In February of 2001, the Dickerson family packed up their car and traveled the 16 hours it takes to get from New Jersey to Orlando. They had planned their two-week vacation in part to avoid a snowstorm heading toward where they lived.
“We were supposed to be there for two weeks, but every time we were supposed to leave, there was another snowstorm,” Jessica Dickerson, the mother of the family, explains. “We were like, why are we gonna leave? And so we never left. We never left that vacation.”
Coordinating with other family members, the Dickersons sold their home, sold their businesses, and eventually transitioned from extended-hotel-stays to a home right up the street from Universal Orlando Resort, the top selling-point for the family’s relocation.
The two sisters, Kaitlyn and Skylar, were two and three years old at the time of that first trip to Universal and have, as evidenced by the pictures throughout this post, grown up at Universal.
“That’s what makes Universal so special,” Rich, the father of the family, starts. “We came out here to Florida and found Universal to be a place to raise your family. You can spend family-time together, but you could also let the children be free and learn their independence.”
Because the four of them were the only family they had locally, the Dickersons became closer and closer with Team Members at Universal. After all, that’s who they were spending the majority of their time with.
“Team Members became family,” Rich says.
“The girls started bringing cookies and ornaments to the Team Members during the holiday season because they knew they had to work and couldn’t be with their own family,” Jessica says.
Kaitlyn chimes in with, “I mean it took nothing for us to wish them Happy Holidays and thank them for being here. They were our family, it would be weirder if we didn’t visit with them during the holidays.”
While the holiday season is certainly a special one for the Dickersons at Universal, they will not hesitate to all exclaim in unison that Mardi Gras is their absolute favorite event in the parks.
“That first visit, when we were two and three, we became obsessed with the event,” Skylar says. “We just always wanted those beads. Mom would try to take us to do something else and we’d go, ‘No! Mardi Gras or nothing!’”
“I loved it, too, they just wanted to go even if it was raining!” Jessica says. “But some of my favorite memories are holding Skylar with one hand and catching beads with the other.”
After 19 years coming to the parks, there are a lot of favorite memories to choose from. A lot of meet-and-greets (though the one where the girls gave The Grinch an onion stands out), a lot of rides (the time Skylar was so scared on Revenge of the Mummy that her mom’s arm had a light bruise from where she held on too tight), and even some iconic grand openings (the year Skylar’s birthday and Father’s Day fell in the same week that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade opened).
But one of the many perks the Dickerson family has discovered from living so close by and being Annual Passholders is the ability to come for the big and the small moments.
“We’ve come to the parks just for an hour or so after we eat just to walk off dinner,” Kaitlyn says.
In 2019, the parks became a safe haven for the family as they navigated through a difficult time.
“Dad had a heart attack in February of 2019,” Kaitlyn says. “It was a major heart attack for him and a major life-changer for us.”
Rich was in the hospital for over a month in varying degrees of serious complications and paths to recovery. During those ups and downs, backs and forths, the women of the family were, understandably, on edge.
“They needed somewhere to escape life for a while and this was that place for them,” Rich says.
During the hours that hospital visits were limited, Jessica, Kaitlyn, and Skylar would come just to walk around, catch a show or two, and head back to the hospital to visit with Rich.
“Universal helped us get through that time,” Skylar says. “It felt more like being home than our actual home did at the time.”
Only a year or so after Rich’s heart attack, in the spring of 2020, the Dickerson family was faced with the same challenge many Universal fans were: how to bring Universal home during the closure caused by COVID-19.
“It was really challenging because you don’t realize how much this place is a part of your life until it’s suddenly not even an option to be here,” Kaitlyn says.
“We tried to bring the parks into our house, though,” Skylar starts. “For her (Kaitlyn’s) birthday, I set up Men In Black. I painted all the alien signs and hung them throughout our house and drove her around on our dining room chair. We also watched a lot of the vintage POV videos.”
“Men In Black was our favorite ride when we were kids and it’s still our favorite in the park,” Kaitlyn adds.
“Yep, if you ask what’s changed between when they were kids to now?,” Jessica says. “Really nothing. Mardi Gras is still their favorite, Men In Black is still their favorite. Obviously things have changed since reopening…”
Kaitlyn chimes in, “But the characters haven’t! Even though we can’t hug characters right now, they still give so much love. It always feels so special when these characters step out of the screen. It brings this little piece of nostalgia in your heart.”
At the mere mention of characters and nostalgia, Skylar lights up.
“When we were kids getting to talk to The Grinch — not on a TV screen but in real life — it blew our minds,” Skylar says. “Still to this day we get that warm, fuzzy feeling when we meet him.”
“Yeah, it never went away, even though we’re adults,” Kaitlyn adds.
Kaitlyn and Skylar also credit having several Universal Orlando merchandise items in the house as helping them in those closure months. The whole family stayed inside their home for the majority of March – June, returning to the parks a couple weeks after the initial reopening date of June 3.
“We felt so much safer here [at Universal] than going grocery shopping,” Skylar says. “Plus everyone has been nice and seems genuinely happy to be here. It has not changed.”
“Well, it’s changed, just not enough to keep us from coming,” Kaitlyn says. “It’s still that electric energy we love, the same sights and sounds.”
“They’ve grown up here,” Jessica says. “Yes, it was sad and weird not being here for so long, but when we came back? As soon as we walked through the gates it was like we never left. It all came back.”
The family acknowledges that some of those same feelings that emerged after Rich’s heart attack are present during the tough times of this past year. But they are grateful to have the opportunity to return to the place that helps them forget about life for a while.
“Dad being able to come back here and walk around means the world to us,” Skylar says.
“They take me very seriously,” Rich adds.
“Of course we do! We are a very close family unit,” Kaitlyn says.
“Right,” Rich continues. “And we feel safe here.”
“We trust you guys,” Kaitlyn says. “You’re family.”