Traveling with kids to DC

Mid-August we took a family trip to Washington, D.C..  It is one of the most beautiful cities!  Our kids were, I think, perfect ages for seeing many historic sites, monuments, and museums.  (Oh, and we can’t forget Georgetown Cupcake as my little one is a fan of the show “DC Cupcakes”!)

Some photos from our trip:

 

Pool Time!

Pool Time!

Arlington

Arlington

The White House

The White House

Botanical Gardens

Botanical Gardens

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

There is so much to see in DC that realistically, you cannot do it all in one vacation.  I wanted to see as much as possible but also pace ourselves so we’d still have some down time.  Weeks before the trip I gave the kids the DC tourist guidebook (get a free one here:  https://washington.org/visitor-request-form) and let them each pick five things that they really wanted to see.  I put priority on seeing those things and planned out our days to be most efficient getting around the city – and we were able to see everything on the lists!  Now don’t get me wrong, we were still exhausted from lots and lots of walking – but we were back to the hotel before dinner most nights so we could just hang out and relax!

Although we were turned down for a White House tour (BOO!), we still saw lots of great stuff.  Our favorites were going up into the Washington Monument (yes, it’s worth it!), the Lincoln Memorial, The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and my personal favorite, Ford’s Theatre.  So much in DC has free admission – which is good, because lodging and eating out are not cheap!

For us, one of the perks in going to a large city for vacation is the amazing variety of gluten-free restaurant choices.  Traveling with celiac disease can be challenging because you really have to research restaurants ahead of time.  We found some fabulous restaurants with gluten-free menus and so all was good.  I primarily used the following websites to research:  www.findmeglutenfree.com, http://www.tripadvisor.com, and good old google. The best ones we found that had gluten free menus and great food – b DC Penn Quarter and Pi Pizzeria.

I highly recommend finding an affordable hotel downtown as it will cut down on travel time and allow you to do the most sightseeing possible.  (Just a warning that most downtown hotels charge ALOT daily for parking.)  We stayed at Hyatt Place – National Mall and loved it.  I also recommend getting SmarTrip cards from the metro (either when you first get there, or save yourself hassle and order them online ahead of time and have them shipped to you).  These cards give you lower metro fares and can also be used for the DC Circulator bus routes at a rate of $1 per person for 2 hours of hop-on / hop-off rides.  The savings is worth it!

All in all, we loved DC!

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For the Disney fans… (the rest of you can ignore it!)

I found a link to this blog post on Pinterest and just thought I’d share it. Those of you who have been to Disney can probably relate; those of you planning a trip might want to be sure to read it!

From Love Our Disney, the 7 Most Disappointing Disney Vacation Moments.

It goes along well with my post about perspective when planning a trip to Disney with your family!

And I would add one more – waiting in line to see a character and then having the character leave when you are second in line!  (Yes, it happens!)

Have a happy day!

What’s up?

I apologize for my lack of blogging lately.  The kids were home from school last week and when they are off, life always seems extra busy!  And my blogging as of late has been reduced to lists – but since it’s Monday morning that’s about all I can coherently manage.  So here’s another list of what’s up around here:

  • My oldest daughter turned 11 last Thursday.  Does that officially make her a tween?  She is turning into a young woman before my eyes – and much faster than I ever expected.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember her as a baby anymore!  But I am so proud of her – these are the words her teacher used to describe her at our last conference:  Yielding, Nice, Descriptive, Sensitive, Awesome, Motivated.  I feel like we are heading into uncharted territory these next few years, with her going to middle school next year.  But I know God is with us.
  • On an unrelated note, she was puking last night.  Not fun – but I’m glad she is old enough now to recognize when she’s going to be sick and take steps to make sure it happens in the right place!  She seems better today, but now for at least a week, I will be wondering who’s going to get sick next.
  • Spent some time with my sister last week planning my nephew’s fiance’s bridal shower.  I’m excited about it!
  • One of our MOPS mentors died two weeks ago from liver cancer.  This has been a difficult time for our steering team, but I am so thankful for this group of women and how they come together to minister to one another.  Personally, it was a reminder to me that we cannot take even one day of our lives for granted.  We are not guaranteed another day.  I want to live so that I have no regrets at the end and so that each person in my family knows every day how much I love them.
  • My youngest will turn 5 next week.  Again, it’s hard to believe this is possible!  Our family tradition is that the fifth birthday means the first “friend” birthday party.  So we are hard at work planning a “hello kitty” birthday party for her.  She is beyond excited!
  • My crocheted hats that I showed you last month were a hit at the school auction.  They sold for way more money than I expected!  The pink owl hat sold for the most – I think it was $48!  I am thinking about selling them on-line.  What do you think?  How much would you pay for one?
  • I am continuing to coupon.  I think I’m finally seeing the work pay off in terms of less money spent and I’m getting into a rhythm with it.  Thank goodness, because about 2 months in, I was feeling pretty discouraged.  This has required a complete change in the way I menu plan and plan for grocery shopping.  But it’s a good change.
  • We are thinking about a beach vacation this summer.  We have been to the Outer Banks before and really enjoyed it, but we’d like something a little bit closer.  We’re tentatively thinking Ocean City, New Jersey?  Maybe?  I’d love to hear if any of you have any ideas or recommendations for good family locations (i.e., not ridiculously expensive!!) and/or places to stay!  (thanks in advance!)

I think that’s about it for around here.  What’s up with you?

Disney Tips, Part 3 – Our Favorites and a Word About Perspective

Boy, I am really dragging out these Disney posts, aren’t I?  🙂

{This is the last one, I promise!  To be honest, I’m really mostly just writing this down for myself for future reference – and you’re just along for the ride!!}

If you’re planning a trip to Disney, here is my big take-away for you:  Just because it’s the “happiest place on Earth” and just because you may have had the most wonderful time there on your previous visits – doesn’t mean your kids will agree.  Or cooperate.  Or act happy.

I know – Duh, right?  I guess I should have known that!  But I have always loved Disney.  And I guess I went into it just assuming my kids would have the same experience!  Before we went, I thought I took all the right precautions:

I was careful to make sure they had enough sleep because I know they get cranky when they don’t.

I planned ahead.

I mentally prepared myself for not being able to ride many “big” rides because my kids aren’t thrilled about those.

I mentally prepared myself for having to take it slow, and not being able to do everything!

But what I forgot is that they are there own little people, and the stress of being away from home can magnify people’s “issues”.

For example, I know my son does not like new things.  I even had acknowledged this before the trip because I knew he was a little nervous about flying for the first time.  But I didn’t anticipate that his anxiety about new experiences would continue once we got there.  This is WDW for goodness sake, he’s going to love it, right?!!  But in reality, this trip was such a new and intimidating experience that he had a really tough time with it for the first half of the trip.  Not that he didn’t have fun – now he keeps asking when we can go back!  But he was cranky beyond all get-out those first few days and was defiant about doing anything other than getting characters’ autographs!  And it made it tough.

So – bottom line – think about your children’s personalities and be realistic.  Their quirks are not going to go away just because it’s WDW!

And just for your info – here is our “Best of” List (Remember, we had a 9, a 7, and a 3 year old!  So we didn’t ride a lot of the “big rides”!):

Rides / Attractions:

  • Magic Kingdom:  Peter Pan’s flight for the kids.  Great ride… but get a fastpass.  Also for the kids – you can’t skip Dumbo, Aladdin’s Magic Carpet, the Mad Tea Party and It’s a Small World.  The Jungle Cruise is also a classic.  One of my personal favorites – that is really dated and I’m not sure, I might be the only person who enjoys it -but I love the Carousel of Progress!  Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, and Thunder Mtn. Railroad for older kids (fastpass recommended!).  The Hall of Presidents was great for my oldest, but the littlest ones would have been bored.  And don’t miss the Celebrate a Dream Come True Parade and the Electrical Parade and the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular.
  • Epcot:  Turtle Talk with Crush.  I was blown away by this attraction.  How do they do it??  I don’t know, but it is so cool.  Spaceship Earth and Living with the Land rides are also favorites here.
  • Animal Kingdom:  Kilimanjaro Safari.  The Boneyard for little ones.  And the Nemo show was awesome.
  • Hollywood Studios:  Honey I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set (a.k.a. – “the bug playground”), The Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Pixar Pals Countdown to Fun Parade, and Dave really enjoyed the Lights, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt Show.

Food:

  • Epcot:  Sunshine Seasons food court at “The Land” (wonderful variety that will please the whole family), Werther’s Karamell Küche in Germany (may I suggest the chocolate covered strawberries?).
  • Animal Kingdom:  Flame Tree BBQ  (great ribs!).
  • Hollywood Studios:  get a coffee and try a muffin at the Writer’s Stop (nice & quiet little place!).
  • We also really enjoyed the food courts at both the Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside AND French Quarter resorts (both have lots of choices available).
  • And DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT miss getting a mickey mouse shaped, chocolate covered ice cream treat that are available throughout the parks:

 

 

Want to hear more?  Don’t forget to read:

Disney Tips, Part 2:  The Parks

Disney Tips, Part 1:  Generic Travel Planning Tips

 

Disney Tips, Part 2 – The Parks

I am going to try to keep this Disney post shorter than the last!    (here’s hoping, huh?)  I think I’m just going to do bullet points to try to keep it simple!

Before you go…

  • Plan ahead!  Use the WDW website, and the links I gave you in the last Disney post to have at the very least a rough sketch of what you want to do each day of your vacation.  Plan what park(s) you want to visit (take advantage of the Extra Magic Hours if you’re staying at a Disney resort!) each day and roughly what rides/attractions you don’t want to miss.  If you are going during a busy season, you’ll need to plan more.  The simple reason is because planning what attractions you want to do in what order (ahead of time) can save you time waiting in line at the parks.  Be sure to use the fast pass system to decrease wait time (this may or may not be necessary during slow times – when we went in Feb., there were only a couple of attractions for which we needed to use the fastpass).
  • If you have picky eaters, you may want to peruse restaurant menus ahead of time so that you know where you want to eat.  (go here)  Believe me, this is way better than walking around and checking what’s available while you’re there and everyone’s tummies are growling!!
  • Decide if you want to dine at any sit-down restaurants or do any character dining and make reservations!  Although the character dining is expensive, I felt it was totally worth it for my kids.  My 9 and 7 year olds were skeptical about going to the “princess breakfast” at Royal Akershus in Epcot.  But believe me, when we were there, they totally felt the magic.  They were excited about it (yes, even my boy!) and enjoyed the one-on-one attention that each princess gave them, right at our table.  The food was fantastic, too!
  • As I said in the first post, we got the quick-service dining meal plan.  With the ages of our kids, we didn’t want to spend too much time eating (the sit-down restaurants take longer) and it was perfect for us.  The one tip about this is to use your snack credits for breakfast.  Our hotel food court had muffins, danishes, cinnamon rolls that counted as snacks – so we could get these for breakfast.  I had brought cereal bars and other breakfast items  in our suitcases to eat for breakfast, but I really didn’t need to – it was a waste of space!  And for us, we didn’t even miss those extra snack credits – the meals were plenty of food in themselves and pretty much filled us up.  (notwithstanding the occasional need for a cup of coffee to refuel or a mickey mouse ice cream bar!!).  We brought our own water bottles, so we really didn’t need to use the snack credits on drinks, either.  The other tip on snack credits – if you have leftovers at the end of your trip you can use them on prepackaged candies / rice krispie treats / etc. as souveniers to bring home. 

While you’re there:

  • Don’t forget to pack… comfortable shoes that are worn-in, a first-aid kit, extra batteries, sufficient personal care items (yes, ladies, you know what I’m getting at), medicines including some pain relievers and cold/sinus meds, extra pants/sweatshirts if you’re traveling in the winter, lightweight gloves for the kids in the winter (although it was in the 60’s during the day, the wind was chilly, especially at night!), rain ponchos, water bottles and single-serve drink mix, handi-wipes and hand sanitizer.  Believe me, you can get all this stuff at the parks or in the hotel gift shop, but you will pay for it!!
  • If your kids don’t like self-flushing toilets, bring post-it notes to stick on the sensors.  It works wonderfully!
  • Go with the flow.  If you have smaller children, let them direct your activities to a certain extent.  In other words, if they are tired, take a break.  If they would rather get character autographs than ride rides, indulge them in that.  Believe me… being flexible in this area is going to lead to a much more enjoyable time than pushing kids to do things they don’t want to do.  Build in some down time back at the hotel in the afternoons if you plan on being at the parks late to watch the shows at night.  Sometimes the best things around Disney are only experienced when you’ve slowed down enough to find them!  And sometimes these smaller things are just what the kids want to do – rather than wait in line for the “big” attractions.  For example, early in the morning at Epcot they bring out balls and large garbage cans for the kids to play with.  At first I thought to myself – let’s not do this because there are rides we need to get in line for!  But if we’d sped past this fun moment for the kids – we would have missed out on a fun memory and I would have regretted it.  So don’t feel stressed to do it all – take it easy!!
  • Set a spending limit with your kids ahead of time.  We told the kids upfront and clearly how much money they could spend (obviously the littler ones may not fully understand).  Then we didn’t let anyone buy anything until after we’d visited all the parks and they’d had a chance to see what souvenirs were available.  I suggest you limit your shopping, though, to about one of the larger stores in each park because the kids tend to get overwhelmed with all that’s available.  (if you’re new to Disney, you’ll be shocked to see how many stores there are at each park!!!)
  • Take lots of photos!  The photopass system is really neat, but the photos are sooo expensive.  You’ll have to decide if you think it’s worth it!  I would suggest as an alternative that you just ask other WDW visitors to take photos of your whole family – many are glad to help.
  • The bus lines for the WDW resorts can be looong after the fireworks shows at night.  You want to either try to be closest to the park exit during the shows & get to the bus first, or instead you might want to linger in the parks (get a snack, look through the stores) a bit after the show and wait for the line to go down! 
  • There is a bag check at each park in front of the entrance gates – and they are very thorough.  In order to make this go quicker for you, you might want to limit the number of bags you have and bring bags that only have one or two pockets (because they’ll want you to unzip ALL of them so they can inspect!).  I had a backpack with 4 pockets, a camera bag, and a fanny pack.  It served us well, but next time I’ll be cutting back!
  • If you are going during a busy season, you may want to bring things for the kids to do while waiting in line.  I will say that I did bring stuff, but in February it really wasn’t necessary.
  • Let one responsible person carry all the room keys / park tickets.  Enough said.

So those are the things that I think are most important – there are lots of tips floating around on the internet and you have to pick & choose according to the needs of your family.  I am probably going to do one more post listing what our family’s favorite attractions were, just to give you some ideas in that area.  See you then!

Disney Tips, Part 1 – generic travel planning tips

Since we’ve been back from Walt Disney World (WDW), I’ve had a lot of people ask for tips & ideas for planning their future Disney trips.  So in the interest of writing everything down only once… I’m going to blog about it.  These posts will just be highlights of things we did / learned this trip that might be of use to you!  This first one will be general tips for planning travel to WDW.  I’ll post more specific tips about being at WDW in subsequent posts. 

This trip was my 7th trip to WDW.  I am most definitely a Disney enthusiast!  But it was my first time there with kids.  Ha – what a difference!!  WDW is truly a magical place – every time I go I feel like a kid again!  Some who have never been have asked what’s so great about it – and here’s my answer – everything is an experience.  From the atmosphere at the hotels, to the restaurants, to the shows, to the music in the bathrooms, to the stores, to the rides – everything tells a story.  Other theme parks have rides, but WDW has experiences.  And they are so varied, that it is possible to please all age groups, preferences, and temperaments!  It can’t be beat!

First off, we started with visiting www.disneyworld.com and checking out the “tickets and packages” page and then the “special offers” page.  There are new special offers coming out fairly often, so it’s great to keep checking back on the special offers for a few months before booking your vacation.  You can sign up to receive a free WDW vacation planning package – if you’ve never been to Disney, you should definitely get this.  Early on, you will need to decide whether or not you want to stay at a WDW resort or off the resort.  We love to stay at a WDW resort because there are so many advantages – you don’t have to rent a car, you get the convenience of Disney transportation around WDW property, you get “Extra Magic Hours” at the parks (times that the parks are open only for resort guests), and you can also take advantage of WDW dining plans if you choose to do so.  Be sure to check out the prices of your vacation at different times of the year – particularly be aware of what are the “value” seasons (these are the cheapest and least crowded!).  Also be aware that vacation package prices increase dramatically during holiday weeks – so if you can avoid those, it’s worth it.

We booked our own vacation through the WDW website, without the help of a travel agent.  It’s simple and convenient.  We used a travel agent when we booked a WDW vacation in 2000 – I don’t think there was really any advantage to doing that.  (I have heard, though, that AAA members can get additional discounts / package prices by booking through AAA.) 

We also did buy a dining plan – the quick service dining plan, which gives you 2 quick service meals per day and 2 snacks (you can get more details on the dining plans at the WDW website, and you can see restaurant menus at www.easywdw.com).  This worked out really well for us.  I kept track of the prices of the meals & food we were buying and the dining plan was certainly a savings.  You get a ton of food, and realistically we may not have bought as much food as we got… but I still believe we saved money by having the dining plan.

When you book a WDW vacation, you get the option of adding a “park-hopper” option for your park tickets.  This means that you can go to more than one park in one day.  I highly recommend this, especially for families with older children and who are staying at a WDW hotel.  If you have all toddlers (who may be too tired or overwhelmed by more than one park a day) or if you are staying outside the WDW resort (so that travel back & forth between parks is more of an issue), you may want to stick with one park a day.

We had 7-day park hopper tickets, and I felt that this was perfect for us.  It gave us a chance to spend at least one day at each of the parks.  The other three days, we were able to go back to the parks we enjoyed and catch up on rides we missed (or ride the favorites again).  We also felt like we had time to spend back at the hotel swimming while not feeling like we were missing too much at the parks.  I have never been to WDW before in the winter – always in the spring or summer.  I was amazed this time (mid-February) that there were barely any lines at the rides.  All my other trips, lines would have been at least a half hour if not longer.  This trip, we waited at the most 10-15 minutes for the more popular rides.  The first four days of the trip were chilly – we were comfortable in pants and light jackets, but the last three days were warm enough for the kids to swim in the afternoons.  Overall, it was a great time of year to go.

This was our first time flying with the kids.  The one big thing I learned for people traveling with toddlers – minimize your carry-on luggage, particularly if you have a layover.  Since you have to pay now for checking luggage, we thought we’d save money by having two carry-ons for us adults.  That was a mistake.  I really felt like I needed (but didn’t have) both hands free to assist the kids.  I will also say that if you are staying at a Disney resort and plan on going to the parks as soon as you get there – make sure you pack everything you’d need in your carry-ons.  Although the WDW transportation from the airport to hotel is fabulously convenient – it can take up to 3 hours for your checked baggage to arrive at your room.

If you have a while to plan before you actually go on vacation, I would suggest keeping an eye open for Disney Visa card offers.  Right on the WDW website there is usually an offer for a $40 gift card (called a rewards card) if you sign up for the Disney Visa card.  However, about two months before our vacation, we got an offer in the mail for a $200 gift card for signing up.  So we did.  It was great to have that $200 spending money at the parks!  Keep in mind that if you sign up for the credit card – you have to use it once before you’re eligible to get your gift card, then that billing cycle has to be completed, then you have to request that they mail you the gift card.  Like I said, we signed up for the credit card about two months before our vacation and our gift card came in the mail two days before our vacation (whew!).  Other perks with having the Disney visa card – you get 10% off purchases greater than $50 at the parks, and you also get a free character photo shoot and photo at Epcot. 

As far as planning ahead of time for your trip – two other things to think about are strollers and dining reservations.  We rented a stroller from Orlando Stroller Rentals and it was great – I would definitely recommend it.  You can rent strollers at the parks (but it is more expensive and I don’t think they are as comfortable).  Our stroller was lightweight and easy to fold.  The company delivers it and picks it up right from your hotel.  And there was definitely an advantage to having it outside the parks (think waiting in line for a bus back to your hotel room in the evening with a sleepy child!).  If you plan on having any character meals or dining in WDW sit-down restaurants, you need to make reservations ahead of time.  I think depending upon the time of year, and how much it matters to you whether you get the location /time you want, you should try to make reservations as soon as possible – they will accept reservations up to 180 days in advance!!  For example, we made reservations one month in advance – we knew we wanted a princess breakfast.  There were no openings at all for breakfast in the castle during our stay, but we were able to get a reservation for a princess breakfast at Epcot at a later time (almost 10:00 am).  And that is during a non-busy time of year!  Go here for more info.

Some other websites we used that give great tips for travel to Disney:

www.mousesavers.com

www.allears.net

www.easywdw.com

There are lots of ways to get a “cheaper” WDW vacation – these websites give some awesome ideas.  Things like staying off WDW property, bringing food along to the parks and/or eating meals in your hotel room, splitting meals when buying at the parks (the meals ARE usually way more than enough food for one person!), buying souvenirs prior to the trip at non-Disney stores, etc.  Do a lot of research and decide what works best for your family!

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