holiday light show was apparently still being done at the castle starting at dusk, so that area of the park felt like it was past capacity and the amount of people packed in was suffocating. We managed to make our way close to the castle before I turned around and asked if we could please get out of there. It was insane and I still don’t think I can wrap my head around Universal Studios being ten times more crowded than Disney World. 

Jess and Eric Pendergrass in front of Hogwarts Castle, Universal Studios

A park employee told us the other side of the Harry Potter world was not as bad, so we took a long walk from one park to the other. They were right and we could walk freely around Diagon Alley, so we grabbed a beer (and a butter beer) from the tavern tucked away in the corner and walked around looking at all the fun shop windows. I watched some kids casting the “spells” to make the displays come alive, listened to the Harry Potter music tinkling in the background, and pulled out my camera just in time to see the dragon on top of Gringott’s burst a giant flame out of its mouth. It ended up being a magical night but I was happy to catch a Lyft back to our hotel and crash hard into bed by the end of it. 

Jess Pendergrass grabs the handle of 13 Grimmauld Place in Universal Studios
Jess Pendergrass sips a Butterbeer at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios


After several nights of five-hour-sleep followed by 10-15 miles of walking during the day, we were exhausted and slept past our alarms on Friday. We woke up feeling rested for the first time in a week and decided to walk to the resort next door to try the famous Mickey beignets at Sassagoula Floatworks and Food Factory. I’ve never been to New Orleans to try the real thing, but these tasted exactly like funnel cake – which was delicious but a funny thing to eat for breakfast haha.

Mickey beignets at Sassagoula Floatworks

We called another Lyft to take us back to Universal, where the crowds were luckily no where near as bad as the night before. It took all our courage to go back to Hogsmeade beside the Hogwarts castle, but it was manageable during the day and we rode the Flight of the Hippogriff ride in about an hour.

Eric and Jess Pendergrass in front of Hogwarts Castle in Universal Studios
Jess Pendergrass faces Hogwarts with a wand held high

Since we hadn’t explored much outside the Harry Potter sections of the park together, we wandered through the Jurassic Park area and eventually over to Marvel Super Hero Island to ride the Incredible Hulk Coaster. They require riders to put everything from bags to cell phones in lockers, so we had a nice hour of unplugged waiting before riding that was really welcomed.

Eric and Jess Pendergrass selfie in front of the Incredible Hulk Coaster in Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure

Even though I’m not a fan of E.T., I wanted Eric to experience the classic ride, so we did that last just as the Florida clouds started getting darker. We somehow timed it where we were in our Lyft about five minutes before the skies opened up. 

Jess Pendergrass making sad face outside E.T. Adventure in Universal Studios

The dinner reservations we made for that night we’re at the Grand Floridian hotel, so rather than bus-hop in the rain, we decided to hire another Lyft. We checked in and had a few minutes to walk around the hotel before we were called to our table. It was definitely one of the best meals we had on the trip and our server was so kind. He knew we were there celebrating my birthday and even brought a giant cupcake out with dessert before making Eric join him in singing Happy Birthday to me haha! When I blew out the candle, I wished to myself for a magical night at Magic Kingdom. 

Mickey happy birthday cupcake with sprinkles at Grand Floridian Cafe, Disney World

And my wish came true. After dinner, we rode the monorail over to the park and took advantage of more Extra Magic Hours to squeeze in a bunch of smaller rides like Winnie the Pooh, Mickey’s Philharmagic, and Splash Mountain again. Eric wanted to ride the Seven Dwarfs ride again, so we literally ran through the park to get in line before 11:00. We made it with five minutes to spare and eventually got to ride it seeing the empty park all lit up.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride entrance sign at night

As we were leaving and snapping pictures of the castle, the Kiss Goodnight started playing. They do this nightly after the park closes apparently, but I’ve never seen it before and didn’t think that we would catch it. The smile on my face could not have been bigger as we walked out to catch a bus back to our hotel. 

Jess and Eric Pendergrass in front of Cinderella's Castle at night
Jess Pendergrass in front of Cinderella's Castle at night, Magic Kingdom, Disney World
Cinderella's Castle at night, Magic Kingdom, Disney World


I had been looking forward to going to Hollywood Studios all week only because my favorite ride in the world (Tower of Terror) is there. It was our first FastPass of the morning but we got to the park a little early to grab a coffee and walk around a little. 

Eric and Jess Pendergrass on Sunset Boulevard in front of Tower of Terror, Hollywood Studios, Disney World
Tower of Terror, Hollywood Studios, Disney World

Afterwards Tower of Terror, we headed to Echo Lake but were stopped in our tracks by Star Wars Stormtroopers marching down the road (cue us grinning with delight because we are nerds haha). We got great seats for the Indian Jones show, which we were both surprised to see had been updated a little since our last visit to it 10 years ago.

Indiana Jones show in Hollywood Studios, Disney World

We walked back down Sunset Boulevard over to Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, which hasn’t changed a bit since I first rode it in middle school. 

Jess and Eric Pendergrass in front of the Rock 'N' Roller Coaster entrance in Hollywood Studios, Disney World

I wanted to see the new Toy Story Land even though we weren’t able to snag passes for any of the rides there, but it was definitely the most crowded area of the park. We did a quick walkthrough to look at all the little details, saw the green army men drumline perform for a minute, and then quickly got out of there. 

We went back to the hotel for a bit, where I unfortunately got some devastating news from a friend and was very glad to not be in the parks for the first time all week. I wasn’t really feeling up for anything at that point, so we walked over to the pool bar for a drink and to sit in silence for a while. 

Strawberry margarita at Port Orleans Riverside pool bar

Everyone had said that the Avatar section of Animal Kingdom was something to see at night, so we decided we would go for a walk around there and see the plants lit up. It was definitely a different experience than during the day and breathtakingly beautiful.

The night plants at Pandora World of Avatar, Animal Kingdom, Disney World
Jess and Eric Pendergrass in front of the waterfall at night at Pandora World of Avatar, Animal Kingdom, Disney World

We were also surprised to see the line for Flight of Passage had dropped down to two hours, so we figured we could go on and wait it out to ride. It only took about an hour and change for our turn, and wow wow wow. The ride was absolutely beautiful and so different than anything I had ever ridden before. You really feel like you are flying and I cried a lot behind my 3D glasses. I definitely understand the hype now and why people wait in line for hours to ride it again and again. 

Avatar floating in tank in the Flight of Passage ride line, Pandora, Animal Kingdom, Disney World

We went back to the hotel, grabbed a pizza from the cafe, and walked over to the River Roost bar where Yeeha Bob was about to perform. He came by our table and introduced himself before starting up the show on his rocking piano. I had read online he was a hidden Disney gem and had been doing the show for about 20 years, and it was easy to see why once he got going. The crowd was ready to sing along, get up and dance, and called out to him every time he asked a question. I had a few strong drinks, spent some time checking in with friends and family, and eventually fell into a deep and welcomed sleep. 

Yeeha Bob lifts his hat as he plays piano at the River Roost Bar, Disney's Port Orleans Riverside Resort, Disney World


Sunday was our last full day at the parks, so we wanted to make the most of it. We started off by opening Magic Kingdom and jumping on the Peter Pan ride and “it’s a small world.” 

Cinderella's Fountain at Magic Kingdom, Disney World
"it's a small world" clock at Magic Kingdom, Disney World

At the Contemporary resort next to Magic Kingdom, they host a Brunch at the Top only on Sundays that I read was pretty killer and managed to get us a reservation for 11:00. We walked over to the hotel and rode the elevator to the top, where a server greeted us with bottomless mimosas and pointed out everything you could see from the windows. There was a couple musicians playing jazz renditions of Disney classics in the background and a balcony walkway where you could get a better picture of Magic Kingdom and all the views outside. Good call, Jess. 

Jess Pendergrass on the balcony that overlooks Magic Kingdom from California Grill at the Contemporary Resort

One thing we weren’t prepared for the amount of delicious food we would get. Their open buffet was stuffed with some of the most mouthwatering options I had ever seen, and we were also supposed to order something from the chef’s menu. Just when we were complaining how stuffed we were, our server brought out a giant plate of desserts created by the pastry chefs and I thought we would explode. Everything was fantastic and it was, by far, the best brunch I have ever eaten. 

Buffet offerings from Brunch at the Top, California Grill at the Contemporary Resort

We walked back over to Magic Kingdom for a couple more rides like Jungle Cruise and Thunder Mountain Railroad again. We stopped for a Mickey ice cream sandwich in the afternoon and Eric asked me if there was anything else I wish we had done. I said the only things were I wish we could have ridden Tower of Terror again, but I wanted to see the fireworks show at Magic Kingdom that evening. He reminded me we had gotten the park hopper passes for a reason and suggested we bus to Hollywood Studios one last time before coming back for fireworks. I really like him sometimes.

Eric and Jess Pendergrass in front of Cinderella's Castle, Magic Kingdom, Disney World

We quickly made our way from the bus stop and down Sunset Boulevard to wait in line for Tower of Terror. I hadn’t thought of it when we were waiting, but we managed to be on the ride at the exact moment of sunset. While on the ride, I also realized we were given one of the best (totally random) sequences and were held at the top for several seconds to see the pink sky before dropping 13 stories. If I could pinpoint what pure joy feels like, this would have been it for me. 

Inside the Hollywood Tower Hotel, Tower of Terror, Hollywood Studios, Disney World
Eric and Jess Pendergrass riding Tower of Terror, Hollywood Studios, Disney World

Now giggling again at our luck, we bussed back to Magic Kingdom just in time to get a great spot for the fireworks and catch the light show beforehand as well. The Happily Ever After fireworks were heartbreakingly beautiful and I actually sobbed for the most of the 18 minutes. We worked our way through the crowd after to ride a few more rides, including one last plunge on Splash Mountain to get a funny picture. After closing down the park again, I told Eric it had been one of my favorite days at Disney in my life and I was really sad to pack up our suitcases that night before bed. 

Happily Ever After fireworks, Magic Kingdom, Disney World
Happily Ever After fireworks, Magic Kingdom, Disney World


Our flight out wasn’t until the late afternoon, so we dropped our bags off, had breakfast, and checked out of our room before heading to Animal Kingdom again. We had a little issue with one of our FastPasses that we had to go to Guest Services to get corrected, so they gave us two “anytime” passes we could use on any ride in the park except the Avatar ones. We rode Everest again, grabbed a drink, and walked over to the Lion King show. Eric was even picked out of our section of the crowd to lead the animal call before the show. The performance was another that had been updated and improved since the many years ago when I saw it last, and moved me to tears by the end. (I cried a lot this trip.) The dancers, acrobats, lighting, music, and just overall performance of everything was so well done and it’s definitely something I would watch again and again. 

Festival of the Lion King, Animal Kingdom, Disney World

We used our last FastPass to ride Everest (yet again!) so that we could close our trip with one last rollercoaster thrill. I was very sad to leave but we needed to catch our shuttle back to the airport and get back to Ollie who we were really missing by this point. 

Everest, Animal Kingdom, Disney World

Our flight was unfortunately delayed for several hours, but since we were there early we asked to be put on standby for one leaving before our delayed departure time. We found a Chili’s in the airport and settled in there for a bit before making our way to the standby gate, and were pleasantly surprised when we were called to take two of the last three seats. 

Overall, this trip was everything I could have wanted and everything I didn’t realize I needed. I said this online afterwards, but what I’ve really been missing is more play in my life and this trip fit the bill. There were highs and lows, I was flooded with memories, and simply, we had a ton of fun. We got back to Charlotte the next day exhausted and feeling every bit of the almost 100 miles we walked in the last week, but I feel inspired and refreshed in a way I didn’t anticipate. 

One of my fellow Disney-loving best friends wants to go this spring to celebrate her own birthday there, and I could not be more excited to go back and do it all over again with her. Adults doing Disney might be my new favorite pastime. 

I’m very thankful to my gracious husband who admittedly does not enjoy theme parks as much as I do, but was patient and encouraging and fun-loving while I fulfilled a lot of childhood dreams. Living this crazy life with him is one of them that is continually coming true. 

Eric and Jess Pendergrass on Sunset Boulevard in front of Tower of Terror, Hollywood Studios, Disney World

Make your own magic. 

Jess Pendergrass faces Cinderella Castle with her arms up, Magic Kingdom, Disney World

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