2014 - The Year in Review

2014 was another whirlwind year for our family with much excitement and many blessings!  As we say goodbye to the past year, here are some of our highlights:

  • Started blogging and (somewhat) successfully maintained it - minus the summer hiatus.
  • Got back into running "for the first time in forever."
    What better than #runDisney to motivate me back into running for the first time in 8 years??
  • Celebrated Brody's 2nd Birthday.
  • I turned 30 and was lucky enough to celebrate on a Disney Cruise with Dan for a little "mommy / daddy time" at sea.
    With Captain Mickey on the Disney Dream!
  • Dan got a new job doing what he loves and does best.
  • We found out that we were expecting baby #2 - another boy. . .due to arrive February 2015!
    Waiting on Baby Caleb!
  • I got promoted to an Assistant Principal position in July.
  • The Orioles won the AL East for the first time since 1997 :)
    Enjoying a day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards!
  • I made it R2 of the Disney Parks Moms Panel application process, but alas, no R3 this year.
    Such a magical email to receive!  Hoping for more #DisneyMP fun next year :)
  • We put a contract on a new house and are planning to move in January.
  • Brody got to go on his 2nd vacation to Disney World - this time a 5 day trip in November.
    Brody was so excited to meet all of his favorites - and a perfect gentleman!

Disney Touches for the Holidays

Even though we are spending Christmas hundreds of miles away from Disney World, the influence of everyone's favorite mouse can still be felt as we celebrate.  Below are just a few pictures from our holiday!  Hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful time with family and friends this season!

Our elf, Tinsel, had fun playing in Brody's Disney toys in the days leading up to Christmas.

I love wrapping gifts in Disney paper.  Found this at Hallmark this year!
I must have been a very good girl!  Love me some Disney Dooney and Bourke!
All Brody asked for from Santa was Cars stuff - and Santa delivered big time!
My mom got me my first Disney Pandora charm to add to my Pandora bracelet.
Even Baby Caleb received Disney themed gifts from Santa this year while we wait for him to make his appearance!

WDW Magic @ the Holidays

As the countdown to Christmas draws ever closer to the big day, let's take a few minutes to look at some of the special Christmas events Walt Disney World has to offer that Dan, Brody, and I took advantage of on this trip.

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights - This holiday attraction is included with your admission to Hollywood Studios.  Each evening, the Streets of America come alive with beautiful lights and music.  This is truly a beautiful and overwhelming experience.  We spent nearly an hour strolling up and down the small stretch of Hollywood Studios.  There are food and souvenir carts that line the streets if you are looking to purchase something and you can also find several PhotoPass photographers to capture that perfect pose.  This is definitely a sight to see and since it's included with your theme park admission, why pass it up?

A picture of the beautiful lights

But first, let me take a selfie :)

Family shot in front of the big tree!
Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party - This party takes place several evenings each week at Magic Kingdom Park.  Long story short, the park closes down for the evening at 7PM and only remains open for party guests.  This is a hard ticketed event, meaning you have to pay extra to attend.  If you have a ticket to the party, you can enter Magic Kingdom at 4PM.  No FP+ are available from 7PM on as park attendance is limited and there really isn't a great need.  The party includes free cookies and hot chocolate, 2 parade times, and a Holiday Wishes fireworks show.  Also included are character meet and greets throughout the park and some dance parties.  I have mixed reviews to share with my experience at MVMCP.  What I liked:  smaller crowds (although the early parade time was packed on Main Street USA), cookies and hot chocolate, seeing snow on Main Street.  My problem was one that I should have seen coming.  With a 2YO, who normally goes to bed at 8, the party was way too much too late.  Despite taking a nice nap in the afternoon and allowing for plenty of rest at the resort, by 8:45 we were in total meltdown mode.  We saw the early parade, but had to leave the park before Wishes or really taking advantage of much of anything at the party.  When you consider the extra money that we paid for tickets, I don't feel like it was worth it for us.  So, my recommendation is that it looks like a blast for elementary aged children and up.  If you're traveling with little ones - think about their limits and respect them when making a decision.  I know (and am jealous) of friends who have kids that can adjust their schedules on the fly and when they are tired will just fall asleep in the stroller.  Not my kid.  If you're preschooler or toddler is routine driven with an early bedtime each night, it might be best to save this until your next trip.

Frozen was EVERYWHERE this Christmas in Disney!  One of many Frozen floats featuring Olaf

The parade ended with an appearance by the man himself - Santa!

Posing for a picture in front of the Frozen castle

Christmas in Disney is full of beautiful sights!  Beyond the parks, be sure to check out the lobbies of the various hotels.  We were just slightly ahead of most of the hotel decorations, but the pictures on Twitter look amazing and I can only imagine how wonderful those lobbies look in person!

Be Our Guest Restaurant

Ever since I heard that Disney was opening Be Our Guest Restaurant, I have been waiting to go and check it out.  I loved Beauty and Beast as a kid and the idea of dining in the Beast's Castle was too much to pass up.  Unfortunately, scoring an ADR for dinner here is ridiculously hard and even at 180 days out, I can never seem to get one.  This trip though, I was able to grab a FP+ for lunch.  We had a FP+ return time between 1:05 and 1:35.

A beautiful stained glass window with Beauty and the Beast
We arrived at the restaurant around 1:00 and were welcomed across the bridge into the castle.  BOG is a quick service meal for lunch.  However, with the unique FP+ offered at this dining location you don't have your typical "counter service" experience.  When you book your FP+ (or any time thereafter), you can pre-order your meal.  If you take advantage of this, you can enter the restaurant right away without having to wait to order.  This is a great option as long as you don't have any food allergies.  The current ordering system online does not allow for you to make dietary requests like no cheese or hold the pickles.  Since Dan has some specific diet requests, we could not order online.  When we crossed the bridge, we were directed down a hallway of the castle lined with suits of armor and then entered the Beast's study where a server will direct you to a computer screen to order.  You can use the computer to choose your food, make specific requests, and pay.  When finished, you receive a magic rose that you can take to any table in the restaurant.  Magically, your food will find you!

We chose to eat in the largest dining room, the Ballroom.  Brody enjoyed the ambiance and the "snow" that was falling out of the large window in the back of the room.  The entire restaurant was beautiful and really made you feel like you were in the castle of Beauty and the Beast!  The dining experience was an enhanced by actually serving food on real plates with real silverware - something you don't see at other quick service restaurants.  As far as food goes, the lunch menu was mostly soups and sandwiches.  I found the Croque Monsieur to be delicious.  Brody and I also split a Triple Chocolate Cupcake.  By split, I mean that he MAY have let me have one bite! 

View of the Ballroom from our table
Overall, we really enjoyed the dining experience.  Brody had a small meltdown while we were waiting to order as there was a line, it was nap time, and we had a few glitches since we were trying to pay with a gift card instead of on our MagicBands or using the Dining Plan.  Despite the rocky start, I would definitely come back.  I'm still hoping to one day score the elusive ADR for a dinner reservation so I can try the table service menu and experience!

Disney and Pregnant!

When we booked our trip in May, we didn't know that a 4th member of our family would be making the trip with us - even if he wasn't born yet.  When we found out about our future Disney fanatic in the making, I immediately began worrying about traveling to WDW at 7 months pregnant.  Below are some tips and tricks I'd like to share if you happen to be traveling to the "House of Mouse" while expecting.

Chilling with Pluto on Main Street USA!

Remember to Rest - It's easy in Disney to get swept up in the excitement and want to do everything possible during your visit.  However, rest for you and your baby are important to keep up your endurance for the length of your trip.  We were lucky to be traveling to Disney with our two year old that required daily nap time and early nights back to the hotel.  When planning our days and dining reservations, I always remembered to plan for mid-day rest at the hotel.  While I didn't always nap alongside of Brody, I did take advantage of the few hours of quiet respite on our balcony at Animal Kingdom Lodge and putting my feet up.

Be Proud to Be Pregnant - Show off your bump in Disney and take lots of pictures!  One thing that shocked me was that Disney Store doesn't carry maternity shirts (P.S. Disney - You're missing out on a racket there. . .).  I found 2 cute shirts on Etsy that I wore during the trip.  Each of these shirts garnered lots of compliments from other park guests and cast members alike.  They also were perfect in pictures so that Baby Caleb can see his first trip to Disney!

Adorable shirts from Etsy seller Baby Talk Designs

Don't Forget to Drink Water. . .And Find the Bathrooms (All of them!!) - Dan joked that I hit every bathroom in Disney during our 5 days in the parks.  He's probably right.  Even though we weren't traveling in the oppressive Florida summer, staying hydrated is of upmost importance to pregnant ladies.  At the point in my pregnancy that I was and the position of the baby, I didn't have much of a lull between bathroom breaks.  Grab a park map - even if you're a Disney expert - so you can find the closest bathrooms when needed.

Accept Limits - You can Google a list of rides that are not recommended for pregnant women.  Many of them are what you would expect - sorry, no Tower of Terror.  However, be sure to check restrictions out either before or during your trip because some may surprise you.  I didn't think about Kilamanjaro Sarfaris as being a risky ride during pregnancy until I saw the restriction and then thought about all the bumps along the way.  Even rides that you are OK to ride may not be super comfortable.  Climbing in and out of the Jungle Cruise boat, for example, may be no big deal normally, but becomes quite a chore (and somewhat funny for others I'm sure) when you're center of gravity is all off kilter. 

Our Christmas cards that showed off my proud baby bump!

You can have a wonderful time in Disney pregnant.  Take this trip to enjoy some of the slower paced activities and soak in your surroundings.  Remember that it may not be the action packed trip that you're used to, but hey, there's always next year for that, right?

Renting DVC Points

Ever since I heard of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC), I've patiently dropped hints to my husband at how fabulous this sounds.  Unfortunately, as a young couple having kids, daycare bills, and purchasing a house, putting out the upfront cost to join DVC has not been in the cards.  I had previously read about renting DVC points, but had never taken the plunge before this year.  Dan and I enjoy staying at the Deluxe resorts but don't like paying the Deluxe price tag.  So, we decided back in May to try out David's DVC Request website.  Everything I read about them was positive and we were very pleased with our experience.

How it Works - DVC members who have points that they can't use or don't want to use connect with David's.  Guests who want to stay at DVC properties fill out a simple questionnaire with information about your family, requested dates, and requested resorts.  David's then goes to work seeing if they can match up your request to points that are available to them.  We were originally trying to book during October which happens to be Food and Wine Festival.  We were unable to find the original reservation we wanted 5 months out, but were able to find a vacation option that would work by tinkering with our dates just a little.  The whole booking process was completed in less than 48 hours from my initial inquiry with the team being extremely responsive and helpful.  Once booked, you receive your confirmation number which you can plug into your My Disney Experience account to begin planning your vacation!  You pay David's a significantly discounted price over what Disney rack rates are for the villa properties.  They in turn pay the original owner and keep some for themselves.  You can easily price out your trip with their price calculator.  Remember that David's availability depends on the points that they have.  If you're looking for a popular week, season, or resort, try to get your reservation in close to 11 months out when DVC rentals open up.

Tickets, Dining, and Magical Express - You have to purchase your tickets separately.  I would recommend either going directly through Disney (don't forget your Disney Gift Cards from Target to save 5% with your Red Card) or Undercover Tourist.  Don't worry - you can still link the tickets to your Magic Bands on the My Disney Experience site.  You can also take advantage of Disney Dining Plan and Magical Express through David's.  They request that you get them these details at least 30 days in advance of your trip.

We loved our experience with David's and can't wait to go back to another DVC property in the future!

Dinner at Sanaa

While staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge (AKL), we ate at 2 of the 4 restaurants available at the resort.  Today I'm going to share with you our preference of the 2 that we visited - Sanaa.  Sometimes getting to restaurants at resorts is not an easy task on your Disney vacation.  Sanaa is one that is worth the trip in my opinion.

Location - Sanaa is located in the Kidani Village section of AKL and is the only restaurant in that part of the resort.  As this is where are room was located, this made Sanaa very convenient for us.  It's on the first floor and does feature some Safari viewing if you're lucky enough to score a table next to the window.  If you're coming from a park to have a meal here, you need to take the bus to AKL and then exit at the first bus stop which will be Kidani Village.  If you are coming from another resort, you'll need to go to a park to catch a bus to AKL.

Atmosphere - Sanaa is a perfect, family friendly table service meal without being too fancy.  I feel like some of the table service restaurants in Disney are so nice I'm afraid to take a toddler.  Here it was no problem.  I also have decided on this trip that if I'm going to pay for a table service meal or use table service credits from my dining plan, I'd prefer it to be actual table service and not a buffet.  The service was great and I much prefer being waited on during dinner than standing in a long line waiting for my food at a buffet.  The interior of the restaurant had many African touches that made the room inviting and comfortable.

Food - Delicious!  A nice change of pace from your usual park food.  I had the Tandori Chicken and it was wonderful.  The food is a nice mix of African and Indian flair and was prepared perfectly.  These flavors are a bit outside of our comfort zone, but Sanaa left us wanting more.  Our server was also great with Brody. We shared early on that he was a picky eater so probably wouldn't be interested in much of anything on the menu.  He brought Brody fruit to go with the yogurt we had packed and also brought out juice in a cool Toy Story cup that Brody loved!

Overall, Sanaa was a great choice on our vacation.  We would definitely recommend it to others and would eat there again on future visits!

Breakfast at Tusker House

On our most recent trip to Disney, we experienced yet another character breakfast.  When in Rome, right?  Brody has always loved meeting characters and character meals have become essential on any Disney trip we take.  While Dan and I have been to Tusker House for dinner previously, this was our first visit to the breakfast.

Location -  Tusker House is located inside Animal Kingdom - tucked away in the African village of Harambe.  Once again, we opted to schedule a breakfast before park opening.  This gave us a chance to enter Animal Kingdom before the rush of people and grab some great pictures without braving the crowds.

Food - This is typically where I say that all the food on the character breakfast buffets is the same, but options at Tusker House may pleasantly surprise some.  While you will find your typical Mickey waffles and scrambled eggs, you will also find some dishes with an African flair.  The flavors were delicious and definitely not your run of the mill breakfast buffet.

Character Interaction - The characters at this breakfast included Donald, Daisy, Goofy, and Mickey.  There was music and dancing too!  On this particular day, the characters were bunched together which was not ideal, but doable.  We had been in the restaurant about 45 minutes and completely finished our breakfast before we saw our first character and then we saw all 4 characters in 15 minutes.  All of the characters were playful and great with Brody.  We enjoyed autographs and fun pictures with each and then left to have a great rest of the day at Animal Kingdom.

I feel like a twin with Donald in this picture!

Unlike some of the other parks, Animal Kingdom is light on character dining experiences.  If you have a day planned here and are looking for a character breakfast or lunch, I don't think you'll walk away disappointed.


Animal Kingdom Lodge - Kidani Village

We just returned Sunday night from our most recent Disney trip where we enjoyed a wonderful stay in a savannah view room at the Animal Kingdom Lodge-Kidani Village.  AKL is a deluxe resort and DVC property.  We rented a DVC studio using David's Disney Vacation Club Rentals.  I'll review them in a later post, but overall we were very pleased with the resort and our whole experience.

Location - If there is one criticism I read about AKL prior to our trip, this was it.  AKL is made up of Jambo House and Kidani Village.  The lodge is spread out to maximize space along the safari.  Since this resort is located adjacent to Animal Kingdom, it is at the far end of Disney property.  You have to take WDW bus transportation to all theme parks and Downtown Disney.  The bus ride to Magic Kingdom is the farthest at about 20 minutes, plus whatever wait time you have for the bus to get there.  We did find that busses ran pretty regular and we never waited more than 15 minutes for a bus at a park or the resort.  Busses were very crowded, but a plus side to staying in Kidani was that the busses came to that part of the resort first so we were able to get seats without a problem.  The people at Jambo House were not always so lucky.

Dining - AKL has some nice choices for restaurants.  Again, it's important to note what part of the resort you're staying in when considering dining options.  Boma (buffet), Jiko (signature / fine dining), and Mara (quick service) are all located in Jambo House.  Sanaa (table service) is located at Kidani Village.  We did not eat at Jiko on this trip because of having Brody with us and we also passed on Mara, mainly because it didn't seem to be the bus/shuttle ride over to Jambo house just to have a counter service meal.  We did eat at Boma and Sanaa (both will be reviewed in another post in more detail).  While I think Boma is overpriced, the food was good and a nice mix of Amerian and African flair on the buffet.  Sanaa was wonderful!  I would definitely recommend that to anyone traveling to AKL.

Theming - Bonus points here!  Where else can you see a safari out your window??  This resort is perfect for families with kids (young and old) who will love watching animals and learning about them.  It's also a very quiet and peaceful resort which was perfect for mom to enjoy some quiet balcony time while Brody and Dan napped in the afternoon.  You feel a bit removed from the Disney hustle and bustle here which can be a nice retreat in the middle of the day or at night when you return.  The lobby was a delight to see and the African artwork throughout the resort provided a wonderful touch.

Loved seeing so many giraffes each day!

More animals just passing by our room!

Lobby at Kidani Village

Rooms - We had a studio with a savannah view and loved our room.  We were located near the Rafiki elevators so not too far off the lobby (Room 7730) which was nice because some rooms have a very loooong walk at the end of each day.  The furniture and accents in the room were very well connected to the theme and everything was comfortable.  In the studio room, we had a bed and a pullout sleep sofa.  While the studios can sleep up to 4, we would probably go with a one bedroom villa once our family adds our new addition simply because the extra space with 2 kids would be greatly appreciated.  There are a few different savannah views that your room may end up overlooking.  I would recommend requesting the Sunset Savannah as this has zebras and giraffes as well as some other large animals that will be easily recognizable for any kids that may be traveling with you.

Sleep sofa in our studio.  

Overall Grade - A-

Dan and I both agree that we would stay here again in a heartbeat.  Sure the bus rides were a bit longer and the lack of a quick service restaurant at Kidani is somewhat of a drawback, but neither of these dampened our experience in the least and they were easily overshadowed by the relaxing views of the safari and watching Brody's face light up when he saw the animals from our balcony.  I think Disney travelers of every age will find something to love about AKL!

'Twas the Night Before Disney. . .

Tomorrow we leave for Disney AND I find out whether I made R3 for the Disney Parks Moms Panel!  It's a day of Disney excitement ahead and I had my creative energy flowing tonight with thoughts of Mickey and Minnie.  Below is an abbreviated adaptation of Samuel Clements Moore's classic poem that I wrote for the occasion.

'Twas the night before Disney
When all through the house
Everyone was stirring
Excited about a mouse

In the months leading up
There was so much to do
Fastpasses, Magic Bands,
and ADRs too!

A big moon in the sky
But what could that be?
Is that a hidden Mickey
Or are my eyes deceiving me?

The stresses of school and work
All melted away
"Hakuna Matata"
As Simba would say

The children were nestled
All snug in their beds
While Dole Whips and Mickey Bars
Danced in their heads

Mom and Dad had a hard time
Falling asleep
As thoughts of a fun trip
Made our hearts skip a beat

The suitcases were packed
By the door with great care
A short 2-hour flight
And soon we'll be there!

Nassau Port Adventure Review

When we visited Nassau on our 4-Night Bahamian cruise this past April, a beach day was not our original first choice.  However, when we found out that a lot of the food at the Graycliff Wine Luncheon was cheese and dairy based (not friendly to my husband and his food aversions), we decided to take it easy instead for the day and find a beach to chill on.  We ended up booking the Blue Lagoon Beach Day through Disney's Port Adventures page in the weeks leading up to our cruise. I was expecting Blue Lagoon to be "just another day at the beach," but Dan and I found ourselves having what can only be described as a fantastic experience that day.

We ended up leaving Nassau by boat to head to Blue Lagoon Island.  As you might expect from the title, Blue Lagoon Island is a private island that can only be accessed by about a 25 minute boat ride.  The boat ride was enjoyable and we even got to catch a glimpse of Atlantis as we zipped by on our catamaran.  When we arrived at the dock at Blue Lagoon Island, there were two options of where to go.  Some guests booked Dolphin, Sea Lion, etc. excursions and were directed to head to the aquarium side of the island to begin those activities.  We went to the beach area where there was ample seating spread out along the waterfront.  For an extra cost, you could purchase time in an inflatable water play area.  They also offered bars and stores to purchase drinks and goodies while at the beach.  Dan and I headed to the last beach chairs we could find at the end of the lagoon and enjoyed some peace and quiet away from all the hustle and bustle.

Lunch was included in the price of the excursion and the food was VERY good.  They had the typical burger / hot dog and fries as an option but also included a yummy teriyaki chicken with rice that I found wonderful.  While we were eating in the lunch pavilion, Dan noticed a trail on the other side that we decided to go explore after we were done.  When we followed the trail over the sand dune, we were treated to a fabulous surprise - a little private beach with absolutely NO PEOPLE!  This is like a hidden gem on the backside of the island.  We spent the next 4 hours on this beach and in that time only about 5 other people ever ventured over here and most of them quickly left.  For a couple looking to enjoy some private adult time - this was our own version of Heaven on Earth.

The view from our "private" beach.  Doesn't it look like a screensaver??

Overall Grade - A+:  We stayed in our own island oasis until the last boat back to Nassau.  This was an awesome day and far exceeded all of our expectations.  I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking to enjoy a day at the beach on your next Bahamian cruise with Disney.  

What to Consider When Staying Off Property

Let's face it - Disney is an expensive trip for a family.  And staying on property can make the trip even more expensive then taking advantage of some of the cheaper hotels that are in Orlando.  But, is staying off property the right choice for you and your family?  Here are some things to consider before making that decision.

Transportation - When you stay on property, Disney provides free Magical Express transportation to and from the airport as well as free transportation to and from your resort to the parks and Downtown Disney.  If you stay off property, you'll have to think about how you will get to and from the airport and to the parks.  One of the options would be renting a car.  Car rental prices in Florida are among the most expensive in the nation and you'll also have to pay for parking at the parks and maybe at your resort.  A second option that may work for you if your hotel provides free transportation to the parks via their own shuttles, is to simply arrange for transportation through Mears or another private company to get to and from the airport.  There is a range of options that private companies provide from a communal van / bus (cheapest) to private cars / limos.  A word of caution about free transportation from your hotel to the parks though - most will likely take you to the Ticketing and Transportation Center, not directly to the parks.  From the TTC, you'll have to catch another bus to the park of your choosing.  This can make for long travel times so keep this in mind if you have small kids.  We stayed off property in 2011 with some friends at the Hilton on I-Drive and as a group of four adults it wasn't that bad to manage.  However, I don't know that I would feel the same way toting small children, strollers, and diaper bags through multiple transportation changes.

Extra Magic Hours / Disney Dining Plan - This perk is extended to guests staying on Disney property and to a few off-site hotels.  If you're a Disney novice and not familiar with it, on select days some parks will open an hour early and stay open later for guests.  It's worth checking into if you enjoy the EMH benefit.  For me, EMH are nice but would not be a deal breaker if I could save several hundred dollars staying off property.  The Disney Dining Plan is only offered to guests staying on property.  If this is something that is important to you, you won't be able to take advantage of it while off property.

FastPass+ - This is probably one of the biggest considerations right now if you are looking to score hard to get FastPass+ times.  Resort guests have the ability to begin booking 60 days in advance of their reservation while guests staying off-property can only start booking 30 days in advance.  For my upcoming trip, I began booking FP+ times at the 60 day mark and their were some I couldn't get.  I would imagine times and attractions may be limited for guests staying off property who are at a disadvantage.

The Disney Experience - This is a biggie for me.  I loved our Hilton hotel when we were there.  The pool was beautiful, food was great, room was wonderful and had a great view of Epcot.  On top of all of that, it was free with Hilton points we accumulated and we were upgraded to a suite since Dan travels so much for work and has Diamond status at Hilton properties.  However, I missed Mickey.  Again, I haven't stayed off property much so maybe other hotels have more Mickey touches then the Hilton, but it didn't "feel" like Disney.  Especially now that I'm traveling with a little mouseketeer in tow, I enjoy being immersed in pixie dust and it's not the same staying off site.

The pool at the Walt Disney World Hilton on I-Drive

So, is staying off site the right choice for you and your family?  It depends.  There are certainly plenty of options that are cheaper then staying on property if that is your number one concern.  Don't forget to calculate any extra transportation costs that you may incur though.  I'm sure we'll stay off property again in the future, but my preference is to be on property whenever possible.

A Very Disney Halloween!

I've always enjoyed Halloween.  The mix of pumpkins, apples, corn mazes, hayrides, leaves changing, and cooler weather is simply wonderful!  Halloween also means that we get a chance to celebrate the spooky while becoming our favorite characters.  I've fallen even more in love with fall this year.  This is the first Halloween that Brody has really caught the spirit and it's been fun to experience with him!  Of course, Disney is at the center of this celebration for our family too!!

Brody and Dan visited a pumpkin patch and picked out several to bring home.  Since Brody is too little to help carve a pumpkin yet, I bought him a Mickey pumpkin decorating kit with paint and foam pieces that he could put together.  He had such a great time designing his Mickey pumpkin!

And when it came to picking a Halloween costume, Brody had his choice for the first time.  I showed him pictures of lots choices and he picked to be Lightning McQueen's driver.  Brody loves all things cars - the faster the better - and was so excited to see his costume arrive.  We trick-or-treated at Codorus State Park during their Halloween in the Park event this weekend before the big night this coming week.  I think he made a great race car driver!

Seeing Brody's excitement about Halloween has me really looking forward to next year too.  We are planning a trip next Fall to WDW with my parents and should be there for Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.  I've never been before but have a wonderful feeling that our family is going to love it!

I heart exciting Mickey mail!

Today I had two pieces of exciting Mickey mail waiting for me!  The first I knew was on the way, but the second came as a complete surprise to me :)

As you know, our trip in November is the first one I'll be taking with FP+ and MagicBands.  Today in the mail, our MagicBands arrived!!  These are so fun.  You get to customize your band online before your trip by picking the color and name associated with it.  Then they arrive by mail a few weeks before your trip.  I love that Disney even lets little ones who don't really need them to have one so they aren't left out of the fun.  I've started wearing mine around the house. . .further adding to Dan's concerns about my Disney sanity.

The second piece of exciting mail was actually an e-mail from the Disney Parks Mom Panel.  I had applied back in the beginning of September for a coveted spot on this elite panel of Disney enthusiasts who answer questions online to help people planning their trips.  Each year they receive thousands of applicants.  Last year, I didn't make it to Round 2 but this year I did!  I was so excited to find out that I made the next cut along the way.  For Round 2, applicants have to answer 8 questions and then film a 71 second video.  I applied for the Disney Cruise Line part of the panel so all of my questions relate to DCL.  Wish me luck!

Eastern Caribbean Port Adventure Reviews

Our first DCL vacation was a 7 day Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Disney Fantasy in June / July 2013.  Choosing Port Adventures was an exciting and semi-stressful time for me.  I had never cruised before so was new to who world of shore excursions and we were also traveling with a 17 month old. Trying to find Port Adventures that would entertain Dan, Brody, and me equally was going to be a challenge.  We ended up booking a shore excursion on each of our ports of call (except Castaway Cay).  Here is what we did and our grade for the experience.

St. Maarten - French Riviera Beach Rendezvous
We decided to spend our time in St. Maarten playing on the beach at Orient Bay.  This was roughly a 30 minute ride from the port to the beach.  The beach was crowded with tour groups and chairs as well as pushy locals selling handmade items.  The beach itself was clean and the water featured big waves that are perfect for older children and adults.  Included in the package was lunch.  Lunch was actually better than I expected with several different choices.  Overall, I would give this excursion a B.  There was nothing to complain about or wrong with the excursion, just nothing exciting either.

St. Thomas / St. John - Coral World and Butterfly Garden
Since we planned a beach day in St. Maarten and on Castaway Cay, we wanted to do something a little different in the USVI.  There weren't many excursions to choose from that we thought would please a 17 month old, but an aquarium and butterfly garden seemed like good choices to us.  The trip to Coral World was first.  If you've ever been to a high quality aquarium (like we are fortunate to have in the National Aquarium in Baltimore), you will be sorely disappointed here.  Coral World was small, didn't feature the array of marine life we were used to, and not very interactive.  We had about 2 hours to explore there and wish we could have left after about 30 minutes.  After we finished at Coral World, a bus took us back to the port where the Butterfly Garden is located.  This was better than Coral World in my opinion, but still not great.  Brody fell asleep on the bus ride back to port so we didn't get to see his reaction.  This is really just a big enclosed garden with butterflies flying all around.  They were beautiful and we got some really great pictures, but it was another excursion that we were done exploring in less than 30 minutes.  Overall, I would give this excision a C-.  There are some positive reviews I've read out there about these, but I just didn't see anything special or worth the money in this excursion.

California Grill

Tonight I'm going to tell you about one of my favorite dinners of all time - on or off Disney property. I'll start by saying that this review is from our trip in April 2011 so it is several years old at this point. Since we visited in 2011, California Grill has also gone through a refurbishment.  As you will quickly see in my review, I loved every minute of our night there and feel confident that you would have just as great of an experience today.

Location - California Grill is located on the 15th floor of the Contemporary Resort.  The Contemporary is located on the monorail just outside of Magic Kingdom.  One of the biggest perks of this location is the viewing of the Magic Kingdom fireworks.  Each night as Wishes begins, the lights are dimmed, music is piped in to match the show as it would be seen in the park, and the magic begins.  There are windows all around the restaurant providing a spectacular view of the fireworks.

The view of Cinderella's Castle from our table.

Food - This is top-notch, gourmet dining at it's best in Disney World.  We happened to be traveling to Disney with our good friends Craig and Ali who we have shared many delicious meals with over the years.  The four of us went into the evening knowing that we wanted to experience everything the chef had to offer at California Grill.  For this reason, we enjoyed several rounds of cocktails, an appetizer course, a sushi course, a soup and salad course, an entree course, and a dessert - yeah, you're right for thinking it. . .it's A LOT of food.  Everything was wonderfully amazing and we felt like we should be rolled out of the restaurant.  Two of my favorites from the night were the goat cheese ravioli and the California Roll (the first time I ever tried sushi!).  I was excited to see both of these are still on the menu years later.

Overall Experience - A+++
This was the best dinner I ever had at WDW.  We spent over 4 hours in the restaurant and over $500 between the 4 of us - certainly not fast or cheap.  I'm someone who is willing to pay for great food and a great experience and you'll find both here at California Grill.  While kids are welcome in the restaurant, I wouldn't see myself taking little ones until they were about 10 or so and could easily sit through the meal and enjoy the experience too.  If you haven't yet checked out California Grill, make sure to visit on your next trip to Disney!

Senses Spa on DCL

During our most recent cruise on the Disney Dream, Dan and I took the time (and the money!) to pamper ourselves with a visit to Senses Spa.  My mom purchased a massage as my 30th birthday present and we decided to upgrade it to a couples massage for Dan and I to enjoy together.  We booked the massage for 4PM on the embarkation day.  Like other activities and experiences, these can be booked in advance of your cruise or you can take your chances to see what is available once you get on board.  In our minds, this was going to be the perfect way to start a dream vacation.

The spa is beautiful and well-maintained.  When we entered, we were checked in and escorted back to the locker rooms.  Once we were changed into our spa robes, we waited in a comfy room with water and were given a clipboard to fill out medical information that would be relevant for a massage therapist to know.  Our massage began right on time with two great therapists.

The hour was wonderfully relaxing!  We happened to be in the massage rooms as we sailed away from Florida so the view at first was just of the port but opened up to the waterways as we moved away from the coast.  This is hard to enjoy though honestly because your head is usually down and / or eyes closed throughout the massage.  The best part of the massage came at the end when they offered us a deal to come back for another massage.  They reduced the normal rate to $99 per person to return over our 4 days on the ship.  We took advantage of this offer and booked a Cabana Massage on Castaway Cay.  That was an even more amazing experience.  The cabanas are located on the adult-only part of Castaway Cay known as Serenity Bay.  This is a very quiet and serene part of the island.  Once you are situated on the table, they open up the large windows and you can hear all the wonderful sounds of island life surrounding you and feel the gentle, warm breeze.

In addition, we were also celebrating Dan's birthday while on the cruise so I bought him a men's shave package in the spa.  He enjoyed the experience and the price didn't seem as outrageous as some of the other spa services.  The one thing to be warned about with any spa service is that they will try to sell you very expensive spa products at the end of your appointment.  Each of our therapists though were very gracious and offered no pressure when we refused early on and made it clear we didn't want to hear anymore.

Overall, the spa experience on a Disney Cruise is worth it if you have the money to spare.  It's much more expensive then back on dry land, but is a fun way to indulge in relaxation while on vacation.  The spa also offers a Rainforest Room Pass which is a cheap way to check out the spa if you're just curious to see what the experience is like.  For more information on any of the spa services available, check out the Disney Cruise Line website and you can get prices and services offered on each ship.

What I'm learning about FastPass+

As you know, I've been busy planning our upcoming family trip to WDW in November.  This will be a trip of many "firsts" for me - renting DVC points, staying at AKL Villas, MagicBands, and FastPass+ system.  I have read a lot online to help me plan for my FP+ experience and have discovered that there seems to be a love / hate relationship with the new system.

Let's start with a little background on the FP+ system.  FP+ has replaced the old FASTPASS system that had been in Disney for many years prior.  The old system had guests rushing to pull a FASTPASS from kiosks located outside of ride entrances.  You could only pull one FASTPASS at a time and would be eligible to draw another when the previous one expired.  There was criticism around the old system as popular rides (such as Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios) would have you rushing as soon as you got into the park to grab a FASTPASS that may not be good until 5PM or 6PM at night.  

Disney tried to improve their FASTPASS system with FP+.  Now guests staying on Disney property will have the chance to book their FP+ times and rides 60 days prior to their arrival.  You choose one park per day (even if you have park hopper tickets) and up to three rides in that park.  The computer will give you several options for times that you can choose from and then you save your choices.  If you are lucky enough to score FP+ times early in the morning, you can add additional FP+ selections from kiosks inside the park once you have used your first three.  For this reason, early times fly off the shelf fast as well as FP+ for popular times and attractions, such as the meet and greet with Anna and Elsa right now.  Hollywood Studios and EPCOT also employ a tiering system.  You can choose one tier one attraction (think Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, Toy Story Mania) followed by two tier two attractions (think Disney Jr. Live on Stage, etc.).  You can go in and edit / modify your FP+ choices as often as you would like which means you can keep your eyes open for an elusive time or experience if you weren't able to score that hard to grab FP+ early.

So, my take on FP+?  The jury is out until I experience it in November.  I like it in theory, but I'm a planner.  I can see where some people will be irked by having to not only plan ADRs for a Disney trip, but now what times they want to go on certain rides up to two months before the trip.  I wasn't able to get all the FP+ I was hoping for even though I logged in on day one I was eligible, but I'm not losing hope as I look just about every day to modify if something opens up.  More to come on this topic in the future!       

Broadway in the Caribbean

One of the highlights of our past two Disney cruises has been the high quality entertainment we had the chance to experience.  Like other cruise ships, Disney offers a nightly show in the theatre.  Unlike other cruise ships - it's DISNEY!  When you think of Disney entertainment, many of you will probably think of the high quality first and foremost.  A Disney Cruise vacation will not disappoint.  Below you will find just a quick summary of some of our favorites from the Disney Fantasy (2013) and Disney Dream (2014).

Believe (Fantasy and Dream) - Let's start with my absolute favorite!  I was so excited to see this show a second time when we sailed on the Dream after falling in love with the story on the Fantasy.  This is an original production that includes songs from some of the best Disney musicals of all time while telling a heartwarming story of the love between a father and daughter.  I found myself crying during parts of this touching performance - perfect for the whole family!

Aladdin (Fantasy) - A condensed version of the Disney classic.  It includes all of your favorite songs and the Genie cannot be beat.  Unfortunately, I had to leave this show early with a fussy baby but my husband has nothing but high praises to sing for this performance.  

Wishes (Fantasy) - This was another cute original Disney performance.  The story follows siblings as they get ready to graduate high school, but learn what it still means to be a kid.  There's a lot of great Disney music throughout the show that will keep your toes tapping along the way!

Villains Tonight (Dream) - I really wanted to love this show.  In fact, when we were leaving for the cruise, this was the show I was most excited to see.  While the show was cute and family friendly, I was disappointed in some of the villains that they chose to highlight.  I felt that a good number of the villains were from more "obscure" Disney movies and I just didn't connect with the characters and the music the way I did in some other shows.  Don't worry about it being scary for young kids - there's lots of humor throughout that keeps the show light.

The Golden Mickeys (Dream) - This production screams classic Disney.  The setting is an awards show where tribute is paid to some of the best of the best in the history of Disney.  Great songs and characters throughout from across the generations will keep everyone in the family entertained.  A really cool feature of this show is that you get to "walk the red carpet" into the theatre with the "paparazzi" taking pictures and maybe even interviewing you.  This is all being shown in the theatre on a live video feed which adds an element of real Hollywood to the evening.

In addition to these, your cruise will have other shows depending on the length that you are on the ship which may include magicians, on board entertainers, and your cruise director sharing highlights at the end of the week.  Shows are nightly in the theatre at 6:15 and 8:30.  On days at sea, they also typically offer a matinee performance at 3:00.  

'Ohana means family. . .

. . .and family means nobody left behind or forgotten.  Apparently it also means "good food" when you're staying in WDW and dine at this restaurant inside the Polynesian resort.

Dan and I dined here in April 2014 after returning from our Disney Cruise.  I wanted a little touch of Disney World magic to end our vacation without paying for a park ticket.  So we decided to visit Downtown Disney and then have dinner at 'Ohana.  It was a first for both of us and we'll definitely be back!

Location - First of all, 'Ohana's location is fabulous.  The Polynesian is a beautiful resort to explore and enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail by the pool.  The restaurant is on the second floor and provides a view of the Wishes fireworks if you time it appropriately (which we did!).  Like California Grill, 'Ohana also dims the lights and plays the music that accompany the firework.  Be warned - this is not an unobstructed view like California Grill though.  There is currently a volcano and trees that block part of the fireworks depending on where you are sitting.  We were lucky to have a table right next to the window without any obstructions, but not all customers will be so lucky.

Overall Experience - The experience in 'Ohana is one that you are not likely to forget anytime soon.  It's a very laid back, family friendly atmosphere.  The food is served family style and our waiter enhanced that experience with his energy and enthusiasm.  There was also a singer performing on a ukulele that traveled from table to table singing.  I especially enjoyed when they asked people celebrating a birthday or anniversary to come up for a special song - since we were celebrating my 30th!  One of the downfalls I had read about 'Ohana are long wait times even when you have an ADR.  We had a reservation and ended up waiting about 35 minutes for our table - not great, but not terrible either.  With the family style serving, it seems that moving people along can be challenging.

A little dark - but that's me getting my birthday lei!

Food - I have to admit that I was a little nervous about the food.  Your choices are limited here, but the food is delicious.  The main courses of shrimp, pork, and steak skewers accompanied by noodles and stir fry vegetables have all the "tanginess" of the Hawaiian Islands that you would expect to find.  And I think Dan speaks for most men in America when he says, "How can you beat meat on stick??" Don't forget to save room for dessert too as the bread pudding with the banana caramel sauce is unbelievable!

Overall Grade - A-
The only thing lacking in 'Ohana was the fact that we experienced what many others had complained about, a bit of a wait for our ADR.  Fortunately, we were traveling alone on this trip because I don't know how we would have entertained our 26 month old during the wait time.  We loved the food and the atmosphere though and definitely plan on returning soon!

Why DCL is a great adult vacation

"One of these things is not like the other. . ."

That's how Dan and I felt on our Disney cruise in April.  When you find yourself surrounded by families in a cruise terminal, you really do start to question if making a cruise reservation for a 4-night date weekend over Easter break was the right decision.  But I'm here to share with you that Disney cruises are not just for kids and families like one might think!  Below are some of our favorite memories from the trip that we got to enjoy as part of the adult only services and activities.

While we enjoyed a few dinners in the main dining rotations (especially at Animator's Palate), we opted for several special dining experiences.  We loved Palo when we cruised on the Fantasy in June 2013 so we decided to do it on the Dream as well this time around. Palo did not disappoint once again!  In fact, we loved it so much on the first night we went back later in the cruise for another dinner.  This time we also tried the champagne brunch at Remy , the othe adult only restaurant.  (Look for a future Remy review post.) It was fabulous!  The brunch is only offered on "at sea" days so we only got to do this once.  I'm already looking forward to our next cruise though to do it again.  Both of these do have an additional fee.

Quiet Cove Pool
The main pools on the Disney cruise ships are packed with families and kids ALL THE TIME.  It was great to retreat to the adult only pool area.  Here you'll find a nice sized pool, a swim up pool bar, two hot tubs, and a large amount of cushioned comfy seating.  When we weren't eating or in port, this is where you would find us!  Disclaimer on this area - you will SEE kids in this area from time to time passing through.  Since the Deck 11 forward staterooms and elevators are right by this, families will walk through to get to the main pool.  The idea that you're on a Disney ship and could never "see" a kid is a fallacy - but they do a nice job of separating out adult only areas.

Serenity Bay @ Castaway Cay
Castaway Cay has been my favorite port on both of my Disney cruises.  I LOVE this island.  And just like they did on the ship, Disney carved out a piece of paradise here just for adults.  This side of the island is practically deserted!  They have their own bar, lunch area, lagoon, and beach.  It's on the backside of the island so it's a good walk / tram ride away, but well worth it.  They also have spa treatments offered over here which we took part in.  A beautiful view during our couples massage!

View of Serenity Bay during our couples massage.

Rainforest Spa
And speaking of spa treatments, the spa on the cruise ship is fabulous as well.  We did a couples massage on the first day we arrived.  While it was expensive, it was a great way to start vacation.  They then offered us discounts on additional spa services during our trip which is when we booked our couples massage on Castaway Cay.  We decided to indulge since these kinds of "extras" are ones that will most likely be forgone on future kid oriented cruises.

While all of these great adult features of DCL are available whether you sail as a couple or with kids (just as long as you drop them in the kids club first!), don't overlook Disney as a great adult only vacation option when you're looking for first class dining, service, and fun!   

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