Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Joining the Wordless Wednesday Revolution

OK, so I've noticed many blogs doing this thing called "Wordless Wednesday."  Now in my opinion, that just goes against everything that a blog stands for.  Aren't blogs supposed to be full of words?  :)

Anyway, since I love to express myself through photography as well as words, I thought I might try this out.  So while technically this installment isn't exactly "wordless" (and who knows if I can really stick to it?), here it is.  Enjoy!

If you recognize this dessert, post it in the comments!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Still Learning After All These Trips

If you've stuck it out with me over the summer, you've read an in-depth trip report from our Disney Dream Cruise and Star Wars Weekend vacation.  Thank you so much for taking the time to read the report.  It is my sincere hope that it entertained you and possibly even gave you some good ideas for your own future vacation.

That being said, I think it's time to wrap it up.  As I did with the cruise portion of the trip, I want to share some things that I learned from our time at Walt Disney World.

1.  Taking it slow really is the way to go!
Now I know that many might argue this one with me, but I have to say, even with the madness that was Star Wars Weekend, this had to be one of the most relaxing vacations in Walt Disney World that we have ever had.  Granted, we've visited many times, and we plan to visit many more.  So we didn't really feel the urgency to rush around and "see everything" as so many travelers do.  If you are able to visit WDW this way, then please take the time to do it.  Figure out one or two "must do" things in each park, then take your time.  Meander a little.  Enjoy the view, the atmosphere, the people around you.  Enjoy each moment.  Savor your lunch rather than snarfing it down and running to the next thing.  You'll be surprised how relaxing WDW can actually be.

2.  The Force was with us.
When we decided to go to Star Wars Weekend, I was excited but I was very nervous.  I knew that the crowds would be bad.  I knew it would be hot.  But I never in my wildest dreams imagined that it would be so much fun!  If you are a Star Wars fan or have a Star Wars fan in your house, you need to do this at least once.  And though the crowds were pretty intense at times, and yes, we did encounter a few fans who probably needed a tranquilizer dart to the backside, overall everyone was having a great time and the energy was awesome!  We met some really cool people in lines waiting to meet characters.  And it was so much fun having the interactions with the Star Wars characters!  They really got into it.  And honestly, it didn't get stressful.  We utilized the divide and conquer strategy, enjoyed some relaxing meals, and made the best of a torrential downpour.  If we are able, we will definitely do it again.  And this time we will go to more of the shows!

3.  We love the dining plan!
So I know that there is much controversy out there right now about whether or not Disney's dining plans are worth the money.  I've heard many a person say that they could eat much cheaper than that or that the plan should go back to including appetizers and tips.  What I can tell you is this:  because we didn't have the dining plan this year, we might have saved a little bit of money, but the stress was not worth it.  We agonized over absolutely every dining decision.  When we finally got to to to Le Cellier, we ate burgers.  Not steak, burgers.  Now I love my burger, don't get me wrong, but it's a steakhouse.  I wanted steak.  But I couldn't bring myself to pay that much in cash, knowing that it was our first day at Disney and not knowing what we might need to spend that money on later.  We nickled and dimed ourselves to death on the food.  When we finally broke down near the end of the trip and went to Boma because we love it, I nearly cried after we payed for it.  For our family, having the assurance that our food is paid for before the vacation, and that with a very few exceptions, I can order absolutely whatever I want without concern of the cost, is worth it to me.  So bring on the dining plan for our next vacation.  I'm tired of worrying about food!

4.  Take time to swim.

Now for many, this might sound sacrilegious.  You are at Walt Disney World, you have four theme parks, two water parks, a shopping district, and a partridge in a pear tree.  Why on earth would you hang around at your resort?  Because it's magical, that's why!  If you stay on property especially, your resort can be just as magical sometimes as visiting a park (or at least as magical as Downtown Disney).  We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Animal Kingdom Lodge this year, and spent far more time in the pool than we have on previous trips.  In fact, one night while we were in the pool, the staff brought out an inflatable movie screen to show "The Aristocats."  Now yes, we did stay at a deluxe resort, but honestly, every Disney resort has some fun and relaxing options for you.  Swimming pools with amazing themes, arcades, gift shops, activities for kids and adults, and the amazing atmosphere that Disney is known for.  And guess what's great...everyone else is at the parks!  Resort time during the daytime is quiet and relaxing.  And so worth it.

(borrowed from flickr & edited)
 5.  Revisit the classics.
I think probably one of my favorite things we did this trip is take Payton on some of the "classic" Walt Disney attractions.  When you visit WDW often, sometimes you tend to gravitate toward what's new.  But it was truly a joy to get back on The Jungle Cruise again (esp. at park closing, it was kinda creepy!) and to sit and enjoy the Carousel of Progress.  We cannot predict what Disney will keep long term and what they will decide to change, so be sure to take in some of the true Disney classics.  I can't wait to get back and see the original Enchanted Tiki Room now that it's been restored to it's truest form!

There are so many other things I could say, but many would be a recap from the trip reports so I'll just close with this:  no matter what your plans are when you visit Walt Disney World, don't let them get in the way of the magic.  Take a breath.  Hug your kids.  Hold hands with the one you love.  And let Walt's dream soak in through your skin.  Play, have fun, and keep the magic alive.

Friday, August 19, 2011

In A Galaxy Far Away & A Long Drive Home: Trip Report pt. 7

Sunday morning rolled around and it was our final day of Star Wars Weekend, as well as our final day of vacation.  This is the day I have grown to dread, as I hate leaving Walt Disney World.  But I put that aside so we could take in our last day at Hollywood Studios.  We were up early again, but not as early, and arrived at the park right as they were opening the gates.  We went in with a whole new strategy today, as there were specific characters we had to see:  Luke, Leia, C3PO & R2D2.  Any other characters would just be gravy.

So we rushed in with the crowd and made a bee-line down Sunset Boulevard to Jabba's Hut, stopping just long enough to get our pic made in front of "the hat".  If you've not been to Star Wars Weekend or can't quite place it, Jabba's Hut was just a big building located behind Rock N' Roller coaster.  We actually passed through a gate in the RnR courtyard into a back stage area.  Jabba's Hut was massive and contained any and all possible Star Wars Weekend souvenirs, as well as the special meet & greet for the characters we were looking for.  We spent all morning just circling through the line, with Payton waiting with Kendall at one point, then I would get in line further back just in case the characters changed.  We really lucked out as initially Luke was there by himself, then C3PO came out to replace him.  Once Payton finally got up there, R2D2 came out to join them.  Later, I went through the line and got to meet them as well.  C3PO was amazing!  He wasn't your typical, silent Disney character.  Oh, no...he carried on full conversations, asking me if Payton was my "youngling" and commenting on what a clever youngling he was, as well as discussing the new Star Tours and which adventures we had been on.

So after meeting the droids, we split up again, with the boys going back in the now long line for characters and me looking around a bit.  By the time they reached the front of the line, Luke was back out with C3PO.  Kendall & Payton had met up with a married couple who were huge Star Wars fans and the four of them kept letting other people in line go in front of them.  It all paid off in the end when Princess Leia joined Luke Skywalker for pictures.  Payton was thrilled, and we all got in on those pictures!  Once we had met our required characters, we picked out our Star Wars Weekend shirts and then headed into the park.

We headed toward Star Tours to take another spin, then on to MuppetVision 3D.  After that, we were ready for some lunch, so the guys headed to Backlot Express while I waited in line to get another set of Star Tours fast passes.  Our lunch was absolutely terrible, and the place was packed.  By this time, Payton decided he was way to hot and ready to head out, so back to Animal Kingdom Lodge we went, and we stayed there the rest of the day.  We spent time resting and swimming, and decided to visit Boma for supper.  Without a doubt, it was the most expensive and most delicious dinner we had had the whole trip.  Having the opportunity to try so many African inspired dishes on the buffet as well as having the option of more "American" food for the less adventurous makes this restaurant one of our family favorites.

After dinner, it was time to get the packing and sorting done, ready to head out in the morning.  We checked out Monday morning and left Animal Kingdom Lodge around 7:00 a.m. Florida time.  As always, it was a little sad for me, but my guys were ready to get home.  Other than seeing more police cars than I've ever seen before (due to the holiday), the trip home was really smooth and uneventful.  We drove straight through and were back in our driveway in southern Illinois by 9:30 p.m. our time.

It was a wonderful trip filled with firsts:  first cruise, first Star Wars Weekend, first time at Le Cellier, Payton's first time on Carousel of Progress.  In my next blog post, I will share a few things I learned on this trip to the World (yes you can still learn something new even after visiting so many times) and what I will do differently on our next Disney vacation.  If you have any thoughts or ideas, or can share more insight into getting the most out of Star Wars Weekend, please comment.  Thanks for sticking it out with me on this very long trip report!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Downtown Disney & The Magic Kingdom: Trip Report pt 6

When Saturday rolled around, we decided it was time to slow things down a little bit and enjoy some time at Downtown Disney and our resort before heading to the Magic Kingdom.  So after sleeping in a bit, we decided that the best way to get the day started was with a swim in the pool!  We headed down after a quick bite of breakfast and enjoyed a nearly empty pool.  The water was nice and warm.  What was really fun was that we were actually in the pool when the lifeguards came to open the slide!  Payton and Kendall both took turns on the slide while I just enjoyed the water.  After a few hours in the pool, I headed up to the room to get ready and the boys followed a bit later.

 Once we were cleaned up, we made our way over to Downtown Disney.  Oddly enough, it's my son who's addicted to this place because he loves to shop!  He was asking right away to visit Once Upon a Toy and the World of Disney store.  I, on the other hand, had only one thing in mind...Babycakes!

We started our morning at the Marketplace side bus stop.  Since it was time for lunch, we stopped at our new favorite DTD eatery, the Earl of Sandwich.  No matter what time of day, this place always has a line, but I have to say, they are extremely efficient and before you know it, you have your food in hand and the hunt for a table begins.  We were able to sit outside in the shade and enjoy some amazing sandwiches.

Now Once Upon a Toy was within visual range while we ate, so that was our next natural stop.  Poor Payton, every time we go there he finds stuff to spend his money on, and every time, we tell him to wait because we will come back by on the way to the bus.  Up next, Team Mickey!  This is Kendall's favorite DTD store, with all the various ESPN and sports related items.  He found a great buy on two ESPN t-shirts, and somehow, my son came home with a San Diego Chargers mini football helmet!  I'm still not sure how that happened!  After the boys made their purchases, we headed on to the World of Disney store.  I love looking around in World of Disney because there is just so much to look at!  Any possible item with a Disney tie-in can be found in this massive store.  There were so many T-shirts that I wanted to buy, and office items, and purses, and I could go on and on...but needless to say, I walked away empty handed.

A quick walk past the Lego store and we had finally arrived at the Pollo Campero/Fresh-A-Peel/Babycakes complex.  I am so looking forward to eating a full meal here in the future.  All of their offerings looked amazing!  We made a beeline for the Babycakes counter and each chose a cupcake to try.  Kendall picked up a banana cupcake, Payton got a chocolate cupcake with mint icing, and I picked out a lemon cupcake.  These were the best things I think I've ever eaten at Disney...and the only things we ate so fast that I couldn't get a picture of them!  If you don't know much about Babycakes, please check out their website at  It's hard to imagine that such amazing cupcakes (and everything else in their bakery cabinets) could be gluten free, refined sugar free, wheat free, vegan, etc.  But they are!  It got to taste Payton's but Kendall wouldn't let me near his!!  So next time you are in Downtown Disney, be sure to follow your sweet tooth to Babycakes.  It's totally worth it!

After our sweet treats, we made our way back across Marketplace and back to Once Upon a Toy so that Payton could pick up his souvenirs.  He built another light saber this trip and got a really neat Star Tours 2 poster as a gift.  Then it was back to the bus and back to AKL to rest up a bit for our evening.

The Magic Kingdom was on our agenda for the evening, so we headed over around five-ish, and our first stop was to meet Mickey Mouse at his new location in the Main Street Theater.  I have to say, I LOVE this meet & greet location, far better than Toon Town.  The theming is very well done, and carries over into the exit store.  I hope this one stays for a long time!

Up next, Carousel of Progress.  It had been many years since I had been on this ride, and my son had never been, so it was important to me to share this original attraction with him.  Needless to say, it brought back many memories and created a few new ones (as Payton's new favorite song to sing to me is "there's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow...").  Next it was time for me to smoke the boys on Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin...325,700 points!!!

Because we've been to Disney so many times now, we really tried to do some new things this trip, things we've just not taken the time for in the past.  So we made a bee line toward Liberty Square in hopes of going over to Tom Sawyer Island.  Unfortunately for us, they were shutting it down.  Something to look forward to on our next trip!  Backup plan was Big Thunder Mountain, but it was having some technical difficulties and they weren't sure when it would reopen.  So, since we didn't want to ride Splash Mountain, we decided to take this time and have a bite to eat, and headed on to Columbia Harbour House.  We absolutely love this quick service restaurant!  My guys like seafood, and their chicken is pretty good too, so it works out for all of us.  Plus they have a wonderful seating area upstairs that is generally not very crowded and gives nice views of the park.

After dinner, it was time to head to Fantasyland, since Payton couldn't be convinced to do the Haunted Mansion.  Although we ride all of these rides nearly every trip, I really wanted to see the new queue line at Winnie the Pooh.  A lot of work has been done here to make it more enjoyable for guests.  Unfortunately, that work was really targeted toward the under 5 guests, and we were pretty bored with it quickly.  Also, the noise level was raised significantly in the honey bee section.  The walls of honey were a neat addition (lcd screens that appear to have honey dripping down, and when rubbed, sometimes you find hidden characters) but after exploring them a bit, you suddenly become aware of all the germy, nasty hands that have been rubbing on it before you.  Eww...  Of course, the ride itself is still one of my favorites, but we'll just stick with fast pass next time!

Another attraction that has become a family favorite is Mickey's Philharmagic, so naturally we had to take in a show!  If you've never visited this attraction before, prepare to be amazed.  This has to be the best example of what 4D should be.  You will experience flawless 3D animation along with amazing sounds and smells that leave you feeling like you are a part of the show.  It is well worth the time to see Mickey's Philharmagic!

Following the show, we decided to head toward the front of the castle to take in "The Magic, The Memories and You", as well as Wishes.  We found a nice little nook near Cosmic Rays and the boys found a seat while I went to pick up popcorn and sodas.  Once the MM&Y show started, we realized quickly that it wasn't the best viewing location and decided to catch the second showing.  It was nice though to just sit and enjoy our snack!  We watched a little bit of Wishes from that spot, then moved around to the Rose Garden area.  Of course, once Wishes was over, we were caught in the mass exodus across the bridge.  At that point, we just held on to each other and took baby steps as the crowd would allow.  Once we reached the hub, we moved over toward the Adventureland bridge and set up camp there.  We had a fantastic spot to watch the second MM&Y show near the bridge and across from Crystal Palace.  My goal was to move up the the Liberty Square bridge for the second Main Street Electrical Parade, then back into Adventureland following the parade and ride a couple of rides while the remaining masses left the park.  Amazingly enough, that plan worked!  So many people leave the park after Wishes, so if you are able to stay up a little later, I would highly recommend waiting for the second parade and enjoying the park with far fewer people in it!

I have to say, "The Magic, The Memories, & You" is a phenomenal show!  The technology combined with the music and photos of actual families visiting the park makes for a beautiful and emotional experience.  Videos don't do it justice, and mine was not that good anyway, but I've found one to share with you from WDWRadio!

Now the last time I had seen the Main Street Electrical Parade was when I had visited the Magic Kingdom at age 12.  I was so excited to see it again and share it with my guys!  SpectroMagic is amazing, but this parade holds a special place in my heart.  Especially Elliot the Dragon!  We were in such a great spot.  Still in the hub where we had the castle in the background, but right near the bridge with a very close view of the floats.

As soon as the parade was over, we made our way back to the Adventureland bridge as planned and were able to ride Aladdin's Magic Carpets and The Jungle Cruise.  Our cruise into the jungle was just a tiny bit too long and we didn't make it to Pirates of the Caribbean before closing.  So we headed back toward the buses and back to Animal Kingdom Lodge.  Gotta get some rest, another big day of Star Wars Weekend tomorrow!

 Next post, our final day of Star Wars Weekend and the trip home.  Hope you've enjoyed the journey with us thus far.  Please post any comments or questions.  I love hearing from you!