Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Day One: Shopping, Getting Lost, and Having a Fabulous Time

I have hemmed and hawed about the best way to go about writing these blogs. Should I go day by day, group them by subject, do big overviews and then tiny details? Which is all quite silly, and so as of right now I'm going to go day by day. And then if I think that something warrants a whole post, I'll add it in.

So, to begin, getting to Disney World is an ordeal. Flying would be ideal, although it is considerably more expensive and we would have to figure out how to get around once we got there. I knew that we would want the van once we got there, and that proved true with every passing day. So the only option was to drive. My dad and Nick traded off on all of the driving, the girls sat in the back with RubberMade tubs full of things to do, and my mom and I tried to survive. We watched all of Spin and Marty, the Annette serial, a week's worth of (the real, old) Mickey Mouse Club, and Freaky Friday. Watsons' pack food like we are going to be marooned on a small island for a month, so we did a lot of snacking. We stopped every two to three hours, and we managed to eat real food in sit down restaurants for at least one meal each day. On the way down, we traveled through Kentucky, Tenneesse, and Georgia. We left at 6 AM on Saturday morning, and we made it to Macon, Georgia by 8 PM.

We stopped at Stone Mountain along the way. If you have never seen it, I highly recommend it. My family has been there twice before, and we have always enjoyed it. It costs $10 to park your car, but other than that, it is free to see the mountain. (There are other things to do there, if you are so inclined, and they cost extra-like going up to the top of the mountain-I've done that and it is scary if you are at all afraid of heights.) There is an extremely cool laser light show every evening in the summer, and at certain other times of the year. I thought that we were going on a day that there was no light show. However, when we got there and it was packed, it became apparent that my father had simply not told me that there was one-he knew that I would want to stay. And since the Buckeyes were playing, that wasn't an option.

The next morning we left around 6:30 AM (we ate our continental breakfast first) and headed to Disney World. We got there around 1 PM. And we headed to our hotel, Pop Century. Pop Century is a value hotel, which means that it is cheap by Disney standards. It also means that it is on the outskirts of the property, which made having the van a luxury during the week. Now, when I say that it is cheap, I don't mean at all that it is not a nice hotel. It was a very nice hotel, with cute Disney touches and several pools, which is more than what we needed. We did not spend much time at our hotel.

An important note about the hotel-a refrigerator is not included in a standard room at Pop Century. My brother-in-law did get one by saying that he needed it for his diabetes medication. But we did not have one, and so my original idea of eating cereal for breakfast every morning got slightly derailed. We ended up eating the cereal dry, but that also turned out to be a good thing-it was portable that way, and we would take it with us in the car on the way to whichever park we were going.

Now, if you are thinking about planning a Disney vacation, and wondering if you should stay on property, let me influence you: DO IT! It is so much easier to stay on property. If you are staying at a Disney resort, you get free parking at the theme parks. That alone is a savings. If you don't want to bring a vehicle with you, there is tranportation available to all Disney places. And basically, because after a long day at the park, you don't want to have to drive a long way to go to bed.

My parents stayed at the Grand Floridian, which is my favorite hotel ever. I have been blessed to stay there twice in my life. It is so beautiful-even sitting in the lobby is fun, listening to the piano or the band and watching the people. It is also by far the most expensive hotel, and therefore I am never going to stay there again unless I win the lottery-so, not going to happen. However, as my sister says, for our two families, it made so much more sense to stay in the value hotel, because we weren't in the room very much. My parents, on the other hand, only went to the park one day, and spent the rest of their days enjoying the hotel. So, my advice would be to think about what you are paying for and how much you are going to use it.

I have also stayed at the Contemporary and Shades of Green (which was called The Disney Inn at the time). Both are nice, although only military can stay at Shades of Green now. The Comtemporary and the Polynesian, which are both on the monorail with the Grand Floridian, are nice but, to me at least, they are showing their age. They need updated. Nick and I also got to go to Fort Wilderness, which is where you can stay in a cabin or bring your own RV. We both agreed that we loved it, and that if we would ever be able to go back, that would be right up our alley. Staying at Disney in an RV is actually quite affordable, comparitively speaking.

Okay, so, back to our first day. We checked in, looked around our immediate area (Pop Century is divided into decades, we were in the 1970s), and then headed to Downtown Disney. Downtown Disney is a shopping complex with restaurants and other fun things, like a bowling alley and Cirque de Soleil. With our room, we got two vouchers to DisneyQuest, which is a virtual reality/arcade that costs around $40 for an adult ticket. Needless to say, I wanted to be sure that we used these vouchers, since they were worth a good bit. So Betsy and Nick headed to that, while I took Felicity for a day of shopping.

Nick and Betsy had a blast. They were able to play for 2 hours, and they had a fantastic time. The only thing that would have been nice to know beforehand was that you have to be 52 inches tall for some of the attractions. Betsy is 51 inches tall, and there is apparently no bend in this rule. Still, it was time well spent.

Felicity and I had a lot of fun too. We had 2 hours to kill, so we took our time. There are lots of things just to see, even without buying much. There is a very cool Lego store with all kinds of Disney characters made out of Legos. We also shopped at The World of Disney, which is a huge Disney store. We bought our autograph books here, because if you are going to Disney with kids, you have to have an autograph book. Felicity picked out a Tinkerbell autograph book, and I picked out the regular Mickey Mouse one for Betsy. Just to let you know, it's a good idea to look at the inside of the book before buying it. The Tinkerbell book had a place for a picture on the back of every page, plus it had less pages. In the end, Felicity's book got full before the week was over, and I wasn't about to buy her another one, so she and Betsy have to "share" several autographs. If I had it to do over, I would have bought both of them the same Mickey book.

We also went to a really cute store called Little Mismatched, which sells socks in groups of 3. (But be forwarned, they only sell Disney socks for older girls, so I had to buy Felicity cute-but not Disney-socks.) They also have a very nice Christmas store, where I bought our Christmas ornament (we always buy an ornament on every vacation). And there was a store called Stitch in Time, where you could buy Mouse Ears and have them embroidered. Felicity picked out Minnie Mouse ones, and we bought Betsy Mickey Mouse ones. There was also a small carousel, which cost $2 a ride.

Felicity is still little enough that it doesn't really occur to her that Betsy was doing a lot more fun stuff than riding a small carousel, but that is what makes it fun. It was nice to spend some time with just Felicity, who was thrilled at just the statues of Disney princesses, never realizing that during the course of the week we would actually be meeting these same princesses. And Betsy had a blast with Nick, because she always loves having all of Nick's attention. They even got their picture taken in one of those photo booths. It was a great day.

We left around 5, with a goal of going to Fort Wilderness for a campfire sing-a-long with Chip and Dale. The campfire started at 7:30, and it was good that we had so much time, because we got lost. First off, and this is important, if you are going to a Magic Kingdom area hotel, you need to be in the right hand lane going through the parking lot toll. Nothing tells you this until you are already through the toll. We learned this the hard way and had to circle around twice before we got in the right lane. Second, once you get to Fort Wilderness for the campfire, you are headed for the area in the middle of the campground. Again, we didn't see this, and we went the wrong way and ended up doing a lot more walking than was necessary.

That said, it was worth it. The campfire sing-a-long is presented every night at Fort Wilderness and it is free. Let me tell you, I cannot think of a single other thing that we did the whole week that was free. When you get there, they have the campfire started and if you want to, you can buy the ingredients for s'mores, which cost $13. We did do this, but you get to keep the rather generous helping of marshmellows, so I thought it was justified. At 8 PM, the song leader comes out with Chip and Dale and starts singing. All good, old fashioned campfire songs. And then Chip and Dale comes around a meet you. You only get to meet one chipmunk up close, but still, it is a free character greeting. The girls had a blast.

We capped off our day by going to the Grand Floridian and seeing Mom and Dad's room. We also, just by luck, figured out that we could watch the fireworks from the Magic Kingdom from the boat dock there. They were the Halloween fireworks that night, and they are spectacular. It was a great ending for a wonderful day.

If you are planning a trip to Disney, I would recommend starting your vacation in a similar way. It was relaxed and not hurried. It felt like a vacation, which was not so much true for the rest of the trip (not that we didn't have fun, but it's not relaxed once you get to the parks). The one thing that I would have liked to do that we never did get around to was miniture golfing, which my sister did with her family this first day. We had vouchers for that too, which cost around $12 for an adult. The golf courses are really cute, we just never found enough time to do it. But it would also make for a fun, easy first day.

My point-enjoy this nice, leisurely day. Because we are headed to the Magic Kingdom and things are going to liven up quick.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Grab your ears, it's time for cheers...

So, this blog post is a little long in coming. All last week, as we traveled all over the Disney resort, I kept thinking about all the helpful blog posts that I would write. After all, I no longer had a trip to prepare for, obsess over, create itinerairies for, etc. However, I kind of forgot how ridiculously busy this life of a mom/substitute teacher can be. And I only subbed once this week! Between MOPs, PTO and PTA drama, 3rd grade Family Fun Night, a bedroom filled with bees, Daisy preparation, Bible Study for the women's meeting, and just our normal two nights of dance and one night of soccer-this is the soonest that I could get to it.

But enough about that. This is a fun blog! A blog about truly my favorite place on earth after Rix Mills-Disney World! (I am well aware that there are people who will judge me for that statement. There are people who love Disney and people who hate it and people in the middle-I'm sorry, but I'm on the love, love, love, if I were rich I would go every year side.)

I have always loved Disney World. I first went when I was 3. My memories consist of Cinderella castle, getting a Donald Duck hat (not Mouse Ears like everyone else because that is how my parents roll), and falling through an inner tube and my dad having to gallantly jump into the pool to rescue me. That's about it.

I went again when I was 5 and kind of remember the same hazy memories. To be completely honest, I remember a lot more about the pool at our hotel on that trip.

The point is, I don't have a lot of memories from my early Disney trips. And my parents wisely remembered that, and we all decided several years ago, that if they were paying, we would go when the oldest two girls were about 8. I was 9 on my first Disney trip that I really remember, and then I went again at 11, 13, 15, and 18.

The girls were definately the best ages to be at the parks. They are 8 and 5. Betsy was old enough (and tall enough) to ride everything she wanted to, which was great for me, because no one else in my entire family will ride rollercoasters. Felicity was still scared enough of big rides to be perfectly fine with the fact that she was too short to ride a lot of them. And Nick, who is a wuss when it comes to heights of any kind, was content to stay with her while Betsy and I had tons of fun.

Also, they are still young enough that Disney is magical. Because it just is. Yes, they both get that they are people in costumes. But it doesn't matter to them, any more than it mattered to Nick, who was elated on our 2nd day there to meet Eeyore in person!

So anyway, all of that is to say, if you are feeling guilty because you haven't been to Disney and your kids are getting older, don't fret about it. It is a wonderful vacation no matter how old you are.

Now, this particular blog post is about planning a Disney vacation. I'm going to do a whole series of them, from the best places to eat, to the best intineraries to follow, to how to pick the best hotel. Why? Because I want to. And if someone, even one person, gets something out of it-cool.

So, planning a Disney vacation can be overwhelming if you are a Type A, schedule everything kind of gal. Which I happen to be. It helped immensely that I had been there before and knew my way around 3 of the parks. This became glaringly obvious when we got to Animal Kingdom, which I had never been to, and I had to shift around a lot of my plans and we had to do a lot of running.

My first suggestion, as always, is to arm yourself with a book. The two that I found most helpful were:

1) Birnbaum Guides 2013 Walt Disney World-this is the official guidebook. The layout of this book is great. It has big maps, details about every ride and attraction grouped together by "land," and it's just pretty. That said, it is the "official" book for a reason. It doesn't say anything negative about anything Disney ever. Which is why you also need...

2) The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2013 by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa-this book is the bomb. It anticipates every question an anal retentive planner could have, like, how long does every single attraction last? How exactly does one trade pins? Is it worth my time to try to squeeze in miniture golf/Disney Quest/a campfire sing along with Chip and Dale? It also has lots of maps, which Nick and I needed and relyed on, because our hotel (being a "value" hotel) was on the outskirts of nearly everything and we tended to get lost. I cannot say enough good things about this book.

Now then, you also want to check out some websites. First, of course, you have to use Disney's own website because they make you. Once you have made your reservations, you have to use their website to make your dining reservations, use Fastpass+, and to customize your MagicBands. I have basically nothing good to say about Disney's website. It is pretty to look at, but fairly useless. We had a terrible time getting all of our reservations to show up, to link our reservations to my mom and dad, and my sister's family, and just basically anytime at all that we had to use it. Which was all the time. The website is the only thing that I think was truly terrible about my planning experience. I have told them so on several questionaires, and we have had to call multiple times to straighten things out, so perhaps they will see the error of their ways. In the meantime, just know that everything else about your trip will seem easy compared to using that website.

However, there are some very good and useful websites. is easily my favorite. It is snidely funny in it's observations, but this man must go to Disney World every day of his life. He has a crowd calendar (that I ignored, but that is another post), updates about merchandise, updates about new restaurants, ride referbishments, etc. I highly recommend it. is another good blog that is in a similar vein. Lots of tips, lots of pictures, lots of how to best maximize line times (this took up huge amounts of my planning time).

Okay, so then, I made my Disney Intinerary Binder! It sends shivers down my spine. I took a three ring binder, found some super cute Mickey stickers at Hobby Lobby to dress it up, and filled it with our itinerary for each day, a list of the restaurants on the Disney Dining Plan, a schedule of events for the the halloween party, a schedule of times for shows at each park, a list of food available at the Food and Wine Festival, and where all you can get different pennies pressed with different characters (for my family this is a big part of every vacation.)

It was a necessary part of every day. Fastpass alone will be a whole other blog post, but with this new Fastpass+ system, you have to know what time you made your fastpass for. Normal people own iPhones and can use the app. I, however, can not afford such luxuries. So the binder was a needed and necessary part of every day.

Now, the other very fun part of planning was creating a countdown calendar for Betsy and Felicity. I found a cute one on Pinterest that was easy to make. You just use contruction paper to make a Mickey Mouse (black paper with ears, red with chalk buttons, yellow and then white). On the white paper I wrote a Disney activity to do. I'm not the craftiest person, so a lot of them were Disney coloring sheets and word finds that I googled online. We did make Tigger sticks (marshmellows covered in orange icing with black icing stripes-the girls like making them better than eating them). And we had Mickey Mouse pancakes the night before we left (Nick just winged it and they looked really cute). These are all on my facebook page (a smart person would figure out how to put pictures on here, but they are there, so hey).

Counting down was the most fun thing. The two very best were the strips that said "Get a Disney Gift!" For the first gift, I bought them a Birnbaum's Guide to Disney for Kids. It is a shorter version of the adult book, with places to write your favorites rides and what you want to do. They loved this, and it helped them to know what all would await us when we got there.

The second gift was a landyard of pins for trading. If you are at all interested in pin trading, this is the way to do it. (I got this idea from a pin that led me to a blog, but my Disney Pinterest board hasn't been working, so I don't know where.) First, do not buy any starter set of pins from Disney! They are like $30 for 4 pins on a lanyard. Way overpriced. Go to ebay, and they sell lots of 25, 50, 100-whatever you want. I bought 50 pins for $22.50-so each girl got 25 pins. It does not in the least matter what kind of pins end up coming to your door. Disney cast members will trade you good pins for junky ones-trust me. Then Nick found very nice Mickey Mouse lanyards, with a change purse attached, for $7 a piece on Amazon. They were perfect. The girls were excited with this gift, because it was a gift and Mickey and all, but none of us, including me, knew that they would make for one of the best memories of our vacation.

And I'll go into all of that in another blog. This one has gotten a touch out of hand. But I want to say, this vacation was the best vacation I've ever had. Perfect weather, few lines, a nice hotel-we could not have asked for more. My parents have gifted me with so many things in my life. But the best gifts, that I hope they know how grateful I am for, are the gifts that they give me to give my children. And that is exactly how they do it. My parents allow me always to be the one giving, they are content to stand to the side and watch, and that makes them extraordinary. This gift, of watching my kids and my husband experience such a magical trip, was one I will treasure for all of my life.