Today I received a very exciting package in the mail. . .my new runDisney shoes!  These are a high demand item as they can only be bought at runDisney expos held just a few times a year in either Disney World or Disneyland.  Since I wasn't at a runDisney expo, I found a business that I ordered from who went to the expo for me and then mailed the shoes.  Aren't they super cute?!?!

So why the fancy new runDisney shoes?  Well as some of you may recall from my original blog post on NYE (that never did get moved over here to the new blog), I made a resolution to return to running this year.  I'm planning to run the Castaway Cay 5K while we are on our Disney cruise and hope to join some friends in other local running events.  I would LOVE to make it to Orlando for one of the official runDisney events this year, but doubt that will happen - oh well, there's always next year!  And if anyone (or anything) can motivate me to run, it's definitely Disney.  Just think of me as running on "mouse power."  After all, the only things I need to get me going are "faith, trust, and pixie dust" (and cute shoes. . .and a treadmill. . .)  I'll give updates on my progress and a full review of the Castaway Cay 5K as my training continues!

. . .and what I learned on a DCL vacation with a toddler!

Vacation and toddler are two words that I'm not entirely sure go together.  Or at least I should say that the speed and energy of a "vacation" changes dramatically when a toddler is joining your group.  While my only cruise experience has been with a toddler, I feel like I learned a lot on that trip that would better prepare me in the future and hopefully help others as they plan their trips.

Take Advantage of the Nursery - As you can imagine, Disney does kids clubs in a truly amazing sense.  Brody was only 17 months on our trip so the only kids "club" he could be in by himself was the Nursery.  On the Fantasy, It's a Small World Nursery was for kids from 0-3 years old.  Disney charges $6 per hour and recommends booking your time ahead as space is limited (although we never had a problem taking Brody spur of the moment the two times we needed to).  We used the Nursery 3 hours each of our "at sea" days during Brody's nap time.  They gave him snack, put him in a crib for a nap, and then played with him when he woke up.  This was great for Dan and I so that we could enjoy some of the "adults only" areas on the ship - like the Quiet Cove pool.

Check out the Oceaneer's Club Open House - Even though Brody was too young to be checked into the Oceaneer's Club during the day, he could still attend the daily open house hours with Dan and I.  This was usually in the morning and allowed children to explore the space with their parents.  It's a great chance for the younger toddler crowd to get to try out the "big kid" play areas and also get visits from Mickey and Minnie for play time.  Brody especially enjoyed playing with all the Toy Story figures in Andy's Room.

Pay Attention to Toddler Time Activities - DCL has a special listing of activities that they give to families cruising with toddlers.  These include highlights during the sailing of things like Wake Up with Disney Junior and Jake and the Neverland Pirates as well as toddler playtime in the D Lounge.  We went to several of these activities and enjoyed each.  Most are scheduled in the morning because Disney understands that little ones don't know what a vacation is and continue to get up early.  The songs and character visits were fun and familiar to the kids and the shows were all designed to be interactive.

Nemo's Reef - If you are on a cruise with a toddler, they won't be able to use any of the pools.  Maritime law prohibits kids who aren't potty trained from using a pool on a cruise ship so Disney created a splash and play area with toddlers in mind.  I wish Disney enforced that this was designed for kids 6 and under because there were a lot of upper elementary school aged kids messing around in here and playing kind of rough with the little ones so close by.  The theming is adorable and all of the slides and water features are made to be toddler friendly.

Dinner & Shows - Every kid is different so this last one may not apply to you, but Brody is a toddler who needs his schedule.  Having first seating for dinner was really important to us because his normal bedtime was 7:30.  We had dinner each night at the 5:45 seating and saw the 8:00 show.  There were several nights that Brody couldn't make the show so either Dan or I went back to the room to put him down for the night.  I learned about halfway through the cruise the DCL plays the show on their stateroom TVs at the same time it's being shown in the theatre so if you can't make it down to the show you can still catch it in your room.  We took advantage of this a few times on the cruise which was a nice feature.

Cruising with a toddler can really be a vacation for all involved if you learn some of the ins and outs of navigating the Disney cruise ships!

What I Learned in WDW with a Toddler. . .

One of Brody's favorite things to do is look through our photo book from our Disney trip.  He loves to point out the characters and all of us.  He talks to the characters like they are sitting right next to him as he claps and laughs.

When we had said that we were going to extend our Disney Cruise with 3 days in WDW, we had a lot of nice smiles and sideways looks as if people were telling us "good luck!"  Disney with a toddler does have some challenges, but it can be a rewarding trip if you remember a few tips and tricks along the way.  Here are some things we learned with our 17 month old that may help you if a trip with a little one is in your future!
Brody cruising Main Street USA!

Stay on the Monorail if you can afford it - We were lucky to only be staying for 3 days and in a relatively cheap season at Disney so we could afford the Contemporary this trip.  It was wonderful having the monorail so that you didn't have to break down a stroller for the bus ride and also endure the multiple resort stops on the Disney transportation.  You will have to use the busses for some parks, but with the young crowd you're probably going to spend most of your time in Magic Kingdom.  It also is quick to get back for naps when needed.  We LOVED this and would continue to try and stay at a monorail resort as long as we have kids that are stroller aged.

Take Breaks - Just face it now that you are not going to get to do everything in Disney.  That was a hard reality for me to adjust to, but napping / breaks are crucial for the preschool set.  We went back to the resort for pool time and nap time in the middle of the day which helped a lot.  Also, since we were traveling in July we avoided the parks at the hottest part of the day.

Cooling off in the pool at the Contemporary

Character Meals are Awesome - Little ones love the characters (well, most do. . .some run away screaming!)  Little ones are also not very patient which can make you forget you're in the "happiest place on Earth" as you're standing in long character meet and greet lines.  The Character meals give your kids a chance to meet the characters while taking their breakfast / lunch / dinner break.  I'm personally a fan of the breakfasts.  They are cheaper then the lunches and dinners and I also find the food to be the most toddler friendly for my picky eater.  Great tip. . .schedule your character breakfasts before parks open to the public if dining in a park restaurant.  You get early admission to the parks and some great photo ops at popular spots with no crowds!

How about having breakfast with some friends from the Hundred Acre Wood?

Prepare to wait - No matter when you go to Disney, peak season or off peak season, you will undoubtedly find yourself in lines. . .lots of them.  Think about things that are small and easy to carry in your backpack / diaper bag that will entertain your kids if they get antsy.  Maybe download some of their favorite shows to your smartphone or someone else suggested bringing pipe cleaners that you can bend into lots of different shapes and play with while you wait.  

Take Advantage of the Baby Centers - Even if your little one isn't an "infant" anymore, the infant care centers are a great place to catch a break from the heat and hustle and bustle of the parks.  They have a nursing area if you have a really little one, diaper changing areas, rocking chairs and toys and a TV with some cartoons.  I didn't know these existed because they are so well hidden in the parks.

If traveling with a little on is in your future, best of luck!

Contemporary Review

My first Disney property review that I'm going to write is of my favorite place so far.  Disney's Contemporary Resort has just about everything that guests would look for in a pixie-dusted vacation. Keep reading to check out the pros and cons of my experience in this resort.

Location - You can't beat the location of the Contemporary.  I think that many people who book here do so for that reason.  You can walk to Magic Kingdom (a big plus when the park is emptying after the fireworks), take the monorail to Epcot, and only require busses when traveling to Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom.  Room views vary a great deal.  If you're willing to pay the really big bucks, you can get a room with a view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks!  We had a room on the ground level in the Garden Wing and had a perfect view of the Electric Water Pageant as we were lying in bed.

Dining - Another can't beat in my experience so far.  Contempo Cafe offers Quick Service options while The Wave is a nice, quiet option for a sit down dinner.  Chef Mickey's is an almost must do for anyone with little kids and it's great to have a character breakfast without worrying about the hectic morning travel around Disney properties.  Last, but certainly not least, adults can't miss eating at California Grill.  I'll review this fabulous restaurant in a future entry, but trust me when I tell you that it is not to be missed on a Disney trip.

Theming - This is where Contemporary will probably lose some points in the opinions of various people.  Whereas places like Art of Animation and All Star Movies are over-the-top Disney (almost too much for my taste), and Caribbean Beach and Port Orleans transport you to another time and place, Contemporary is very modern.  Disney touches are subtle in the decor.  I really enjoyed it actually.  I felt like I was in Disney without having 15 different characters watch me while I sleep.  Likewise, the pool area is not very exciting.  Don't get me wrong.  The pool was nice and included a water slide and splash area.  However, I can see where kids would not be impressed with the look and feel of the Contemporary.

Rooms - You are definitely getting a higher quality room for your higher price tag at the Contemporary.  Having stayed at value, moderate, and deluxe resorts, I can honestly tell you that the quality of the bed lines, towels, mattress, etc are all much better at the deluxe resorts.  The Contemporary also boasts some of the largest non-DVC rooms on property.  We had two queen sized beds, a full sized crib (they brought us that rather than a pack n play for Brody), 2 dressers, desk, and a sofa in our "standard" room.  We had so much extra space in the hotel room that we left our very large jogging stroller (BOB Revolution for those of you in the stroller crowd) set up in the room and still had lots of extra space to walk around and lay out suitcases.  I think this was the largest "standard" hotel room I've ever stayed in.

Overall Grade - A

The only thing holding me back from giving this an A+ is the theming.  In my opinion, it's totally worth the extra money to stay up close to the magic when you're traveling with a little one that needs breaks / naps.  I would probably opt to stay on the monorail line in the future with a stroller aged child, but I can also see saving money and getting a little more Disney theming when traveling with a school-aged child.

What's new in 2014?

Some of my friends simply don't understand the love of Disney I have.  "Once you've been there a few times, why go back?"  It's because every time you go to Disney, you experience something new.  Each time that I've visited, it has been a new and exciting visit to the happiest place on earth!  I dedicate this blog post to all the doubters out there wondering why should they go to Disney again.  Here is some of "what's new" in Disney in 2014.

"What time is the 3 o'clock parade?" - In 2014, WDW park visitors will be asking more than just the time of the parade, as the Magic Kingdom parade gets a makeover.  Beginning in the Spring, MK will be unveiling the Festival of Fantasy Parade.  This new parade will be updated to include more modern Disney favorites like Merida from Brave and Rapunzel from Tangled as well as old favorites like Peter Pan and Ariel.

"Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho" - . . .it's off to an new roller coaster we go!  Magic Kingdom will also be home to a new ride, The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.  This ride in New Fantasyland is a family roller coaster and sounds like it will provide riders with not only a thrilling ride experience, but a fun and interactive pre-show too.  What makes this ride unique is that each car is like a cradle, allowing riders to swing back and forth freely throughout the ride!  I can't wait to try this out on our next visit!

"Around the world in 3 hours?!?" - Epcot's World Showcase will feature a new restaurant in Morocco called Spice Road.  Guests should expect to find some beautiful Mediterranean design and tasty dishes as they take in views of World Showcase Lagoon.  If you're like me, the highlight of any trip to Epcot is eating my way "around the world."  A new restaurant sounds like a yummy addition!

Can't wait to visit Epcot again and try the new Morocco Pavilion's Spice Road!

Saving $$$ - Tip #1

Over years of traveling to WDW and after experiencing DCL for the first time last year, I can tell you a lot about restaurants, parks, resorts, etc.  In recent years though, I have also learned a lot about stretching those Disney dollars.  Of course you can almost always catch some special from Disney - whether it's free dining, 30% off rooms, etc. - but what about on top of that?  One of the newest secrets I've learned is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

The only requirement to access this deal is to have a Target Red Card.  As most of you probably know, Target offers 5% off all purchases in their stores when customers use their Target Red Card.  What you may not know (and it was news to me when I learned it in November) is that this includes most gift cards too - especially those Disney ones!

Disney Gift Cards can be used to pay for your room reservation, cruise reservations, restaurants in the parks, onboard accounts on the cruise ships, gift shops,, etc.  So let's say that you have a reservation booked and the vacation will cost you $3000.  You can go to Target and buy $3000 worth of gift cards for $2850 then call Disney or login to their website and pay with your gift cards.  Magically you've paid $150 less for your vacation!  (And of course this savings is on top of any discounts that Disney is directly offering.)

This does take some dedication.  Target only sells gift cards in $50 increments so you will have to buy lots of them to pay for your vacation, but a little extra effort to save some money may be worth it to you!  I also like the idea of buying gift cards to pay for vacation and my on property Disney expenses because it allows me to do it a little at a time.  When I get a few extra dollars for extra hours at work, I can go to Target and buy some gift cards to stash away for later.

Keep your eyes open in the weeks to come - more ways to save on your next Disney trip will be posted soon!

Saving money makes me happier than a one-eyed monster!

Date Night on the Fantasy

The other night I stayed up until midnight just to be sure I had the best chance at booking Palo and Remy on our upcoming Disney Cruise.  And I'm happy to report that we have reservations for Palo on the first night of our cruise and Remy for a champagne brunch on the fourth day.

On the Disney Fantasy, we were lucky enough to dine at Palo.  Palo is one of two adult only restaurants on the Fantasy.  It is an experience that is well worth the $25 per person additional charge and should not be missed on any Disney Cruise.

Palo is located on Deck 12 Aft.  You will find the entrance to Meridian (a cocktail bar) and Remy also in this location.  When you check in for your reservation, the host will show you to Meridian to have a pre-dinner cocktail while your table is prepared.  We had about a 10 minute wait which gave us a chance to soak in the breathtaking views from the bar while we sipped some yummy martinis.  We were then escorted to our table which was perfectly located right next to a window so we could watch the sunset during dinner.

Enjoying a martini in Meridian before our Palo reservation.

Our server that night was fantastic.  As we were seated, we were finishing up our cocktails and she offered us a wine list for the night.  She recommended a delicious Amarone wine which was perfect for Dan and I.  Dinner began with a visit from the Antipasti cart.  With lots of olives, proscuitto, a variety of cheeses, and many other wonderful appetizers this was a great way to start the dinner service.

Our table and wine
At Palo you are sure not to go hungry!  After our Antipasti cart, we each started with an appetizer course before progressing to the main course.  Unfortunately, I can't remember EVERYTHING that we ate that night, but I can tell you that the calamari was wonderful.  For dinner, I couldn't make up my mind between the Lobster and Mascarpone Ravioli and the Osso Buco.  When I asked the server for her recommendation, she said "Why not have both?" and who can argue with that logic?  I ended up with both entrees in front of me and while I didn't come even close to finishing them, I can say wholeheartedly that they were some of the best dinners I've ever had.

The last course of the evening was dessert.  Between the antipasti, calamari, ravioli, and veal (and don't forget the wine!) I didn't think I had room for anything else.  But I had read that the chocolate soufflĂ©  was out of this world so I persevered on.  The soufflĂ© is made to order for each customer so you actually order it at the beginning of your meal so that it comes out nice and hot and perfectly timed at the conclusion of your meal.  I could only get through a few bites, but the reviews were all true - I loved every bite!
Our "Happy Anniversary" plate written in chocolate and fruit sauce!

My overall grade A+

Palo is worth every penny and a dining experience not to be missed.  The overall dining experience took us about 2 - 2 1/2 hours so make sure you plan appropriately in the evening if you want to make sure that you are still able to see the shows.  It's nice to escape the hustle and bustle of the main dining rooms and have some quiet adult only time on your vacation.  Don't forget - mom and dad need a break too!

Our To Do List

Today Dan and I are a mere 91 days away from our next Disney Cruise.  We'll be taking a 4-Night Bahamian Cruise to celebrate my 30th birthday.  This cruise will be just the two of us as a little "romantic" getaway.  And of course the Disney fanatic in me couldn't more excited.

I can't possibly sum up the whole cruise in only one blog entry, but I thought I would use this particular post to give you a bit of an overview of Disney's Castaway Club.  I'm doing this at the 91 day pre-cruise mark for a significant reason - tomorrow is when we as Silver Castaway Club members can begin booking our excursions and onboard extras.  The Castaway Club is Disney's "thank you" program for returning cruisers.  After 1 cruise you get Silver Status, after 5 cruises you reach Gold Status, and after 10 cruises you get Platinum status.  There are many different perks you can find on the Disney Cruise website, but probably the most important is when you get to reserve your adult only dinners at Palo or Remy, time in the Spa, and book your shore excursions.

We're a middle child right now.  While Platinum members were able to begin booking at 120 days out, we can start booking today.  However, we do still have a jump on first time cruisers who don't get to book until 75 days out.  Does this really matter?  Well yes and no.  For most of what you want to do on the cruise, you are probably going to be OK even at 75 days out.  When we went last summer as first time cruisers, our entire group (6 adults and 3 kids) were able to book everything we wanted.  On shorter cruises though, things like the brunches at Palo and Remy book up fast because you only have one day at sea.  Also, the older ships (the Wonder and the Magic) only have Palo so dinner reservations are harder to get there.

So what must-do's are we booking on this exciting day?  The hardest reservation to get is going to be the Remy brunch.  We didn't eat at Remy on the last cruise and I really want to this time around.  Since we only have one day at sea, reservations are going to be limited and may be booked up.  I might be staying up until 12:01AM to do my best and get that.  The other reservations I think we'll be fine to still secure.  Dinner at Palo was fabulous and we can't wait to do that again.  And our only excursion we are booking is a Wine Luncheon at Graycliff Hotel.  Wish me luck as we inch ever closer to our cruise!

Drinks at Meridian before dinner at Palo - July 2013

Wintry Days

I have a feeling our Mid-Atlantic winter is setting up to be a long one.  This cold, ice, snow, and other nonsense is only made worse when I check my weather app and find that it's a balmy 39 degrees in Orlando.  Whoa!  What???  With those kind of cold temps in the "Sunshine State," Disney's Blizzard Beach is really living up to it's name.  Since everyone is probably missing summer right now, let's take a few minutes to talk about Disney's two water parks.

In general, I feel like these two parks are very similar and they are often left off of itineraries for people visiting Disney.  And to a certain extent, I can understand why.  Water parks seem to be a dime a dozen.  So why visit Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon?  Let me give you my top 5 reasons to squeeze in a quick trip to these parks on your next visit.

A view of Typhoon Lagoon's famous shipwreck

1.  Convenience 
These water parks don't need to be an all day visit so they can fit easily into a trip by pairing them with a half day visit to another park.  In fact, Blizzard Beach is located right by Animal Kingdom.  Many people choose to only spend a partial day at AK so this would fit well into your itinerary.  If you're booking a trip though in cooler months, check availability.  During the summer, Disney keeps both parks running, but as the weather turns cooler they usually only have one open each day and may close entirely during a cold snap.

2.  Nobody Does It Like Disney
You may feel like a water park on your Disney vacation is "been there, done that."  But Disney always does it one step better.  Like the parks and rides throughout WDW, theming is done top notch at both of these.  At Typhoon Lagoon, you are taken to a shipwreck on a topical island and at Blizzard Beach you are stuck in a freak South Florida snowstorm.  While many of the attractions may resemble other water parks, you can't beat the Disney storytelling.

3.  Crush 'n' Gusher
At Typhoon Lagoon, you will find an awesome water ride!  In your tube, you will travel through a slide and actually go uphill in places!  This ride is unique and a lot of fun!  If you've been on a DCL cruise on either the Fantasy or the Dream, you've had the chance to experience something similar with AquaDuck.  A great family-fun ride!

A view of Crush 'n' Gusher at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon

4.  Relief from the Heat
Let's face it. . .Disney can be hot!  2 of my last 3 trips have been in July and sometimes you just need to cool off.  What better way to beat the Florida heat while still enjoying your Disney vacation.  By adding the Water Park and Fun option to your Park Hopper tickets, you can visit the water parks once or every day of your trip.  If you're traveling with kids this could also provide a change of scenery from your resort pool.

5.  Thrill Rides
Yes, I said it.  Some of the water slides at these water parks provide great thrills for even the seasoned water park veteran.  In fact, Summit Plummet at Blizzard Beach is one of the tallest and fastest watersides in the world. It's a 12-story plunge at a near vertical angle!  This one was too scary for me, but I've heard amazing reviews from those who have done it and the screams coupled with big smiles at the bottom show just how much fun this slide can be!

So there you have it!  A few reasons to check out the Disney water parks on your next visit.  I'd love to hear your opinions of Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon in the comments in you have insight to share!  Hope this post helps you beat the winter blues and think warm thoughts during these cold days!  

Breakfast with Character

Today is one of those "perk" days of being a teacher - a snow day!  Snow days in my house find me in Minnie Mouse pajamas and Brody spending the day in his PJs too while we play, read, and watch Disney Junior.  This particular morning, I made blueberry muffins and fruit for us for breakfast.  After eating breakfast, we played with our new Mickey Mouse Clubhouse that Santa brought us a few days ago while watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on TV.  Disney and breakfast on this snowy day makes me think of the character breakfast experiences at WDW.  Today I'm going to give my thoughts on one of the most popular - Chef Mickey's!

Location - Chef Mickey's is located in the Contemporary resort.  On our most recent trip, we stayed at the Contemporary so the location could not be beat for us!  I will warn you that if you are staying at another WDW resort that you want to allow plenty of time for a trip to a restaurant in another resort since Disney does not offer resort to resort direct transportation.  This means that if you are staying at Port Orleans for example, you need to take a bus to Magic Kingdom and then take the monorail over to the Contemporary.  Within the Contemporary, this is an open air restaurant in the hotel atrium.  You can hear lots of noise from within the hotel and the monorail so it's not a quiet place to eat, but that worked well for us with a toddler who is not always a quiet guy himself!

Food - I feel that all character breakfast buffets are about the same.  Food is good - not great.  You have your Mickey waffles, fruit, eggs, breakfast meat, yogurt, etc.  I don't think that anyone goes to a character breakfast looking for a gourmet meal, but the food is good enough that it won't keep you away.

Character Interaction - Chef Mickey's is THE place to see Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, and Donald at a character dining experience.  While it is great to knock out all of the classic characters in one meal and this will save you lots of time in potentially long character meet lines in the parks, I felt the whole experience was rushed.  With the exception of Donald, the characters hurried past your table - signing the autograph book, posing for a quick picture, and then moving on.  While I'm sure some of this may have been the people working that day, I can't help but also think that some of it has to do with this being one of the busier character meals and that they were trying to hurry diners in and out.  I've heard repeated stories about being rushed so I don't feel like it was just us.

Overall Experience:
Despite not being thrilled with the rushed experience, we'll most likely end up back here again - especially with a toddler.  Brody knows these characters well and enjoyed meeting them which is exciting to see.  I feel it is overpriced at more than $30 per adult, but I don't know that anything in Disney is really a bargain.  The nice thing to remember with character buffets is that children under 3 eat free.  That's a nice chunk of savings if you're traveling with a toddler and makes the character meals an easier bill to handle.  There are other character breakfasts that will save you $5-$10 per person which I liked better (I'll talk about Crystal Palace in another post), but if the classic Disney characters are a must, then Chef Mickey's is for you!

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