Spring break time!

When spring break rolls around each year, the fam and I take to the open road to recharge and reconnect. This year’s adventure took us to Disney World followed by a Bahamian cruise on the beautiful Disney Wish. Our 12.5 hour drive from Virginia to Florida has been steadily improving over the years as we’ve embraced the backroads and smaller highways instead of opting for traditional Interstate routes. While we do end up on I-95 and I-4 for about half of our trip overall, the other half is spent pleasantly traveling along US-29 and a variety of other smaller roads before we end up on the beast that is I-95. This doesn’t really add any time to our journey and most definitely makes it more interesting. I love driving through the small towns and seeing things you simple can’t as you fly by on the Interstate. Take a look at your route the next time you have a long driving trip. Maybe there are some smaller roads you can venture out on to give you a new perspective!

We arrived in Florida and spent the time before our cruise at the Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge resort. We haven’t stayed at Boulder Ridge in a good while but I opted to return since the rooms there were recently renovated. They’re super nice now and I love the change of bedding (good riddance sofa bed and hello Murphy bed!) and the carpet-less floors. The murphy bed pulls down to reveal that cute Donald Duck tent picture and Chip and Dale are hiding in the pull-down single bed that is also available in the room.

Our main to-do before the cruise was to ride the new TRON Lightcycle / Run roller coaster at Magic Kingdom. This ride opens to the public on April 4th but we had booked a special preview ride for this trip, two previews actually with one before the cruise and one the day we debarked the ship. The coaster was amazing! The ride vehicles look like lightcycles from the movie (Tron came out in 1982) and you ride on them like a motorcycle. There are also accessible ride vehicles at the back of some of the trains that remind me of a convertible VW Beetle. These are called lightrovers and are great for guests with any accessibility or mobility concerns, guests of size, smaller children who might be afraid of the lightcycle positioning, etc. The required height for the attraction is 48″ but it does take off and go very quickly during the experience. The lightrovers seat two guests and have individual lap bars that pull down for each guest, sort of like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Coaster but WAY more comfortable. I rode the lightrover both times we enjoyed the ride but the hubs and kid took the lightcycles. We all had a great time and I wouldn’t hesitate to go either route, depending on which you were more comfortable with. Note that you likely will have a bit of a wait if you want to go with the lightrover option, but it was worth it to me. The ride time is fairly quick but the experience was worth it. I will say that both times we rode were earlier in the day and I would love to ride at night when all of the lighting is noticeable. I think that will add a lot to the overall enjoyment factor.

The Flower and Garden Festival in Epcot kicked off right before we arrived in Orlando so that was also a stop we had on our list. During the festival, various musical acts perform in the America Gardens Theatre in the evenings. The concerts are free but you can add a dining reservation at a participating restaurant and receive entrance into a reserved seating area for one of that night’s shows. These shows are called Garden Rocks and we saw Daughtry during our visit. The show was fantastic, despite having endless rain for a few hours before the show’s start. I love these concerts and it is such a treat when a performer we like happens to line up with a trip we have scheduled. The other Epcot festivals have performances too (Broadway starts at the Festival of the Arts, the Food & Wine Festival has the Eat to the Beat concerts which have bands similar to Garden Rocks, and then the Festival of the Holidays has the Candlelight Processional with celebrity narrators). All of these are free and all also have the dining package that can be added on for reserved seating for the show.

Before we went to Port Canaveral to board the Wish, we started off with a hearty breakfast at the ever-popular Whispering Canyon Cafe at Wilderness Lodge. This breakfast was delish and our waitress was a total hoot! Sometimes the shenanigans at Whispering Canyon are hit-or-miss but we loved her. There was an unplanned stop afterward on the way to the Port to buy some new shoes for the kid and me… remember that rain at Epcot? Well, our shoes were soaked and attempts to get them dry enough to wear had failed. Always pack two pairs of tennis shoes!

At the Port, we boarded the Wish, had some lunch at Marceline Market and wandered a bit until our stateroom was ready. Then it was time to get settled and do the Muster Drill (back in person again, bummer!!) and start enjoying the ship. We always go with late dinner on our cruises and were fortunate to have our favorite server onboard to help us in the main dining room for dinner each evening. Unfortunately for us, he is being promoted to Assistant Head Server and we won’t be able to request him for our regular server any more. Boo! We’re so happy for him though, he is our absolute fave. We also had brunch in Palo Steakhouse on this cruise and got our fave Palo waitress again so that was a double-treat. When you make those kinds of connections, it really makes each subsequent cruise that much more special when you are able to spend time feeling like old friends. There was quite a bit of snacking at Donald’s Cantina for burritos and bowls for lunch and I’m sure gallons of ice cream was consumed by the hubs. I really like the quick service style food options and set up on the Wish better than the other four ships but I wish they would get rid of the Impossible food and go back to actual veggie burgers. This vegetarian does not eat fake meat!

We really enjoy spending time on the pool deck, watching movies on the funnel, reading, and just relaxing. After a long day, it is always nice to come back to the stateroom to find a cool towel/blanket animal too. I loved this wiener dog!

Since we sailed on the Wish in September, we skipped all of the nighttime shows and spent more time enjoying the other activities onboard. Drawing classes have always been a hit with us but this time we spent most of our time in various trivia events. We’ve always been trivia fans but I think we went to more trivia on this one cruise than we’ve ever done on all of our prior sailings combined! The kid is a Star Wars expert and we won Star Wars trivia plus Disney villains trivia and Disney food trivia. We almost won a couple of others, losing a tie-breaker on one and just coming in close to the top at a few more. Oddly enough, our favorite trivia was 90s music trivia. We didn’t win but we were very close. There was some guy who knew everything (isn’t there always!) and we hit a song none of us had ever heard of. But the best part was the packed room and everyone singing along when we were going through the answers. So much fun and definitely on our list for next cruise!

Our cruise was a 4-night Bahamian so it had one day at sea, one in Nassau, and one at Disney’s island, Castaway Cay. Nassau is probably my least favorite port I’ve ever been to so we never get off there. Our sea day was packed on the ship but that let up some when people adventured into Nassau. The Wish is a very large ship but with our cruise being over a spring break period, it was very, very full. Much more full than it was in September and reported to be a little more full even over what we had for the rest of the month. I will say it is very nice to have an adult child now so we can spend our time in the 18+ areas to help break up the crowds. The hubs and the kid rode the Aqua Mouse water rollercoaster and really liked it. I did not — major fear of getting stuck in/on a waterslide keeps me from most of those ‘adventures’. See the lifeguard walking in the tube in the picture below? That was to retrieve someone who got stuck. Fear unlocked!

Speaking of adult-only areas, Serenity Bay on Castaway Cay was at the top of our to-dos for this cruise. We have never been over to the adult section of the island since we have always sailed with a child. However, it was time to get over there since the kid is now 18! I was very happy to see that there were plenty of chairs and umbrellas there and the beach is a nice long walking beach. The water was pleasant and bar service was great! There is also a smaller version of the lunch restaurants there and it had some other food options that Cookies and Cookies Too don’t have! I loved it there and can’t wait to spend more time at Serenity Bay in the future. Castaway Cay as a whole never disappoints!

After the cruise, we drove back to Disney to do our second Tron preview. I was very quickly reminded why we do not stay at off-site hotels and do not drive ourselves to Magic Kingdom. Parking in the world’s biggest parking lot, having to take the tram to the Transportation and Ticket Center, boarding the ferry and waiting for it to fill (the monorail was mobbed), then going across the lake to Magic Kingdom… No way. If I had to do that every time I wanted to go to Magic Kingdom, I would lose my mind. I remember that from years ago when I visited as a child but I have stayed on-site for every trip since and will NEVER go back. We’ve parked in the Hollywood Studios and Epcot lots in the last couple of years for random reasons and that too is definitely not my cup of tea. Doing that every day of a trip, what a nightmare.

Our drive home was filled with so very much traffic until we finally were back to our backroads. This trip coincided with Bike Week in Daytona Beach so both legs of the trip were filled with motorcycles and guests headed to/from Daytona. That plus all of the regular I-95 and spring break traffic meant backups, delays, and accidents galore. But once we were back on our little roads, it was smooth sailing once again.

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber


Epcot’s Festival of the Arts — a true delight!

The fam and I were back at the World last week and we had a blast! We were visiting for the Epcot International Festival of the Arts and decided to stay at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. This was our first time staying at the Fort, although we have visited the resort a handful of times over the years. Campers can rent a campsite but those without RVs (or tents) can rent a cute wilderness cabin. With the Fort being spread out over about 750 acres, renting a golf cart is basically a must-do, so we arranged for that beforehand. Parking right at the cabin was so handy, as was driving to/from the main bus stop as needed. It really added to the fun!

These cabins sleep up to six but I personally would keep that to 2 or 3 adults and 2 to 3 kids. There is a queen bed and set of bunks in the bedroom (so that sleeps four) and a pull-out sofa in the living room (for two more guests) but just one bathroom. We are a party of three adults and were cozy but fine, although I can’t imagine having another adult or multiple kids in the space. Having a small kitchen was also a plus and allowed us to have some groceries in the room for breakfast and snacks at the end of the day. I even saw deer at the resort twice on our trip, once right out of our bedroom window!

Like the other three annual Epcot festivals, the Festival of the Arts offers food booths throughout the park with small, tapas-sized food and drinks for purchase. The big difference is that the food at this festival is much more inventive and purposefully ‘pretty’ when served. We love to snack and some of our faves are pictured below and yes, that is a sushi donut! It is so funny to see guests coming in, grabbing their festival booklet, choosing their ‘roadmap’ of food for the day, and eating their way from location to location. Some guests come in with printouts from various websites with lists of the food options and checklists to make sure they don’t miss anything! We do something similar, albeit much less intense, by going through Disney’s list of offerings before the festival and making some rough notes on things we want to try. Being a vegetarian, my options automatically get cut way down (boo!) but there were some great fruit options this year. I only missed a really fun looking mozzarella dish from Italy this time but the line was INSANE so I passed (also boo!)

Since it is the Festival of the ARTS, you can’t miss all of the art being offered and created throughout the park. A variety of artists come in and showcase their work, including originals for the festival, and autograph pieces purchased during the event. This is a big highlight for us as we have followed some of the artists for years and love to see what they bring to the festival each January. There are also ways to create your own art, including the super fun paint-by-number mural before you enter World Showcase. This is a gigantic canvas, painted by guests and completed about every two days. Then the canvases are removed and stored and a new scene is set up for the next day. There are four scenes to paint throughout the festival. The picture below shows the four murals happening this year. I love the Starry Night one but it won’t come up until later in February. The one we were working on was the first one shown below with Figment in a pop art style. Each guest gets a paint brush and cup of paint, then is directed to the mural and paints a certain number of squares in an assigned section for their numbered color. Everyone really gets into it!

Our other favorite part of the festival is the chalk art that is created on the bridge into World Showcase. Chalk artists come in every day to create masterpieces for guests to enjoy. If it rains, the artists have a backup location to chalk and use canvases instead. This year, my daughter was invited to come to Epcot to chalk for the festival, which was such an amazing opportunity! She is in college and is majoring in art so this was a dream come true for her. There are about 15 people on the chalk art team this year, some chalking every other day and others coming in for a piece or two. Her piece was a recreation of Wassily Kandinsky’s Circles, so fun and colorful. They generally do recreations of masters but Leigh, Hailey’s art teacher and the main chalk artist for the festival, is allowed to chalk Disney characters (with some restrictions). Each piece generally takes about three to four hours to complete and is done with soft pastels. If you want to see some incredible work come to life during your festival visit, do not miss stopping by and watching these artists create some true magic!

We also visited Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios during this trip and had a fun thing happen for us while in line for Tower of Terror! We were in the Lightning Lane line for Tower, making our way around the outside of the Hollywood Tower Hotel to enter the building. We ran across Goofy, who was entertaining guests in the regular queue line. He looked at Hailey and then led her off with him around the corner. We were all a bit confused, until we saw where he was heading. His son, Max, was right around the corner and Goofy took Hailey to him! It was so incredibly cute and such a memorable moment. You see, Hailey has loved the Max character since she was little. Max’s love interest in The Goofy Movie (which we watched so many times) was Roxanne, who does resemble Hailey with the red hair. He has always been a hard character to find in the parks so this was super cool! Truly magical!

This trip was so much fun and really reminded me why I love all things Disney. The Cast Member interactions were incredible, we loved our little cabin, ate some delicious food, and enjoyed all of our favorite attractions and shows. Even as our daughter gets older and we visit more and more, our passion for Disney doesn’t change and we continue to make new memories to treasure forever. It is so nice to have an 18-year-old who still likes hanging out with her parents. Although, I think we’re pretty fun…

Until next time,


SoCal and Oahu, here we come!

Hello there! Hailey here, and I’m back to write again about our most recent trip to the Happiest Place on Earth and the Aloha State. All ready for some fun in the sun, my parents and I hopped on a plane headed to California with my aunt and two cousins. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, my grandparents who were also supposed to travel with us unfortunately had to stay home, which was a huge bummer. After a quick layover in Dallas, we boarded on another plane and soon landed in Santa Ana. We then took a short ride over to the Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, our home base for the next couple of days. After checking in and making a quick stop at our rooms, we headed out to visit Disneyland, a first time visit for both of my cousins, and first time in years for my aunt. We were all very famished from our early flight and many hours spent on the plane, but not to worry, corn dogs, grilled cheese, and tomato soup to the rescue! My dad always talks about how the Little Red Wagon in Disneyland has the best corn dogs, but since I’m vegetarian I can’t speak to this, so you will just have to take his word for it.

We then used the Genie+ service to ride all sorts of rides throughout the park, including Star Tours, Matterhorn, it’s a small world, Haunted Mansion, and Smuggler’s Run. On Smuggler’s Run we ended the mission with Hondo taking a large sum of our credits for “damages.” It turns out that the flight controls of the Millennium Falcon are quite sensitive, who knew! Shoutout to our gunners and engineers for capturing and securing the cargo, the Resistance is grateful for your efforts! My parents and I are huge Star Wars fans, and we ended up being at Disneyland while Star Wars Celebration was happening right down the road at a convention center in Anaheim. We were sadly not able to attend the event, which we were all a bit sad about, knowing that people like Ewan McGregor, Temuera Morrison, Dee Bradley Baker, Dave Filoni, and Hayden Christensen were all right there and we couldn’t meet them. We still hoped to run across some of the personalities from Celebration in the parks after the events for the day had finished but didn’t end up seeing any. If we had, I have to say I would’ve been fangirling very hard, and my parents would have been really excited too. After spending the first day in Disneyland, the next day was spent mostly in California Adventure. We had a great time riding rides like Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!, Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, The Incredicoaster, and Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure. After riding Web Slingers, we all had sore arms due to very enthusiastically slinging webs at the Spider-Bots. While in Avengers Campus, we saw Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch, and we had lunch at the Pym Test Kitchen. My cousin and I are both huge Cars fans, so we also spent a good amount of time in Cars Land. Sadly, Radiator Springs Racers was closed, so we didn’t get the chance to ride it. She loved seeing Radiator Springs in real life for the first time, and we all had a great time there!

We had a great time visiting the parks on the west coast, but even though we didn’t get a chance to see and do everything, it was time to hop on the plane again. We soon landed in Honolulu, grabbed our luggage, picked up our rental car, and drove out to Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we went over to a little shopping center just across the road from the resort. We had lunch and visited several shops located there, but then went back to the resort and room was ready. Our room was a two-bedroom villa located on the fourth floor, and we had a great view of the resort and the lazy river. We decided to get some groceries for our stay, so we drove out to a store to pick up some essentials, and it ended up working out great having breakfast, snacks, and drinks in the room. We spent the next day rotating through the lazy river, the ocean, the infinity pool, and the waterslides. We all enjoyed having some relaxing pool time, especially after the past few days had been so busy. We all tried shaved ice, a popular Hawaiian treat, and we were able to choose three flavors, mine were green tea, haupia (coconut), and li hing mui, which I really enjoyed. I personally do not recommend the lychee flavor, unless you happen to really like the flavor of rose, which was very unexpected and not very pleasing.  

On the next day we went out to visit Pearl Harbor National Memorial and Waikiki. My parents and I traveled to Hawaii nearly 8 years ago, and we also visited Pearl Harbor on that trip. I enjoyed being able to see the memorial again, since I am older now and was able to understand and appreciate it more. While we were in Waikiki, we went to one of the Honolulu Cookie Company’s stores, which has excellent macadamia nut shortbread cookies in a variety of flavors. We also went to the Paradise Cove Luau, located right down the road from Aulani, which was a lot of fun! There was a wonderful show with hula dancers, fire dancers, and live vocalists. You could also make your own flower bracelet and compete in several games with other guests. The Paradise Cove Luau is also known for having a great view of the Hawaiian sunset, with both ocean waves and beautiful mountains in view. Dinner was served buffet style with several types of meat, as well as rice, vegetables, salad, and bread. For dessert, one of the choices was haupia, a traditional Hawaiian coconut pudding, which we enjoyed!

We also rented a cabana at Aulani to use during one of the days that we spent a lot of time in the pool. This was very helpful because it can sometimes be difficult to find even a single chair to leave your belongings in while you are in the pool. It had a safe, a mini fridge, a fan, two sun lounge chairs, a huge sofa, a fruit tray, a dessert tray, and a snack bowl. There were several attendants who we could contact if we wanted to have more towels or to order food and beverages. We also spent a lot of time in the pool and ocean on this day, and one of my cousins and my aunt both snorkeled, which they had a lot of fun doing. Aulani has both snorkeling and stand-up paddleboarding, which you can participate in for a fee, but they also have boogie boards which do not have a fee. You just have to sign up to take them, so they can keep track of who has taken the boards out for the day. We used the boogie boards in the ocean, and all had a great time with them. We all were really interested in trying out the acai bowls from the Ulu Café at Aulani, and they were so good! My mom and I tried the tropical one, which had mango, pineapple, papaya, and banana on it as well as granola and honey. We both really liked it, but the portion size was huge, so I think next time we would end up sharing. We had a wonderful time at Aulani, but it was soon time to head back to the mainland.

We flew on Hawaiian Airlines both to and from Hawaii, which was a nice experience. The plane was very large compared to the others we flew on with a row of four seats down the middle of the plane as well as two rows of two down either side. Before we landed they gave us little treats, such as a pineapple flavored Honolulu Cookie Company cookie, or a small pack of chocolate covered macadamia nuts. Once we landed at LAX, we took a transfer to get to our hotel for the next few nights, The Garland, which is located in North Hollywood. The hotel was a very retro and boutique property. The hotel includes a shuttle service to Universal CityWalk Hollywood, which is just a short ride down the road. During this last part of our trip, we went on the A Day in LA City Tour and saw many different sights and scenes all across the city. Once we were picked up by the bus, we had to stop at a few more hotels to pick up other guests, but the last stop was on Hollywood Boulevard, and it was very interesting to see it early in the morning with basically no one there. We came back later in the day, but it was not anywhere near as peaceful. While on the tour we saw the Beverly Hills sign, Rodeo Drive, Venice Beach, the Santa Monica Pier, The Grove, The Original Farmers Market, Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood Sign, and Hollywood Boulevard. My parents and I have been on one of these tours before, and we did not stop at Venice Beach or Rodeo Drive, and I have to say that we preferred that experience. No one on the tour was going to be buying things on Rodeo Drive, otherwise they wouldn’t be on this tour, would they! And Venice Beach just didn’t have the greatest environment, in our opinion, but it was cool to watch all of the skateboarders there. Other than that, we all had a great time seeing all that the city had to offer.

And so, our trip came to an end. We were all ready to head back home after being out of town for so long and were looking forward to sleeping on the plane rides home. We were all very confused about what time and day it was due to going from the three hour time difference in California, then the six hour difference in Hawaii, and then back to the three hour difference in California. And then the one-hour difference in Texas for our connections each way. So yeah, we were a mess! By the time we got home, it was around 3am and we were still running on Hawaii time, but we were all glad to run inside and see the cats, who had a lot to say about us being gone for so long. They will be stuck with us at home for a while now, because our next trip planned at the moment isn’t until September for my 18th birthday! Super excited for that, but for now I think I will stick to some much needed pool time. Until next time!


Springtime fun with the Mouse

My last visit to Disney World was in January for the International Festival of the Arts in Epcot so I knew a return trip to celebrate spring was a must-do. The fam and I plus one of my nieces hopped on a plane in late March to enjoy the changing of the seasons at the Most Magical Place on Earth. This trip was my niece’s first time back at the Disney parks in quite some time, so it was great to share the magic with her and introduce her to the wonder that is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Despite not going in as a Star Wars fan, I think we might be converting her, little by little!

On each trip, I try to make sure I do at least one new thing, whether that be staying somewhere I’ve not stayed before (a different resort or type of room), trying a new restaurant, or experiencing a new attraction or event. One would think that we would run out of ‘new’ things after visiting as much as we do during the year but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even if it is something as simple as a new snack or activity, there are always things to try that you’ve not experienced before. For us on this trip, that meant a new resort and room type (Disney’s All-Star Music resort in a family suite) and returning to a restaurant that changed its format (Crystal Palace going from a menu restaurant back to buffet style.)

Staying at All-Star Music resort was a first for us, we have never stayed at any of the All-Star Resort hotels before. While we have stayed at Art of Animation and Pop Century, which are also value level resorts at Disney like the All-Stars, the All-Star resorts never felt like the right fit for us. They are often bombarded with school and sports groups and that isn’t my cup of tea. This trip was no exception as far as that was concerned, there were tons of school groups staying at All-Star Music for spring break when we were there. I have to admit, that was the big downside to this resort because I just do not like getting stuck in a herd of teenagers that are largely unsupervised and they really do a number on lines for the park buses in the morning. That being said, I felt like the resort really compensated for that because we didn’t spend a long time in bus lines and were frequently shuttled to and from the parks on large coaches instead of regular Disney buses. Those seem to hold a significantly greater number of guests (and felt far more comfortable since everyone gets a seat) so that really improved the transportation experience. It definitely felt like a longer ride from this resort to the parks and that’s probably because of its location coupled with only having bus transportation options to the parks whereas Art of Animation and Pop Century also have Skyliner access to two of the four parks.

Panchito Pistoles!

I really liked hanging out by the pool in the late evenings after returning from the parks and that made for a great way to wind down before bed. I am a huge fan of the Three Caballeros movie and the main pool at All-Star Music has a water feature of Donald, Jose, and Panchito. Loved it! Traveling with my niece and my daughter, both teenagers, we wanted to have a second bathroom. The family suites at All-Star Music have two full bathrooms and a kitchenette as well as three separate beds, so it was the perfect setup for what we were looking for on this trip. These rooms have a living room that has a sofa plus a dining room table with four chairs and the first bathroom with a tub/shower combo. Both the sofa and table pull down from the wall to convert to queen-sized beds. In the master bedroom, there is another regular queen bed and the second bathroom with walk-in shower. The storage in this room really blew my mind too, I couldn’t believe how many drawers and shelves were available. I have stayed in many resorts where storage is so lacking that we practically live out of our suitcases and this was such a welcome change. The kitchenette was a great amenity when it came to breakfast in the room and a pizza delivery night. Just being able to store our drinks for the parks and leftovers was a huge help as was the microwave when the idea of a late-night pizza snack hit. There are family suites at Art of Animation too and we have enjoyed those but I actually came away liking the layout and features of this room better. If only All-Star Music could be paired with the Skyliner access to Epcot and Hollywood Studios like Art has though…

There is almost always a festival happening in Epcot and we were fortunate to be visiting during the Flower and Garden Festival. I love Epcot and think it is always so beautiful but the topiaries and floral displays that are found during the Flower and Garden Festival are truly a sight to behold. I am always amazed at what the horticulture team at Disney is able to produce and keep looking beautiful day after day in the hot Florida sun. It is also such a treat to be able to take part in the Spike’s Pollination Exploration scavenger hunt (small fee but you also receive a prize upon completion) because it helps make sure that your park day has a little non-attraction based fun added in.

Bambi and friends and, if you look super close, you’ll spy Winnie the Pooh in the background!

We scored a cancellation at Space 220 in Epcot, the newest restaurant and one that comes at a steep price tag but with a great dining experience. The service here is top-notch and I love watching the astronauts and ships fly by the space station while you’re eating. The theme of this restaurant is that you travel up from Epcot to the Centauri Space Station to dine. So many things to look at while you are enjoying your meal!

A spaceship going by the space station while you dine

I don’t always take the time to visit Animal Kingdom but I wanted to make sure we did so on this trip. I absolutely love the Pandora section of the park and riding Avatar: Flight of Passage but also can’t get enough of Kilimanjaro Safaris. We were pleased to see so many animals up close on our safari including these elephants and white rhinos! It is such an incredible experience to have these majestic animals come so close to the ride vehicle and to watch them interact with each other.

No trip of ours to Disney would be complete without time at Hollywood Studios and at least a walk through Batuu. Usually, we make a stop at Oga’s Cantina for a drink, take a few passes through Dok Ondar’s and Droid Depot to check for any new merchandise, and somehow never miss being interrogated by the First Order on Rise of the Resistance. There are some fun mystery droid blind boxes in Droid Depot right now that run about $18/each but include a little BB or R unit and a display case. Unfortunately, we have bought six and have gotten two sets of duplicates. Bummer!

Next up, interrogation time!

Our Hollywood Studios day was freakishly rainy so we ran for cover a few times and luckily didn’t get too drenched. Ponchos to the rescue! I will say, Florida and rain go together like the sky and clouds. You just need to accept that you won’t have one without the other and prepare for any showers that pop up. Rain is no reason to leave the park but you had better believe that people do! Just hang in there and the shower will pass by soon enough. And if it doesn’t, the crowds will likely go way down so enjoy shorter lines!

Howdy partner! Why yes, I did bring my poncho!

Magic Kingdom was as magical as ever and never disappoints. We took the time to watch the return of the Festival of Fantasy parade and I was so happy to see the Maleficent fire-breathing dragon back in action. There were so many characters dancing down the parade route too! So happy to see normalcy returning!

Belle leads the way for the Festival of Fantasy parade in Magic Kingdom

As all good trips do, it came to an end far too soon, but we were happy to have the memories. My next trip is out to the West Coast to Disneyland so stay tuned for the recap on that this summer!



Return to the Epcot Festival of the Arts!

I’ve been a bit remiss in keeping up with my blogging duties over the last month. I neglected to report on my New Years trip to Disney’s Hilton Head Island resort (TL;DR version, Hilton Head was a blast as usual very relaxing and perfect weather!) but I wanted to be sure to capture the highlights of my return to the Epcot Festival of the Arts in mid-January!

Pluto was happy to see us at Hilton Head!

Epcot has four festivals during the year: Festival of the Arts, Flower and Garden Festival, Food and Wine Festival, and Festival of the Holidays. If you’re unlucky enough to visit in a small frame of time between festivals, well boo. They are pretty spread out to cover most of the year but there are pockets of time where the festivals are changing over and you can easily end up in one. Festival of the Arts is my absolute favorite though. So much to do in Epcot that is directly related to the beauty of art and features things like artists on-site creating new art and signing their work, food booths offering beautiful tapas-style items for purchase, and life-size paintings you can become a part of. The level of talent that these artists showcase is incredible!

Let’s talk about chalk art. If you’ve never seen chalk art up close, let me tell you how amazing it truly is! The details, the colors, the scale and size of the work… not to mention the artists have to sit on the ground or crouch while creating these masterpieces! And the rain! I don’t know how they don’t just break down in tears when it starts to rain after they have worked so hard on a piece. Que será será I suppose. Two of my favorites are Leigh Alfredson (thechalkteacher on Instagram) and Nate Baranowski (nate.baranowski on Instagram). Their work is crazy good. Nate does large-scale chalk art that you can ‘step’ right into. You have to check out their Instas. Talent in every shot. When it rains, they take their work indoors and keep the magic flowing!

Leigh’s completed Luca, her work in process of Pico from Encanto (indoor chalking that day due to weather), and another artist completing a National Geographic piece.

One of my most favorite parts of this festival is the paint-by-number that everyone can participate in. You are given a small foam brush and a cup of paint. Each color is numbered and the huge canvas is squared off with each square assigned a number. You are allowed to paint eight squares numbered to match your color. When done, it all comes together in a gigantic mural. I could literally stand there and paint squares all day. You’re given a bookmark that shows what the finished mural looks like. Cast Members say that each mural takes about two days to complete. This year’s mural is a take on Van Gogh’s Starry Night, which is my absolute favorite painting!

All of the festivals have a scavenger hunt available for a small fee. After your hunt is complete, you redeem your completed game piece for a prize. This year’s prizes, appropriately, are little figures that you paint and we chose Figment! How fun is that!

Pro tip: Don’t panic if you can’t complete the scavenger hunt! You can still pick up your prize at one of the redemption locations.

I love going through the countries of World Showcase and looking for the hidden character art! You have to look hard sometimes to find the friends that are hiding in each country! Abu might have been trying to pocket some pans here in Morocco!

Hidden art!

There are so many life-size pieces of art throughout the park that you can step into and recreate for yourself. Track them down and get your pose ready!

Stepping inside of the paintings is such a ‘Scream!’

Of course, it is the artists of the past and present that make this festival what it is. We love to be able to purchase art from our favorite artists and be able to have them sign their work. These folks really make the festival so much more special!

Rob Kaz is an official Disney artist but also has his own line of work that is not Disney related. You can find him on Instagram @RobKazArt

We spent a ton of our trip time in Epcot for the festival but also wanted to try out some new things not related just to that. We had lunch at the new Space 220 restaurant (delish food, beautiful preparation, inventive options, and carefully designed atmosphere), saw Minnie (yes, there are still characters in the parks, quite a few in Epcot actually, you just can’t hug them or get autographs still), and meandered into Club Cool for some soda samples from around the world!

We did make time to visit Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios on this trip as well. Since we were staying at the Beach Club resort, we were able to walk right into Epcot and take a short boat ride to get to Hollywood Studios. Beach Club, Yacht Club, and the Boardwalk Inn all share this same fantastic location and are so convenient to Epcot and the Studios. Of course, no visit to Disney for my family is complete without at least one (or two, or three, or…) visit to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios. We flew the Millennium Falcon a couple of times, fought the First Order on Rise of the Resistance, and managed to spend a few credits on some new droid pins at Droid Depot.

Have you ever heard these droids making noises? Did you know that is caused by other guests using the Play Parks App? Try it!

Magic Kingdom’s fireworks show that started on October 1st, Enchantment, has been so popular that we had not been able to watch it until this trip. It is always so crowded and I just am not willing to stake out a spot far enough in advance to get a decent view. This time, we splurged on the Treats and Seats dessert party and wowza was it worth it! We’ve done dessert parties in the past and enjoyed those, but this one feels different with the COVID impact. This is the seated party option where you have desserts/drinks and then watch the fireworks while seated at the Tomorrowland Terrace restaurant. The tables are no longer really close together and you have a great view no matter what table you are given when you arrive. Other bonuses besides the food and drinks (alcohol too!) would be the bathrooms that are right at the seating area, not getting trampled to death, and your small children (or short adults) being able to see. The last time we tried to watch Enchantment, we were uncomfortably close to a heated argument, near fist-fight, and very unpleasant exchange between several guests stuck in the crowd as the fireworks began. Every penny I paid for the dessert party was worth not having that experience again. Did I mention free Moscato and POG juice — what a way to cap the evening!

Alas, all good Disney trips must come to an end. Before we knew it, we were back in the skies on the way home, filled with new memories and a carry-on full of art!



SoCal Thanksgiving!

To some, Thanksgiving means turkey and green bean casserole. To my family, Thanksgiving means time to pack a bag and get out of town! This year, we decided that Disneyland would be our Thanksgiving destination. We’ve been trying to get to Disneyland since the summer of 2020, and I can imagine you know how that went. Three rescheduled trips later and it was finally time to board the plane to LAX and enjoy the warm Anaheim air!

Flying around Thanksgiving is the busiest time of the year and while it was busy this year too, I can say that it seemed less insane to us than normal. Not that normal is a ‘thing’ anymore since COVID, but I was expecting far worse of an experience traveling via air across the country. Other than what seemed like a million flight changes, rebookings, and getting to LA via Boston (go northeast to go west?), we made it safe and sound into sunny California and started the adventure on a high note. Thanks JetBlue!

Whenever I go to Disneyland, I stay at one of the three on-site Disney resorts: the Grand Californian, Disneyland Hotel, or Paradise Pier. This time, we went with the Disneyland Hotel, which never disappoints. I love that it is so classicly Disney and you can really feel the history throughout. Our room was lovely, all Cast Members we met were so gracious and happy, even the other guests were pretty darn pleasant. I’ve noticed that guests at Disney World in FL are skewing more ‘entitled’ and can be downright rude and obnoxious since the COVID reopening last year. Expectations are often way out of line with reality in these bizarre times we’re living in and some of the behavior I’ve witnessed definitely belongs back in quarantine. However, Disneyland has a very large local guest population from the SoCal area and that really tends to affect the guest attitude and park experience. I always joke that literally everyone in the parks has at least one piece of Disney apparel on if not multiple, and very few of the matching shirt groups like you see at Disney World. Everyone really seemed happy to be there, enjoying themselves, and ready for a good time. Refreshing!

Welcome to the Disneyland Hotel!

The weather was delightful throughout our stay with not a drop of rain. My hair loves the lack of humidity and I love not looking like a disaster an hour after leaving the room. This is especially true when so many of the other guests have clearly spent a good bit of time prepping themselves for a day in the parks and look like they’ve stepped out of a magazine or off Instagram. I love people watching, looking to see if I can find any celebrities, which is completely crazy since I don’t know that I would actually recognize very many. I did see (and talk to!!) Josh D’Amaro, the Chairman of Disney Parks! Core memory!

Once we got settled in the room, it was time for a quick lunch and then park time. Disneyland was up first and it was crazy how quickly seeing the park got us in the holiday spirit! Everything is always so pristine at the Disney parks and walking into Disneyland, dressed to impress with holiday decor, was breathtaking. I will never get tired of entering those gates and walking down the original Main Street USA toward Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Hello beautiful!

I couldn’t believe how many characters we saw during this trip! Of course, they are all still socially distanced and aren’t signing autographs, but I could make a gigantic list of everyone we saw. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, Chip, Dale, Marie, Stormtroopers, Jack and Sally, Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Dr. Strange, Thor, three of the Eternals, Black Widow, Black Panther, Shang Chi, Taskmaster, the Dora Milaje, Spiderman, Iron Man, Woody, Jessie, the Incredibles, Snow White, Gaston, plus so many more in the parades! I know I’m forgetting some too! They also have cavalcades with characters running in both parks, like at Disney World, and a full holiday parade that is happening in Disneyland. I was blown away at how ‘normal’ all of that felt and how incredible it was to see the beautiful holiday happenings. I also so love that Disneyland still uses a lot of the original transportation that was in place when Walt was alive like the vehicle shown below with Minnie. Guests can even be driven up Main Street USA in these vehicles!

Something else I love about the holidays at Disneyland is the overlays that are put on certain attractions like Haunted Mansion and it’s a small world. Mind you, most of the attractions/lands get spruced up with holiday decor but these two attractions get full makeovers. Haunted Mansion becomes Haunted Mansion Holiday, rethemed like Nightmare before Christmas. Haunted Mansion is my most favorite ride on both coasts and I love, love, love it when it gets the overlay in California. I cannot believe how much work goes into basically redoing this entire ride for a few months. So impressive! it’s a small world becomes it’s a small world holiday but the bummer this year was that it didn’t open on time due a flooding issue, so we missed being able to ride it by a week or two. Boo hiss!

While Mansion will always reign supreme as the top attraction for me, I have to say that the new Web Slingers: A Spiderman Adventure ride in California Adventure is tough competition. Wait times at Disneyland are a lot different than World and the longest waits we experienced were for these two attractions. There were some longish waits for Radiator Springs Racers and Rise of the Resistance, but we’ve done those before so they weren’t priorities on this trip. Disney’s new Genie+ service hadn’t started yet when we visited Disneyland, so all rides were just regular standby lines for entry. We waited for Haunted Mansion once around 45 minutes (20 minutes the second time and walked on the third time) and 80 minutes for Web Slingers. To get me to wait 80 minutes in line for an attraction is a pretty big feat but I wanted to ride this new ride so bad that I made the commitment. Let me tell you, those 80 minutes were well spent! We loved every minute of this ride and I would have jumped right back on it again if I could’ve. So interactive, incredible technology, and such a fun concept overall. I’m not giving any spoilers other than to say, if you play the game well on this ride, your arms are going to be so tired! Spider-bot targets acquired! Oh and if you haven’t seen the new Spiderman movie, get out there and see it. Excellent flick!

Get your ‘thwip’ action going and throw those webs!

Avengers Campus, where this new Spiderman ride is located, is a brand new section of California Adventure. It is located where the Bug’s Life section was. It is impressively themed and has all those little details you come to love from Disney. The character interaction there is on point too. Several shows throughout the day, characters out for greetings and selfies, and so much creativity! The Pym Test Kitchen with its “altered” food sizes is super fun for a quick service meal. I might have been trying to balance a tray with a gigantic pretzel on it when I met Josh…

Ant-Man, normal size

Speaking of California Adventure, Cars Land was decorated for the holidays too. I love every little thing about Cars Land and their holiday spin is just icing on the cake. Even this little light set up here had everything ‘plugged’ in via jumper cables to a car battery! Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree ride turns into Mater’s Jingle Jamboree with holiday music and a haul-iday tractor spin. Gotta love that ride, even if you and your riding companion squish each other with every turn.

There’s a vacancy at the Cozy Cone, if you’re looking for a spot to rest your tires.

There is always so much to see and do at Disneyland. Even with two parks compared to the four (plus two waterparks) in Florida, there is enough to do to fill several days. Both parks are a stone’s throw from each other too, so no buses necessary. Coming and going from your Disney hotel is super easy and midday breaks for pool time are a dream. As with every other great adventure though, the ending swooped in before we knew it. That 4am transfer back to LAX to fly home was one heck of a buzzkill but a necessity nonetheless. I’ll end this entry with a shot of Sleeping Beauty castle, iced for the holiday season, shining in all of its splendor. Happy holidays!

xoxo, Amber

Celebrating Walt Disney World resort’s 50th anniversary!

On October 1st, 1971, history was made as the Magic Kingdom opened in Florida. Fifty years later, the resort has grown to 4 theme parks, two waterparks, a shopping and dining district, a waterside entertainment district, and more than 25 beautifully themed resorts. The Walt Disney World resort in Florida functions like a city with its own transportation system, fire and medical rescue teams, security, and other infrastructure. It is safe to say that if Walt had been able to see his Florida project on opening day and how it has evolved since, he would be thrilled.

As a huge Disney fan, I had to be there for 50th anniversary celebration’s early days. You’ll note that I didn’t say “start”, because I had no desire to be in the parks on October 1st, knowing that the merchandising madness machine would be in full force. (I was right. Hours long lines to buy merch that almost immediately went up on eBay. Grrr.) The fam and I arrived in town on the 3rd and the crowds were at a very pleasant level by that point. We had the lowest waits for attractions and shopping that I’ve seen in my last couple of trips and had a phenomenal visit. It was still a very hot week, with temps in the upper 90s and higher with the heat index, so a day at the pool was a must and well-received by all three of us. Here’s the scoop.

I knew in the early planning stages of this trip that I wanted to stay at Disney’s Contemporary resort, the iconic A-frame property steps away from the Magic Kingdom park. This resort also opened on October 1st, 1971 and just recently underwent a massive renovation of the rooms in the tower and the lobby area. In fact, there were still some rooms being renovated while we were there. The new rooms have an Incredibles overlay for the design. I wasn’t sure what I thought about that until I saw them in person. They are so sleek and nice! The Incredibles touches aren’t in your face and the rooms are just delightful. And that bathtub/shower was gigantic! Wowza! So much room and the view from our Bay Lake view room was incredible. You can opt for a Theme Park view room and face Magic Kingdom, but I prefer the cheaper lake view side so I can resort watch. When you leave the room, you are inside of the A-frame tower and our spot was perfect for watching the monorails come in and out, looking over toward Space Mountain, and peeking at guests making their merchandise selections in the shops below.

We had to try dinner at Chef Mickey’s again, as the characters came back at the end of 2020 and our last visit to the restaurant was last summer. All of the tables are still socially distanced, as you can see in the picture below (and why it is so hard to get a reservation here and at many other restaurants on-site) and the characters go by the tables for photos at this distanced arrangement. They were rocking some cute new outfits and came around at least three or four times while we were dining. So fun! The food was incredible too, perfection for vegetarians like myself and carnivores alike.

Chef Minnie greeting guests at Chef Mickey’s

There are so many new things to enjoy during the 50th celebration, which will run for 18 months, that we had to dive right in to see what we could spot. The kid and I had been able to see some of the new gold Fab 50 statues in the parks on our visit a couple of weeks prior, but we made it our mission to find all of them and we succeeded! Talk about some work! This is a great scavenger hunt of sorts for families and all of the statues are beautiful, great for photos! The details are amazing and I hope they find a spot for these to remain after the 50th ends.

Bambi and Thumper at Animal Kingdom

Also in Animal Kingdom is the new Kite Tails show and that was amazing! The pre-show and then the 10-minute performance are beautiful and should be added to your list of must-dos while in the park on your next visit. While the seating is outdoors and not shady, it is worth the time, just bring a drink.

Simba soars at the Discovery River Theater in Kite Tails

We made our way back to Kilimanjaro Safaris just as it was getting ready to close for the evening (*Pro Tip: Early morning and dusk are great times for this ride) and saw tons of animals grazing about. Giraffes were aplenty in their area of the savanna and we even saw a young cutie!

Just chillin’ with my ‘rents looking for some dinner…

Magic Kingdom was all decked out for the 50th, filled with many of the Fab 50 statues, the new Enchantment fireworks show, and Cinderella Castle all decked out in her 50th splendor. it’s a small world recently was repainted to be a lot more colorful and we love the new splashes of color as you enter and exit the ride.

it’s a small world, after all

The jury is still out for me on Enchantment though. It is so new and that is driving literally every single person in the park to head to the front of the Castle to watch it that I think I’m going to take a pass for a while. I had not intended to watch the show, got stuck in a walkway when it started and experienced the pleasure of trying to catch a side glimpse while wondering if we were going to get trampled or be dragged into a fist fight with guests who also were stuck in the same small area. Fireworks are great and all but… If you’re going to watch them, please get a spot very early, prepare to be packed in, or get a dessert party package to try to at least be able to limit the number of people who can be in your same viewing area. You need to be in view of the front of the Castle, just like the last fireworks show, so you can see the projections on the Castle that are an integral part of the show. There are even projections down Main Street USA with this one, so a spot along that area would work too. And yes, you can see fireworks from other spots not in the parks but do not believe all of the comments online about how they are such great spots. They’re not. While you can see the high booming fireworks from outside of the park, you can’t see any of the projections which is what gives the show its everything. Either commit to being in the park, knowing what that’s going to entail, or take the time to go from ride to ride and enjoy all of your favorite attractions while wait times are super low.

Cinderella’s Castle in her 50th finest

BTW, Epcot has a new nighttime show with fireworks and projections in the World Showcase lagoon called ‘Harmonious’. It was amazing. I’ve heard lots of mixed reviews and my two cents would be: arrive early, make sure you can see the big circular screen in the middle of the lagoon clearly (so I’d be looking at the area between the Port of Entry and Disney Traders stores or past the Port of Entry store on the way toward Canada), pack your patience. We found a spot early for this one, realized it was behind a big column, stayed anyway, and watched as others packed in just about everywhere else. The spot turned out to be great for us and we really enjoyed the show. Please don’t be that person that comes to the show five or ten minutes before it starts and try to cram in around other people that have been waiting for an hour and a half or more. That’s just rude. You might find your favorite spot is somewhere completely different too. I’ve heard lots of ‘this is the best spot’ reports but I think what it comes down to is that everywhere just has a slightly different view but nothing is really bad.

The big cheese

When we went into Epcot, the boss himself was outside greeting guests as was Minnie and several other characters. At a distance of course, but this is so much better than the old lines you had to wait in for up close shots and autographs. This way, they interact right with you, from a distance, you get your shot and can move on. Easy peasy. We had grabbed a virtual boarding group for the new Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure ride in Epcot earlier that morning, so we were able to explore the park and head over to the ride in the afternoon. After a delicious lunch at San Angel Inn in the pyramid in Mexico (such a peaceful restaurant!), our group was called and we hopped on the newest ride in town. There was still a bit of a wait but that was expected and ok, we were super happy to be able to finally experience it for ourselves! I will not be a spoiler other than to say it was incredible and I can’t wait to ride again!

Dinner is served!

Heading out of the park in the evening, guests now pass by the stunningly glowing Spaceship Earth! The new light scheme added to the attraction is out of this world and goes through a little lighting show of its own every so often each night (as does Cinderella Castle, Tower of Terror, and the Tree of Life — the Beacons of Magic nightly transformations.) Definitely stop to watch.

Spaceship Earth is now a Beacon of Magic!

One evening, the fam and I enjoyed the After Hours Boo Bash event in Magic Kingdom. This is a separately ticketed event, held for the first time this year. It is a hybrid version of the Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween party from pre-COVID and a typical after hours event. Not the cheapest thing to add-on by any means, but fun, and filled with bonus surprises like special characters in the cavalcades, trick-or-treating, and delish snacks. My favorite character in the cavalcades is the Maleficent dragon who breathes fire! She used to be in the Festival of Fantasy afternoon parade in the park, pre-COVID, and just started making an appearance again during this cavalcade. I love it!

Maleficent in her steampunk dragon glory

When you’re in the Magic Kingdom or Epcot area in the evening, you’ll also notice a fun new add to the monorail trains… they glow from below! Each train glows with the color to match the monorail train itself. See how many different ones you see during your trip!

Monorail orange with its orange glow!

It was time for us to move on over to Universal Orlando resort for some time there before heading home. The hubs is a gigantic sci-fi and horror fan so Halloween Horror Nights in Universal Studios is one of his most favorite things. While they always eerily say ‘don’t go alone’, my poor hubs has to because the kid and I would be screamers all night long. This was the 30th anniversary of that event and they went all out. His fave? The Haunting of Hill House. He could tell you all about it. But I write this blog and don’t do the scary, so that’s all you’re getting from me! His advice, go! Get the Express Pass so you can go into the houses without standing in the normal lines, the only way to get to see all/most of the houses during the event. My advice? Please don’t take your small children. Even those teenagers that love the horror movies… it is different when it is real-life and things are coming after you.

Welcome to Universal Studios
Classic Jack the Clown

We’re not big coaster fans so we made our way through the Universal parks and enjoyed some of the less intense rides and attractions. I really like the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman ride in Islands of Adventure and we were able to see the Shrek 4-D show that is closing (permanently!) in January. Going through Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley is always a must do as well, as is riding Hogwarts Express between the two areas. And Unlimited Express Pass for Universal… get it. It is included with your on-site stay at Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel, and Portofino Bay resorts and well worth it. Basically no waiting in line and you can get so much more done! We stayed at Portofino Bay and it was perfectly themed to match the Italian village by the sea. A great base for our Universal portion of the trip.

An Italian seaside resort, Portofino Bay
Hanging out in Diagon Alley

After many days in Central Florida, it was time to hop in the van and head home to fall in Virginia. The slightly cooler temps of the 70s-80s when we first returned were quite pleasant but our current 58 degrees leaves a lot to be desired. If only I could control the weather…

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Back on the High Seas with Disney!

Until a couple of weeks ago, it felt like it had been eleventy-hundred years since I stepped on a cruise ship. While not quite THAT long, my last sailing was supposed to depart on March 22nd, 2020. I’m sure you can imagine how that went. Our family’s spring break cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas was canceled just a mere couple of days before we were to leave. Little did anyone know that was only the beginning of cruising being completely shut down for well over a year. In fact, many ships still aren’t back in service across the variety of cruise lines and those that are have dramatically altered itineraries, much lower capacity, and a host of requirements in place before you can ever think about arriving at the port. Disney returned to sailing in August with the Disney Dream and the other three ships have slowly started to go back into service since that time. All of the sailings so far have been modified in some fashion and I suspect that will be case for quite some time. In the interest of getting a feel for all of the new procedures and what it is like to sail during ‘COVID times’, I booked a 3-night cruise on the Disney Dream for mid-September. Want the deets? Let me tell you all about it!

You know back when the biggest thing you had to worry about on a cruise was getting it paid in full and making sure your passport wasn’t expired? If only. Every cruise line has different protocols right now, so my experience only pertains to Disney Cruise Line, and these rules continue to evolve. In fact, they changed right before I sailed. Fun times. If you are age 12 and up and aren’t vaccinated, you’re not sailing with Disney. If you are under 12, you have to have a negative COVID PCR test taken between 3 days and 24 hours prior to sailing. Once you arrive at the port, no matter your age, you are given another COVID test that must come back negative before you’re allowed to go into the terminal. Your vaccine card and any negative COVID test results are uploaded to a website and approved by Disney so you are cleared to arrive at the terminal for your sailing. If you get to the terminal without a QR code to show that this was complete, you’re not sailing. Forget to complete your online check-in for the cruise and you’re also not sailing. It is all of these things that your travel agent will help you get through before your cruise, to make sure that you’re all set for smooth sailing.

The kid and I are both vaccinated and I completed our online check-in and uploaded all of the necessary documentation. We were ready to sail! Unfortunately, the hubs had to sit this one out. A quick flight to Orlando and an overnight at the Polynesian resort at Disney started the trip off right! The Polynesian Village has a villa section and the studio rooms there are being renovated. We lucked into a freshly spruced up room and WOWZA! I loved it! I am normally not a carpet fan and I haven’t seen any carpet in the new remodels that Disney has been doing, but this carpet was so plush and nice. The sofa in the picture also is a wall pull-down queen bed and it is SO much more comfortable than the old sleeper sofas that used to be in these rooms. What an upgrade!

The carpet was oh so fluffy!

Coming to Orlando always means Disney, even if just for a bit, so the kid and I hopped on the monorail over to Magic Kingdom for a few hours. Apparently we missed the memo that some pretty decent rain was headed our way, so we spent the evening running around like drowned rats, er… mice? And yes, that is me in the pic below, trying to take a selfie in the pouring rain while driving a car on the Tomorrowland Speedway, trapped in a poncho. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Selfies are not my specialty

We were visiting around September 16th, with the 50th anniversary celebration for Walt Disney World starting up on October 1st. We lucked into seeing some of the 50th decor that was already in place, including the newly wrapped monorail. How pretty! These wraps really add a nice touch to the festivities!

Clearly I didn’t look up at the clouds, I was too focused on the monorail!

After a wet night and dripping our way back to the Polynesian, we had a good night’s sleep before heading out to Hollywood Studios for a couple of hours the next morning. Of course, that time was largely spent in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge but hey, no complaints here! I had picked up a rental car when we landed in Orlando to use to get us to/from the port. Surprisingly, many people think you sail from Orlando and um, yeah… no. Orlando is in the middle of the state, the only water around it would be lakes. Port Canaveral is about an hour drive from Disney, depending on traffic, but it is a pretty easy trip. Disney will transfer you to the Port from their resorts (or the airport) for a fee, but I didn’t want to take the chance of being on the bus with someone who then tested positive for COVID and could thwart my plans to sail. You see, if you get to the port and anyone in your travel party tests positive, none of you are boarding. Talk about some strained family relations when that happens!

We arrive at the port exactly at our assigned port arrival time. After a little snafu with how the cruise line wanted us to hand over our checked luggage, gotta love new procedures, we were directed into the parking garage for our COVID tests. This was super easy. A nurse came over, told us about the tests and how to do them (self-administered while she watched) and a Disney Cruise rep came to our vehicle and provided some additional boarding information. Remember those QR codes I mentioned? At this point, I’ve already had that scanned a few times by various cruise personnel since arriving at the port. We swab our noses and are directed to park in the garage and to stay in the car until we are alerted that we are either cleared to sail (YAY!) or would be denied boarding (BOO!) through the website that we’ve used to upload our previous documents to. Told that this could take up to an hour, I realized that I should’ve brought a drink and some snacks. Hot car, parking garage, and Florida humidity definitely weren’t all that and a bag of chips. After about 45 minutes or so, I got the alert that we were COVID negative and cleared to sail! To the terminal!

Now, everything was completely different from this point on for anyone that has sailed with Disney before. Masks needed to stay on at all times indoors on the ship, including in the terminal at the port before boarding. On Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, you had to be masked indoors (bathrooms), on the tram that takes you around the island, and when near/in the food service areas. So, masks on. Enter the terminal and show your ID and the QR code again. All carry-on baggage then goes through the x-ray and people through the metal detector. Up the escalator to the terminal. Boarding groups, if you’re familiar with those, are kind of a mess. It was 2pm by this point and our boarding group hadn’t been officially called (23, I think) but there were literally only a few other people in the terminal. So we were allowed to board. A photo was still taken of the party before entering the gangway over to the ship. You don’t get your Key to the World cards until you get to the room now, so you’re still scanning QR codes and barcodes up to this point. Then you get to the gangway, where everyone trying to board is spaced six feet apart from other parties. Slowly but surely, you make your way to the ship and your family name is announced as usual as you enter the ship. You’re then directed to a circle on the floor in the main atrium where you stand with your party until all circles are full. Mickey and Minnie are on the atrium stairs to greet everyone from a distance and for photos. Once all circles are full, a very abbreviated version of the typical sail away party happens and you are told to go to your muster station location. Odds are, you’re not going to know what that is, but the crew will look it up for you and tell you where to go. When you get to the muster station location, there is another crew member there who will mark you off and tell you how to use the Disney Cruise Line Navigator app (your new best friend) to take a picture of the muster station sign to ‘prove’ you were there and complete your safety drill process.

Hey guys! We’re finally back!

Our stateroom was ready by this point, so we were allowed to go straight there and drop our carry-ons. Our room keys were on the fish holder outside of the door in a sealed envelope as well as our lanyards that are complimentary for Castaway Club members. We met our stateroom hostess, checked out the room, and decided we were famished and needed some lunch. Up to deck 11 we went, in search of Cabanas and the lunch buffet. Now, the differences kept coming. First off, you could tell (if you couldn’t already) that the sailing was way under capacity as far as guests. The pool deck was busy but there were tons of empty chairs and really not that many people. Cabanas was EMPTY compared to normal sailings and the crew served your food to you. Tables were aplenty and the crew also poured all drinks for guests. This was super weird for us, normally boarding and lunch at Cabanas is pretty stressful with guests running in all directions and people everywhere. We never found out exactly how many guests were on our sailing, but heard anywhere from 800 to 1,200 passengers, when capacity is 4,000. We never had to hunt for pool chairs, wait for ice cream, wait for drinks, wait for fast food, seek out a theater seat for the nightly show more than a couple of minutes in advance (you were seated by crew and socially distanced in the rows), etc. There are three sit-down dining rooms for dinner and you’re assigned a rotation of the three so you get to enjoy each one without reservations. There were so few people on the sailing that only 2 of the 3 restaurants were open on the first and last nights, meaning there were only 2 and not 3 rotations. And even our rotation was very empty. There were characters everywhere for socially distanced pictures and meets plus lots of the usual onboard activities like animation classes, alcohol tastings, bingo, etc. The spa was open for many treatments but only for guests age 18 and up. Kids clubs were open on a reservation basis but there didn’t seem to be any issues with getting reservations for kids in that age range 4-12. The 11-14 and 14-17 age kid clubs were open as usual, the nursery for babies remains closed.

Look at all the… people?
Mummy Goofy was onboard to greet us for our Halloween on the High Seas sailing

Disney always does an incredible job of keeping the ship clean and making guests as safe as possible, and this is even more amped up during COVID times. They are very strict with their mask rules and safety measures and I felt no concerns during my trip. Plus we knew that everyone had tested negative as of the day they boarded, so that helped ease my mind (even though I know you can be negative one day and positive another.)

Normally, the sailing I was on would have one day in Nassau, Bahamas and one day at Castaway Cay. Due to what I suspect is some posturing on Disney’s part as a result of some last-minute Bahamian COVID rule changes, Nassau has been removed from many sailings recently and upcoming, including mine. No loss in my opinion, I’m not a Nassau fan at all. We had a day at sea to replace that, which is what I typically use the Nassau day for anyway. Castaway Cay was incredible on this sailing, even more than usual. With the low crowds on the ship, the island felt empty. No need to rush to get a chair, there were whole sections of the family beach areas that had chairs that had never been touched when we left the island around 3pm.

A truly private island paradise!

The food was delish as usual and service was top notch. Every crew member we interacted with seemed so happy to be back onboard and in their roles, even with all of the changes. Genuine gratitude to be back at what they loved was evident everywhere we turned. We, as guests, were so happy to be back at sea too, looking for some type of normalcy to move toward.

Cucumber Garden Roll from Enchanted Garden restaurant, so pretty!

Sailing away from Castaway Cay is always so sad, but knowing you made great memories helps ease the pain. And aloe, aloe helps ease the pain from the sunburn you never apply enough sunscreen to prevent. (Every.single.time.)

Sand in my shoes and memories on my mind!

While this sailing was so different from all previous ones, it was still a lot of fun and worth every minute. The kid and I had a blast and made a new friend on Castaway Cay, the tiniest little fish that swam right around us for probably an hour!, plus we returned home with so many memories from our time together. One of the theater shows onboard is called ‘Disney’s Believe’ and is a musical about how a young girl gets her father to believe in magic, as he realizes she is growing up and how much they mean to each other. I remember watching that years ago when my daughter was young and being one of the sobbing moms in the audience… this time was no different as we just celebrated her 17th birthday. It hits you right in the gut every time. COVID or no COVID, we all have a finite time on this rock and we need to get out there and make the most of it!

Dreaming of the Dream…

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Walking right down the middle of Main Street USA

Any true Disney fan knows that Walt Disney spent his childhood in Marceline, Missouri. Moving there from his birthplace in Chicago when he was four years old, the Disney family lived in Marceline for about five years, but Walt cherished his time growing up there and his memories deeply influenced the rest of his life.

After a botched trip to Marceline this spring, the fam and I finally headed West to make the pilgrimage to Main Street USA and see for ourselves how this small town could influence a man to go on to accomplish all that Walt did in his short 65 years.

We traveled out to Kansas City, MO and rented a car for the two hour ride to Marceline. Farm land filled our view for the duration of the drive and it was very peaceful. Corn, creeks, trains, and few cars made for a nice journey. Upon arriving into Marceline, you instantly feel at home. We pulled up to our Airbnb, right on Main Street USA, and hopped back in time. We live in a small town but this one feels decidedly smaller and so quaint.

Welcome to the Chairman’s Suite Airbnb!

Right away, I saw my good friend, Julie, walking up the street with her family. She is also a travel agent and lives a few hours from Marceline. Julie had set up a private evening VIP tour for us to enjoy at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum that evening and offered to give us the ‘tour’ of sights not to miss in Marceline.

Me (right) and Julie (left)

Back in the car, we headed to the Walt Disney Municipal Park for a few photos. Our next stop was the Disney Family Farm, not far from Main Street. This is where Walt and his family lived in the early 1900s while in Marceline. In fact, their original farmhouse is still standing, albeit hidden, under the red farmhouse on the property. The Executive Director of the museum actually lives in the farmhouse right now. Her story is pretty interesting, how she came to know the Disney family back in the late 1950s. In fact, her mom, Inez Johnson, can still be found at the museum regaling visitors of tales from her years as Walt’s friend.

The Disney Family Farm area is tucked away, as expected, in the trees and fields of Marceline. You hear trains going by very frequently as Marceline is on a major rail line that is still very active. As you stand there in the trees, it is easy to slip into a relaxed frame of mind and see exactly why Walt loved his time there so much. It is no wonder that he grew up with an incredible love of trains and was influenced so heavily by this period of his life. The time he spent under his “Dreaming Tree”, drawing and watching over his little sister, Ruth, was so impactful on his life that he is said to have returned to that very tree on every visit to Marceline. The barn on the property meant so much to him that he recreated it for his home in California and it was later rebuilt on the property in Marceline in 2001 for visitors to enjoy today. Guests are allowed to ‘autograph’ the interior of the barn with messages to Walt and Roy and it is amazing to see how many visitors have come to Walt’s Happy Place to pay their respects.

After the farm, we walked around Main Street for a little while before dinner at Los Chimas, the local Mexican restaurant offering delicious food and right near our Airbnb!

We had dinner with Julie and her husband as well as Peter Whitehead, the Creative Director of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Peter is such a Disney treasure! His knowledge of Walt and the Disney family, his drive and passion, and the work he has put into getting the museum to where it is today is incredible. He is a great guy and I loved being able to hang out with him and learn more about the Disneys and their lives in Marceline. Peter told us about the history of Main Street and some of its key buildings and areas: the Zurcher building and the Coke Wall behind it, Allen hotel, Uptown Cinema, E.P. Ripley Park with its gazebo where Elias Disney (Walt’s father) played his fiddle, the Marceline Train Station, and the Marceline Post Office, which is the only federal building with Walt Disney’s name on it and where you can get a special postmark to commemorate your visit. We also talked about Walt Disney Elementary School nearby, that was dedicated in 1960 and features murals inside drawn by a Disney artist.

E.P. Ripley Park is a beautiful, tree-filled spot at the start of Main Street USA where Walt used to hang out as a boy. The park is home to some train cars and the Santa Fe and Disney Railroad #2546 locomotive that was donated to the city in the 1950s. The train is shown below as all black, recently repainted and missing the name/number at the moment. The pond pictured below is gorgeous and somehow even has that ‘Disney water’ look to it — park guests, you know what I mean. The Midget Autopia walking track that was constructed and dedicated about two years ago can be seen behind the pond. If you don’t know the story behind Midget Autopia, it is so interesting! This is the only ride ever to leave a Disney park and ran in Marceline for eleven years. It had been located in Disneyland, near the Storybook Land Canal Boats and was moved out of the park to make way for the it’s a small world ride, fresh from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

The museum itself is housed in the Marceline Train Station and trains roll past by Marceline with great frequency. I have never seen so many trains, and been that up close to them, in my life!

The museum has so much to offer with information on the history of the railroad and the Marceline station, Walt’s early life in Marceline and his return there over the years, Midget Autopia, Walt’s family’s lives, memorabilia from donors, murals, a model of buildings of Disneyland done by a fan name Dale Varner, a Stamp Day exhibit, a Club 55 showcase, and so much more. I can’t even begin to describe all of the treasures found in that one building! Personal notes from Walt and Roy to their family members, Disneyland opening day relics, family photos, a recorded interview between Walt and his parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, Elias’s tool box, Flora’s butter molds (Walt’s mother), the TV that Ruth watched the Disneyland opening ceremony on (because she hated to travel and didn’t like crowds, so she didn’t want to attend in person and Walt sent her money to buy herself a TV to watch it on), and even Walt’s grade school diploma. There is even a large branch of the Dreaming Tree in the museum for guests to touch for that extra bit of Disney luck as they visit. Having Peter to show us around and give us the extra bits of history made our visit so memorable.

I was also humbled to see both Walt’s elementary school desk, with his carved initials in it, and the actual light table he shared with UB Iwerks in Kansas City. Talk about history! And yes, I touched the light table with Peter standing right there and the ‘do not touch’ sign right on it. Oof! At least his school desk was in a case!

So when I mentioned Club 55 above, did you think I typo’d and meant Club 33? Nope. While Club 33 is the ultra-lux private club that started at Disneyland, Club 55 is a group of Disneyland employees that started working there when the park opened in 1955. Bob Penfield, a Club 55 member, donated several pieces to the museum and they are a joy to look through. Hard to believe that he worked there until his retirement in 1997 and was the last Club 55 member still employed by Disney when he retired. If you’ve watched any of the Behind the Attraction show episodes on Disney+, you might recall the one about the Jungle Cruise ride where it was mentioned that Walt wasn’t happy with the ride timing being unpredictable at first. He gave the ride operators a watch to ensure that the ride was always timed perfectly. Bob’s watch that Walt gave him is on display in the museum.

When Walt died in 1966, he had been working on many projects including the “Florida project” which became the Walt Disney World resort. His brother, Roy, came out of retirement to finish the build of Magic Kingdom and died just a couple of months after the park opened. Such a tragedy. One of the other projects that Walt had started before his death was work a theme park in Marceline! The plans for the park, drawn by Walt, were on his desk the day he died and are now housed in the museum in Marceline. He had had Rush Johnson, Inez’s husband, buying land in Marceline for this project on the sly like he did in Florida. The project fell apart in the 1970s after Walt’s death and Rush sold all of the property less the original 40 acres, where the Disney Family Farm and farmhouse I mentioned are located. Can you imagine if that had come to fruition? Can you imagine what the world would be like if Walt had lived another decade or more? Heartbreaking.

I have always wanted to go to Marceline. Going there this past weekend was a dream come true. Maybe it is because I am such a huge Disney fan, or that Walt and I almost share a birthday (Dec 4th and 5th), or that I just get all the feels when learning about Disney history, but this trip was so inspirational. If we all just follow some of Walt’s words of wisdom, the world would be such a great place!

  • All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.
  • The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.
  • When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.
  • Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, dreams are forever.

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Back to Disney for some summer fun!

Welcome summer! My last trip to Disney was somewhat of a spur of the moment idea to celebrate the end of the school year and the start of summer. Normally, Disney being a spur of the moment vacation is laughable at best. COVID though has made that a possibility right now after causing a very disrupted travel cycle. As far as Disney is concerned though, we are quickly losing our spur of the moment ability as the parks are rapidly shifting back closer to ‘normal’ (or new normal) and guests are coming back in droves. Availability in the resorts is still decent for July and August, but September starts the real possibility that if you don’t already have lodging set, you won’t be traveling to Disney this fall. Even 2022 has pockets of very low resort availability! Book with me, by yourself (WHY?!?!), or with another agent that specializes in Disney travel, but get that room reserved!

So Disney, early June. The kid and I hopped on a plane the day after school got out for the year and headed south. Smooth flight, a luggage delay in Orlando due to lightning, then we were off. After quickly boarding Magical Express, we found ourselves on the Disney resort world tour like never before. Typical Magical Express drop offs and pick ups involve going to multiple resorts, but those resorts are usually close to each other. This particular drop off route had us at Saratoga Springs, Fort Wilderness, the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and finally to the Contemporary, where we were staying. The kid and I were literally the last two people on the bus when we got to our resort. I have no idea how Saratoga Springs and the Fort worked their way into our bus route, but SURPRISE! You never really know where you will go before you end up at your resort… that’s why I always say you need to allow plenty of time between when your flight is scheduled to land before you need to be somewhere. Nothing like being in a rush, or missing, a dining reservation on your first night!

The Contemporary is a fun resort, under major renovation right now that is scheduled to wrap this fall. All of the rooms in the A-frame tower, the main building at the resort, are being re-imagined into rooms with an Incredibles theme. There is a huge debate online about renovating these rooms but, to be honest, they were ready for a refresh. Disney fans are often fans of things staying exactly the same, no change. Hard crowd. Just like the Polynesian resort having its rooms renovated with a Moana theme (opening in late July), it is nice to see some changes at these deluxe level resorts. The themes being added aren’t over the top, just a nice overlay that provides some interest for the kids (and adults!) but not going overboard. We stayed in the garden wing this time, a set of three-story buildings that are located to the back right of the main tower. It was our first time in the garden wing and I have to say, I was really happy there. I’m sure there are rooms that would be a much longer walk that ours was to get to, but ours was in a perfect spot. Easy access to the tower, short walk around the building to the bus stop, right at the pool, great patio outside where I could watch the monorails go by for hours. The rooms here are in the style that the tower’s rooms were, and these are to be renovated after the tower is done. They need a refresh too, mainly to get rid of the carpet, but the room was very comfortable and incredibly spacious. Check out that desk! For someone who works a lot while on vacation (hello 6am dining and 12am Savi’s reservations!), having this kind of workspace is so helpful. I’ll be back in the tower in October for my next trip and I’m hoping that there is still a big desk for me to take care of business while on the road!

Contemporary resort room
A shot from my resort room at the Contemporary, in the garden wing.
What a view! I spent some time one afternoon just watching the monorail trains come and go.

With FastPass service still being unavailable, we had the unique opportunity to ride some of our favorite attractions without those ridiculously long lines. We have ridden Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom tons of times but have never once gone through the regular (non-FastPass) queue. It was a treat to be able to see the queue, take pictures, and really enjoy part of what makes this ride so cool. Our wait was posted at 75 minutes, but we were through the queue, ride, and in the gift shop within an hour. Totally worth it to see all of the extra theming!

So much to see in the Flight of Passage regular queue line!

Speaking of no FastPasses, another thing we did was hang out in the parks until closing or very close to. In the ‘before times’ we would do that too but haven’t done that as much in the last several trips. The kid and I spent a ton of time in Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios and found ourselves there on our first night basically alone. There were hardly any guests in that section after about 7pm (8pm closing time for the park) and we were able to take tons of pictures with no guests in them. We decided closer to 8pm to go ahead and start walking out, so we headed through Toy Story Land to get back to the front of the park. Realizing it was very close to 8pm but not 8pm yet, we hopped in the line for Slinky Dog Dash right as the clock hit 8pm and the park officially closed. Tip, as long as you’re in the line by the time the park closes, you still get to ride. We might have waited 15 minutes or so before we were on our way, riding on Slinky across the tracks above Toy Story Land. Epic!

Hopping in the Slinky Dog Dash line right at park closing, sweet times!

I love a good festival and Epcot has one going on just about all year round now! We were able to sneak in one last visit during the Flower and Garden Festival before the Food and Wine Festival starts up on July 15th. That is super early for Food and Wine which normally doesn’t start until right around Labor Day. More time for everyone to enjoy! Epcot is undergoing such a huge transformation right now with the addition of new rides and attractions, layout changes, and so much more. I can’t wait to see the park when it is finished, but I’m also loving seeing it as it morphs from one trip to the next!

So sad for the end of the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival but excited for the Food and Wine Festival, starting super soon!

As with all changes, we haven’t had a scheduled parade in the parks since the COVID reopening last year. Gone is the 3:00pm daily parade in Magic Kingdom. A source of complaints for sure, but not from me! In the place of that scheduled parade are a number of character cavalcades that go through the parks. Magic Kingdom has three sets of characters that go by throughout the day, Epcot has Mickey and friends and then a princess cavalcade, Animal Kingdom has boats that travel through the waterways, and Hollywood Studios has Disney Junior and Pixar offerings. You can basically be steps from these cavalcades, essentially face to face with your favorite characters. No staking out a spot an hour in advance in the sun, sitting on the hot pavement, people hanging over you trying to take videos while you are trying to enjoy yourself. The music starts, you know a parade is coming, guests form a very rough edge and the cavalcade comes through. I was having a Coke and a Mickey pretzel in front of the Castle when this princess cavalcade came through, see the (not zoomed in) picture below. I didn’t even have to move a muscle to see the floats go by. As you can see from the other guests though, I could have easily gotten right up there and snapped as many pics as I wanted. There was all kinds of room to stand, without feeling sandwiched in. My daughter even walked away from where I was and took some pictures up closer as the floats went around the hub in front of the Castle. So few people I saw her at all times, she got some great shots, and I enjoyed my pretzel. So much better than before! The princesses are able to actually make eye contact with you, maybe comment on your outfit, say ‘happy birthday’ to someone wearing a button, etc. Fantastic!

Why yes, I will take a character cavalcade over a scheduled parade any day!

Speaking of Cinderella Castle, it continues to transform for the 50th birthday celebration for Magic Kingdom that kicks off on October 1st. Check out the spire decorations, so pretty! If you were wondering why the fall is so busy, Magic Kingdom’s 50th has a lot to do with it. So do the numerous cancelations of trips from the fall of 2020, fall always being a very popular time to travel, the Food & Wine Festival at Epcot, the new Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure ride in Epcot opening on October 1st, and travel demand! After being cooped up for months, everyone is ready to get out of the house and back to some kind of normal. For so many of us, Disney is that normal we are so longing for. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to visit several times a year (on my own dime, no free trips here) even though the drive is about 12.5 hours for me. Thankfully I can fly in about two hours, after a two hour drive to the airport. Ah, the things we do for Disney love!

Cinderella Castle sure is looking fancy for Magic Kingdom’s 50th birthday!

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber