Friday, June 23, 2017

Security Forces Officer Course: Week by Week

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis

Now that I'm getting back to the grind at home as our Security Forces Operations Officer, I'm constantly being asked, "How was school?" My immediate answer? "IT WAS FUN!" To be honest—and for anyone who has spent time at Camp Bullis or who thinks of technical training and fun as oxymorons and is already rolling their eyes at me—YES! I had a TON of fun. But then again, that's just me!

The Security Forces Officer Course (SFOC) at Camp Bullis in San Antonio, Texas was such a different experience for me than any training I've ever attended. Not only was the training filled with tactics, troop leading, contingency operations, and law enforcement principles, it was also a kick-butt experience because I got to stay in a hotel, made life-long friends, and learned so much about everything I'm capable of (which is much more than I thought!) and how motivated and excited I am to be a Defender in the Air National Guard. I don't care if it's cheesy—I'm "ate-up" with Security Forces and this is the best life I could be living right now.

So let's get to the training, shall we? The 4.5-month (18-week) timeline is broken down below, with photos and a snapshot description of the training we received each week. Have questions about the training? Don't hesitate to leave a comment and ask below!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 1 - This was our head-first dive into SFOC and we were still all pretty unsure of what was going on at this point. They had strict rules about not bringing phones to class, so we weren't able to capture any of the initial days. To sum it up, we were divided into squads (three), we took an initial PT test so that we could begin Combat Agility Drills (CADs, a.k.a. group physical fitness training), did the obstacle course, the Leaders' Reactionary Course (LRC) and sat through lectures about Security Forces history within the Air Force and armed forces. We took this photo on our first Saturday outing. This was my squad—Squad 2—the "Mudbloods" at The Alamo.

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 2 - We spent the majority of the second week at Medina Air Force Base, taking weapons classes and qualifying on most of our weapons systems. To name a few, we learned the M4 rifle, M9 pistol, M240B machine gun, M249, M203 grenade launcher, and shotgun. I was the 1st In-Charge (1IC) of the class that week, so it was a great chance to test my leadership abilities and learn about the skills I needed to hone in by the end of the course (like my command voice!). We also went for our first weighted ruck march, with a 35-pound ruck (before water) and that was definitely an experience. I got much better, stronger, and faster by the end of the course!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 3 - Our third week treated us to our first (of many) Light Medium Tactical Vehicle (LMTV) rides. We spent the week in the field with many of our other weapon systems, including grenades and claymore mines. I loved throwing the grenades—the BOOM they make when they detonate is exhilarating to experience!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 4 - The fourth week taught us the meat and potatoes of "Shoot, Move Communicate" (SMC). Working in pairs and as groups of four while navigating obstacles and engaging targets was not a bad way to spend a few days. It had poured down rain the night before we hit the SMC course, so by the end of the day our boots were literally caked with mud and were so heavy! Our objective was to move through/around obstacles (barriers, trees, rocks, vehicles) with weapons and in full battle rattle as we communicated with our fire teams to direct them where to go, provide cover, and rotate back and forth between the M9 pistol and M4 rifle with ease.

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 5 - Our fifth week taught us the basics of land navigation and surprisingly—despite all the "Lost LT" rumors—I did not get lost! The way this training worked was that they dropped us in a spot as a pair. We began at 0430 so that we could land nav both during the hours of darkness and daylight. We had a compass, protractor, map and pencil and were in full battle rattle with a ruck and weapons. We had three hours to find four points. And we did it twice—so all in all it was about seven hours of field land navigation. The course was rough, the weather was hot, and the morale was high. Land nav was no joke, but it sure was fun! And then the next day? We did it alllllll over again. We were exhausted and finished the week with our first 3 Bears ruck, getting to experience the beast of the hill "Mama Bear" for the first time.

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 6 - The sixth week introduced Individual Training Tactics (ITT). Similar to SMC, you work in a pair and have to navigate land and obstacles in a tactical, stealthy manner. This was accomplished by performing low crawls, high crawls, back-crawling under barbed wire, trench crawls, wall-clearing, moving as a team through a tactical setting, and lots and lots of simulated fire & smoke. I had sand in all parts of my uniform for weeks after that day! In addition, we also got to fire the MK19 automatic grenade launcher and law rockets. Now that was fun!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 7 - Our seventh week taught us Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). Essentially, it's building clearing, moving as a tactical small unit (fire team or squad) up to/around/through a building to clear it of threats. After we practiced the "glass house" version of the training, we went against opposing forces (OPFOR) in one of our field villages, putting to use all the training we received. It was the last of our initial training before we moved out of the classroom phase and into the field, missions, and OPORD phase.

The photo on the right shows our hardest day we had experience yet, and for most of us was considered—by far—the worst of all of our days at Camp Bullis. It was "Prep for Combat" and was the final day of Week 7, where we were tested from 0315-1230 in multiple scenarios to simulate combat stress. We began by loading up LMTV's at 0315 and driving around in the chilly morning air for 90-minutes. We then fired the M4 with night vision goggles before taking off on a weighted running ruck, sprinting to a spot where we got absolutely smoked with burpees, push-ups, overhead arm press with our rucks, etc. After our smoke session, we rucked back to begin an 80 min station with physically/mentally demanding scenarios that tested us to simulate a combat stress environment (including up/down field movement drills, 200m crawls through mud and while sustaining fire, liter carries, ammo can carries, and troop movement). I became very fatigued during that station... it tested me! Immediately afterward, we then had a "mind game" station where we put our mental skills to the test and were "punished" for our failures by having to complete over 300 burpees. It was by far the most demanding day we had and just one more reason why I am so glad—yes, glad!—I have chosen this career field! Days like that show me what I'm made of and are very humbling!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 8 - The eighth week was full of ambush & assault drills in the field, finishing with a nighttime raid. Ambushes are a lot of fun and I enjoyed testing our tactics with a full day of scenarios. For the nighttime raid, we had to be in full battle rattle with rucks and camo on at 0230. We had mission briefs, armed up, and were out making our way to our hilltop rally point within the hour. Man, land navigation is difficult but it's even harder at 0400 and over rough, rocky terrain and elevation. Once we found our observation points, our three squads worked together to raid a location against OPFOR. It was a successful mission and we all learned a lot. Also, we were done at 0945! What a way to celebrate St Patty's Day!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 9 - Week 9 is taught us about mounted patrols (in a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV)), dismounted patrols, Warning Orders (WARNOs) and Operation Orders (OPORDs). We also did HMMWV training, rollover training, and a convoy simulation. It was very cool! Midway through Week 9, we were put to the test when we received our first mission drop and had 30-minutes to come up with a WARNO. As Squad 2's Second in Command (2IC), I was part of the OPORD planning team and spent most of the evening planning the following day's mission. That morning, we set out on our surveillance and sweeping mission against OPFOR. The day was relatively quiet until two OPFOR came directly at me while we were halted. I shot them both (with blanks!) and sustained a shot (simulated) in the leg. My guys wrapped me up and evacuated me off the hillside super quick. That moment made me realize how glad I was to be part of such an amazing group of SF BAD-A's!! Mission SUCCESS! That week lead us into the same type of training we would be doing for the next few weeks.

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 10 - Week 10 brought more adventure! Over 70 Defenders from the Combat Leader Course (which we call the CLC and is made up of SF Staff and Tech Sergeants) and Security Forces Officer Course (us!) prepared to initiate the largest training operation in years at Camp Bullis, successfully raiding an enemy compound and ambushing reinforcements. Week 10 also involved mission planning and execution progress checks. It taught us troop leading, strategic planning, and gave us a feel for all of the responsibilities we will encounter if we get deployed. We showed up each morning, ran a "mission," came back, got a new mission, planned that mission all night (2-4 hours of sleep) and then would run that mission the next morning. That was our life... on repeat... for two more weeks. They switched up our roles every day so some days I was in charge of the entire 35-person flight or our 12-man squad, and other days I was a gunner, driver, pace counter or fire team leader, etc.

Week 10 ended with a—what we thought—final mission which was set to be done in the early afternoon. Cadre threw us a curveball and when we returned from our mission, they dropped another WARNO and we had 10-minutes to pack our things before heading out for a 24-hour mission that evening. I was so bummed because Daniel was coming into town the next day and I was certain I was going to miss him. Needless to say, the 24-mission was a true test of our resiliency and tactics, and after it was all finished I was able to spend the weekend with my sweetheart. It was a much-needed break from the training and all the motivation I needed to finish the last 8-weeks strong!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 11 - The eleventh week was more missions that included Traffic Control Points (TCPs), raids, ambushes and key leader engagements. We were putting all these weeks of missions to prep for the following week where we would put practice into play for five solid days of missions during our non-stop overnight field training exercise.

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 12 - Our twelfth week was our Field Training Exercise (FTX) which was much-dreaded but ended up being a lot of fun! We spent five days in the field with no running water, bathrooms, etc. We took shifts on base defense, mission squads, and a Quick Reaction Force (QRF). Each day was filled with new missions/scenarios and we combined all of our mission practical application and applied it to one solid week of combat operations. We destroyed the enemy forces and had lots of laughs, tactical maneuvering, dirt, sweat and ammo along the way!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 13 - This week was all about convoys and we finally were in the home stretch of missions. See the party hats above? That was our last OPORD on our last day of missions... we had made it! I won't do this specific job since we don't run convoys like this from my base, but it was great training for my other classmates. I basically just drove a HMMWV around all week and ate sunflower seeds. No complaints there!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 14 - The fourteenth week began our law enforcement (LE) officer phase. We began to learn about what I'm actually doing now that I'm at my home station and what our Defenders do at their daily jobs to protect and secure our base, resources,  and personnel. The shot above was from our last day of the week where we finished strong with a 35-pound weighted ruck up 3 Bears. Can you tell we were soaked in sweat? It was a great workout--GO SQUAD 2! We only had four-more weeks to go!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 15 - The fifteenth week included Taser, oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray, and law enforcement tactics like handcuffing, searching and seizing. I had been previously tased and OC sprayed at my home base, so I was personally not looking forward to doing it again. But hey, you do what you have to do, right? I was able to opt out of the Taser, but did not have a choice with OC. To begin the OC progress check, we first were sprayed in the face (two side to side shots). After being sprayed, we had to run at a "red man" and hit them 5 times with a baton, run at another offender, draw our weapons, and verbally challenge them to get on the ground. Once they were down, we had to handcuff, double lock and detain them. And all of this was AFTER being "pepper" sprayed. I was able to complete it without an issue—though I did have a mad-runny nose!—and I have to say, it was no better (nor worse) the second time. It was all terrible! I'm hoping that was my last time encountering that nasty orange stuff.

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 16 - The sixteenth week continued our law enforcement phase with baton training and another go at the LRC. Baton was something entirely new for me... it took me a while to get used to, but once I got the feel for a good strike, it was a lot of fun! I definitely gave some powerful strikes and got even more fired up when took a couple hits in return. Oh man, two full minute rounds with the red man was no joke! Let's go again, HOOAH!

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 17 - When we finally arrived at Week 17 (of 18!!!) it was very surreal. We finished the week with combatives, the obstacle course, and a six-mile ruck on 3 Bears in honor of National Police Week. We did our miles in honor of those who serve alongside us and in memory of our fallen defenders and police officers. We were so excited that the end was in sight.

Security Forces Officer Course, Air Force Security Forces, Camp Bullis
Week 18 - Jamming out the last few days of Week 18 was no big deal. We had a final PT test, ran our final 3-Bears ruck, and took care of some basic housekeeping items before graduation at the end of the week. To finally don the beret and join the Security Forces Officers' corps was BY FAR the greatest honor of my career. I was SO happy to simply graduate, and when I was presented with one of three "Distinguished Graduate" awards, it was absolutely the icing on the cake. That final day was one of the best days of my life... I now get to follow the footsteps of those who went before me with honor, pride, excellence, valor, heritage... the list goes on. "Upon the Shoulders of Giants..." Truly, I am so blessed to be a DEFENDER. HOOAH!
    And here are some photos from adventures I took around San Antonio with my classmates in our downtime. We tried to make the most of every weekend—checking as many boxes on our Texas to-do list as possible! The weekends were what helped get us through... "Weekend Please!"

    3 Bears Ruck, Camp Bullis
    We often loaded up our rucks and hit the 3 Bears trail for a leisurely ruck and some good UV rays. We didn't have as much time—nor energy!—for this toward the end of the course, but it sure was fun while it lasted. We resorted to other forms of recreation toward the last few weeks.

    Cowboys Dance Hall San Antonio
    One of our favorite weekend venues was Cowboys Dance Hall. Some of my classmates taught me the basics of country swing and we had a blast!

    San Antonio Ice Skating
    One weekend we donned skates and "chilled" (ha!) with the kiddos at the local ice rink. That was a fun way to beat the San Antonio heat and do something different.

    Epic SUP Paddleboarding Austin Texas
    Paddleboarding in Austin was one of my favorite recreational adventures. I ended up paddleboarding four times over three different weekends... I couldn't get enough!

    Floating the Guadalupe River, Shandy Tubes
    The Guadalupe River was a treat on the hot days. We would load up our vehicles and coolers and head to the river for a four-hour lazy float. We always finished the day in Gruene with some good honky tonk music and margaritas at Cantina Del Rio.

    Boating Canyon Lake Texas
    Taking the boat out on Canyon Lake was super fun. We made some good memories that day!

    San Antonio Spurs Game
    The San Antonio Spurs were in the NBA playoffs while I was down there, and I was able to attend two Spurs games. The crowd down there is wild and they ended up winning both games I attended. If only they had made it through to the championship... if only!

    Barton Springs Austin Texas
    True Austin tourism at its finest was found at Barton Springs. I spent a couple afternoons in their natural spring pool soaking up the sun or swimming some easy laps.

    Chainsmokers Concert San Antonio Texas
    One of my buddies was a big fan of the Chainsmokers, so when we found out they were having a concert we jumped right on the tickets. That was a fun night!

    All in all, SFOC was by far the best training I've ever received. It wasn't only great because of the tactics and leadership techniques we were taught—it was great because of my fellow Defenders, the incredible cadre who got to know us (and joked with us!) along the way, and the lessons that I was able to bring home and will be able to practice for the rest of my life... all of that, and some insanely great memories and laughs that I will hold on to forever. (#RUCKTHIS!)

    The Defender life is a pretty legit path to be on. I couldn't be happier to have endured those 18-weeks and to now wear the police shield and beret with pride and honor. Seriously, I couldn't ask for more. Honor, Serve, Excel... and of course, in the words of the fallen Defender 1st Lieutenant Joseph D. Helton, Jr., "Don't be a weaksauce."

    PS // Watch my SFOC Class 0170123 video here!

    Monday, June 5, 2017

    I Am A DEFENDER!

    Security Forces Officer Course, Security Forces Defender, Military Police, Security Forces Technical School
    Security Forces Officer Course, Security Forces Defender, Military Police, Security Forces Technical School

    On May 25, 2017, I received my shield and beret as I graduated the Security Forces Officer Course and officially--and finally!--became a DEFENDER!

    I say "finally" because gosh--that 4.5 month tech school sure seemed to be a long one... not now that I look back on the experience, but during Week 11 when we were running missions while camo-painted up, carrying a 35-pound ruck on our backs and slinging the M240b through miles of dense, wooded terrain and dripping with sweat, completely exhausted from sleeping maybe 3-4 hours the night before... that's when it felt like it would never end. And then all of a sudden, here I am on the other side. Man, it feels good.

    I have another post coming about my Security Forces Officer Course (SFOC) week-by-week breakdown, but until then, this is just to say, "Hello! I'm alive and made it through!" And to be honest, enduring the last 4.5-months and earning the privilege to don the beret, sew the shield onto my uniform, and serve proudly as a Security Forces Defender is by far the greatest honor of my career.

    When I think about the fact that three short years ago this week, I graduated Basic Military Training as an Airman First Class and since joining have spent an entire year away from home between my Personnel Tech School, Officer Training School and now SFOC, I'm so grateful for the path that my career has taken me on. I'm truly working my dream job every single day and can't wait to see what the future as a Defender and my base's Security Forces Operations Officer will hold.

    Our class motto was "Upon the Shoulders of Giants" and as I move forward into my career, I am humbled to follow in the footsteps of some amazing Defenders who served before me, who gave their lives to protect our country, and who continue to exhibit our second Core Value of Service Before Self every single day. I hope to do each of them justice and not only grow as an Officer, but also empower, enable, and learn from my own troops that I'll get to work with back home.

    As we said at SFOC, "74 pounds... no excuses!" and as I look back at the photo below and take my next step forward, you guys better bet that no excuses will be given. Ruck this! 

    Security Forces Officer Course, Security Forces Defender, Military Police, Security Forces Technical School

    BONUS! One of my classmates put together a GoPro video of many of our training experiences while at SFOC. Watch it below... it's just the tip of the iceberg but a very cool glimpse into some of our incredible training we received... You can spot me at 3:29 if you look quickly!



    Stay tuned for my SFOC week-by-week breakdown post coming soon. HOOAH! 

    Sunday, February 5, 2017

    Security Forces Officer Course

    SFOC, Air Force Security Forces, Security Forces Officer Course

    Two weeks ago, I began the 4.5-month journey to becoming a Security Forces Officer. As you recall, I finished Officer Training School (OTS) as a Second Lieutenant in June, and have been eagerly anticipating this technical school so I can finally receive the education and training for the job I've been trying to do for the last 6-months.

    As an enlisted Airman, I was trained in personnel and human resources. In order to be selected as an Officer, I had to compete for a spot within a new career field--and Security Forces was where I applied and was subsequently chosen for the job as an Operations Officer. Security Forces is so different than anything I've ever done before, and it was exciting to think about learning an entirely different skill set and put my mind & body to the test with some new tactical and strategic training. To say that I was absolutely elated to go into SF would be an understatement.

    In the time between OTS and the Security Forces Officer Course (SFOC), I worked as the Operations Officer at our Air National Guard base. While I tried to learn the job as best as I could, it was necessary for me to go to SFOC to receive the foundational training so that I can effectively perform my job at home. I've been waiting and waiting to get down to Texas to get this ball rolling and finally--it's here!

    The school is 18-weeks long. We will learn everything from the basics of Security Forces including base defense and law enforcement fundamentals to leading troops in a deployed field environment. This school is a challenge for me--since my background is in health and wellness, everything I'm learning is so new. In addition, the field training, rucking, and Combat Agility Drills (CAD) we are expected to perform are quite physically demanding. And while it may all be a challenge, it's so fun so far. I'm learning things, building friendships, and experimenting with leadership techniques every single day.

    Needless to say, if this blog is a bit quiet for the next several months, I hope you can understand. When I go on temporary duty assignments (TDY), I try to give my full attention to the training and fully submerge myself in all aspects of the course. Prior to saying "adios" for the next several months, check out a few photos of my first couple weeks in Texas below.

    SFOC, Air Force Security Forces, Security Forces Officer School
    There are some great trails around our base. I like to run or ruck them to help build my endurance every chance I get!

    SFOC, Air Force Security Forces, Security Forces Officer Course, Expert Marksman
    We spent week 2 on the firing range, learning the basics of the pistol, rifle, shotgun and grenade launcher. I was so excited to have achieved Expert Marksman on both the pistol and rifle. My aim needs some work, but for now I'm just having fun learning new weapons systems!

    SFOC, Air Force Security Forces, Security Forces Officer Course
    During week 2, I was our Class Leader, a.k.a. 1st In Command (1IC). This was during our end-of-day de-brief and prep for the next morning with our Squad Leaders.

    SFOC, Air Force Security Forces, Security Forces Officer School, Eisenhower Park San Antonio, rucking
    Rucking the trails by our base. Our base weight for our rucks (at this point in training, anyway) is 35 lbs prior to adding water. When we ruck as a flight, we are in full uniform and often running (read: shuffling) while we do it.

    SFOC, Air Force Security Forces, Security Forces Officer School,Eisenhower Park San Antonio, Ruck marching
    Rucking with the guys. The friendships I'm building here are so invaluable. Everyone seems like a family already. And if I'm going to be gone for 4.5-months, it's so great to know I'll be surrounded by a great group of people!

    With four more months to go, I'm sure I'll have plenty more to share as the days tick past. Though it's only been two weeks, it feels like we've been in school for much longer than that already. While I love being in this TDY environment, I sure do miss home. But as with every training I've gone to, this brings me one step closer to my dream career of being full-time in the military and helps build my future with Daniel and my someday-family to be that much stronger.

    As one of our fallen Defenders, 1st Lt Joseph D. Helton, Jr. said, "Don't be a weaksauce." And Lt Helton, to you I will do the honor of living every single day to learn, grow, fight, and never be a weaksauce. 4-more months to go... let's do this! HOOAH.

    Sunday, December 25, 2016

    MERRY CHRISTMAS

    Merry Christmas timeline Christmas card, Rowe Christmas 2016

    MERRY CHRISTMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR!
    Love ♥ The Rowe's and all our fun adventures
    (there weren't enough photo spots to include all of them—and there are MANY more in store for 2017!)

    A few thoughts that go along with this annual holiday card tradition of ours...
    • Sometimes I think I create these cards just for us—to fill our holiday coffee table book—it's like my Christmas present to myself
    • When I began this tradition in 2011, I figured there would be more than just two of us for the last four years... obviously that didn't happen!

    Past Christmas cards: 2011 │ 2012201320142015

    Monday, December 12, 2016

    Theme-Parking Trip to Orlando, Florida

    Disneyworld, Magic Kingdom, Disneyworld at Christmas, Best time of year to visit Disneyworld

    Daniel and I, despite our love of traveling, don't often go new places on real vacations... we usually take our days off to visit out-of-state family and often travel to the same spots over and over. So two weeks prior to our anniversary, when Daniel asked if I would be interested in a REAL (week-long!) vacation to DISNEYWORLD, how was I to say no? Everyone says that mid-December is the best time to theme-park in Orlando, so we booked our tickets on a whim! Three weeks later, after working seven 12-14 hour days in a row, we were on the plane with my brother-in-law and his wife on a little Rowe couple's get-a-way.

    We arrived in Orlando on Monday evening and without even stopping to check in at our hotel, we drove our rental car straight to Shades of Green (an Armed Forces Resort) to purchase our military discount tickets for the week. We didn't miss a beat and headed straight for Magic Kingdom to catch some warm night-time weather and low ride wait times for a few hours before the park closed—and what a good decision that was! The longest line we ended up waiting in was maybe 20-minutes. We ended up hitting all the big ones—Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.—and literally would get right on them, get off, and get right back on. We snagged a traditional HUGE turkey leg and some Dole Whip along the way and just roller-coaster-ed our little hearts out. By the time we ended up at the hotel, it was 1:30 am and we were beat!

    Disneyworld, Magic Kingdom, Magic Kingdom Princess Castle at night, Disneyworld at Christmas
    Night 1 - Magic Kingdom.

    We slept in the next morning and woke up to pouring rain. We threw on our hats and jackets and headed for Hollywood Studios. It turns out that rainy days are GREAT days at Disney. It seemed like we had the park to ourselves as we rode Tower of Terror, The Great Movie Ride, Rockin' Roller Coaster, and everything else we could find with no more than 5-minute wait times. Sah-weet! After we had our fill of the thrills, we took a boat over to Epcot to visit the different worlds and lands. We ended up catching some chips and salsa in Mexico, rode the Gran Fiesta Tour, and weaved in an out of every other country before stopping in France for a meringue and soft serve. We again closed the park down with their epic fireworks IllumiNations show. Talk about living every day to the fullest!

    Disneyworld, Hollywood Studios, Tower of Terror, Disneyworld at Christmas
    Day 2 - Hollywood Studios.

    Disneyworld, Epcot, Epcot Mexico, Disneyworld at Christmas
    Day 2 - Taking a trip to Mexico at Epcot.

    Disneyworld, Epcot, Epcot at night, Disneyworld at Christmas
    Evening 2 - Epcot.

    On Day 3, we were up bright and early to get to Universal Studios as the park opened. We figured it would be jam-packed with the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so we started the day off with the Escape from Gringotts ride. Surprisingly, we only waited about 5-minutes for the ride, and we were shocked to find out that the lines for the rest of the day would be similar—if not shorter! We did not hold back at Universal, bouncing between both parks and taking it all in. We rode Revenge of the Mummy, Rip-Ride Rockit, Dueling Dragons, Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, Jurassic Park, The Hulk, ET Adventure, Doctor Doom's Fearfall, and Popeye's Bilge-Rat Barges (I skipped that one). Seriously—we rode ALL THE RIDES... and then some again and again! Of all the parks, I think Universal was my favorite simply because of the vast array of high-intensity rides and just how empty the park was compared to the Disney parks. We got so lucky! We ended up soaking in every minute we could there, finishing the evening by just wandering through Diagon Alley and enjoying treats from their Sugar Shoppe until the park closed.

    Universal Studios Florida, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley
    Day 3 - Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Diagon Alley.

    Universal Studios Florida, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Hogsmeade
    Day 3 - On the other side of Universal Studios at Hogsmeade. Lunch at the Three Broomsticks was so fun!

    Universal Studios Florida, Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls
    Day 3 - Universal Studios at Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. Yes, I'm wearing my poncho on backwards... I rode with my hood on backwards the entire ride. It was perfect—I didn't get wet and looked like a total dork!

    Universal Studios Florida, Universal Studios Parade, Universal Studios at Christmas, Best time of year to visit Universal Studios Florida, Universal Studios sunset
    Evening 3 - A magical sunset and deserted streets at Universal Studios. We couldn't have asked for a better day there!

    Universal Studios Florida, Universal Studios Parade, Universal Studios at Christmas, Best time of year to visit Universal Studios Florida, Universal Studios sunset
    A perfect end to day 3 at Universal Studios!

    Day 4 brought a repeat of Magic Kingdom and Epcot. We arrived at Magic Kingdom when it opened and enjoyed some of the other rides we weren't able to hit on the first night. We went on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, "it's a small world," the tea cups at the Mad Tea Party, the Tiki Room, Country Bear Jamboree, Haunted Mansion, and then of course Splash Mountain and Thunder Mountain again. The cinnamon almonds in Frontier Land were a treat that held me over until we got to Epcot where I enjoyed some Norwegian Lefse—it didn't taste quite as good as my Grandma's, but it was truly a treat nevertheless! We again walked through each country and enjoyed the sunny weather and traditional food offerings. For once, we left before the park closed and ended up making it in time for happy hour at Landry's, which was a success in itself. Yum, that seafood was good!

    Disneyworld, Magic Kingdom, Magic Kingdom Princess Castle, Disneyworld at Christmas, Best time to visit Disneyworld, Best time to visit Magic Kingdom
    Day 4 - Back at Magic Kingdom for more rides!

    Disneyworld, Epcot, Epcot Ball
    Day 4 - Epcot. The Norwegian Lefse was my favorite treat!

    We were up early on Day 5, heading to the Animal Kingdom for a new adventure. It was chilly that morning, so the park was relatively calm. We rode Everest and took the Kilimanjaro Safari, and then watched the Lion King show and walked through every exhibit we could find. The detail that went into Animal Kingdom was just amazing—it truly feels like you're in a different world! By about 2:00 pm, we were experiencing some serious hunger pains, so we decided to end our park-hopping for the day and enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch at El Patron. Holy cow, their Mexican food took the cake for our favorite meal... plus we were starving, so literally... it was so, so good and we filled up! We followed our feast with a well-deserved ciesta. Later on, we drove and shopped around International Drive, ending the evening at RA Sushi with some yummy rolls!

    Disneyworld, Animal Kingdom, Best time of year to visit Animal Kingdom
    Day 5 - Animal Kingdom.

    Disneyworld, Animal Kingdom, Animal Kingdom Everest Ride
    Day 5 - Top of the Everest roller coaster at Animal Kingdom. That ride was bomb!

    Day 6, our last full day, was spent at Sea World. We are so grateful that Sea World offers free admission to military members, so we enjoyed most of the day with the marine life and some of my favorite rides yet. Sea World is just so different from any of the other parks we experienced. First, my FAVORITE favorite ride of the whole trip was Manta. That ride blew my mind and was just an absolute thrill. My second favorite ride was Maco, which claims to be Orlando's tallest, fastest and longest coaster. It was pretty darn fun. We also watched the Clyde and Seamore Sea Lion High show, walked through all the aquariums and exhibits, and visited every bit of the park. While we had only intended on staying for the morning, we ended up spending a good majority of the day there, spending the longest time with the seals. Around dinner time, we departed the park and headed straight to BJ's for some deep dish pizza, wings, chicken, and laughs. It was the perfect way to cap off an excellent vacation.

    Sea World, Sea World aquarium, Sea World shark encounter, Best time of year to visit Sea World
    Day 6 - Inside the Shark Encounter at Sea World.

    Sea World, Sea World petting sharks, Sea World shark encounter, Sea World Shark Touch Pool, Best time of year to visit Sea World
    Day 6 - Petting brown-banded bamboo sharks at Sea World.

    Sea World, Sea World seals, Sea World Seal Feeding
    Day 6 - The Sea World seals were so full of personality.

    Sea World, Sea World at Christmas, Best time of year to visit Sea World
    Day 6 - Sea World at Christmas... thank you to Sea World for offering free admission to military members!

    Sunday, as we boarded the plane to go home, you could say we were ready to get back to the daily grind, but gosh—we didn't want to leave the sunshine! To go theme-parking from sun-up to sun-down each day was pretty exhausting, but it was so worth it. All-in-all, we had six full days of theme-parking, laughs, delicious food, and memories that will last a lifetime. For an on-a-whim trip, we were so surprised that we were able to do it without breaking the bank! I mean, Daniel asked me about the trip maybe three weeks before we boarded the plane. What was intended as a surprise anniversary trip turned into a getaway that I couldn't have planned better if I had started hashing it out months in advance. Plus, we got to spend the entire week with my brother-in-law and his wife, so it was a trip that we all enjoyed together! Trust me... the memories are good ones already.

    And like everyone said, mid-December truly was the best time to go theme-parking in Orlando. With the sunny and mild weather (60's-70's), low wait times for almost every ride, and lack of overwhelming crowds, we felt like we had the parks to ourselves and a vacation that truly was—for once—a VACATION!

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