Travel

Universal Studios: A Rookie’s Opinion

My family has been visiting Orlando for over twenty years. We are definitely Disney people, but branched out this year and tried Universal Studios (Harry Potter, of course!). I hadn’t been to a Universal park since before having kids so I was excited to see the changes and approach it as a true rookie.

Universal 9

We arrived at the park prior to opening so I could purchase tickets.  Ticket prices for the parks were basically the same as Disney (I paid $124 each for myself and 2 kids and $119 for my youngest). Both parks charge adult prices for kids 10 and up. We only did single-day tickets, but I know they both offer discounts for multiple parks/days.  The nice woman at the ticket office offered me the opportunity to purchase the Universal Express Pass ($60) or the Express Unlimited Pass ($75) so I wouldn’t have to wait in line at most of the rides.  I know there are many people that take advantage of this, but I already spent $500 to enter the gates of the park, I darn sure wasn’t going to spend $240-$300 more. We did, however, purchase a Coca-Cola Freestyle Souvenir Cup (about $15) so we could get unlimited refills of soda, water, and ICEEs while we were there.  We aren’t huge soda drinkers, but I didn’t pack much water so I knew we would use it.

After leaving the ticket counter, we were able to enter the park and we headed straight to Diagon Alley! I read several Universal plans before we went and about half said to go to Diagon Alley first and the other half said to wait.  Haha!  That was our main reason for attending the park, so we just decided to go there and see about the crowds.

Universal 3

We made it back there after taking a few pictures and immediately went to get in line for Escape from Gringotts.  I saw people putting their things in lockers and I knew we would have to do that also.  I had read about the locker system at Universal and was really apprehensive about how much of a hassle it would be to do this at every ride.  I have to say–it was awesome.  The lockers are free (they use your fingerprint to open/close the lockers) and there are so many that we didn’t have to wait at all to get to a kiosk to get one assigned to us.  They are roomy and held our bag/hats/phones/etc.  I felt comfortable leaving my things and just enjoying the rides.

IMG_4153

We got in line and waited about twenty minutes before we were able to ride.  The building you walk through is really cool and there were lots of things to look at so the wait didn’t seem long.  The ride was awesome and well worth the short wait.  We got our things and went to Ollivander’s to get a wand.

My daughter read all of the Harry Potter books this school year and was so hopeful that she would be picked for the wand selection process.  We went in a room with about 30 other people and…she was selected!  They went through a fun little “show” of getting her the right wand and then we all were lead into the store, which is TINY.  We purchased the wand (they are expensive, but interactive in the park) and went to go try a spell or two before letting the boys pick somewhere to go.

Universal4

My guys had enough of Harry Potter for the time being and wanted to go to the Simpsons area.  We went that direction, rode both rides (that simulated coaster ride was kind of harsh–haha), played a carnival game, and took pics with the family.  We then went over to ride the Men in Black ride (fun!) and headed back to Diagon Alley.  The kids wanted to buy some candy and I wanted to try a frozen Butterbeer.  We took care of that and rushed to Universal CityWalk to meet the rest of our family at Margaritaville for lunch.

As you may know, my husband was ill for our entire trip, but he did make it to lunch.  We brought him a Butterbeer and had some great food.  The kids and I felt rested and ready to go back to tackle more of the park!  We did Shrek 4D (they LOVED it), Return of the Mummy (they HATED it–haha), and went to the Spongebob store.  My boys adore Spongebob and were so happy to shop around and take pictures.  I let them play for a bit at the Curious George water play area and we rode the kiddie Woody Woodpecker roller coaster.  Then…we went back to Diagon Alley.  We went in some more shops and my girl tried her wand a few more times.  At this point, we were all tired and ready to head back to the hotel pool.

Universal7

Overall, it was a good day at an unfamiliar park.  We didn’t go in with much of a plan–I wanted it to be relaxing and fun…and it was.  We rode everything we wanted to ride except for the Minion Mayhem ride because the line was long all day.  I am really glad we didn’t buy the express passes as we did not need them.  There didn’t seem to be much of a crowd at all on the day we were there.

Things we loved:

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is hard to beat if you are a fan.  The Butterbeer was excellent and the atmosphere was amazing.  The interactive wand is a fun purchase and can be shared by all of your kids while you are there.
  • The Coca-Cola cup…seriously.  This was a smart purchase and we definitely got our money’s worth.  We kept it filled up all day with all types of drinks (including water) so we were never thirsty.
  • The non-Disney characters–we saw the Simpsons, Spongebob, Patrick, Gru, and a couple of minions.  My kids liked the change from what we normally see at theme parks.
  • Universal 6
  • The proximity to Universal CityWalk–lots of dining options that seem tastier and fancier than “park” food.

Things we did NOT love:

  • No free fast passes.  I don’t like the extra charge for the express passes.  It isn’t budget-friendly and people have already spent hundreds of dollars to be in the park.
  • The app–I didn’t hate it, but the Disney app is more user-friendly.

 

I don’t know if Universal Orlando will be in our regular park rotation, but we will definitely visit again.

What did we miss?  Any tips for next time?

Disney · Faith · Travel

4 Things I Should Have Done Differently at Disney

We have been to Disney World several times in the past twenty-one years that my in-laws have been Disney Vacation Club members. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I’m definitely not a novice either. However, I made some mistakes this year. Here are the 4 things I should have done differently at Disney this year:

  1. I didn’t plan ANYTHING in advance–I went in pretty confident, but really unorganized. With the hustle and bustle of school, sports, Vacation Bible School, and church camp, I just didn’t make planning a priority. I didn’t even buy my tickets until we got there. So…we didn’t have much choice when it came to FastPass or dining reservations. Luckily, we can be pretty flexible and we still made it work for us, but I’ll know better next time.  Really, I knew better this time, but I still didn’t do it.  Oops.
  2. I didn’t show up with a customized tee–there were so many cute tshirts when we went to Magic Kingdom! Families had matching ones made to commemorate their trip, there were monogrammed tees, and lots of funny ones.  You can find some cute ones here, here, and here, but there are also a ton on etsy.  If you need something fast, try the men’s section at Target–they have many cute tshirts as well.
  3. I didn’t pack enough snacks. You may know from previous posts that I’m frugal, but feel like living it up (sort of) on vacation. It seemed to me that food prices went up quite a bit since we were there last and we ended up spending way more than I wanted to on meals and snacks. Disney allows backpacks, so make sure you pack lots of snacks for your family, preferably things that won’t be squished in your bag (granola bars, fruit snacks, peanut butter or cheese crackers, etc).  You can also take in bottled water and refill at the water fountains.
  4. I didn’t take enough pictures.  Don’t get me wrong…I took several, but I was so intent on getting my kids to rides that I didn’t pause and get any great photos.  We didn’t take one picture with a character.  Not one.  Luckily, my kids don’t really care about that, but it would have been nice just to have one or two for the photo book I like to make after our trips.IMG_4027

BUT….here are 4 things I did RIGHT at Disney.

  1. I relaxed and let the kids (and the app) guide us.  I’ve mentioned before that I know we can’t fit every single thing in at Magic Kingdom so I make sure my kids each get to ride the one thing they’ve been waiting for all year.  One chose the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, one chose Splash Mountain, and one chose Space Mountain.  We did all of those (and many more) so I call that a success!IMG_3811
  2. I got a Dole Whip!  I almost didn’t.  It was late and the kids wanted to ride Buzz Lightyear.  My husband knew I was torn (haha) so he sent me for the treat while they all rode the ride and I met up with them after.  If you have never had one of these, you have got to try one.  It was perfect.IMG_4061
  3. I took a long mid-day break.  We left the park around 3 and didn’t go back until around 6, so we got a good rest period in there before we returned to shut it down.  If you are staying on-property, I highly encourage you to stop in the middle of the day and let your kids nap or swim for a bit.
  4. I counted my blessings.  Every time we go to Disney, I remind my kids how lucky we are to get to be on these trips.  Not every family gets the opportunity to go as often as we do or even ever.  The only reason we are able to go is because my in-laws are members of DVC. I want my kids to be grateful for our experiences at Disney and they truly are.

Have any advice for Disney newbies?  Have any weird Disney experiences you want to share?  Post in the comments!

Travel

Our anniversary getaway

If you have read my posts here and here, you know that my family visited Disney and Pensacola Beach in June…and my husband was sick the entire trip.

Our sixteenth anniversary was last Friday so we decided to spend a couple of nights relaxing in Dallas, Texas. I just love Texas and all it has to offer so I was super excited about going.

We booked our hotel through Priceline and ended up at the Hyatt Regency Dallas.

hyatt regency

The hotel was really nice and clean, with a cool bar area and a few restaurants.

By the time we arrived, it was almost time for dinner so we freshened up and headed to Deep Ellum. We used an Uber for the first time ever (yes, we just emerged from the dark ages) and ended up at the Twisted Root Burger Company. We ordered the Kevin Bacon and Spicy Western burgers and some fries and chips to share. The food was so good. The burgers were cooked perfectly and the toppings were tasty. I loved the atmosphere at this place–very cool and laid back.

twistedroot

I wasn’t able to finish my burger because I wanted one of their signature shakes! We got a Fat Elvis (peanut butter, banana) and it was awesome! No pics because we ate everything before I thought to photograph it. We walked around Deep Ellum for a bit and then headed back to the hotel. Football started back up this week so my husband was pretty tired.

The next morning, we slept in (yay!!) and got around in time to hit up Pecan Lodge for lunch. We drove this time because we knew we wanted to run around after eating. My husband loves the Pecan Lodge and has wanted to take me for a while. To be honest, I don’t love barbecue, but I know how much he likes it, so I went along with the idea.

When we arrived, the line was long inside the restaurant, but I’m told that it often is wrapped around outside, so I guess we were lucky! We didn’t end up waiting very long. I let him order because he always knows what is good. We got some brisket, sausage, okra, and macaroni and cheese…with bacon on it. I’ve been missing out–this food was amazing! Hands-down the best barbecue I’ve ever had. 


We finished up at the restaurant (we took lots to go!) and went to two of our favorite places…Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Haha! We don’t have either of those in our hometown so anytime we are near either or both, we hit them up to drool over the meat/seafood counters or buy some fun treats.

After walking around those two places, we went back to the hotel to lounge by the pool. The Hyatt Regency pool is small, but it was perfect for us. We scored a cabana and laid around for a couple of hours. It was just what I needed!

We headed upstairs and got cleaned up for dinner. We had no idea what we wanted–we just knew we would end up in the Uptown area. We did some research and made the decision to try The Common Table.

 

common table
Photo from their website

 

The restaurant had a really relaxed vibe and the food was great. We were still pretty full from lunch so we split an appetizer (philly cheesesteak egg rolls) and a main dish (chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes). I didn’t eat much because I didn’t want to be uncomfortable all night, but everything tasted delicious!

We left there and walked less than half a mile to the Katy Trail Ice House. It is basically a huge patio space with a bunch of picnic tables and twinkle lights hanging off all of the trees. They do serve food, but we came just to hang out and have a drink. The people-watching was great. There were lots of people walking/running/biking the Katy Trail behind us and some pretty fun groups hanging out at the Ice House. Haha.

IMG_4365

We stayed for a few hours and just enjoyed talking to each other and giggling at the table next to us. It was so nice just to relax and not worry about what time it was or what else we should be doing.

After getting another Uber, we hit the sack and slept until  9 the next morning! We got ready and got on the road. We ate a quick lunch on the way home and returned to get our kids from the grandparents in the early afternoon.

This trip was exactly what we needed after the crazy year we have had.  Things are about to get really busy for us again so it was nice to have the time away, just the two of us.

Now…after all of the amazing food we ate this weekend, we have to restart the Whole30.  Haha!

Any suggestions of Dallas restaurants for us to hit up next time?

Travel

Oklahoma Travel: Pioneer Woman Mercantile

In my opinion, it is rare to find a jewel such as Ree Drummond. She is humble, kind, a loving mother, and a genius in the kitchen. I’ve watched her show for years and read all of her books.  At my house, we reference the cookbooks many times throughout the year when we are trying to find something tasty to make–my husband loves the Marlboro Man sandwich.

Since opening her store/restaurant/coffee shop, my mom and I have dreamed about making a visit. We decided that Spring Break would be a perfect time, so we made plans and added a few to our party. My mom, daughter, sister-in-law, her mom, and my niece hopped in our cars and headed that direction. It was close to a four-hour drive so our plans were to get into Pawhuska, where the Mercantile is located, and just shop around there.

IMG_3346

We arrived after lunch, looked around the shop for awhile, and then went upstairs to peruse the bakery and coffee shop. When we got up there, we ran in to Ladd, Ree’s husband! He was so gracious and kind and took pictures with everyone who asked. When a child in line started crying, he went behind the counter and got the child a cookie. So sweet! When we got up to the counter, it was really hard to make our decision as to what to try. I got an iced Spicy Cowgirl coffee and a cinnamon roll to share–they are huge! Both items were delicious.

 

IMG_3351
Our attempt at a selfie.  Haha!

 

At this point, everybody was pretty tired and my niece needed a nap, so we left the Merc and drove about 30 minutes to our hotel in Bartlesville.  There are not many places to stay in Pawhuska, so we chose Bartlesville because it was the next closest town.  I used Priceline (my fave) to book our rooms.  We relaxed for a short while and then went to a local Mexican restaurant, El Maguey, for dinner.  It was great fun having some girl-of-all-ages bonding time.  After eating, we were all pretty tired so we went back to the hotel to get some rest before our early start in the morning.

Our plan was to be at the Merc by 7 AM for breakfast.  We arrived a few minutes later than that and there was a line already!  Luckily, the staff at the Mercantile was prepared for the large Spring Break crowds.  A nice gentleman brought out several propane tank heaters and a lovely woman came out to entertain us with stories about the history of Pawhuska and the Drummond Ranch.  We didn’t wait very long, but rumor has it that not long after we moved inside, workers took hot cocoa outside to the people waiting to eat.

IMG_3357

Once inside, the smell was overwhelmingly good and we couldn’t wait to order!  You can find the current menu here to see why we were so excited to eat.  My daughter and I shared the Farmer’s Breakfast and a biscuit with gravy.  I got another Spicy Cowgirl coffee.  The food was amazing, but I secretly wanted my sister-in-law’s pancakes–they came with three different types of syrup, one being Salted Caramel, my favorite! Don’t worry–she shared.

We shopped a little more after breakfast and then decided to head to the Lodge.  The Lodge is where Ree and her family film her Food Network show.  It is only open for viewing on certain dates (check here) and you have to ask for a “ticket” (directions) at the shop at the Mercantile.

This was something we didn’t really expect to do.  We were all tired and I wasn’t sure our whole party would want to make the drive out to the Lodge, but…it was my absolute favorite part!  The Lodge is absolutely beautiful!  It is nestled right past a little hill, overlooking some homes (not hers–I asked!  Haha) and farmland.  The property is enormous.  I had no idea how big the kitchen would be in real life, but it’s huge.  There are four beautiful bedrooms/bathrooms, a commercial kitchen, and many cool hang-out spaces.  They let us walk around the entire place–we even got to see where Ree does her hair/makeup when filming.  There was a lovely young lady at the Lodge who filled us in on all kinds of fun facts about the Drummond family and the property.

 

IMG_3375

IMG_3378

 

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and are planning on making a trip back with all of my aunts. I can’t wait for them to try the food and see all of the cool things Ree offers in her store.  Our goal is to do a little more exploring in Pawhuska and Bartlesville and make it to the Merc for lunch or dinner.  Hopefully, we’ll get to take them to the Lodge as well.

This would definitely make a great day (or two) trip if you live in Oklahoma or just happen to be visiting.  For more information or to shop her products, you can access the Mercantile webpage here.

Travel

Florida 2017: Part Two

To read about days 1-6 of our trip go to part one of this post.

To recap…we drove for three long days and spent four fun nights at Disney. My husband was sick the entire time we were in Orlando, so we were more than ready to get to the beach! We always tack on a beach trip after our time at Disney and have visited many places, including Cocoa Beach, Panama City, Destin, and Indian Pass.  This was our first time staying in Pensacola…

IMG_4200

Day Seven: Heading to the Beach

We woke up fairly early, packed our cars, and headed out of Orlando.  My husband felt well enough to drive until lunch, when we stopped at Zaxby’s (we must love that place).  After eating, his dad took over to do the rest of the driving.  We arrived at our condo around 3, got everything unpacked, and made ourselves at home.  We stayed here and it was gorgeous! My in-laws booked us a 4-bedroom, 4-bath condo overlooking the pool and the beach.  Pictures can be deceiving, but this place was even better in person!

IMG_4203

After we hung out for awhile, we headed to Perdido Key for dinner.  My husband’s cousin and his wife just happened to be on vacation in the area at the same time as us, so we met up with them.  We ate right on the water at the Perdido Key Oyster Bar.  The food was delicious (I had the Jerk Mahi) and the atmosphere was great.  We hit WalMart for some groceries and then went to bed, eager to lay on the sand the next day.

Day Eight: Rough Waters

The red flags were flying on our first beach day.  I was really nervous about letting our kids get in the water so I continuously reminded them not to go out very far.  It was pretty hard for me to relax and I encouraged lots of playing in the sand.

 

IMG_4275

My husband actually felt pretty good this day and we were hopeful that he was kicking whatever was ailing him. We went in for a bit at lunch and then spent the rest of the day at the pool.  The guys made good use of the grill that night and we feasted on steaks, salad, and baked potatoes.  Once it was dark, the men and the kids all went crab hunting.  Apparently, it was hilarious watching the kids run around and grab little crabs.  From the room, we could see tons of people and their flashlights all over the beach.  Haha.

 

Day Nine: Going Backward and…Awkward Family Photos

My husband got up first and made everyone eggs, sausage, and coffee.  We all ate and headed back to the beach.  After about an hour or two, my hubs threw in the towel.  He felt awful and went back up to the condo.  The kids and I stayed on the sand for most of the day before going back to the pool in the late afternoon.

 

My sister-in-law booked us a photographer to take family photos so we all got cleaned up and ready.  I was hoping my husband would feel better after resting most of the day, but he couldn’t even get out of bed.  This is very uncharacteristic of him.  He hardly ever gets sick and when he does, he powers through and tries to carry on as normally as possible.  I was really worried and did not want to take family pictures without him.  The kids and I made it down to the sand, with the plan of just getting a few photos of them.  I ended up taking one picture with the kids and then an individual with each.  It was pretty awkward to do family pics without the whole family, but the photographer was awesome.  He put us all at ease and his work is beautiful.  If you are ever in that area and need photos, check out Jason G Creative Studios!

Katy & Family-17

When we returned from taking photos, my father-in-law and I decided to take my husband to the emergency room.  He had been running fever for a few days and we couldn’t get it down.  They ran many tests, gave him some fluids, and more antibiotics. After a long night, we got back to our room and crashed.

Day Ten: Our Last Day of Vacay

We all (minus my husband) spent our last day at Pensacola Beach enjoying the water and sunshine.  The ocean was super clear and calm so the kids were able to find lots of seashells and they caught a few small fish in buckets.  I went on a solo walk in the morning and saw a shark swimming really close to shore! I have no idea what kind (maybe a nurse shark?) it was, but a man on the beach said it was just searching for food and wasn’t aggressive.  I took his word for it.  Haha.

 

IMG_4190
Smallest seashells ever?!

 

My father-in-law rented a kayak for the day and we all took turns paddling around the clear areas close to the resort beach.  I saw absolutely NOTHING on my turn, but my kids got to see fish, dolphins, and more sharks (the dolphin viewing was amazing in Pensacola).

 

IMG_9657
No, we did NOT let them go alone!

We took a short dip in the pool before getting cleaned up for dinner.  The rest of the family made plans to go out, but I didn’t want to leave my husband by himself for very long.  My kids and I went to a local souvenir shop and grabbed a pizza to eat back at the condo.  I gathered almost all of our stuff and when the others got back, we got the car packed up for the next day’s drive.

 

Day Eleven: The Longest Day Ever

My family of 5 was on the road, headed for home, by 6 in the morning.  Everybody else was flying so we were on our own and…I was driving.  We take our time getting to Florida, but we make the drive back in one day.  By this time, we are tired of eating out and tired of sleeping in hotels.  All we wanted was to sleep in our own beds!  It took us around 16 hours to get back to Oklahoma and I drove the whole way.  Luckily, my husband felt good enough to navigate so I had some help.  My kids were really good so that was a blessing!  People think we are crazy to drive that much in one day, but it honestly wasn’t that bad.  We are so happy to be home!

 

Overall, we had a good trip and loved Orlando and Pensacola Beach.  We absolutely know how blessed we are to be able to take trips as a family.  Many people do not have the opportunity to travel and we are very grateful that we get to.  My kids had a great time and that was our main priority. My husband and I keep joking that we need to plan another trip this summer because he didn’t really get one.  Our anniversary is next week, so we shall see….

 

 

Disney · Travel

Florida 2017: Part One

Hello, friends!  I took a short break from the blog while on a 10-day vacation to Florida.  If you have read my previous posts, you know that our family goes to Florida every other summer to enjoy Disney World and one of the many beautiful beaches offered there.  My in-laws are members of Disney Vacation Club and it has blessed us many times over the past twenty years!

Two of my kids and I returned home from church camp on a Friday and left the very next morning for our vacation.  It was a fast and furious time of laundry and packing, but we were able to fit in a dinner visit with my family before we headed out the next morning.

Day One: On the Road

IMG_3965

We like to split the drive up on the way so we can enjoy the sights and eat at new-to-us places.  Our journey started around 8 AM and we headed to Waco for our first stop.  The kids amused themselves with coloring, drawing, card-playing, and time on their devices.  We stopped at a local favorite, George’s, and shared a few different things.  The atmosphere was fun and the food was delicious.  If you are ever in Waco, you need to try this restaurant!

 

After lunch, we continued our drive and made it to Houston for dinner.  Pappasito’s Cantina was on our mind (I had never been) as we were craving good Mexican food.  Again, we shared a couple of dishes and some queso (of course!).  We left pretty stuffed, but saved room for dessert.  One of our friends offered up his apartment for us that evening (he was out of town) and he left us a fresh-baked cobbler and ice cream–not kidding.  Everybody was pretty tired, so we hit the sack after dessert, with plans to head out the next morning by 6.

IMG_3973

Day Two: Road Warriors

The next morning, we were up by 5 and out of the apartment before 6.  We stopped at a Buc-ee’s for some breakfast items and had our sights set on lunch in New Orleans.  We made it right on time and, based on a recommendation from some friends, went to Deanie’s Seafood.  We tried many of the favorites, including some gumbo and crawfish etouffee’.  One of my bucket list items was eating beignets in NOLA so we had to make that happen!  We went to Cafe Beignet and had our warm, sugary treats at an outside table.

img_3984.jpg

Our time in New Orleans was short, but we enjoyed walking around and people-watching.  I can’t imagine how crazy it is during Mardi Gras!  Then…back in the car.

This was our “long” day of travel (about 9 hours on the road) and our final destination was Crestview, Florida.  We used Priceline to book a hotel on the way.  The place we stayed was just average, but had an outdoor pool so the kids were pleased.  I did pool duty while my husband went to get us some Zaxby’s salads and chicken.  The kids swam for a bit and then we ate and went to bed early.

Day Three: Finally in Orlando!

Our third and final day of driving was pretty easy.  After visiting the hotel breakfast bar, we hit the road a bit after 6 and made it to Orlando around 1.  Our first stop?  Wal-Mart.  Haha!  The Wal-Mart that is closest to Disney has an amazing selection of souvenirs and our kids had money burning holes in their pockets.  Each of the kids picked up a Mickey tee and I bought a few items to bring home for family.  We actually didn’t get any groceries because the rest of our party already food-shopped for us earlier that day (they arrived by plane three days before we got there).

Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived at Old Key West resort, so my husband took the kids to the pool and I hung out with my sister-in-law in their room while we waited.  We were able to move in to our room after 5:00.  Some family members had planned a burger cookout at the pool so we joined them.  The kids burned off three days worth of energy by swimming and playing at the playground next to the pool and then we went to bed to prepare for Magic Kingdom!

Day Four: A “Magic”al Day

This day actually did not start out magically.  My husband woke me up around 5 to tell me he felt awful.  He took some Aleve and tried to shake it.  We made it to the Disney bus stop around 8 and headed to Magic Kingdom.  Ropes dropped at 9 and we practically ran to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.  There was a wait, but we stuck it out and the kids loved it.  We spent the morning hitting most of our favorites (Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates), had lunch at Columbia Harbour House, got an ice cream bar or two, and went back for some pool time.

IMG_4010

My husband still did not feel well, so he laid down while the kids and I spent a couple of hours swimming and snacking.  We had FastPass reservations that evening so we were back on the bus by 6.  After doing several rides and watching fireworks, we shut down the park at 11 and reflected on what a successful Disney day we had.  Oh..and don’t worry…I got the Dole Whip Float I’ve been dreaming about for the past two years.  Ha!

IMG_4061

Day Five: Not in our plans

We were SUPPOSED to hit Universal Studios, but decided to go the following day to give my husband more rest time.  My mother-in-law offered to keep the kids at the pool and my hubs and I went to an urgent care center, hoping for something to help him feel better.  He got some medicine, we spent the rest of the day at the pool, and ended up at House of Blues at the Disney Springs area for dinner.

If you haven’t been to the new Disney Springs, you need to make plans to visit.  The area is beautiful, with tons of restaurant and shopping options.  After we ate, we walked around for awhile and found a few more souvenirs.

IMG_4081

Day Six: It was “WAND”erful

My husband still wasn’t feeling better, but one of our main goals for this trip was Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so the kids and I drove over to Universal for the day.  I don’t want to say a whole lot about the park because I think it deserves its own post, but we really enjoyed it.

After reading all of the Harry Potter books this year, my daughter was pumped to check out Diagon Alley and get a wand at Ollivander’s.  Luckily, she was chosen for the wand ceremony, which made the day extra special for her.

img_4096-e1498708225335.jpg

We met the rest of the family for lunch at Margaritaville and then went back for more park fun.  I knew we were in for a night of packing when we returned, so we finished at Universal in the early evening and went back to our Disney resort.  Pizza at the pool was the plan (unintentional alliteration).  We enjoyed that and packed up our room in preparation for our drive to the beach!

To be continued…

Disney · Travel

5 things to consider when planning a Disney trip.

MK_FNTSYBRG_7364197135

Every other summer, our family makes the 20+ hour drive to Orlando to visit Disney World (for road trip ideas, click here).  My husband’s parents have been members of Disney Vacation Club since 1995 and we have been blessed to visit many times over the years.

I am in no way affiliated with Disney nor am I a travel agent, but, after having the opportunity to go so often, I feel like I have a good grasp on realistic ways to have a great time at Disney without spending my retirement money.  Whether you are a Disney rookie or someone who has been in the past, there are tips below which can help when planning your vacation.  We head out in a few weeks and I’ll do a follow-up when we return with anything new we’ve learned.

Also, I apologize in advance for the length of this post.  There is so much to say about planning a Disney trip and I wanted to include everything I thought would be useful to someone.

1.Staying on Disney property

Being DVC members, we always stay on-property.  We have the opportunity to try new places, but we always stay at Old Key West, which is our “home” property.  There are many room options (studio, 1, 2, and 3-bedroom villas) and they are all very spacious. All except the studio include a washer/dryer and kitchen.  The rooms are very clean and are all pretty close to a pool (there are multiple pools at Old Key West).

The Disney pools are all pretty amazing, with most offering some sort of a feature (slide, spray area, etc) and daily activities.  At Old Key West, there are also “neighborhood” pools that are much quieter and allow my kids lots of space to swim without there being much of a crowd.  We always spend our first day (after the 3:00 check-in) at the pool.  This gives us a chance to release some energy from the car ride and to gear-up for parks the next day.

Rumor has it that DVC members can also pool-hop at many of the resort pools.  We have only done this one time as we pretty much love our home pool, but that is a fun extra for vacation club members.

IMG_0179

Also, if you stay on property, you get free transportation to and from the parks and other resorts/attractions.  If you are not staying at a Disney resort, parking is $20+ each day at the parks.

IMG_3846
Waiting for the bus
IMG_0107
Headed to Magic Kingdom

If staying on-property, you also get complimentary Magic Bands.

magicbands

I’ll be perfectly honest.  This whole band thing overwhelmed me before we left for our last trip.  It seemed confusing and more planning than I was willing to do.  I was wrong.  The bands are great.  You can link your tickets, FastPass, and photos to the bands.  They also serve as your room key and you can charge things at the Disney restaurants and shops using them.  It is such an easy way to keep everything together.  You control the band through the website and through the My Disney Experience app (more info below).

Disney resorts can be pricey, but the benefits are pretty great.  Other amenities include free wifi, Extra Magic Hours, early access to FastPass planning,  and the opportunity to purchase the Disney Dining Plan.

2. Navigating the Parks

Because we are able to visit Disney so often, we focus on one or two parks a year.  On our last trip, we spent one whole day at Magic Kingdom and hopped between Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom on our second park day.  We enjoy all of the parks (including both water parks), but our favorite is Magic Kingdom and we always plan to spend at least one day in this massive park.

We love to relax on vacation and sleeping in is great, but don’t do it on a park day.  You need to be there when the park opens or you will miss so many opportunities to ride things with not much wait time.  Last time, some family friends came on the trip with us and they didn’t make it to the park until after 10 AM.  I later asked what they rode and they were only able to hit like 5 things before evening.  What?!  We rode 5 things in the first hour we were there.  Get there early and be flexible with your plans.

Many people go with a ride/show itinerary (there are tons available online) and they are afraid to veer from it.  I do think it is smart to go in with some idea of where you want to be at specific times, but if your goal is to get the biggest bang for your buck, you need to be willing to chill a little.  We always start at Fantasyland because we have kids and they love it there.  This year, we plan on doing the Seven Dwarves Mine Train first because that tends to get crowded and have really long wait times and then, honestly, we’ll go to whatever is close and has a short wait–which is where the app comes in handy.

IMG_3811

The My Disney Experience app is, in my opinion, the best thing to use to have a successful trip.  You can manage your Fast Pass (add, delete, change) and dining reservations, see show times, find which characters are out and where they are located, and see wait times for everything in the park.  After each ride, I get my phone out and look at the rides in that specific area and we just head to whichever ride/show is close to us with the shortest wait.  In June 2015, we went to Magic Kingdom on one of the busiest days of the month and our longest wait was maybe 30 minutes.  If we want to stay in a certain “land,” but have a FastPass somewhere else, I check to see if we can change times for that ride.  That doesn’t always work out for us, but it usually does.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this trip!

Even though we don’t love waiting in lines, I do make sure each of our kids gets to ride their #1 pick for each park before we leave.  It takes lots of money and planning time to do a Disney trip, so I want my kids to get to visit their favorite thing at least once.  One time we rode Splash Mountain…five times in a row…and I was pregnant.  It was interesting to say the least, but my daughter was happy as that was her favorite. Haha!

3. Eating at the Parks

I’m definitely not a Disney dining expert, but we do eat at the parks.  We have never done the dining plan, but I know many people do and enjoy it.  Normally, we eat a quick breakfast in our room (cereal, breakfast bar, fruit) before heading to the bus stop.  I also usually pack a few small snacks in our cinch sac or small backpack that we take to the parks (granola bars, pbj sandwiches cut up) for the time in between breakfast and lunch. For lunch, we hit up a counter-service restaurant for some good Disney food.  They all offer different things and can be pricey (maybe $10 or $12) so we share two or three meals and call it good.

In the afternoon, we usually take a park break and head back to hang out at our resort pool or nap. We snack a bit there and go back to the parks for dinner, more rides, parades, and fireworks. If you don’t already have dinner reservations, you can use the app or just hit another quick-service restaurant, which is what we normally do.

We all love a good Disney treat so make time to get one (or many!) of those.  My kids love the ice cream bars and sandwiches and I go crazy for a Dole Whip.  I’m not too particular on when we get treats.  Sometimes we get them in the afternoon before we head back to the hotel, but we pretty much always have something around time for fireworks.

Disney drinks can take up a good portion of money we worked hard to save, so we are smart about not buying sodas and bottled waters all day long.  We go to Disney in June and it is hot, so I take some empty water bottles (you can find cute Disney ones at WalMart) and fill them up at water fountains.  You can also get free ice water pretty much anywhere they serve food.

wdw63
Breakfast at the Polynesian
wdw133
Lunch at Akershus, Epcot

 

Character meals really deserve their own post so I will just say this: they are expensive, but worth it if you want your kids to have some character time.  Also, the food is good.  You should plan to do at least one if your kids are little.

4. Dress Accordingly

AK_BRDGTOP_7361051727

I always applaud people when I see their cute photos and they are wearing nice clothing at Disney.  I’m not sure how they do it.  Again, we go in June and it can be pretty steamy, especially after the afternoon rain showers.  I’m positive you will not catch me in anything with a button or zipper or made out of some non-breathable material.  If I’m at a Disney park during the day, I have on a t-shirt or tank top and athletic shorts.  If you ride Splash Mountain in the morning and have to spend the rest of your day in wet denim, you will not be happy.  Trust me on this.  Get a cute Disney tee and break out your black shorts.  You will be comfortable and still cute.  Promise.

Also, wear tennis shoes.  You will walk so much at Disney.  I tried to wear flip flops once and was mad at myself about halfway through the day.  The kids wear tennis shoes also, unless we are just back for fireworks and are leaving again.

If you MUST wear cute clothing, maybe put those on after a mid-day break.  That is kind of my plan for this year.  I’d like to get some nice pics where my hair isn’t in a messy bun.  We’ll see if that happens…

5. All of the extras

Fireworks and other nighttime shows

At the evening shows, Disney sells all sorts of fun glow-in-the-dark items.  I’m pretty sure I’ve bought a few of these overpriced things in the past.  One year, we saw a smart family pull out their bag of dollar store glow sticks and I watched their kids happily showing off the things that cost them $19 less than what we had.  Guess what.  We take the dollar store glow sticks now.  Haha.  I hit up Target a few weeks ago and got some glow necklaces and bracelets for my kids and nephews.  My kids have never felt like they had something less than the kids who have the expensive glow toys.  Plus, there are always kids around us who don’t have the items either and it gives my littles the opportunity to share because we always have extra.

Souvenirs

We try to be really practical when it comes to souvenirs.  I want my kids to have something to help them remember the experience, but I don’t like them asking for everything they see.  When my oldest was really little, we started them on a souvenir budget.  They take some of their own money, any money grandparents have given them, and a little from us (we save change all year, take it to the bank, and split it into thirds) and that is their souvenir money for the entire trip (including the beach part that comes after Disney).  This eliminates so many problems for us.  If they ask for something, I tell them they have to pay for it.  Enough said.  Sometimes they want a larger item (like the build-a-dinosaur at the T-Rex restaurant), but mostly they just want a cup or some little figurine.  Whatever is left at the end of the trip is theirs to keep.  If you are looking for cheap Disney items, there is a WalMart close to the Disney properties that has aisles and aisles of things at bargain prices.  We always hit it up before we head out of Orlando to get gift items for friends back in Oklahoma.

Photos

While at Disney, I’ll use my cellphone to take most of our pictures and turn them into a photobook when we return.  Disney does offer Photopass which means they’ll scan your MagicBand (or park ticket) and take photos throughout the day.  You can see these photos on your account on the Disney website and purchase the ones you want OR you can buy MemoryMaker ($169 for advance purchase, $199 for immediate use).  MemoryMaker allows you to purchase all of your digital images for one price.  The Disney photographers have great locations at which you can stop and take your pics, but you also get ride pictures and videos.  After you get off of the “big” rides (Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, etc), you will go to where they post the pictures.  When you see your family, scan your MagicBand and those photos will link to your account.  We bought this service on our last trip and were really pleased with our pictures.

They even add little extras (see Olaf above) and you get some stock photos of characters and rides.  You can also link MemoryMaker to the accounts of your other family members, meaning you can SHARE photos.  We split the cost among three families so it seemed well worth the $169 to have good, fun photos.  Because we are only doing one Disney park this year (we are venturing out to Universal), we aren’t going to purchase MemoryMaker.  However, I highly recommend it for people who are doing multiple days at parks and/or have friends or family who can split the cost.

Strollers

If you are traveling from far and don’t want to hassle with bringing a stroller, Disney does offer stroller rental for like $15 or $20 a day.  We rented a stroller once, but found that a cheap umbrella stroller worked just as well for us.  If you are doing five days of parks, that is almost $100 just for stroller rental.

 

wdw281
Stroller fan for the win

 

 

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique 

This boutique will transform your child into a beautiful princess or a heroic knight, with packages for the girls starting at around $65.  Yikes.  I couldn’t do it.  Unless this is an experience you just can’t pass up, pack your own princess dress, put your girl’s hair in a bun, and put some spray glitter on her.  She won’t even know what she is missing.

Want to know what the experts say?

Before heading to Disney each year, I consult some real experts for updates or reminders about certain parks.  My favorite website is WDW Prep School.  It’s the best, but can be overwhelming because there is so much information.  Take in a bit at a time and you will learn so much while planning your vacation.

I also consult books.  I use this one, but there are many on the market.  You can purchase from Amazon or find one at your local library in the travel section.

Anything I’m missing?  Post in comments and I’ll add to my Disney follow-up.