Springtime at Disney, what a delight!

Spring at Disney World is one of the most magical times to visit. I have enjoyed many a magical spring break with the Mouse as the Flower and Garden Festival blooms at Epcot and the temperatures start to creep up to their summer highs. COVID made this spring break pretty unusual since the theme park crowds were capped, keeping the typical hours (and hours) long wait times much lower than usual. We started the week in the low 90s and ended with a high of 60! Talk about needing to pack a variety of clothes!

Donald, Daisy, Huey, Dewey, and Louie at Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival

The trip started at Disney’s Polynesian Village resort, in a studio villa room. The Poly is under heavy renovation right now with only the villa side of the resort open for guests. The Great Ceremonial House is open but services are limited and the monorail station at the resort is completely closed. For those looking to travel to Magic Kingdom, the resort boat, bus, or walking along the new (long) walking path are your options. The Epcot monorail line has been out of service for quite some time, so you have to catch a bus to get there or go to the other theme parks. ‘Ohana, one of my favorite restaurants, hasn’t reopened yet either, which keeps guests that aren’t staying at the resort to a minimum. Both pools are open and as beautiful as always. I love the saltwater quiet pool that is closest to the villas. The Barefoot Pool Bar at the main pool was still serving up delish drinks, including my new favorite margarita, a frozen margarita with Dole Whip lime. And the stuff around the edges? Chili-lime seasoning. Oh… so very good! The resort was so relaxing that I might seek out a resort in major renovation stage in the future to help thin the crowds!

Frozen Margarita at the Polynesian resort

We wanted this trip to be a little more ‘chill’ than some of our trips have been, so we made sure to factor in a good bit of downtime into our plans. I like having time to just explore the resort I’m staying at, taking photos, walking around and seeing what you’d normally blast right past on your way to the parks, and enjoying the pools. Each resort is so different, and things change so often, that you could truly have a completely different trip every time you visited. That’s what keeps Disney fresh for me too, that there are constant changes and improvements with each adventure. We’ve now visited on five separate trips since the parks and resorts reopened last July and each trip has been so different. The festivals at Epcot help keep the options there fun and exciting and I can never get enough time in Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios.

I hear grumbling about masks and will admit, don’t love ’em, but they’re a fact of life that we’re all dealing with right now. I refuse to let them hamper my fun. I have never been one to run around from one end of a park to the other, trying just to check off everything that (I think) there is to do. I don’t encourage that approach for my clients either. While you might ‘think’ you’re doing it all, you most certainly are not. You’re probably hitting the main attractions but you are missing what makes Disney unique. If you go to Disney with that plan right now, you’re likely to have an epic fail. This is the time to go to enjoy yourself. Take the time to see things you’ve never seen before. Ride the rides you can never get on because the lines are normally too long (and don’t for one second think that a 20-minute line for an attraction is outrageous, you’ve never seen a Disney line if you think 20 minutes is a long one). Sit down, relax, and take in the sights and sounds of the parks. Enjoy the food. Interact with the Cast Members. Take off that mask in a Relaxation Station while you enjoy a snack and a cool drink. Disney was always meant to be a place where a family could go and do things together, making memories and having fun. It morphed into a checklist of everything you had to do or you just didn’t do Disney ‘right’. That’s ridiculous. You can go to Disney multiple times each year and never do all of the things there are to do. Go, wear your mask, squeeze your kid, stay hydrated, and talk the whole way home about how awesome that favorite ride was.

Now that I’m off that soapbox, back to the trip. The parks, fantastic as always. The lines I saw were laughable at best. Mine Train well under an hour. Ha, that’s crazytown compared to the normal 2-3 hours during spring break. We rode Haunted Mansion back to back with no wait in the early evening. Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway with a posted 30-minute wait, might have waited for 20, tops. The other cool thing that people aren’t thinking about is that, for some of the most popular rides, have you ever even been in the normal queue? Most people can only ride these popular rides with FastPasses, when that service was available because the lines were hours long without one. So you never saw the regular queue, some of which are incredibly themed and have exhibits and games. That doesn’t mean I’m going to wait in a three-hour line to look at a queue, but I sure will enjoy it during my 20-30 minute stroll through. Darn soapbox.

After the Polynesian, we made the mistake of moving over to the Swan resort. I had never stayed at the Swan or the Dolphin resorts as they are not owned by Disney and do not come with some of the Disney amenities that you want like being able to use Magic Bands, Magical Express, charging to the room, and now even Disney bus service to the parks. They’re providing charter buses to the parks but those don’t drop off where Disney buses do up at the front of the parks so, hope you like walking! Anyway, had to see what the Swan draw was but, couldn’t find it. While the location is good, sitting in the Boardwalk area near the Disney-owned Boardwalk Inn, Yacht Club, and Beach Club resorts, that was the only perk. Someone commented to me that the hotels reminded them of Las Vegas and maybe that’s what some of the turnoff was. There was nothing at all special about these hotels. They are high-rise properties with one set of elevators per wing of the building that are slow and can get some pretty incredible lines in the evening as guests return to the resort. We even took the stairs up to our room one evening, and if you know me, I am not a stair taker. The pools look nice online, especially the Grotto pool over at the Dolphin resort. We walked to the Swan pool and all the way over to the Dolphin pools and could not find one single beach chair to put our stuff on to get in any of the three pool areas or the beach. Not one. Very luckily, this was the day we left the Polynesian so we were able to get right back in the van and go back to the Polynesian to enjoy their pool again until the end of the day. How many people were in the Poly pool? Maybe 10, including the three of us. The Swan room itself was ok, decent size but bizarrely shaped as a corner room. The bathroom was one of the tiniest bathrooms I have ever seen in a hotel. You could sit on the toilet and put one hand in the sink and your foot in the tub at the same time. Forget having more than one person trying to use the space at the same time. It was hard not to fall over the toilet trying to use the sink. Coming from the Polynesian with the split bathrooms where you had a big walk-in shower and sink in one bathroom and a normal tub/shower combo plus toilet and second vanity in the other bathroom, this was such a letdown. OK, I should know better than staying at the Polynesian and then downgrading to the Swan but jeez. Even the Courtyard hotel we stayed at on the drive to Florida had a bathroom twice the size of the one at the Swan. And don’t get me started about resort and parking fees! I knew about these going in but, for the resort being a huge bummer, the fees didn’t improve the impression. $140.54 charged to my card on departure for two nights of parking and resort fees. Lesson learned.

Oh yeah! Outlets. I wanted to go to the Disney Character Warehouse Outlets near Universal to see what kind of great deals I could find. I knew they were operating with a line system where you would give your number and they would text you with a return time to enter the store. This helps with crowds and social distancing and is sensible right now because the store gets packed. What I didn’t know… Over 80 families in front of me waiting to go into the store. No idea how long that would take before I could go in. If you’ve been to these outlets, they’re not exactly ones I want to spend a ton of time in. I go for the Disney outlet and that’s it. I’m not a big shopper anymore either and there was no way I could find something to do for hours and hours waiting to be able to go into the store. Super disappointing. Add that to the time it takes to drive over there, traffic, and the horrendous parking at the outlets, this was another mistake I won’t repeat. The parking here is usually nuts where you drive up and down the rows until you see someone leaving and you race to pull into the spot before the next guy. The Character Warehouse outlets have been taken over by shoppers who go in and buy all that they can find to turn around and resell on various websites. So those folks hoard and spend way too long of a turn in the store. Grrrr. I’d love to go back to a time when what someone bought was actually for their own use and not to try to turn a resale profit. There are so many things you get shut out of buying now because of this practice and it frustrates me on the regular. If you don’t want the thing you’re buying, leave it at the store for someone that does!!

We had a lovely dinner at The Wave at the Contemporary resort after the outlet debacle, so that made the day perk up in a hurry. Some exploration at the Contemporary and a little pin trading put the smiles back on (under our masks.) One of our days was spent hopping from Hollywood Studios to Magic Kingdom and then to Epcot, a blast and a half! We hit our personal highlights and hopped ’til we dropped. So worth those sore feet the next day!

Cauliflower tacos from The Wave. I cannot say enough about how incredible these things are! I would eat them every single day if I could.

Giordano’s Pizza! I note this place as a delivery option for clients on their travel documents and always try to work it in for my own trips. Well, I worked it in twice on this trip! They have the best deep dish pizza and the hubs is now hooked on one of their subs. It is a really good thing Giordano’s doesn’t exist here in Virginia! You just place your order on their website and wait for the delivery person to text that they are almost to your resort. Delivery does take some time, so plan ahead and don’t worry about it running a little past their estimate, remember the traffic! You will not go to bed hungry after a Giordano’s delivery!

Another lovely trip in the books and we’re already planning the next one, set for the fall. That feels like so long from now though that we might have to squeeze another trip in before then. If only there was a high-speed train from my house to Mickey…

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Enjoying the Festival of the Arts at Epcot

Epcot features several festivals throughout the year: International Flower and Garden Festival in the spring, International Food and Wine Festival in the fall, International Festival of the Holidays late in the year, and International Festival of the Arts early in the year. I have enjoyed most these festivals numerous times over the years but the one that had eluded me was the Festival of the Arts. Celebrating its 5th year in 2021, I decided it was time to head south to see this festival for myself. The fam and I hopped on a plane and spent a quick weekend taking in the sights at Epcot and discovering this is our favorite festival of all. Why? Just keep reading…

So the Festival of the Arts only runs from early January to about mid-February. We just missed the start of the festival on our last trip over New Years. After seeing picture after picture from the festival on Instagram and Facebook, I just knew that I couldn’t let myself miss this event. Luckily flights were cheap and I booked a two-night getaway to Orlando. We stayed at Pop Century for this short visit and had a great room in the 60s section, very near the lobby and food court. Great location. This resort really is so fun and whimsical; I loved taking some time to walk around and soak in the icons and decor from the 1950s to 1990s. If you’ve stayed at Pop and never spent some time exploring, do it! Even the display cases in the lobby provide quite a bit of entertainment as you flashback to memories from your childhood. Those from Virginia will notice a pamphlet from Endless Caverns in one of them! The Skyliner took us from Pop Century over to Epcot’s International Gateway entrance between France and the United Kingdom. I love starting at the ‘back’ of the park, especially for festivals, because it puts me right in the center of the action. With no intention of riding or doing anything ‘typical’ on this trip, the focus was on activities and entertainment specific to the festival. Even though we got into the park before opening and stayed until close to closing, we still had a few things that we didn’t have a chance to do that were festival-specific. We’ll just have to go back in 2022! 😉

Who didn’t have a Big Wheel as a kid??

First stop, United Kingdom. There was the cutest display of paintings done of characters by characters here! That portrait of Mulan done by Mushu, in fire!, was incredible. And I loved the ‘pink, no blue!’ influence of Flora and Merryweather on Aurora’s painting.

The weather was looking a little iffy and rain showers were in the forecast, so I knew that I needed to move quickly to the Chalk Art display closer to the front of the park. Every day, artists come into the park and are given three hours and a block of space to finish a chalk art drawing. Color me impressed because their art blew me away. Luckily the major rainstorms didn’t transpire, but I cried a little inside thinking of the work that goes into these pieces only to have them washed away. From famous art reproductions to Disney characters, these pieces were breathtaking!

I felt inspired by the chalk artists, so I decided to head to the paint-by-number mural that was available for guests participate in. This was another must-do on my list. You are allowed to choose a color and then are able to paint seven squares marked with the number assigned to your color. The mural itself is huge and you can go back and paint more squares if you return to the start of the line after you finish your initial seven. The mural is sectioned off for social distancing and the finished mural will look like the bookmark (shown in the picture below) that you get as a souvenir when you’re done.

Another super treat for this festival was going into the countries of World Showcase and looking for hidden art. These characters were hidden pretty darn well at times and so much fun to look for! I won’t share them all, but here are two to enjoy! These would be fun to see year round, but alas, they’ll be gone soon!

You could find so many different styles of art for purchase during the festival as well. Everything from Disney Fine Art, to lesser known artists, different mediums, etc. Here are some of my faves! There are some others on their way to my home right now; shipping is available for these purchases and highly recommended! I also discovered that I love the art from Rob Kaz, the artist behind the little frog named Beau that you’ll see in a painting below. Adorbs!

The artists often visit the festival at different times to showcase and autograph their artwork. This is also so much fun to see. There is even a part of the festival where the artists are painting live! Disney Fine Artist, Tim Rogerson, painted this Baymax with a lollipop while we were there!

Disney Fine Artist Tim Rogerson painting Baymax

Another artist and former Imagineer, Morgan Lee Richardson, worked on a series of paintings illustrating the areas of Epcot and those were a treat to see in person. His work can be found throughout the parks and resorts, especially in Animal Kingdom. You’ll recognize his style from any buttons you have purchased recently in Animal Kingdom for the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. His art is on the right in the shot below, with Jimmy Pickering’s interpretation on the left.

For those of you familiar with Figment, the loveable purple dragon often used as an Epcot mascot, you’ll see him sprinkled throughout the festival. For a small fee, you can participate in a Figment-themed art scavenger hunt and receive a small prize after you have found all of the missing paintings. Figment has inserted his presence in several famous paintings that are hidden in World Showcase and it was a blast trying to find them all. You’ll notice him taking over the lead in ‘One Little Scream’ below.

To fully immerse yourself in the art, there are several 3D paintings setup throughout the park where you can literally ‘get in to the painting’. Some have PhotoPass photographers nearby to help pose you for some really cool snapshots. In the one below, you can step into the pages of Peter Pan and be a mermaid or part of Hook’s crew.

So.much.fun! And I didn’t even mention the food! All Epcot festivals have a food component where you can purchase different snack size foods around the park that are themed like the particular festival. The Festival of the Arts had what I would call the best tasting food of the four festivals and definitely the prettiest. The focus on presentation was impressive. You’ll have to check out my Instagram page for more pictures of the art and food!

Overall, loved this festival! What a great weekend! Can’t wait to go back next year!

Until next time!

Amber

New Year’s Mousin’ Eve

Happy 2021! It felt so nice to ring in the new year, snuggled with my family in our room at Disney’s Coronado Springs resort. We had never visited Disney over New Year’s before, as that is typically the most crowded time of the year to be there. We’re talking deep lines to wait for every single thing and that’s just not our jam. However, the capacity limits on the parks made the decision to visit over New Year’s a pretty easy one for us. Hopping on a plane again, we flew south to get away for a few days and celebrate 2021, Disney style.

We’ve stayed at Coronado Springs several times in the past, but this was our first stay in the new Gran Destino Tower at that resort. Let me just say — swanky! Loved the deluxe feel of this moderate level resort. The lobby here is stunning and ultra-modern. I can’t wait to visit again!

Looking down to the lower level of the lobby of Disney’s Coronado Springs resort’s Gran Destino Tower

Coronado is a fairly large moderate level resort, with four Disney bus stops providing bus transportation to the four theme parks and Disney Springs. Staying at Coronado in the past though, I knew that the buses were usually not that busy, so I had no worries on the transportation front. In fact, we had the bus to ourselves several times during this trip, coming or going from one place or another. All transportation is still socially distanced or divided, as I mentioned in my last trip report from November, and I am absolutely loving not having to worry about standing up on a bus when heading home after a long day in the parks!

Park hopping came back as of January 1st and I had the chance to hop between Hollywood Studios and Epcot one day during this visit. Hopping never was for everyone, and that remains true now more than ever. You must have a Park Pass reservation for the park that you will start the day in and you must actually enter that park before attempting to hop. After 2pm, you are allowed to hop to the second park of the day, based on that park’s availability. That seems to be where lots of questions lie. How do you know if the other park is at capacity? What about a dining reservation at the second park if you can’t get in? Why do I want to hop after 2pm if the park I’m trying to get to closes at 5pm (if you’re not asking yourself that, you should be)? Some of these are easy answers, like being mindful of the hours of the parks so you’re not wasting time and money to hop somewhere that will only give you two or three hours of park time. Others are harder, like knowing if the other park will be at capacity. Hopping gives you flexibility but it can also take it away. Since it isn’t free and can be a bit of a hassle with transportation at times, I’d probably leave it to those who really feel their trip won’t be complete without it.

Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom was shining in her new colors. I really like these and how much they remind me of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.

Cinderella Castle, welcoming 2021 with open gates

Have I mentioned capacity limits in the parks? So, to be clear, that in no way means that the parks are empty and that you’ll be walking on and riding everything you want without waiting. Never going to happen. However, it does mean that the crowd density is way down and the lines you see are much smaller than normal. Now, some of those lines are going to look like they are miles long. Thank social distancing for that. Many of the ride queues weren’t made for people needing to be in a six-foot bubble. The line for Frozen Ever After in Epcot was wrapped all around Norway and clear into China! But the wait was only like an hour. That’s less than you’d normally wait for Frozen on a pre-COVID day at the busiest time of the year (it would have been hours!) and the line was constantly moving. Anyone who says the lines are ‘so long’ right now don’t have much park experience, especially at busy times of the year. Peter Pan’s Flight in Magic Kingdom was like 25 minutes! I mean really folks. That line is always 75 minutes+ every day of the year.

Another cool thing? When the density is down, you can see things in the parks that you might normally squeeze on by. Since there are no fireworks and Castle stage shows, you can walk through the middle of Cinderella Castle all day! I don’t know when the last time that happened was. This gives you so much time to be able to stop to admire the incredible tile murals in the Castle and the detail that they contain. Highly recommend taking a peek at these! Another thing you’re likely to have missed in the past are these cute little bronze statues in Magic Kingdom near the hub area in front of Cinderella Castle. Bet you’ve never even realized they are there before!

Donald Duck, feeling fancy!

Another thing that comes up a lot is the characters. Very few character meals are happening right now and the ones that are have no autographs because the characters can’t come directly to the tables, just walk by at a distance. There are no character meet and greets or scheduled parades in the parks either. What was Disney’s solution? Character cavalcades! These are great. Like unscheduled mini-parades, these pop-up all day long in all four parks. You never know who you might see going by on a float or a car. And the best thing? You don’t need to stake out a prime spot to watch the parade 30, 45, 60 minutes before it is scheduled to start! In fact, I was standing in line at a gift shop, heard the parade music start, hopped out of line and stood right at the parade going by. Literally nobody in front of me, around us, characters right there driving by. Took just a few minutes, got lots of pictures and waves, and back in the gift shop line I went. How.crazy.easy! In Magic Kingdom in particular, there were three sets of cavalcades happening. One had Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto and the gang riding on a large float. Another had Pooh, Alice, Peter Pan, Aladdin, Mary Poppins, and Tigger The third was a huge float of princesses including all the main ladies plus Elena and the Fairy Godmother. We saw each one of these cavalcades at least three times one day! In Epcot, out of the blue appeared a horse-drawn carriage with Sleeping Beauty, Belle, and Snow White onboard. In fact, we had no idea the carriage was even coming, it was just there all of the sudden. Then, as it passed, we jumped right behind it and followed it all the way to the Mexico Pavilion, where it went backstage at the end of its route. It was like we were part of the parade too!

Aurora, Belle, and Snow White, greeting their fans in Epcot

Of course, being huge Star Wars fans, we spent time one morning in Hollywood Studios, enjoying Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Going back to Batuu is always a trip highlight for us. This time, we were over the moon to have been able to finally be able to purchase a lightsaber set from Dok Ondar’s Den of Antiquities. The Ahsoka Tano Clone Wars lightsaber set came out in late October or early November and basically immediately sold out. We tried to find them at Thanksgiving, but no luck. Ebay has quite the collection of them for purchase at double, triple, quadruple, etc. their value, which just irks me to no end. However, we were able to score a set this time, after an apparent restock that had just happened that morning. Should’ve bought a lottery ticket to go with those lightsabers. For those that aren’t familiar with Ahsoka – you need to watch one of the Star Wars animated series called ‘The Clone Wars’. Besides being an incredible show, you get to meet Ahsoka, a great Star Wars heroine who has more recently appeared in the hit live action Star Wars show on Disney+, ‘The Mandalorian’. While in Hollywood Studios, we slide into a theater and watched the new ‘Vacation Fun’ show of Mickey shorts cartoons. These are on Disney+ too and so cute, the same Mickey cartoon style that is featured on the new Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride at Hollywood Studios. This show just started right before COVID hit and is a definitely stop you should make on your next visit to the park. Adorable!

Oh no! Mickey’s still packing for vacation and it’s time to leave! Sound familiar?

During this trip, we also had another non-Disney mission. From November 13th through January 3rd, Give Kids the World in Kissimmee, about 15 minutes from Disney World, had a stunning display of holiday lights. For those of you that remember the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights show that used to be setup annually at Hollywood Studios, this will look familiar. Disney actually donated over three million of those lights to Give Kids the World for this event. We are huge Osborne Lights fans and I’ve always been curious about Give Kids the World, so I grabbed tickets for the event held on New Years Eve. What an incredible experience! Give Kids the World is a non-profit organization that sits on 89-acres, a ‘storybook’ village resort, where children with critical illnesses and their families are treated to a week-long vacation at no cost to them. Due to COVID, the organization hasn’t been able to grant the ‘wish’ of any families to visit the village for months and they are suffering financially from not being able to fundraise like they would in a typical year. The Night of a Million Lights even was born and sold out most every night of the event, which I am so happy to report. This village isn’t normally open to the public and being able to see it up-close and so beautifully decorated was something I’ll never forget. It has almost 300 villas, basically duplexes, where the families stay for a week during their visit. Like a subdivision, it was quite sprawling to walk through. A huge pool with waterplay area, a spa/salon, mini-golf, an arcade, mini-train set (so cool, you could activate certain features of the town the train runs through), a carousel, a small train for children to ride on, other amusement park attractions, restaurants, and so much more. I was in awe. If you want to support an organization that truly brings smiles to families when they are most desperately needed, this is it.

That’s all for now… happy 2021!

xoxo, Amber

Sunny days at the beach before Santa’s big visit

You know me, I have to gaze longingly at the ocean and breathe in the salty air to keep my soul in balance. The month doesn’t matter, I’ve dipped my toes in the ocean every month of the year at some point or another. The fam and I headed to Disney’s Hilton Head Island resort in South Carolina for a few days before Christmas rolled into town. It was such a fantastic time to get away from the holiday madness and reconnect with each other.

Disney has resorts all over the world (and no, they don’t all involve a theme park) but their property at Hilton Head remains as one of my favorites. It is so relaxing to sit in a rocker on your private balcony, staring out at the live oak trees, moss dangling from their branches. Watching the tide go in and out of the sound that the resort sits alongside. In warmer weather, spending time in the pool at the main resort or over at the Beach House makes for a great day. Since we visited in December and the weather was pleasant but not really great for swimming, we spent some time poolside but not in the water itself. The Beach House is a fantastic place to just sit in a chair and relax in the sun; it is located oceanfront and a short distance from the main resort (via shuttle, your own car, walking, or biking).

Something we always do while on resort is enjoy a Mickey tie-dye session. We were wondering how that would unfold in COVID times and, I have to say, it was super! The Cast Members had skillfully prepared the tie-dye area for maximum safety from cross-contamination and social distancing. The shirts were already rubber-banded for us in the traditional Mickey head tie-dye pattern (SO GREAT! This is always a challenge.) and all of the dye was clearly labeled. Each tie-dye participant had a good bit of space to create their art and the entire process felt less hectic than usual. Kudos to the team and I hope this process stays the same post-COVID!

We all love to collect seashells and explore the beach and we found an incredible new spot on the island, tucked away from the usual scene, full of so many things to observe. There were actual oyster reefs, a hidden river (that made the shells the water ran over become so smooth!), so many horseshoe crabs (only the shells though), shells like crazy (a bit unusual for Hilton Head), and a lot of peace and quiet. I’d love to share the location but — not gonna happen! I had to do some digging to find it and don’t want to spread the word on this one and have it lose its charm. All I can say is, do your research and you might find the joy that we did at this quiet spot. We found several shark teeth this time too and now I’m hooked on looking for those!

Dinner at the Salty Dog Cafe in Sea Pines was delish as always plus they offer outdoor seating if you’re not comfortable indoors during COVID. Their indoor seating was very distanced though and I didn’t have any concerns with safety. We were so happy to be able to try the Salty Dog Ice Cream Factory, which is never open when we visit Hilton Head, and enjoy some of their tasty offerings — pumpkin cheesecake, sweet potato casserole, gingerbread, eggnog, and so many more festive and standard flavors. Some fun times were spent at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store too, a blast from the past and full of Piggly Wiggly merch!

Let’s see, what else? Lots of Mickey waffles were consumed during our stay plus bunches of pin trading took place over at the Broad Creek Mercantile store. This resort is always one of the best for pin trading. The Cast Members here are so very friendly, management gets engaged and comes out to talk to the guests and help out the staff when needed, plus you have the typical Disney quality and cleanliness. We see some of the same Cast Members visit after visit and that’s so much fun for us to see ‘old friends’.

The hubs, kid, and I brought along my stepdad, two nieces, and my sister on this journey. My mom decided to stay back and prep for Christmas (boo!) so she missed all the fun. Other than some ridiculously loud neighbors (bless their hearts), we had a blast. We walked my poor stepdad for miles and miles but I think he enjoyed hanging out with the craziness. Another bright spot in the trip was the reconnecting. Sometimes when you travel with family, you have your moments when you want to lock each other out of the room, and we had some of those. But I have to say, I spent a lot of time with my sister and I think we both came away with a great experience. There was a lot of bonding going on, bent over picking up shells, and hoping that next find would be a shark tooth or some other super cool shell. Goofy moments in the car, food quirks, shell identifying, and sharing that pumpkin cheesecake ice cream made for some great memories. Thanks Leslie.

xoxo,

Amber

Turkey day with Mickey

The hubs, kid, and I took to the skies to travel to Disney last week for the Thanksgiving holiday. Masks, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, frequent handwashing, and steering clear of other people helped keep us safe during our adventure. The airports, parks, and resorts had most guests wearing masks properly and abiding by social distancing rules. You always have those folks that think they don’t need to follow what has been asked of them, but that doesn’t fly at Disney or onboard an airplane. Disney’s Cast Members (employees) are very quick to correct anyone they see with a nose out, mask completely off, or wearing a non-compliant mask (neck gaiters just don’t cut it there). The airlines are the same way, including banning you from flying in the future if you don’t comply. As Nike says, “just do it”.

The plan for this trip was short and sweet, with some resort exploration and a day at Hollywood Studios soaking up the sun in Batuu. We ended up with two full exploration days, which was great for us, and allowed for more free time and some shopping at Disney Springs. We flew in on Tuesday evening and spent the night at Disney’s Art of Animation resort in one of their Little Mermaid themed standard rooms. These rooms have been renovated to now include two queen beds, laminate flooring, and spruced up décor. I love the move to laminate flooring in the resorts. It feels so much more hygienic and modern than carpet that quickly looks like it has seen its better days. The queen beds are a nice upgrade from the original double beds that had been here since the resort’s opening days.

Little Mermaid themed standard room at Disney's Art of Animation resort
The blue laminate flooring in these rooms is such a great touch to make you feel like you are under the sea!

We enjoyed our overnight here and spend the evening strolling around and enjoying the larger than life decorations in each section of the resort. Our personal favorite is always the Cars section, as the kid was a huge Cars fan when she was little, so we hung out over there for quite a while. When dinner time rolled around, the pizza combo meal from the Landscape of Flavors food court at the resort hit the spot. Large cheese pizza, family size salad, breadsticks, plus the drinks we added on, made dinner under $50 and quite delish. Mobile ordering at the food court was a breeze, I actually placed the order on the MyDisneyExperience app walking to the food court and then selected ‘I am here’ when we arrived closer to the building. After a brief wait while they prepared the food, we were instructed where to enter and what table to collect our order from. A quick stop over at the drink station, where Cast Members were filling drinks for guests, took care of our liquid refreshment needs on the way to our table outside. Eating outside at the resorts is super easy, no matter if you’re in a value, moderate, or deluxe level property. Mobile order your meal from the food court or quick service location, pick it up, and head outdoors!

Calling all cars! Time to check in at the Wheel Well Motor Court!

The next morning, we moved our belongings to Disney’s Boardwalk Villas resort, where we moved into our deluxe studio room for the remainder of the trip. We had early dinner plans at Raglan Road at Disney Springs, so we went ahead and hopped on a bus to the Springs to spend some time shopping, enjoying the Christmas Tree Stroll Scavenger Hunt, and wrapping up with dinner. If you pickup a free map for the scavenger hunt, you can mark each decorated tree found at Disney Springs and return the map for a small prize!

Mulan themed tree at Disney Springs
Participating in the Christmas Tree Stroll scavenger hunt allows you to see all of the beautifully decorated trees, featuring many popular Disney movies like this Mulan-inspired tree.

Dinner at Raglan Road was excellent, as always, and enjoyed on the outdoor patio this time around. What a lovely place to relax and enjoy amazing food in an open-air environment! Service was excellent too, with a five-layer mask worn by our server! After dinner, we headed back over to Boardwalk to get settled in for the evening. We took Disney bus transportation to Disney Springs and back, as well as other times during the trip, and had no safety concerns. When you board, the driver tells you what marked section to sit in, based on your party size, and each section is separated by dividers. No more standing! The emergency exits on the roof are open as well, to allow for more airflow when the bus is in motion. At no time during the trip did we have to sit close to any other party and, we were actually on buses completely by ourselves several times.

Bus seat division
Bus seats were clearly marked for where you could/couldn’t sit and the driver directed you to a section to use for your ride.

Speaking of transportation in general, we rode every form of Disney transportation on this trip to see how each piece was setup. The boats had dividers between rows of seats and were restricting you to one family per row (or two guests per row, depending on the size of the boat/row.) The monorails had separated sections of each train car, and the monorail attendants took your party to an available empty section. Skyliner gondolas are already setup for an individual party to ride in each gondola and there is no longer any mixing of parties in each gondola. I don’t know about you, but I love being separated out like this and have no complaints if it stays this way for awhile. I’m sure as capacity is allowed to increase and pandemic safety concerns get more under control, these types of precautions will go by the wayside, but they’re nice to have right now!

On Thanksgiving, we spent the day exploring resorts and transportation. We started by walking from our resort over to the Epcot International Gateway entrance, where we hopped on the Skyliner over to the Riviera resort. We LOVE Riviera so walking around there was so nice. We grabbed a snack of amazing Romano and herb fries from Primo Piatto and enjoyed those by the water while watching the Skyliner gondolas zip by. After stopping for some photos, we hopped back on the Skyliner over to the nearby Caribbean Beach resort where we switched Skyliner routes to head to Hollywood Studios. At the Studios, we boarded a bus to the Fort Wilderness resort and campground. At the Fort, we spent some time looking around at the different types of campsites, the wilderness cabins, and some of the amenities (great stores and the main pool is so nice!) The resort was bustling with activity from guests enjoying the Thanksgiving Day scavenger hunt, renting canoes and bikes, and gem mining! We actually went to the Fort just to try out the gem mining experience and had such a great time! It had a nominal fee of $9 per bag of ‘paydirt’ that you then took to the mining station where you sifted through the dirt to find the goodies! We had so much fun that we bought a third bag to enjoy!

After our time at the Fort, we took a boat over to Magic Kingdom where we stopped to snap a few pictures before walking over to the Contemporary resort. There, we did a little shopping and took a break outside under the monorail tracks to gaze longingly at Magic Kingdom. Dinner time came around pretty quickly though, and we headed back inside to The Wave, where we had an incredible dinner. Tables spaced very appropriately, servers with masks and face shields, etc. Though indoors, I felt perfectly safe here. Grabbing a holiday Linzer cookie from the Contempo Cafe upstairs on the way out, we grabbed a ride on the monorail to make our way to the Grand Floridian resort. You have to take a picture of the Christmas tree setup at the Grand for the holidays! I so missed the Gingerbread houses this year, especially the big one at the Grand, but it is just one of the many things that we have to look forward to for 2021! Since it was getting late, we decided to take the new walking path that connects the Grand back to Magic Kingdom. A lovely 15 minute or so walk, we enjoyed having this ‘transportation’ option for a great evening stroll. Once back at Magic Kingdom, it was time to board a bus ‘home’ to the Boardwalk to rest our feet and get ready for our Hollywood Studios day!

It was finally time for Hollywood Studios, what these Star Wars fans had been waiting so (im)patiently for! At 6:55am, I logged in to the MyDisneyExperience app, starting the cycle of endless refreshing to try to grab a boarding group for the newest ride, “Rise of the Resistance” in Hollywood Studios’ Galaxy’s Edge section. Boarding groups are required to ride this attraction, due to popularity, and they literally completely fill up each morning at 7am in SECONDS. Not to toot my own horn too much, but BOARDING GROUP #1 BABY! We were in the park, which officially opened at 10am but unofficially opens closer to 9am, and had ridden Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad when our boarding group was called at 9:40am to ride Rise.

Boarding Group #1! I didn’t even realize they actually started out that low!!

Now, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride is very new too and SO.MUCH.FUN! I wasn’t sure quite what to expect but this trackless ride will blow you away! Great for families and adults only, I could ride this ride over and over! I can only hope that rides like Rise and Railway are the future of Disney attractions because these two are simply incredible experiences.

Getting ready to get interrogated by the First Order on Rise of the Resistance!

We spent a ton of time in Batuu, as usual, the Star Wars planet you’re visiting when entering Galaxy’s Edge. Technically you’re at Black Spire Outpost there, and any Star Wars fan will be blown away by the detail that went into creating Batuu. The hubs, the kid, and I have spent hours upon hours in Batuu East (Hollywood Studios) and West (Disneyland) and could easily spend so much more time there. The marketplace was reconfigured for social distancing in a really cool way. You line up to enter the marketplace as a whole. When your turn to enter comes, you then choose which market stall you want to go to first (creature stall, toy store, Batuu merch, clothing, etc.) and wait in that stall’s line. Each market stall only allows one party/family in at a time! So it is basically like a private shopping opportunity where you can actually see all of the merchandise without having to look over and around other guests. Love it! Mobile ordering food in Batuu is even easier now too, especially over at Docking Bay 7. When your food is ready, you enter the building, are given your food, and then you are directed to a table to enjoy your meal (inside or outside). Wait, what?!? No fighting for tables or cramming around one that doesn’t really fit your party? Nope. Directed to a table. Ah-mazing!

After a long day at the Studios, we took a boat back to Boardwalk and ordered some pizza and salad from the delish Giordano’s. Deep dish pizza for dinner, why yes, I think I will! They deliver to Disney resorts and are very cost-effective. Enjoying the pizza by the Boardwalk pool made for a nice break and al fresco experience. Since it was Friday night, that meant only one more thing to cap off the perfect day… The Mandalorian!! Of course, we had to bring the Chromecast along so we could stream Disney+ to our room and be able to see The Mandalorian’s new episode before spoilers filled our newsfeeds. I won’t spoil it for you, if you haven’t watched it yet, but that episode was superb! Our dreams were filled with beloved Clone Wars characters and a name drop that we weren’t expecting at all!

The next morning brought a yummy breakfast, sans characters, at Trattoria al Forno at our resort. Trattoria is the home of the Bon Voyage Princess breakfast with Ariel and Rapunzel in normal times, but no characters have returned to the location yet. The bonus right now though is that the food is still just as good and the price is very scaled back without the characters. Win-win! After a short flight home, we were back in Virginia and changing out of our shorts into long pants, greeting the chilly evening with a scowl.

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

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