4 days without the kids!

My husband and I both turn 40 this year.

Our gift to ourselves was a mini-vacation.

We went to the Florida keys and it was really beautiful.  The weather was great and it was so relaxing and refreshing to be without the kids and “just a couple” again!  Since we’ve had kids, we’ve never gone away for that long before and I think we decided we need to make it a priority more often (yes, more often than every 13 years *sigh*).  You don’t really realize how much stress (good and bad) your kids induce in you until you get away for a few days!  And one night away really isn’t enough – we do that probably a couple of times a year but I always feel the pressure to get back home the next day.  And I forgot how nice it is to actually have a conversation without interruption!

My lovely mama was willing to come and stay with my kids and dogs, doing the school routine and everything!  And I think they had fun, too.  I am so thankful for her!

We stayed in Key Largo, at this hotel, and it was a perfect spot.  Highly recommend it for a couples’ getaway, particularly if all you want to do is relax and soak up some sun.  Key West was a 2 1/2 hour drive away – but when you have no kids with you, even a road trip can be fun!  🙂

 

So here’s to more “couple” vacations… I’m already thinking about our next one!  Got any suggestions?

 

 

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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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