Back to the salt and sand

After two other vacations were cancelled, the fam and I ended up heading back to Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina for a second trip this year. It was time to celebrate some birthdays and renew our souls in the salt and sand. The extended fam packed up the cars and headed south in mid-September to return to where I first vacationed as a toddler many years ago.

Travel in September wasn’t significantly different than what we experienced in June as far as the logistics — hand sanitizer, lots of handwashing, only takeout for meals, mask wearing whenever in public (other than on the beach), etc. Mask wearing had become a mandate since we traveled in June so we did see more masks out in public but still not 100% by any means. We still didn’t spend much time out beyond the house and the beach though, so that did not impact our overall experience.

Our travel week was interesting as far as the weather went. Early in the week, the temperatures were very warm and pleasant. As the week ended, you could definitely tell that the fall chill was coming into the air. I think it was a good bit cooler the following week so our timing was perfect for a late summer getaway. The sunsets were incredible! This shot was from an evening where the sky became shades of lavender and peach that I’ve never seen in a night sky before.

Purple, peach, and blue skies… how breathtaking!

One snack spot that we visited not once, but three times!, was Sunset Slush on the mainland. Their menu has slushes and gelatis (slush with soft-serve ice cream) and very inventive flavors. Each visit brought new flavor combinations for each of us to try. One fave had mango and coconut swirled together and I personally enjoyed ‘fruity pebbles’ which was grape, green apple, and tangerine swirled, shown below on the left. The one on the right is ‘banana pudding’ which consists of a swirl of blue vanilla and banana. With a variety of locations in Brunswick County, NC and across the US, you should give it a try if you ever see a shop or cart!

We collected quite a few shells on the beach and even found two very unexpected goodies. You can see them in the photo below. The kid and I found these very near each other on one long walk early in the week. In fact, she and I picked up so many shells that morning that I thought I was going to have to use my hat as a bucket to carry them all back! She found the oldest shark tooth (the black one) and I found the other. We **think** mine is a sand tiger shark but we’re not 100% sure on her type. Any guesses?

As the week wrapped, we were treated to quite a shocking site. After a morning at the ocean, we showered and were relaxing before picking up dinner. A construction vehicle, excavator maybe (not a construction expert by any means!), appeared at the cottage across the road from ours. We watched at first as they cleared away the landscaping. Not thinking much about it, it was shocking as the arm of the excavator crashed into the porch railing afterward! The next move was a big ‘bite’ out of the middle of the house, taking the front door in a crunch. When they stopped for the day, we had the picture on the right below — half a house! I wish they would have fully demolished the house before we had to leave but watching the destruction was unforgettable. So many others from neighboring houses came out to watch and families walked/biked/carted to watch as well. It isn’t every day that you see something chomping away at a beach house! It’s apparent that Ocean Isle has been undergoing some pretty major renovations where older houses from the 70s and 80s are being either renovated or demolished and replaced, to become mini-mansions. I remember traveling to Ocean Isle over the years and watching the houses go from pretty cookie-cutter boxy styles to houses that are undoubtedly worth in the millions. As a long time visitor, I’m not sure what I really think about this shift, and hope it doesn’t cause the affordability of visiting the islands for families to become out of reach.

Another great trip was in the books after this visit to Ocean Isle. Despite being where Hurricane Isaias made landfall in early August and suffering significant damage, the island is working through the recovery, rebuilding, and staying OIB Strong. We can’t wait to visit again and make more sandy memories!

Until next time!

Amber

You did what? (Part II)

Now that I got all of the COVID-19 talk out of the way, let’s jump into the fun stuff! So yes, the fam plus the four usual suspects (my mom, stepdad, and two nieces) hopped on a plane to Florida last month. Destinations: Universal Orlando resort, Disney’s Vero Beach resort on the Atlantic coast, and back to Disney’s Saratoga Springs resort for one night before flying home. This trip was unique because it’s been awhile since I’ve been in the Universal parks and I had never been to their waterpark, Volcano Bay. It was also our first time staying at Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal. Moving to Vero Beach, it was our first time there as well, and also our first time staying in a Treehouse Villa at Saratoga Springs at WDW. So many new things to try out!

Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Orlando is AMAZING! We opted to upgrade to Club level service there, which during COVID, basically means you get access to the Club level lounge on the 7th floor of Tower 3, the Royal Tower. Non-COVID would’ve offered other things like turndown service, robes, cabana rental discounts (which we could’ve used but they weren’t needed, etc.) Our rooms were very close to the lounge, so that made access a breeze. The lounge was open from 7am to 9:30pm and had a schedule when specific dining offerings were available: breakfast, snacks/drinks in the afternoon, hors d’oeuvres plus wine/beer in the evening, dessert in the late evening. Everything was served to you when it came to the food and drinks but you weren’t limited on the quantities you could receive. We enjoyed having breakfast each morning (fresh donuts and pastries, hard-boiled eggs, oatmeal cups, fruit, granola, yogurt, cereal, milk, juice, coffee, tea, sodas. The snacks in the afternoon were things like chips, granola bars, cookies, peanuts, crackers, fruit, sodas, and waters. The evening service had hot offerings like chicken bao buns, wings, macaroni and cheese, BBQ as well as boxed offerings like meat and cheese or hummus and veggies. Dessert was usually cookies and/or brownies. Everything we had was really good, plentiful, and high-quality. The service in the Club lounge was top notch. Very attentive, kind, and genuinely happy to be there would be how I would describe the team. Every time we went in the lounge, I felt welcome and very well taken care of.

The resort itself was beautiful. The lobby was renovated last year and there was a conscientious effort to make the guests feel welcome and comfortable during their stay. I already mentioned the ‘text the front desk’ service and that was incredible. Unbelievably convenient and very responsive. I didn’t miss daily housekeeping service, despite being in a club level room, and felt like that was just another step Loews was taking to make sure their guests feel as safe as possible. The pool is huge, lagoon style, and a great way to spend a few hours (or most of a day, as my mom and stepdad found out). The pool was also just an elevator ride out of our building and a few short steps away.

Just past the pool was the shuttle boat dock to take you to Citywalk, where you then walk a short distance into either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure. The boat ride is so short, pleasant, and such an easy way to get around. Being able to hop out of the boat and be inside Universal Studios in just a matter of minutes is fantastic. You clear security before you board the boat so entering the park is literally just a scan of your ticket and you’re on your way!

A great perk received by staying at Royal Pacific (or the Hard Rock Hotel or Portofino Bay Hotel) is that you receive Universal’s Unlimited Express Pass for free for your theme park days. This can be very expensive to add on and is well worth it, even when the crowds are light (as they are right now). It’s basically like a Disney FastPass on steroids because you don’t have to sign up for anything in advance, you just hop in the Express Pass line for any attraction that offers Express Pass service (most do), and you’re on your way to a much shorter wait to experience that attraction. Love it! We rode several attractions before we headed to one I was really dying to try, the new Bourne Stuntacular show. This just opened shortly before we arrived and it lived up to every bit of the hype I had heard about it. I have never seen a show that mixed live action and virtual scenes so seamlessly. You really couldn’t tell what was actually happening right in front of you versus which pieces were added in digitally. Craziness! This attraction doesn’t use Express Pass but any time you wait to watch the show is time well spent. We also had to swing by and ride the classic E.T. Adventure ride that I remember riding as a kid on my first trip to Universal years and years ago (still the same!) On the way to that attraction, Squidward and Patrick of Spongebob Squarepants fame were hanging out looking for some folks to snap a few pics with. Of course, we had to oblige!

No visit to Universal Orlando is complete without enjoying the two sections of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley in Universal Studios park and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure park. My kid and the nieces had a great time learning and then casting new spells for a variety of fun outcomes in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. The ride on Hogwart’s Express between the two lands was super fun and, spoiler alert, is different each way!

Being as we visited Central Florida in July, spending some time at a waterpark was a huge relief on the hot and humid days. Volcano Bay really far surpassed my expectations and (gasp!) is probably now my favorite waterpark!! The wave pool there is a lot of fun with the typical variety of waves pumped out to keep guests bobbing along for hours. Some of their slides were down right insane! The lazy river was a nice break after we spent some time in the wave pool but our hands down favorite attraction was TeAwa The Fearless River! I read somewhere before we arrived that if Universal said you had to put a life jacket on to experience the attraction, they meant it. Was that ever right! This was a lazy river gone wild and nothing lazy about it. Life jackets were mandatory and you definitely needed one. No rafts in this river but you were traveling through rapids, strong current, and uneven depths… weak swimmers need not apply! We went around like five times before we were exhausted (happily) and decided to break for lunch. Luckily, we got seated for lunch right before a huge rainstorm came through so our break was perfectly timed. There’s so much to do for all ages at Volcano Bay that I can’t wait to go back again!

Volcano Bay

I could go on and on about Universal but alas, time to move on to Vero Beach. As I mentioned, it was our first stay at Disney’s Vero Beach resort on Florida’s east coast. Our two-bedroom villa there provided a nice home base for breakfast, lunch, and to crash at night. Other than that, we were in the pool most of the day, on the beach in the early morning or evening either looking at sea turtle nests or collecting shells. The beach was pretty seaweedy, which was ok with us as we don’t really swim in the US ocean anymore. Shelling was fantastic, lots of great shells here and I completely wasn’t expecting that. The big fun though was the sea turtle nests. Loggerhead and green sea turtles have made hundreds of nests in Vero Beach this year so far and you couldn’t walk a few feet without passing one. We saw scraps of egg shells when walking but had the pleasure of watching the Sea Turtle team at the resort checking nests one morning. They even found a straggler down in a nest where its siblings had successfully made it out to the ocean so they were able to save the little guy and get him on his way! It’s mindboggling to see the team pulling hundreds of eggs (shells basically, they are checking the nest after they know that some turtles made it out a few days prior) from over a foot down in the sand. Definitely an experience I’d like to have again! The picture below is of a loggerhead nest and you can see the eggs in a pile between the two team members. There was something like 5 unhatched eggs, no longer viable, in this particular nest and over a hundred that had hatched.

After a few days at Vero, we drove back to Disney World, about two hours away. My brother and his family now live in central Florida and we had made plans to meet them at Disney Springs for dinner at Raglan Road. We had a decent size party and were given a really cool booth to dine in that night, something along the lines of where the bad guys would hang out to handle their business in private. Super fun! The dancing and music that is typical for Raglan Road was still taking place as well, which I was happy to see. Delish food as always.

After dinner, we got settled in at our Treehouse villa for the night. These are such fun! They really are a villa in the trees with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and living room area, washer and dryer, private deck, etc. With windows all around, the view is just crazy! We’re all talking about staying there again in the future. These treehouses take woodsy and luxury to a whole new level!

Last stop before we flew back home was Disney’s Contemporary resort where we had breakfast at Chef Mickey’s. This was a completely new offering — no characters, no buffet — but the food was good, fresh, and brought to your table family-style. Still all-you-care-to-eat and priced at $25 per adult, we felt like it was a steal, and hello, Mickey waffles! After breakfast, we had a little time to burn so we visited the shops in the Contemporary and then walked outside to take a peek over toward Magic Kingdom. Cinderella Castle has gotten a face-lift and is now sporting a pinkish hue (nothing like the birthday cake of the park’s 25th birthday though, yikes!) and I had to snap a few pics. I think it is nice and while I would’ve liked to see it up close, I didn’t have the time or the Park Pass reservation.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the airport and fly home. Darn, all good things really do have to come to an end, don’t they. We had a great time with so many ‘firsts’ and the trip fully renewed my passion for travel. If I could, I’d be back on a plane and checking in at Royal Pacific again tomorrow to do it all over, mask and all. This Disney girl might have even been converted to the dark side (Universal). Everyone had a blast, felt completely safe, and made all kinds of new memories. Isn’t that what it is all about?

xoxo,

Amber

You did what? (Part I)

A little over two weeks ago, my family and I hopped on a flight and headed to Florida. This trip had changed so many times, it was enough to make your head spin. The final itinerary was set mere days prior: fly out from Richmond to Orlando, spend three nights at Universal Orlando resort, drive to Vero Beach and spend three nights there, drive back to Orlando and spend a night at Disney, fly home the next morning. This trip was meant to be one where we stayed in resorts we had never stayed at, enjoyed new experiences, and (the elephant in the room) visited theme parks during a pandemic.

At this point, I have a feeling that you are thinking one of two things: how were the parks different or what a moron I must be for traveling right now.

I’ve seen plenty of opinion pieces regarding travel in the last few months. How anyone that travels is inconsiderate, selfish, killing the elderly, you name it. How we go out without social distancing, not wearing masks, touching everything, spreading our germs to the world. What you should remember (and I struggle to) when reading those articles is that they are filled with the writer’s opinions.

Here is my opinion. When I leave the house, I wear a mask anytime I go into a store, get gas where others are around, etc. Hand sanitizer is frequently applied and I wash my hands every single time I come back home and while I’m out, as needed. I don’t go into stores very often and do online grocery order pickup once a week. As I mentioned in my last blog post about going to the beach in early June, I spent a great deal of time thinking about ways to minimize my contact with others before we ever left home. Gloves and hand sanitizer for pumping gas, masks for anytime we were in public, online grocery ordering so we could have contactless pickup for food to use for breakfast and lunch in our rental home, takeout from local restaurants for dinner to help their local economy and avoid contact with others, very minimal in-store shopping and always with masks and sanitizer. My stepdad, traveling with us with some health challenges, stayed in the vehicle on the rare occasion that we went to a store. On the beach when we were around others, we social distanced from others without issue. At no point did we feel unsafe or go out of our comfort zone as far as contact with others. There were people that were not wearing masks, as there was no mask order in North Carolina at the time, but we held firm on using ours. On the drive to and from the rental house, we had fast food lunches in our vehicles to avoid any contact concerns.

For the Florida trip, we traveled by plane. That meant masks from the moment we got to the airport garage in Richmond until we were in our rental van in Orlando. We each had hand sanitizer and used it regularly, in addition to actual hand washing when available. I packed a container of Clorox wipes and we spent the first few minutes onboard the plane wiping down everything we might touch in our seating area, despite the flight crew just having sanitized the plane too. JetBlue doesn’t have typical beverage and snack service right now but is offering a snack bag, a great alternative. Most of us kept our snack bag and ate it later that evening.

Once we arrived at Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Orlando, we had to enter the hotel and pass through a temperature screening. That was done every morning at the hotel (for guests, at the parks themselves if you weren’t staying onsite). Check in was contactless and very simple. Our rooms had been left empty for 24-48 hours prior to our arrival and thoroughly cleaned after the last guest. During our stay, housekeeping didn’t enter the room at all. Royal Pacific offered a fantastic ‘text the front desk’ service that had fresh towels, amenities, etc. delivered to the room in minutes and trash was picked up outside of the door daily. We upgraded to add the Club Level service during our stay and the staff there ensured that every table was wiped down between guests, guests wore masks, sanitizer was available, and food was handed to the guest instead of being self-serve.

With my stepdad’s health issues, he and my mom decided that this portion of the trip for them would be spent at the hotel enjoying the pool and relaxing. Myself and my husband, plus our daughter and two nieces, went to the two theme parks at Universal and the waterpark there, Volcano Bay.

Shuttle boats and buses were marked for social distancing as were the lines to wait to board. Universal marked the six foot distance everywhere you could think of and, in fact, it was more like nine feet in most places to allow for families that took up a little more room. That was fantastic. The parks in general are running well under capacity and everything felt very empty and a little eerie. Masks are required at the resorts (everywhere except the pool and if you are sitting down eating or drinking), on all transportation, and in the parks (unless you are sitting down eating or drinking). There are no exceptions. There are Universal employees in place to stop guests throughout the parks that are trying to walk and drink, pull their mask down so their nose is exposed, etc. and will stop the guest to correct the behavior. Surfaces and rides are being frequently cleaned and all staff wear masks. Attraction capacity is also reduced and you are not seated in a ride vehicle with someone that isn’t in your travel party. Upon entering an attraction, hand sanitizer is squirted into your hands to apply, no way around using it.

The only time I felt even slightly uncomfortable was later in the afternoon one day when waiting to ride Hagrid’s Magical Motorbike ride. There were so many guests returning to ride the ride for their virtual boarding time when we were that the line got very long, was in the sun, and social distancing went out the window for a bit. Everyone was still masked though and the line moved quickly, which then slid back into the social distancing spacing.

There are U-Rest Areas throughout the parks and Citywalk where you can socially distance yourself, remove your mask, and take a break from the action with your family. This was a great rest option. Masks are often hot and I would encourage you to find one that is lightweight but two-ply or more, breathable, and quick drying. If you find a mask you love (as much as you can love a mask), you really don’t think about it being on when you’re there. It is easy to wash them in hot water with soap each night and hang to dry.

Sit-down restaurants had tables socially distanced, masks required until seated, servers remained masked, some offered bags to put each guest’s mask in while they ate, fresh glasses were brought to the table with each refill, etc. This was the first time we had eaten at a sit-down restaurant since March 15th.

The waterpark, Volcano Bay, required masks for entry, shopping, and at all dining locations unless you were sitting and eating or drinking. No masks were required on the attractions or pools, for obvious reasons, but social distancing was required. Their chairs have been moved to allow for distancing between parties. Rafts are sanitized between guests as are life jackets.

After we left Universal Orlando, we drove to Vero Beach, less than two hours away on the Atlantic coast of Florida. There, we checked in at Disney’s Vero Beach resort. Groceries were delivered by Instacart, takeout for dinner. Masks required everywhere except the pool, on the beach while distanced, and while sitting down and eating or drinking. Pool chairs were distanced and you were seated by the pool staff with your family into the pre-arranged chair groupings. Social distancing in the pool was encouraged and chairs were sanitized between guests. No housekeeping but an employee did check daily to remove trash and ask if we needed anything.

Three nights at Vero were followed by a drive back to Orlando and a one-night stay at Disney’s Treehouse Villas at Saratoga Springs resort. The treehouse had been cleaned and sanitized prior to our arrival, just like Vero Beach’s villa, with device remotes in plastic bags, amenities wrapped, etc. Online check-in service was used here so we never went to the front desk at all. Our villa number was texted to us prior to arrival so we went straight there and unpacked. That night was spent at Disney Springs, where social distancing is encouraged, stores have been modified to allow for distance between guests, and restaurants are operating well under capacity. No paper menus, you’re shown a QR code to scan to pull the menu up on your smartphone. Servers wear masks, guests do too until they are seated and anytime they get up. Tables are spaced and capacity overall is limited.

The next morning, we packed up and drove to the Contemporary resort for breakfast at Chef Mickey’s — currently a family style meal with no characters. We were required to have a reservation to be able to park at the hotel, since we weren’t staying there, and check in for the reservation was done online. Once our table was ready, a masked and shielded server took care of our needs. The food was brought to us on serving platters, with refills as requested. Tables were distanced and guests were masked until/unless they were seated. Menu was via QR code here too. Even the check was in a paper folder instead of the typical padded plastic holder that restaurants typically use. After breakfast, we looked through the Contemporary stores, all masked and distanced, no pin trading right now, and grabbed a few last minute items. We spent a little while outside enjoying the view and checking out the new Cinderella Castle design before driving back to the airport to fly home. Orlando’s airport was the same as Richmond, masks everywhere, handwashing, hand sanitizer, etc. Some other travelers had shields on top of their masks, gloves, we even saw what looked like full Hazmat suits. Let’s just say that people were being careful.

Back in Virginia, we’ve generally returned to COVID life. My husband is working from home until we’ve officially been back for two weeks and we’re pretty much staying home or swimming at my mom’s pool. Masks stay on when we go out, which is rare, handwashing and sanitizer are used very frequently.

Would I go again? In a heartbeat. That’s not just because it is a great time to visit the theme parks with the incredibly low crowds but because I felt safer in those theme parks and resorts than I do in my local area. Masks are required and you’re reprimanded if you don’t follow the requirement. People generally keep to themselves and respect boundaries.

Don’t buy into the hype about traveling and how if you didn’t do it, those workers wouldn’t be at risk and wouldn’t have to go to work because you wouldn’t be there creating demand. Every single worker I talked to thanked us for being there, for visiting, and allowing them to be able to be back in their jobs. Hospitality and tourism is a huge industry and doesn’t just affect big cities and major tourist destinations. Think about your local restaurants and attractions. I live in a small town. Our downtown was a bustling place with restaurants, shops, a Shakespeare playhouse, art center, etc. Now with COVID, everyone is hurting. Not only are the locals not going out to these places but we’re also not getting tourists to come and fill that gap. Stores and restaurants here have already begun to close. I feel certain those workers and small business owners would generally be much happier to have guests coming in and enjoying what they have to offer than watching their businesses fall apart. I know this small business owner would.

Until Part II — where I talk about the fun stuff like club level perks, attractions in Universal Orlando, riding the fearless river at Volcano Bay, tracking sea turtles at Vero Beach, and spending the night in a treehouse — stay safe out there!

Amber

The beach + a pandemic

Ugh, COVID-19. The most hated topic of 2020. After having trips in the spring cancelled because of the virus (a Caribbean cruise and trip to Florida, a trip to Amsterdam and European river cruise, and a beach week at Hilton Head in South Carolina), we all needed to get out of the house. Our Hilton Head week ended up being replaced by a last minute decision to head to our fave North Carolina beach, Ocean Isle. The extended family of seven packed up and hit the road at the end of May, looking for sunny skies and warm sand.

Travel is such a touchy topic and has been for months. When we visit Ocean Isle, we rent a house from a rental company (not an Airbnb or VRBO) and stay for a week. These rental companies ensure that the homes are clean, well-maintained, accurately represented, and that you have an on-site contact if any issues arise. We knew that the particular house we rented was unoccupied for 3-4 days before we checked in and we packed disinfecting wipes to wipe down all surfaces in the house when we arrived. A local grocery store offered online ordering with grocery pickup so that made getting groceries for breakfast and lunch at the house a breeze. Dinner was takeout from local restaurants, as many weren’t open for dining in (and we weren’t ready for dine-in yet anyway). This was also a great way to support the suffering local economy there who rely on tourism, especially in the summer months. North Carolina didn’t have a mask order at the time but we wore ours, coming from Virginia with a mask requirement, and we saw many others wearing masks during our trip.

On the beach, it was easy to socially distance. There was no need for masks due to the distancing and being outdoors. Our house had a private pool, again making enjoying the outdoors super easy and worry-free.

For the drive, we thought ahead and packed wipes and gloves for gas stations, and ate fast food in our vehicles for lunch on the way to/from North Carolina. We always pack drinks and snacks for the ride, which made going into gas stations unnecessary with pay at the pump. The occasional rest area stop felt fine with masks, hand washing, and hand sanitizer after we got back into our vehicles.

Planning for this trip took a little more thought and strategy than it did in prior years. But you know what? It was worth it. We all needed to get away, reset, and focus on trying to get some semblance of a life back. Everyone did all that we could to minimize any risk of contracting the virus while away or bringing it back home. We spent an incredible amount of time outdoors enjoying the summer, being in nature, and reconnecting.

If you have the opportunity to get out, even for a night, take the precautions to be safe, and do it. Your mind needs a break right now.

Spending Christmas with Mickey

Now that it is almost February, I thought it was about time to recap my holiday travels on the trusty blog. The fam and I spent Christmas 2019 with Mickey at Walt Disney World, a first for us. We’ve visited close to Christmas before but never right over the holiday itself. As expected, we were not alone in our journey to the Most Magical Place on Earth. I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many others joined us for the holiday. Christmas through New Year’s is the busiest time of the year to visit Disney and the lines for darn near everything proved that as fact. Despite the crowds and daily rain, we still had a fantastic time at the Mouse while switching up the holiday routine.

Hitting the highlights…

  • New resort! We stayed at Disney’s Riviera Resort, the newest on-site Disney property. It officially opened on December 16th and we checked in on the 22nd. You could tell that the finishing touches were still being added but the resort was AMAZING! I can’t think of one negative thing about this one, other than the price. (No, I DO NOT travel for free just because I am a travel agent. I pay just like you do.) The theme, while subdued compared to some of the other resorts, felt refined and artistic, posh without being stuffy. I would stay there again in a heartbeat!

    Our in-room tree at the Riviera resort

    Our in-room Christmas tree at the Riviera resort

  • Skyliner! The newest form of Disney resort transportation, the Disney Skyliner gondola system, blew me away. I had iffy expectations on this one, just not sure how well this new option would really work and how it would compare to the buses as far as speed. Let me just say, Disney needs to install these things everywhere! They are so fast and smooth. Despite being high in the sky (yikes for my fear of heights), the fantastic views took my mind off of swinging in the breeze. Speaking of breeze, I was shocked at how much airflow these truly had. Now what that will be like in July, I’m not sure, but they’ve definitely got my vote so far.

    Disney's Skyliner

    Disney’s Skyliner gondola vehicle with Chip and Dale

  • Very Merry Christmas Party! We’ve done this before, last year in fact, and it is always a hit. This was the last party of the year so I was expecting mega crowds since the party was sold out. The weather was pretty cruddy that day though, which always helps cut crowds… Don’t be the one that stays in the hotel room in the rain, get out there and have fun with fewer people! Truth be told, I do the parties more for the special aspects than the attractions themselves. The parades, fireworks, free treats, and ride overlays are what I’m looking for. The new fireworks this year were stunning, filled with projections like the Happily Ever After regular Magic Kingdom nightly fireworks. These projections are breathtaking. Do yourself a favor and forget that anyone ever said to watch fireworks from outside of Magic Kingdom. Get in the park, find yourself a good spot in front of the Castle, and prepare to be amazed. You need to be in the park and in direct view of the Castle to really get the full effect of the show now. Anyone can watch big booming fireworks from a distance but what Disney pulls off in the park is unparalleled.

    Very Merry Party fireworks

    Very Merry Party fireworks, stunning!

  • Yuletide Fantasy Tour! Any behind the scenes Disney tour is going to knock your socks off. We’ve done several as well as private VIP tours and never come away feeling like we overpaid (and some of these are $$$). This particular tour took us to Holiday Services behind Magic Kingdom, where Disney stores all of the holiday decorations for the parks and even Disney Cruise! You have never seen the level of organization that exists in that building elsewhere on Earth. What seemed like bazillions of ornaments, all sorted by size, shape, theme, location to be used, etc. plus wreaths, garland, trees, lights… holy cow. Then we stopped by Disney Event Group where so much magic happens, I’m surprised it doesn’t spill right out the door. Disney Floral and Gifts lives there, the team that makes some amazing gift baskets and flowers for guests to the resort. I even saw the basket heading out to be delivered to Lisa Ling, who was to be a narrator for the Candlelight Processional in Epcot. Super fun! Costumes, rehearsals, weddings, and so much more get tweaked and crafted there too. We wrapped up at Amorette’s Patisserie at Disney Springs, a huge fave of mine, where we were taught how to properly decorate a gingerbread cookie. What a way to end a spectacular holiday tour! Delish!

    The kid's gingerbread cookie

    The kid’s gingerbread cookie, sweet!

  • Rise of the Resistance! Anyone who knows me knows I am a gigantic Star Wars fan. Shoot, we flew out to Disneyland for the opening of Galaxy’s Edge there in June, went to Disney World for their Galaxy’s Edge opening in August, and got up at a ridiculous hour just to get to Hollywood Studios in time to get a Boarding Group for the newest addition to Galaxy’s Edge, the Rise of the Resistance attraction in December. Let me just say, that ride is so much more than just a ride. It is a full experience and OMG was I impressed. If you’re not a Star Wars fan, will you understand it? Obviously not as well as a fan, but the backstory is that you’re at a Rebel (aka the good guys) base on the planet of Batuu (the planet that Galaxy’s Edge is set in) and something has happened that means you need to get off planet ASAP. You go through the steps to get away and you’re captured by the First Order (aka the bad guys) and need to find a way to safety. High intensity, full of action, and loaded with some revolutionary tech, this attraction has raised the bar for theme park attractions up so far. Get up early, get that boarding group, and enjoy every minute. We were Boarding Group 66, ironic?

    Boarding Group 66

    Boarding Group 66 for Rise of the Resistance, four minutes after the park opened!

  •  The EPCOT Experience! EPCOT is changing, a major metamorphosis, over the next couple of years. New attractions, shows, restaurants, a complete redo for the front of the park, and so much more. There’s a new attraction of sorts at the old Odyssey pavilion in Epcot, between Test Track and Mexico, called the EPCOT Experience. This is a brief show about the changes coming to the park as also has displays related to the new attractions as well as some super cool posters of current and former attractions. Definitely worth a stop for Disney fans and those interested about the future of the park.

    Universe of Energy poster

    Remember Universe of Energy?

  • When money is no object?! During the Yuletide Tour, we were treated to seeing what you can get at Disney when money is no object. Now listen, in my profession, I get asked if Disney can do all kinds of things and my response is generally ‘no’ — not because they can’t or won’t but because you would likely laugh in my face if I told you cost. Can characters meet me when I get off the plane? Tuck my kids into bed? Let’s just say, sure they can. If you have the money, Disney will make it happen. Back to that tour, we saw where a ridiculously wealthy family had a private event created for just for them with every little detail completely customized. This family apparently has these events every year or two and we’re talking everything from customized wraps on the buses that transport them around to characters created from scratch just for them, including the costumes! Set pieces, special food, brand new costumes for the service staff, closing parks early just for them, they’ve done it all. So I guess when your budget has the flexibility to throw in a couple/few  commas for some add-ons like this, Disney Event Group will make it happen.

Feeling a little jelly? I was too. Good grief, can you even imagine having Disney setup a whole team just to create an event like that for your family? Wowza. And no, travel agents don’t get anything free like that either. What a way to wrap up the trip! We finished the tour, hit Epcot again for lunch and a few more snacks, and then we were on the road again. After an overnight at Disney’s Hilton Head resort (LOVE that place!), we were navigating the ever-crowded I-95 on the way home. I will say, anyone that drives to Disney using I-95N/S, seriously consider forcing your GPS to take you off the interstate and through more local roads in North and South Carolina and Georgia. We’ve been doing this a lot when driving, as long as it doesn’t add a huge amount of time to the overall travel, and our trips have been a lot more pleasant. The traffic on I-95 can be so awful and filled with accidents, that the local roads with their cotton fields and glimpses into the past are a great alternative. If nothing else, you’ll end up with some interesting things to talk about based on what you see along the way. It’s not always about the destination…

Until next time!

Amber

Sunshine and sand at Thanksgiving

For some people, Thanksgiving means turkey and cold weather. For me, it means walking the beach and dipping my feet into the (freezing!) ocean. We’ve been going to a beach over Thanksgiving for several years now, with Hilton Head being the beach of choice for the past few years. Disney’s Hilton Head Island resort is an amazing resort on the sound side of the island and also has access to a private Beach House oceanfront, a short shuttle or bike ride away. Hilton Head Island is located in South Carolina, just north of the Georgia border. It is a very busy island but the appearance of commercialism is kept to a minimum with restrictions on signage and resulting in many businesses peeking out from behind the moss covered trees.

Disney’s resort is super difficult to get into unless you are a Disney Vacation Club (timeshare) member and ‘own’ at the resort itself. I’ve tried on numerous occasions for myself and clients to book rooms for visits throughout the year with no success. The resort is small and availability is slim. With under 125 total rooms, including three-bedroom villas (5), two-bedroom villas (76), one-bedroom villas (21), and studio rooms (21), it is no wonder that availability is hard to come by. We are Vacation Club owners and recently bought into this particular resort because we love to visit there and have such difficulty in getting reservations. We’ll finally be able to do a week next summer and we can’t wait!

This resort has the most friendly staff of any Disney property I’ve ever been too. They go out of their way to make sure you have the best time possible and that your stay is truly magical. The resort and area managers were both on-site during our visit and checked in with us to ensure we were having a great vacation. Pin trading is a big thing at Hilton Head, just as it is at other Disney destinations. The kid came home with tons of new treasures. I found some treasures of my own while walking on the beach…

Sea treasures

My tiny finds from a walk on the beach

The family events there are so much fun too, some with a fee and some for free. We participated in the annual Golden Turkey scavenger hunt, Mickey tie-dye, making vacation pillows, finding a hidden plush Mickey each day, ping pong, shuffleboard, and even swimming. While it was a little chilly at times, we had a couple of great days and took advantage of the heated pools when possible. They really make the resort feel holiday-homey everywhere from the main lodge to the gift shop.

Bambi and Thumper

Bambi and Thumper hang out near the sound

After a few lovely days, it was time to head home to chilly Virginia and get moving on Christmas prep. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Until next time,

Amber

 

 

A working vacation? Definitely an oxymoron…

The hubs has an annual work conference that was celebrating a milestone this year, so the conference moved from the midwest to sunny Cancun. Seeing great potential for myself to be able to tour resorts while he was working, I packed my bags and accompanied him to the sunshine. We only had two full days plus our arrival and departure days, to enjoy the resort we were staying at plus attend the conference and do my site inspections. So, not much vacation time was had but a lot of work was done. Here’s the recap.

The accommodations: Nizuc Resort and Spa, south of the Hotel Zone in Cancun. This resort is uniquely positioned such that its beach is essentially private. The resort itself isn’t an all-inclusive but you can add on an ‘Endless Indulgence’ package to include meals during your stay. There’s no other way to describe Nizuc as anything other than pure luxury. The rooms were AMAZING. Our room was an oceanview junior suite that had a huge balcony with private pool, coming it at around 1200 square feet! We had a gorgeous view of the Caribbean and the mangrove forest that fronted the resort, where we watched a heron come in each afternoon and enjoy the forest goodies.

Sunset from our balcony at Nizuc

Pampered every minute, we had golf cart transportation around the resort, which is fairly spread out due to the layout of the land and how it meets the Caribbean. And the food, delicious. Possibly the best food I’ve ever had at a resort. So fresh and beautifully presented.

Quinotto

Nizuc is supposed to have a fantastic spa but, I’ll have to make a return trip for that, we didn’t have any time to enjoy that on this trip. Disappointing for sure but… working vacation. When this is the view from your resort’s lobby every morning, that puts any disappointment back in check.

Nizuc lobby

But alas, back to work. Two full days to get in as many site inspections as I could. That meant five resorts on the first day and three on the second day. Those last three are huge resorts so they warranted more time. The hotels I visited on day one were all in the Hotel Zone. Normally not my favorite place for families because the beaches aren’t private and the hotels are very close together, I wanted to get a feel for the on-site experience at a few properties. Seaweed, while not currently an issue in Mexico, has plagued the beaches there and around the Caribbean for the last couple years. I’m always on the lookout for resorts that have great pools and activities in case the beach turns out to be a no-go due to seaweed at a particular time. It seems too that many guests are focusing more on these types of amenities over the beach itself so I try to follow what I’m seeing on that end as well.

I hit the ground running on day one with my first stop, Now Emerald. This is a family resort and has a very nice beach, beautiful pools, and is continuing to be renovated after the property itself changed from an Oasis brand resort to Now Emerald earlier this year. I took this shot from a room that I toured on-site, such fantastic views and look how pretty the water was that day!

Now Emerald

Moving right along, Live Aqua Beach resort, an adult-only property in the Hotel Zone, right across from a luxury shopping mall. This place knocked my socks off. The rooms were beautiful, amenities stellar, multiple pools all at different temperatures even!, delicious food and drink, plus activities galore. I would definitely love to stay here in the future. It just finished up a multi-million dollar renovation earlier this year after hurricane damage. Any place with a room view like this has my vote. Did I mention that the room also had its own aromatherapy station, the curtains closed automatically when you left the room to save energy and reduce cooling costs, etc.? So nice. And the rubber ducks, super cute!

Welcome to Live Aqua Beach

Welcome to Live Aqua Beach

Hyatt Zilara was next on my list, also adult-only and in the hotel zone. The style here felt authentic Mexico with lots of wrought iron, stained glass, and open air spaces. I especially loved the room balconies, facing the Caribbean with a hammock. Can’t beat that! The fitness center had a lap pool outside that would make anyone want to become a swimmer! I especially loved the idea of their apothecary where you could be instructed on how to make your own oils and scrubs to be used during your spa treatments!

Hyatt Zilara

Zilara lap pool

Zilara apothecary

After that, Hyatt Ziva was my last stop away from my own resort for the day. Ziva is a kids friendly property that also has an adult only section. There is a Delphinus dolphin center on-site there for those interested in interacting with dolphins. There’s a new tween/teen club called Moods that had virtual reality machines that I would’ve loved to have checked out.

Ziva Moods

An interesting thing about Hyatt Ziva is its location. Much like Nizuc where I was staying, Hyatt Zila sits at the end of a point, basically on a peninsula. So their beach isn’t private but they’re pretty far down and not in the middle of a lot of other hotels. The break shown in the picture below also helps with seaweed blockage.

Hyatt Ziva beach

The last place on tap for me that day was back at my own resort. I enjoyed learning more about the resort itself and its history and the different rooms types available. I thought our room was stunning (and it was!) but the one-bedroom private villas… truly a ‘wow’ moment. Imagine having your own backyard with private infinity-edge pool!

Nizuc one-bedroom

Speaking of history there, their most famous and award-winning restaurant called ‘Ramona’ has these doors as its entrance. The story has it that these are the original doors of the Presidential Retreat building that used to be on the site of the Nizuc resort, where the President of Mexico came to relax. From standing in front of them, I would agree that they definitely seemed authentic and impressive. The picture doesn’t capture the jaw-dropping size of these!

Ramona doors

Phew. Lots of resorts, pictures of beds, bathrooms, and balconies. I had just enough time to enjoy the pool on my own balcony before dinner and bed. The next day, I headed out again, bright and early. First stop, Azul Beach Riviera Cancun. A family-friendly property that is often a little friendlier than some on the purse strings, I was pleased to see that even at a slightly lower price point, the quality wasn’t compromised. The beach here was definitely not as big or pretty as the Hotel Zone but the pools helped offset that.

Azul Beach RC

Azul Beach RC

I really loved a new room style that I toured, and I can’t wait until those become open for booking. They are family suites and the current style with double beds and sleeper sofas are being renovated into beautiful split rooms with a separate king bedroom area for parents and two twin beds for the kids. These are set to start renovations in 2020 and hopefully they are finished quickly!

 

Royalton Riviera Maya was next and is a client favorite. This resort has some beautiful swim-up rooms (I LOVE swim-ups!) and so many amenities. That was a huge plus because it started to rain cats and dogs when I arrived at Royalton. So much so that I didn’t get to tour much of the grounds. Disappointing but I can’t control the weather!

Royalton RC

I’m a sucker for pretty bathrooms. 🙂

Royalton RC

Last stop, Moon Palace Cancun. Moon Palace is a huge resort with three separate sections: Sunrise, Nizuc (not my resort), and the Grand. Sunrise and Nizuc are very similar with different decor and the Grand is the most upscale part of the property. I was impressed by the amount of things to do, how happy the guests looked (despite the buckets of rain coming down during their vacation), the decor, and the friendliness of the staff. Such a great place for families. Check out the stained glass ceilings in the Sunrise lobby!

Moon Palace Sunrise lobby

The rooms were pretty sweet too. Wouldn’t that jacuzzi be so great in the evening?Moon Palace

After Moon Palace, it was back to my resort for a little more pool time (thank goodness our balcony had a roof!) and a quick walk on the beach after the rain subsided. The next day, we were to fly home but our flight was cancelled due to a mechanical delay and then crew issue. The airline very smoothly setup accommodations for everyone on the flight for the night and shuttled us to the hotel and back. The only glitch? The hotel was a DUMP! I always talk about not selling resorts I either haven’t personally been to or ones that I don’t have a colleague who has been to confirm its quality. TripAdvisor reviews are often lies or one-sided (I know, shocker!), pictures can be staged and cropped, resorts change owners and aren’t renovated when needed, locations can be horrid, etc. Well, here’s a perfect case of that. Seadust Cancun. Oh my gosh, never have I ever. This place brings new meaning to budget. The entire resort was basically open-air, including the restaurants, which is so bad when we’re talking Cancun on the beach and in a high-rise. Even the rooms were hot and the air-conditioning in the rooms never got to the temperature it was set to. We had tile floors with wet spots on the floor that NEVER dried, from the humidity I guess, brown water pouring from the faucets, hair in the bathroom, two sets of outlets in the whole room, and a bed that felt like someone had poured water all over it from the humidity. The food in the buffet restaurant was out of temperature, it’s a true wonder we didn’t end up with food poisoning.

What are you looking at in the picture below, you ask? These things that looked like sports lockers were actually doors to closet space. Those aren’t reflections near the handles either, those are literally handprints and smudges. When opened, they were basically big holes to put stuff. A couple of captive hangers and one or two shelves. My main concern with these was that I needed to open them up to see if someone was hiding in there to kill me in the night!

Seadust

The funniest thing is that the reviews on this place are great, 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor. I was trying to rationalize that in my head when I realized what the resort reminded me of. A cheap Virginia Beach or Myrtle Beach high-rise hotel crossed with something cheap in Las Vegas. I think the guests that enjoy this resort must be using this property in a similar fashion, not realizing that by spending a little more money, they could stay at a resort that their health and well-being wouldn’t be in danger. I’m very grateful to have not woken up with an upper-respiratory issue after sleeping in that room for the night. This place is EXACTLY why I tour resorts, I want to see the place first hand before I send a guest to a place that “has great reviews and is budget-friendly”. I can guarantee if I sent someone to this resort, they would question my qualifications as a professional travel agent.

Long blog post short, Cancun was great! So much touring done but it was all worthwhile! Some great new resorts to dream about at night and think about for my family’s own vacations… always happy to help with yours too. https://www.GototheMouse.com/AndBeyond

Until next time!

Amber

 

 

 

 

Back to Batuu… East Coast style

After an epic trip to Disneyland in July, my family couldn’t wait to hop a plane to Orlando to enjoy the opening weekend of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the end of August.

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge Traveler's Guide

The guide with all the details you need for your visit to Batuu

The plan was to arrive on Wednesday night late, Galaxy’s Edge grand opening day on Thursday, Magic Kingdom for the Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party on Friday, Epcot for the Food & Wine Festival on Saturday, Animal Kingdom on Sunday with some pool time at the resort, and fly home Monday. Busy weekend with the added Labor Day weekend crowds, Star Wars fans in town for the opening, and locals pouring in for the start of the Food & Wine Festival. We were prepared for all of that but not for what else wanted to come to town… Hurricane Dorian.

Stormtroopers and Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren and a stormtrooper, I can handle. A hurricane, not so much.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios is very similar to the land in Disneyland Park in California. We were able to enjoy the land a little easier in the massive opening day crowds by using a VIP tour guide. Those are the best! Pricey as all get out but worth it if you want to get a ton done in a day and have a larger party (up to 10 guests) that you can split the cost between. I can add these to a GototheMouse.com booked vacation package too, so keep that in mind if you’re looking for an ultimate splurge. My daughter was finally able to get more Kyber crystals for her lightsaber built in California (still no white ones though, darn Ebayers!) and I built a droid at Droid Depot. Super fun to build and customize, can’t wait to take him back in December and play with him more in Batuu. Welcome R3-A6!

R3-A6

My new droid, R3-A6, working for the Resistance!

Our VIP Tour took us through Batuu and then back to Earth to enjoy Toy Story Land, some opening day merch shopping, over to Animal Kingdom for Pandora fun and lunch at Satu’li Canteen, zipping to Epcot to ride Soarin’, and then back to Hollywood Studios to finish the day with a ride on the Millennium Falcon in Batuu. The seven hours goes so fast but it’s a blast while we’re being spoiled with the guide!

The Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in Magic Kingdom was such a great experience this year. Disney has enhanced the ‘Boo to You’ parade with new floats and characters plus a change in the existing float order. The fireworks though were the showstopper, a complete redo on those to now feature Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas and projections on Cinderella Castle! The show is now up to par with the nightly ‘Happily Ever After’ fireworks in the park. I would love to see those again! Lots of candy was collected, attractions enjoyed, and entertainment adored.

Not-So-Scary fireworks

These fireworks were a blast, literally!

The Food & Wine Festival in Epcot was delish as usual. New booths and foods to try (for a fee) throughout the park. One continued complaint I have as a vegetarian is that there aren’t nearly enough vegetarian options available. Disney is starting to offer the trendy ‘plant-based’ meat products as a vegetarian option but this vegetarian doesn’t want that overly processed fake meat. Hopefully the trend is short-lived. There’s lots of construction starting in Epcot for the attractions being added and moved in the next couple of years. The park still has more than plenty to keep a family occupied though so I’m not recommending putting Epcot on the back burner for now. We enjoyed seeing the Plain White T’s in concert as a part of the Eat to the Beat concert series, LOVED it!

Disney has also enhanced the Epcot experience for kids (and the young at heart) by adding a puzzle game in the MyDisneyExperience app to dovetail with the Kidcot fun stops throughout World Showcase. Hunt for the puzzle piece, snap a pic, and then solve some puzzles to see how much you can complete toward the goal of solving them all!

Epcot Puzzle Hunt

The Epcot Puzzle Hunt is great for kids of all ages to use for a deeper dive into Epcot’s World Showcase countries!

We went back to Batuu a few times (had to play with my Datapad on the MyDisneyExperience app!) and into Epcot several more times. It was a breeze to get to both parks since we were staying at Disney’s Boardwalk Inn resort. Super convenient. We popped back in to Epcot early on Sunday morning for a tea tasting experience at the Rose & Crown restaurant in the United Kingdom and that was a real delight. We learned so much about the history of tea, types of tea, brewing tips, and enjoyed sandwiches and the best scones I’ve ever eaten. This was $35/guest but definitely worth every penny.

So what haven’t I mentioned… oh yeah, Dorian. That hurricane completely destroyed parts of the Northern Bahamas and everyone should consider a donation to the Red Cross to help those affected by the monstrous storm. Central Florida ultimately had basically no impact from the storm, despite days (and days) of forecasting that it could, (might, would, might not, wouldn’t) affect Orlando. We were to fly home on Monday, the forecasted day for the most impact to Orlando. The airport announced they would be closed and the fun really began. I cancelled my flight and decided we would rent a car and drive home on Sunday. The drive takes about 12 hours total but we always overnight so leaving Sunday would’ve been required. That meant cutting my trip a night short, definitely not ideal, but you do what you have to do. Then there was panic that the car rental companies were out of vehicles to rent. How crowded would the roads be? Could we get out if we tried? What about gas? When should we leave? How do we get our car parked at the airport in Virginia? And on, and on. At least I had a great travel agent on the job (that’s me!) who kept an eye on the situation, saw the forecast changing to slow the impact days to Tuesday/Wednesday, noticed that the airport had changed its mind on closing, and rebooked the flight home for our regular time on Monday. So our plans for Sunday and Monday were upended but we made the most of our newly found ‘bonus’ time and checked out as scheduled on Monday. The airport was a ghost town, so many cancelled flights and travelers that had been forced to change their plans, pure craziness. I’m all in favor of being cautious and flexible but man, Hurricane Dorian really threw everyone for a loop. Gotta love hurricane season.

We’re back home in Virginia and enjoying a couple of days of 90+ degree weather, more afternoon pool time this week. I’m not looking forward to fall, this travel mom is a summertime fan. Next month, I’ll visit Cancun for a few days so the warm weather won’t leave me for too long.

Until next time…

Amber

 

Waterfalls, whales, and wilderness

About a month ago, I was sailing aboard the Disney Wonder through Alaska’s Inside Passage. It was an amazing adventure, filled with so many unexpected sights and sounds. From the moment the kid and I landed in Vancouver to begin our journey, until we boarded our flight back home, both of us were filled with excitement and wonder. I’ll hit the highlights on our trip and maybe that will inspire you to want to visit the “Last Frontier” too.

The trip began with a 1am arrival into Vancouver, British Columbia. Night flights, yuck. The kid got the benefit of a first class flight though, so that always helps make the late night easier to deal with. We overnighted in Richmond BC, near the airport and then made our way to the Port of Vancouver the next morning. Vancouver is such an interesting city. Big city but with a friendly feel and focus on the environment and outdoor activity. We spent almost two days there after the cruise so I’ll come back to Vancouver later on.

Aboard the Wonder, our stateroom was in the best spot. We were deck 5, aft, on the starboard side in a deluxe oceanview stateroom with Navigator’s verandah. That is a fancy way of saying that the verandah was partially enclosed. On an Alaskan cruise, that was spectacular! It helped keep the chill out somewhat and I loved the cozy cushioned bench.

Our navigator's verandah view

The view from our Navigator’s verandah room

Deck 5 aft is pretty convenient, not far from the Buena Vista Theatre, the kids clubs, and right near the aft elevators to go up/down to food. Anyway, we settled in and set sail for Alaska! Our cruise was a unique, 5-night itinerary with a stop in Ketchikan, Alaska, cruising through the Inside Passage, and a day (aboard the ship) viewing the Dawes Glacier, plus two days at sea. Normally, Alaskan sailings are at least 7-nights, which I’d definitely love to try next time. Alaskan sailings with Disney are so different from the Bahamian and Caribbean sailings I’m used to. No ‘Pirates in the Caribbean’ nights with fireworks, instead there are ‘Freezing the Night Away’ themed parties with Frozen characters and a Pixar Pals dance party inside the Lobby Atrium. Mickey, Minnie, and the gang are dressed up in their cold weather gear, and pool towels are replaced with blankets on the pool deck. Hot cocoa flows freely and gloves, scarves, and hats are available for purchase onboard.

One thing I really loved was the naturalist presentations we were able to attend. These are free sessions onboard during the cruise where you learn more about things related to Alaska and its wildlife. Doug Jones was our cruise’s naturalist and I gather that he’s been with the Wonder since it began the Alaska sailings some years back. He has lived in Alaska for almost his entire life and worked most recently at the Mendenhall Glacier. Super knowledgeable and friendly, he was such a great addition to the cruise. We learned about bears, whales, glaciers, and Alaska in general. He even posted his stateroom number so guests could drop by to talk if they had questions for him!

Dawes Glacier was definitely a sight. It took a long time to sail down the fjord to the glacier itself. Once we were in the right position, the captain stopped the ship, slowly rotating from Port to Starboard from time to time, so everyone would have a great view.  It was so cold once we got back to the glacier, as expected, so coats plus hats and gloves were definitely needed. We spent some time up on the top deck, some down on deck 4 (which is an outer deck area on the Disney ships), and then the rest of the time watching from our balcony. Being down closer to the water on deck 4 and from our stateroom on deck 5 was the best! You could see the icebergs floating so slowly through the water, bobbing and cracking as they drifted along. The sound of the ice and the stillness of the area was breathtaking. It was so quiet, even being on a cruise ship with a couple of thousand other people, that I was astounded. So quiet that you can hear ice cracking… amazing.  The blueness of the ice, the fog, the little trickling waterfalls down the mountains… such memories.

Dawes Glacier

The Dawes Glacier

Glacier day was followed by our day in Ketchikan and what a long port day that was! We had time to enjoy the port until close to 8pm, which was perfect for being able to go out on an excursion and still be able to enjoy the town before returning to the Wonder. Our excursion took us on an enclosed catamaran to the Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness, a several hour roundtrip adventure. We saw New Eddystock Rock, a volcanic plug that still stands upright and exposed, apparently a rare thing to see standing. Seals, salmon, bald eagles, waterfalls, and rock walls carved by glaciers filled our day. A delightful way to spend a chunk of our port time.

Misty Fjords

Glacier carved rock, the photo doesn’t do this justice. So magnificent!

After the excursion, we explored Ketchikan’s shops at the port (very touristy) and then made our way to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. This was a highlight of the trip too. Those guys had skills! It was remarkable how fast they performed their skill tests and they kept the audience entertained throughout. It was a crazy hot and sunny day in Ketchikan, a city that gets over 160 inches of rain per year and is normally much cooler. Everyone was remarking how hot it was and how we lucked out with the weather. I think Mickey might have had a hand in that — or maybe Pudge? Did someone feed Pudge a peanut butter sandwich that day? LOL.

The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show

Chop that wood!

So the cruise was incredible but came to an end so quickly. Back on dry land in Vancouver, we checked into our hotel and headed out to explore. Stanley Park was high on my list of to-dos because of the variety of things to enjoy there. It’s no wonder there’s so much to do, with about a thousand acres in the park! We enjoyed the Vancouver Aquarium (sea otters!), dinner at Stanley’s Bar & Grill, and a showing of Disney’s Newsies at the Malkin Bowl during the Theatre Under the Stars series (front row seats, baby!)

Sea Otter

One of the cute sea otters at the Vancouver Aquarium

The next day had more city exploration, a full route ride on the Hop On, Hop Off bus, a ride on Flyover Canada! (so much fun, like Soarin’ in Epcot but I liked it better!), and a tour with Fans of Vancouver of Hollywood North (so much fun, a must do for TV and movie fans!) So many films and TV shows are filmed in and around Vancouver that surely one of your faves had some Vancouver footage. The Marine Building in particular was visually stunning. I’d love to go back and look closer at the intricate detail inside and outside of the building.

The Marine building

The inside of the Marine Building in Vancouver. Many tv shows and movies have filmed inside here but the architectural features are stunning in person.

Alas, our time in Vancouver drew to a close as well. We grabbed our luggage from storage at the hotel and hopped on the Skytrain back to the airport to fly home. Another yucky night flight, but we made it back home, filled with so many memories of our time in Alaska and Canada.

Until next time!

-Amber

 

 

Off to a galaxy far, far away…

The kid is taking over my blog again to report in on our 4th of July trip to Disneyland. She’s full of info so this is a long one. Enjoy!

Hello once again, it is Hailey here and I am going to tell you about our trip to Disneyland earlier this month, so let’s get started!

We flew out to Disneyland on June 29 and arrived around lunchtime after a five hour long flight. Then we had to get to Anaheim from the Los Angeles airport, and as we drove around Disneyland we could see a little bit of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which made me even more excited! We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, which was a first for me, I had only stayed at the Grand Californian Hotel before. We stayed in the Adventureland Tower and we were on the 10th floor which was close to the E-Ticket lounge on the 11th floor. We had a good view of the pool, but while we were there the Monorail slides were closed for refurbishment so we couldn’t use those, which was fine anyway, because it would’ve been a little chilly to be in and out of the pools.

During our trip, we could not pull ourselves out of the immersive Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, we loved it so much and it by far surpassed any expectations I could’ve had for it. The first time we walked in, we used the Frontierland entrance, so the first things we could see were Savi’s Workshop, the Droid Depot, and a little beyond. Mind you that none of these things were clearly marked in English, they were marked in Aurebesh, the language of the locals of Batuu and beyond. You can use the Disney Parks Play app to translate the Aurebesh into English, to scan crates around the land and find out what is inside of them, tune into different transmissions, and you can hack into door panels and even the Millennium Falcon.

The Millennium Falcon was truly life sized and BEAUTIFUL!! I was amazed at all of the detail in the ships around the land and the overall detail and them; it was amazing. All of the cast members dressed up as the Batuuans had their own outfits and they had created their own backstory. If you asked them a question, they usually wouldn’t give you a straightforward answer, because they aren’t supposed to be from Earth, so they might not know what you are talking about.

Riding Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run was AMAZING!! How your mission turned out really depended on how well you did throughout the mission. So, if you had bad pilots, like we did the first time, you wouldn’t do so good. Six people rode it at one time, there were two pilots, two gunners, and two engineers, you didn’t get to pick which role you got, the Batuuans just handed the position cards to you at random. Your cards are color coated; they call you up by your group’s color so you know when it is your turn to start the mission. My dad and I wanted to be pilots, but we both got the engineer card, and my mom got one of the gunner cards. The engineer is the role that’s has the least things to do, so it is my least favorite. For the pilot, there is a left and a right pilot. Hondo Ohnaka, who is a well-known smuggler from the Star Wars: Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels series, is sending you on the mission. He instructs you throughout the mission, telling the different roles what to do, and the buttons, switches, or levers will have a BRIGHT blinking green light around it to indicate when you need to push, pull, or switch one of the things so you need to pay attention. It is an interactive ride and some people would like to earn more credits. Hondo will refer to the pilots as “left pilot” or “right pilot,” because they both have control over different actions that the ship will need to do in order to do semi-well, like the jump to light speed, the right pilot’s dream come true, like mine did. The gunner’s job is to mash down the button to basically continuously fire at other ships, when the green light is blinking around the button and also fire a missile when Hondo tells you to. The engineer has to fire a harpoon and repair the ship (don’t worry, it is just with the press of a button), so the engineer’s role isn’t that exciting in my opinion. After you have completed the mission, if you have been using the Play app you should be able to collect the same amount of credits, which is the currency there, as Hondo said you had earned, which can be a lot depending on how well you did. Also, the whole ride queue was really cool to look at so many different little details, and we even spotted a Porg nest! Once you get farther along into the queue you get into another room where you finally meet Hondo Ohnaka and he welcomes you to his smuggling business, Ohnaka Transport Solutions. This was a REALLY cool part of the whole ride experience.

Millennium Falcon Gunner card

This is the ‘gunner’ card for the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ride

The food at Galaxy’s Edge was not as vegetarian friendly as my mom and I would have liked it to be, but it sure did fulfill a carnivore’s dream, to eat SPACE meat! Ronto Roasters didn’t have anything that would appeal to my mom and I, and the décor was able to easily gross us out, alien creatures being roasted on a spit wasn’t the most appetizing thing to see, even if you know that isn’t what you are really eating! So, instead of Ronto Roasters we went over to Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo to find something to eat. My mom and I both got Felucian Garden Spread, which was hummus, pita, and “plant-based” kefta, which my dad tried and said it was “very meatball like,” which was NOT appealing to my mom and I. My dad got Fried Endorian Tip-Yip, which was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and an herb gravy, he said he liked his Tip-Yip. Some of the things we did like from Ronto Roasters was the Meiloorun Juice and the Tatooine Sunset drinks, we had many of these refreshments.

We really enjoyed our overall experience in Oga’s Cantina, it was a really cool atmosphere! The music was provided by DJ-R3X and was fun to listen to! The decorations around the bar, in the booths, and near DJ-R3X were amazing and really reminded me of the cantina on Tatooine! We were at the bar the first time we were in the cantina, and it really is the BEST spot to be! You can see all of the different tap handles for the beer and the different ingredients for the drinks, it was such a great experience, you cannot miss it on your trip to Galaxy’s Edge, definite must do! The actual seating in the booths is very limited, when you are at a booth or a standing table, you will most likely be with at least one other family depending on the size of your party, and of course the bar is shared also, you can’t have it all to yourself! They have some really weird drinks at Oga’s Cantina, like the alcoholic Fuzzy Tauntaun, or the non-alcoholic Carbon Freeze, my favorite! And they also have some snacks, but this is not a place that you are going to eat a full meal, there is only two snack options on the menu. One of them is the Batuu Bits, a mixture of different things, like wasabi peas, assorted dried vegetables, chips, and even chocolate meringue! The other is Oga’s Obsession, which is a Jell-O type thing with bobas, or popping pearls, in it, with dried strawberry pieces and basically Pop Rocks on top. Both of these were good, but they were both pretty weird.

We also loved Dok Ondar’s Den of Antiquities; it was super cool inside!! It had taxidermy mounts of different alien creatures, which were sort of cool but also were sort of gross because they were so realistic, even though they were not real. There was a whole wall dedicated to the Holocrons and Kyber Crystals, even though the Kyber Crystals were out of stock the entire time we were there. This was due to the Ebay sellers coming in to buy tons of Kyber Crystals and other merchandise to turn around and sell a single $12.99 crystal for $37.99+, which could sometimes be lower, but was usually at that price and up. Dok Ondar’s had what are called Legacy Lightsabers, which are the lightsabers of some of the characters from the TV shows and movies, these lightsabers do not come with the detachable blade, the blade is sold separately. Dok Ondar’s also had other Star Wars themed merchandise throughout the store, including lightsaber belt clips, which work with some of the Legacy Lightsabers and all of the Savi’s Workshop Handbuilt Lightsabers. In the store you can also see Dok Ondar himself standing up near some of the hanging decorations.

Dok Ondars mounted creatures

Mounted creatures in Dok Ondars

There also is a marketplace sort of area, where the Creature Stall, Toydarian Toymaker, and other stores are located. The Creature Stall has many different little creatures that you can purchase that make different little sounds if you pet them a certain way, and my favorite is the Loth Cat, from Star Wars Rebels. They are so cute! There is also one sleeping in a cage in the center of the store, which is super cute!

We had to visit the Milk Stand, where you could get blue or green milk, which were frozen beverages. We got one of each, and they both taste different, but they are both based on rice and coconut milks, with fruit flavors. I liked the blue milk better, but my dad said he liked the green milk better, I just didn’t like the consistency of the green milk very much. There were containers hanging up made to look like they were holding either blue or green milk, which didn’t make the milks seem very appetizing, because they looked sort of dirty. The Milk Stand is in the First Order section of Batuu, so you could see Kylo Ren or an officer on patrol with storm troopers. In the Resistance encampment, you could see Chewbacca and/or Rey walking around or repairing the spacecraft parked over there, there was an A-Wing and an X-Wing. In the Resistance area you can see also the entrance and queue area where Rise of the Resistance will be located when it opens next year.

The Milk Stand

Not sure the blue and green milk looked super appetizing…

My dad and I also went to Savi’s Workshop to make our own custom lightsabers, but in order to do so, you need to be up at 7:00am PST to make your reservations the day of, no earlier, to reserve spots at both Savi’s Workshop and Oga’s Cantina, and reservations go quickly, so plan for which day you might want to do either of these things! We went to Savi’s to check in for the reservation and purchase the lightsabers 15 minutes ahead, when we though we were supposed to do so, but they said to come back at the exact time of our reservation. The Gatherers want to keep this operation a secret from the First Order, so they are careful to hide behind the illusion that they sell scrap metal, not lightsabers. So we came back at the time of our reservation, and chose the set of lightsaber parts we would like, I chose Elemental Nature and my dad chose Peace and Justice, and we had to go ahead and pay then, we received our pin which would tell the Gatherers inside the room what style we had chosen and the card that told them what group we were in. We had to put our pins “above our heart,” as the Gatherers said it. And after a little bit of anticipation we were brought into an oval shaped room with 14 different work stations, where we would build our lightsabers. I don’t want to say too much about this, so I don’t spoil anything for anyone who might build their own lightsaber, so I will just say that the main Gatherer talked about the different parts and explained how to put them together while we built them, but before that about the Kyber Crystals. And then finished it all off with seeing your completed custom lightsaber, and as you walked our they gave you a carrying case for it. Even though I didn’t go over the full experience, just know that it was truly AMAZING, and very worth it!! If you are going to Galaxy’s Edge and deciding between a droid and a lightsaber, the lightsaber really has more of an experience and a story to go along with it, and I forgot to mention that the hilt is metal and is VERY heavy by itself, and the blade is “Battle-ready,” but I was unwilling to test this out. The Droid Depot never really had a wait to build a droid and it wasn’t really as memorable looking as the experience of building your very own lightsaber. I waited SOOO LONG to build my own lightsaber, and it was a Star Wars fan’s dream come true.

Going to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was NOT the only thing we did on this past trip, even though it may sound like it, and it was hard to pull ourselves out of the immersive land, we did spend time in California Adventure and the rest of Disneyland too. Oh, and one more thing about Galaxy’s Edge, it did NOT seem like a part of Disneyland at all! It seemed like its own park, like you hadn’t been in Disneyland all day, it was really weird! We rode Autopia, one of my favs, I like it so much better than Tomorrowland Speedway at Disney World; it is much longer and much cooler! We rode Haunted Mansion, which is super different, Hyperspace Mountain, which sort of made us motion sick, Star Tours, which is no different, we got the same movie we always get at Disney World, Buzz Lightyear: Space Ranger Spin, which we like better because of the different laser guns, Matterhorn, which we were unable to ride the first time because an earthquake happened as we were boarding the bobsleds, it’s a small world, which is longer and cuter than the Disney World one, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, which we hadn’t ridden before, and many more!

it's a small world

Disneyland’s it’s a small world ride rocks! You load and exit the ride outside!

In California Adventure we rode the Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission – Breakout! Ride for the first time, and we liked it more than Tower of Terror, it had more drops and was really fun! We also met some Marvel characters, like Captain Marvel, Loki, and Black Panther. We also went to Pixar Pier for the first time, it was really cute! Everything was re-themed to fit in with the Pixar theme. The little carnival games were no exception and there was one themed for the short film called “La Luna” and was SOOO cute! You dipped out a star from the water, and depending on which color dot was on the back you got a certain level of prize, and the lowest level were different little stars and moons making different faces, and the said Pixar Pier on the back, so cute and a cheap souvenir! The next level up were shooting stars, and the highest level was the boy from the short holding one of the stars! They were adorable!

Stars from Pixar Pier "La Luna" game

Here are our prizes from the “La Luna” game. Super cute!

On one of the days we went on a LA city tour, which was really cool! We got to see a lot of different things like Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, the Santa Monica Pier, the Hollywood Walk of Fame (we even saw Minnie Mouse’s star), the Chinese Theater, the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign, and so many other cool things!

Footprints of Star Wars

We couldn’t miss the ‘footprints’ of Star Wars main actors from 1977 while at the Chinese Theater!

This trip to Disneyland was the longest one we have had yet, and it was a great one! My mom will be back soon to tell you about the trip that she and I just got back from, Canada and a Disney Alaskan Cruise, a fun blog you won’t want to miss!

Loth Cat

Even our new Loth Cat was sad to be on the plane heading home…

This is Hailey, signing out!