The “Finest” resort of all…

As I write this blog post, I am on my way to board the world’s largest cruise ship, the Symphony of the Seas, from Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. You will have to wait to hear all about that though, this post is about my trip to Mexico at the end of October. Happy reading!

The fam and I boarded an early morning flight to Cancun, ready to venture back into the sunshine as fall enveloped Virginia. The destination was Playa Mujeres, a gated resort community about thirty minutes north of Cancun. We enjoyed another resort in the same area last June, Dreams Playa Mujeres, so we were excited to get back and try out something new. I chose Finest Playa Mujeres, a family- friendly, all-inclusive resort that belongs to the Excellence Hotel Group. Excellence resorts are beautiful and modern but adult-only; luckily Finest offers that same great service and amenities but allows children. Finest Playa Mujeres is their only Finest resort and they definitely should build more!

Upon arrival at the resort, we were promptly greeted and taken to the Finest Club lounge to check-in. During our stay, we were booked in a Finest Club Junior swim-up suite so that offered a special check-in, fresh flowers in the room, a bottle of sparkling wine, a bowl of fresh fruit, daily dessert delivered to the room, a club-only section of the beach, a restaurant only for club guests, etc. It was divine! Our room was huge, with a walk-in closet and a shower that was big enough for two. The highlight was the outdoor area. We had a Jacuzzi tub directly off the room, enclosed with a glass front so you could relax in the tub but see the porch area. The porch was amazing! A table and chairs, two lounge chairs, a cushioned double bed, a second cushioned bed built into a wall nook, an overwater hammock, and then the pool itself! There were steps going down into the pool from the porch and another set of stairs across the water so you hop out on the other side to access two other cushioned lounge chairs and an umbrella. The only negative was that the pool was COLD because the sun just didn’t hit the water for enough hours to get it warm (or make us hot enough that the water felt good). That was a bummer but we know to request the opposite side of the building we were in to get full sun. I’m sure the time of year and angle of the sun didn’t help either.

Finest Playa Mujeres Junior Swim-up Suite

The best room ever! Finest Club Junior swim-up suite

We did end up spending a lot of time in the main pool, which was the perfect temperature. The pool bar kept the drinks flowing and had a full kids bar menu with plenty of options for the kid to enjoy some non-alcoholic deliciousness. There were rafts for guest use but I brought my own (pro tip!) and we all enjoyed spending some time on that. We did venture down to the beach and swam one afternoon but we are definitely more into the pools (and pool bars) so that’s mainly where we stayed. There was some seaweed the day we swam but nothing too terrible. It was much worse another afternoon that I walked the beach and I would not have swam that day. The seaweed is a cyclical nature issue that comes and goes every few years but 2018 has been particularly bad. Each day is different and all of the resorts do what they can to keep it under control on the shore.

Finest Playa Mujeres beach

My view at the beach

The food was so good, even for my vegetarian self. I am the one that has the hardest time with resorts because sometimes vegetarianism gets lost in translation. Finest rocks the food options though! They had completely separate vegetarian menus and, not only that, the servers were knowledgeable about the options and even commented that something on the vegetarian menu at one of the restaurants actually was prepared in bacon fat and to avoid that. I was impressed. Everywhere we ate was delish and had so many options we could all enjoy. Zero food complaints! There was 24-hour room service available as well and that menu even had baby food on it!  Ever had cantaloupe juice? Yeah, me either but it was so good! There was a little café that served dessert, hand-scooped ice cream, and a variety of coffee beverages; we stopped there each evening on the way to the room.

Nightly treats at the Sweet Corner

Macarons, meringues, cupcakes, brownies… oh my!

The spa was perfection too… I had a delightful deep-tissue massage and came away relaxed and refreshed. The massage therapist was kind, attentive to my specific needs (work those knots out!), and respectful. The treatment room was huge and so comfortable, as was the relaxation area to enjoy before, and the second relaxation room to enjoy after, the treatment. Great experience overall!

We largely stayed on the resort but did venture out crazy early one morning to go to the Mayan ruins in Tulum. We had to catch the van at 6am, which is just ridiculous on vacation, but necessary to get to Tulum early and beat the crowds and heat. The ride there took probably three hours after stopping to pick up a few other guests from other resorts. It is a long ride whether you stop or not, that’s for sure. If was definitely worth the early wake-up and long ride to be able to see the magnificent ruins that remain from so long ago. We had a guided tour and then some free time to explore on our own. There was time for a quick dip in the Caribbean but that involved a huge set of steps down to the water, then some seaweed, then having to climb back up, so all of that was a no-go. It was pretty to look down there but “no gracias” when it comes to all those stairs and seaweed.

Ruins at Tulum

Some of the ruins at Tulum. The detailed carvings that still remain on these buildings after hundreds of years is amazing!

Sooner than we wanted, as always, it was time to pack up and fly home. That was another early wake-up call, 3:55am pick up to go back to the airport. Talk about way too early! It is nice though to see Cancun at sleep, such an interesting place. That brings me to the last thing about my trip, traveling to Mexico in general. Mexico is a beautiful country and begs to be visited and explored. While there are unsafe areas, like any country in the world, the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met and the resort areas that I stay at and recommend don’t give me any pause. I’m not a fan of the hotel zone in Cancun for my family, it feels too much like a cross between Myrtle Beach and Las Vegas, but some guests love it there. Wherever you decide to stay, you are in for a great visit.

Until next time!

Amber

 

 

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Two summer trips to Disney are done… almost time for a third!

Hi! Amber here! This post is coming to you direct from the kid. She’s going to give her perspective on our two Disney summer trips so far including a teenager’s point of view of Toy Story Land. Enjoy!

Hello, once again! This is Hailey, and I’m going to be sharing with you my thoughts on the new Toy Story Land! Plus some details on our party of seven, family trip! Here we go!

So for our first trip of the summer we left on the 9th of June, driving in the van, with seven people, three rather large suitcases, backpacks, and a couple snack bags for the twelve and a half hour drive to Orlando. What a ride! Lots of naps, taking videos of my cousin and I doing funny things, dancing, and LOTS & LOTS of singing! (We love to sing “Love is an Open Door”! That’s a favorite!) When we finally got there, we went to SeaWorld. The Dolphin Show was pretty cool, and so was feeding the fish, sea lions, and seals; but the rest of the park was very crowded and just overall meh… We didn’t ride any of the rides, plus I didn’t really desire to lose my lunch… I just prefer Disney World, and all of it’s rides!

When we went to Disney World, we rode lots of fun rides, including Expedition Everest for my second time!! I LOVE that ride!!! Definitely a favorite of mine, now that I have ridden it!!! We also went to the Happily Ever After Dessert Party, which is ALWAYS a fave! So many delicious desserts to try, and the sparkling cider is delicious! (I may have had more than I was supposed to!) And, as always, the fireworks were amazing! During that trip, we stayed at Disney’s Old Key West Resort, which was very nice! There were a lot of bus stops though, and we had to go to the third stop, which took awhile to get around to some nights… but I still REALLY, REALLY enjoyed that trip!!!! I was counting down the days, and so were my cousins! And we can’t wait to go on the next vacation together! Oh! And, on the way home, we stopped at the Catty Shack Ranch in Jacksonville, Florida, Which was SOOO COOL!! I loved all of the cats and we even adopted a resident there! While he will still remain in the care of Catty Shack Ranch, we sponsor him and can providing funding to give him the best vet care possible! I definitely recommend stopping there for a night feeding, so check their calendar, and make sure to stop by when once is offered! Ok, now let’s go into the more recent trip, the opening of Toy Story Land!

My mom and I had a normal flight, not delayed, not canceled, which was really nice! Then, we were the FIRST people to get on the Magical Express bus and we had to WAIT and WAIT for the rest of the people to come. And then we were the LAST stop! The first was Pop Century, THEN Art of Animation, THEN Boardwalk, THEN FINALLY Caribbean Beach, which was the resort we stayed at. We had ordered Giordano’s pizza delivery, while we were on the bus, and it had said that it would come to the room in 60-70 minutes, which we thought to be plenty of time. Let’s just say Ubers and Lyfts were considered, but not taken, then we got to the resort, AND HAD TO TAKE THE INTERNAL SHUTTLE!!! Like SERIOUSLY?!?!? MY DEEP-DISH PIZZA IS SUPPOSED TO ARRIVE SOON AND WE ARE GOING TO MISS IT!!! But we finally got to our stop then went to the room, the luggage was delivered, and LUCKILY the pizza guy was running late, so it was PERFECT timing!! Mmm… that pizza was DELICIOUS!!! But we only ate half and had to stick the box in the mini fridge… difficult tetris…

The next day we went to check out the situation at Hollywood Studios. We went back to the to-be Toy Story Land entrance, and there were a lot of people bunched around there. We went from there to ride Toy Story Mania, which said the wait was around 70 minutes, but my mom and I think we only waited 20-30 minutes. And she BEAT me!! HOW?!?!??! She, I am pretty sure, got a cat, and I got a beaver. 😦  But the next time we played/rode it I beat her by a little 🙂 , but we both got beavers. After we were done there, we went and rode some other rides and shopped, and we just so happened to sit down on a bench, under an umbrella, when it started to downpour. Perfect timing!! It started to rain harder and harder, so we had to get out our umbrellas and hold them in front of us or beside us to keep from getting completely soaked! Just before we were about to get up I saw someone step in a LARGE puddle of water in the direction we were headed, to get to our Hollywood & Vine lunch reservation, and made sure not to step in it but I assumed that my mom had seen it also, but she had not, haha!

Our lunch was delicious! I really like the food and desserts there! It continued to downpour buckets and buckets of water, and it never completely stopped for the rest of the day. We pretty much just shopped and such after that, and then left, and went back to Caribbean Beach. We went to the “buffet” which was a DISASTER. It was in a pop-up tent sort of thing, since that building and the bulk of the resort was under construction. But they didn’t really have a kitchen, it seemed like, because my mom asked when they were going to get more salmon, because it is one of my favorite foods, and the lady behind the counter said “I don’t know,” and sort of looked back to the door behind which the food was coming from, and we sort of looked confused. The buffet was ok, but I don’t think I would get it again. The breakfast one was better food-wise, but the line was longer. And they had Mickey waffles, which was a plus! And they had real plates! Not paper ones like they had for dinner. We also ate at the Spyglass Grill in the Trinidad South section of the resort, we were in Trinidad North, so we had to walk over farther to get to it. But the pineapple and banana pancakes were delicious!!! I loved them!! Mmm… so good!

We booked a VIP tour to explore Toy Story Land and the top attractions at the other parks. The morning of the tour, we went to eat at The Wave, located in the Contemporary Resort, which was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!! I LOVE the sweet potato pancakes, Tillamook cheddar and bacon grits, and the smoked salmon!! And don’t forget the Mickey waffles! The breakfast was delicious, as always! Then, after the breakfast, we split off into three groups and went to vans with the VIP Tour Guide that was assigned to our group, Leslie, and went to Toy Story Land! After getting our bags checked backstage, we walked from the Backstage area near Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster over to the Toy Story Land entrance. By that time, we had heard that Toy Story Land had been closed off, and was only allowing those with FastPasses or with VIP tours into the land. Luckily, we had a VIP tour, so we didn’t have a problem getting in!

The only major problem we had was the low level of shade. There were umbrellas set up throughout the land, but it still was SOOOO hot! My mom had an umbrella, and so did I, so she put hers up for more shade, and all of the people in the group were trying to get in her shade! Anyway, the first ride we rode was Alien Swirling Saucers. I LOVED it! It reminded me so much of Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, which is in Disneyland, and one of my favorite rides! And then after that we rode Slinky Dog Dash, which was also REALLY fun! My mom didn’t expect to like it that much, but after riding it, she liked it a lot! I also really liked it! The lap-bars were really nice too, they had hand-grips on either side of the bar, which was nice! (Even though my hands were always in the air!) After riding the new rides, we rode Toy Story Midway Mania! After finishing in Hollywood Studios, we rode over to Animal Kingdom. In Animal Kingdom, we rode Na’vi River Journey and then we had lunch at Satu’li Canteen. Lunch was delicious, but we had to wait FOREVER to even get our order placed! And as always, I recommend the blueberry cream cheese mousse! Mmmm! After lunch, we rode Flight of Passage, which, as always, was really REALLY fun!

After Animal Kingdom, we went to Epcot! First, in Epcot, we rode Soarin’ Around the World, which was fun! And then we got back in the van and drove around to Norway, to ride Frozen Ever After! Frozen Ever After was as fun as ever, and we got wet, which felt delightful in the hot weather! And after riding Frozen Ever After, the group hopped back in the van. We decided to go back to Hollywood Studios to ride Slinky Dog Dash once more! After getting off of Slinky Dog Dash, we broke off from the rest of the group, who decided to go ride Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, before five o’clock, when the tour was over, so we said our goodbyes, and went to look at some Toy Story Land merch! After getting some opening day pins and such, we headed over to Magic Kingdom for our reservation at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant, which was delicious! We got caprese salad, which was AMAZING, and we each got a different kind of pasta. My mom got gnocchi in pesto with veggies, which was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G; and I got a sort of Alfredo sauce covered ravioli, which wasn’t nearly as good as her gnocchi… so after she was done eating hers, I sort of ate a lot of the leftover veggies in the pesto that she didn’t want. Mmmm!!!! Good!

After eating dinner, we went and rode some rides. And OMG!!! I got my mom to ride Tomorrowland Speedway!!! She NEVER rides it!! But it is one of my favorite rides!! She always think that it makes her smell funny, and doesn’t normally ride it because of that, but she DID ride it!!! Haha! Well anyway, we also rode The Little Mermaid ride, it’s a small world, and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. This past trip was a quick one, but we have one more trip to the Mouse House coming up!

–Hailey

 

Toy Story Land grand opening!

I’m back from another trip to the Walt Disney World resort in Florida! I visited at the end of June to celebrate and enjoy the grand opening of Toy Story Land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. What a fun new land and great addition to the park… if Disney would just add a little shade there though…

First up, lodging. I stayed at Disney’s Caribbean Beach resort to see how the construction there was coming along. In a word… slowly. I haven’t been recommending this moderate level resort to my clients for some time and it looks like that’s not going to be changing. With the construction of the new Riviera Beach resort adjacent to Caribbean Beach, the Skyliner station, the complete renovation of the Old Port Royale section of the resort, and the always clunky Custom House check-in area, this one just can’t be on my list right now. Once the Custom House/check-in moves over to the centrally located (and eventually re-opened) Old Port Royale and the Skyliner system is up and running, this resort will be hugely improved. Until then, no-go.

Caribbean Beach food court in a tent

Current food court option at Caribbean Beach resort

No exaggeration, the ‘food court’ is currently a buffet breakfast and dinner, some type of grab and go for lunch. Granted, the buffet is pretty cheap as far as Disney pricing goes, but eating in a tent on paper plates with tiny little plastic cups is just weird.

On to the good stuff. Toy Story Land! First, grand opening days/weekends are NOT for the faint of heart. It was a mob scene on 6/30 when the land opened. We’re talking hours and hours in line just to be allowed into the land itself because it hit capacity very early on. Not to mention the hours in line for the two new rides: Alien Swirling Saucers and Slinky Dog Dash Coaster. Swirling Saucers is very similar to Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree at Cars Land in California Adventure, with different ride vehicles, a ceiling, and fun ride music. Great for families and little ones, which is what Hollywood Studios really needed. Toy Story Mania’s entrance moved from the Pixar Place side into Toy Story Land itself but the ride remains the same (always fun for everyone!)

The highlight attraction is the Slinky Dog Dash coaster. This ride is a family-oriented coaster with a 38″ height requirement, just like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Magic Kingdom. I like Slinky a lot better though, for several reasons. First, the ride is so much smoother. This is one of the smoothest coasters I’ve ever ridden. The theme too is just so cute and the way you come down the first big hill into Andy’s backyard really makes you feel like you’re about to re-enter the crowd! The ride stops midway to rev up and take off again across Slinky’s mini-hills, making you really get the ‘walks down stairs’ effect of a slinky toy. Big bonus! You can see into what will be Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge while on Slinky Dog so take a glance to your right!

I also love the ride vehicle! Slinky is so cute and the ride cars are so much more comfortable than Mine Train’s. They are more spacious inside and they have a split pull-down lap bar. That means each guest can pull the lap bar down to the desired height on their waist and there is no bar system that your legs must fit into. For those who are familiar with Mine Train, the lap bars are individual there as well but they are in sort of a frame where your legs/knees must squish between them. Since I’m Pooh-sized and not short, riding Mine Train can be extremely uncomfortable. Not so with Slinky Dog! I actually wish they’d close Mine Train for awhile and replace those ride vehicles with some like they’re using for Slinky. Gigantic improvement!

Slinky getting ready to 'go, go, go!'

Slinky getting ready to ‘go, go, go!’

Alien Swirling Saucers

Slipping and sliding in your saucer!

I can’t wait to go back later this month and visit the land at night. All the lights and effects look amazing! One huge negative is the shade. This new space has virtually no shade, no indoor stores/spaces, very small bathroom area, and no indoor restaurants. There is a quick service food option called ‘Woody’s Lunch Box’ that I’ll be trying on my next visit — this visit was just too hot and packed to even consider a stop. One good piece of advice is regarding merchandise. You can get merch for the land where Sweet Spells used to be, on Sunset around the corner from the Hollywood Brown Derby. This is a new merch location and much easier to navigate than trying to get to the carts in the land itself. Another tip, head to the land early in the morning or late at night (or both.) Trying to do Toy Story Land midday (unless you have a FastPass) is going to be a hot mess for awhile.

How did I get so lucky to be in Toy Story Land on grand opening day? Not to mention that I didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes (except for a backup on Alien Swirling Saucers that kept us in line for probably 15 minutes)? VIP Tour, that’s how. Was it free? Heck no! I get a lot of comments about how it must be nice to be a travel agent and travel for free but I can assure you, that’s not the case. We pay for everything, just like a regular consumer and VIP tours are an expensive experience. A small group of agents and their families got together and booked our own VIP guide to experience Toy Story Land on opening day as well as hit the most popular rides in the other parks in the seven hours we had the guide. The result?

  1. Hollywood Studios for Alien Swirling Saucers then Slinky Dog Dash
  2. Animal Kingdom for Na’vi River Journey, lunch at Satu’li Canteen, Avatar: Flight of Passage
  3. Epcot for Soarin’ and Frozen Ever After
  4. Back to Hollywood Studios for another go on Slinky Dog Dash and then some of the group wrapped on Rock n’ Roller Coaster. The plan was to go to Magic Kingdom but Slinky Dog was calling for a repeat!

The benefits, other than having a guide to take you into the FastPass lines of these insanely popular rides without having a FastPass? Private transportation backstage to each park, no bag check every time you needed to go into a new park, no turnstiles, drop off right at or very close to the ride entrance backstage, snacks/water/ponchos, etc. It was amazing! These tours are for up to 10 guests, minimum of 7 hours, theme park admission is required (including hoppers if you’re doing more than one park) and the per hour rate varies from $425 to $625/hour. You also tip the guide after the tour is complete. So yes, that’s about $3k-$4,500 for the tour. (I can set these up for my clients as well, just ask if you’re interested and we’ll come up with a fantastic tour plan for you!) These are completely custom and the guide will take you to do literally whatever attractions you want, based on their availability. We were going to ride Test Track in Epcot as well but a thunderstorm shut the ride down. You’ll want to allot very little time to eating and shopping during your tour because, let’s face it, you’re paying a premium to have the guide act as your personal FastPass and who wants to waste that shopping?!?

After the tour was over, we went to Magic Kingdom for dinner and were able to get in a few more attractions before the park closed. Four parks in one day! 14 attractions! Super exciting!

Whew, what a busy few days! We’re headed back later this month to do “Toy Story Land — the sequel” where we’ll play a little more in the evening, see what has changed since it first opened (hopefully there’s some shade!), and then check out a few new offerings. We’ll be at a different resort for that trip so stay tuned to see what resort I visited and thoughts on that one.

Happy July!

One birthday, seven guests, some tigers, and 100 degrees! Back to Disney!

We hopped in the van and hit the road to the Sunshine State… me, the hubs, the kid, my mom, stepdad, and two nieces. You would think that seven people in a mini-van (love our Toyota Sienna!) for 12.5 hours would be a rough start to a trip but I think all the conversation made the ride seem quicker. The feet in the face, not so much (Skylar!) but otherwise the ride was smooth and our quick overnight in Georgia helped break up the drive.

Arriving in Orlando, we went first to SeaWorld, a first trip for the kids and the hubs. I hadn’t visited since I was a teenager years ago. The best part was the dolphin show, which I think most guests remember from trips as a child, but otherwise the park felt lacking. Too hot, too crowded, lacking enough signage, etc. I still have a hard time with some of their animal practices so that didn’t help my overall impression but I went in with an open mind on that front. There were way more rides than the last time I visited and those seemed to be the draw — in this seemingly animal-focused park. Weird.

Dolphin show at SeaWorld

Dolphin show at SeaWorld… such brilliant mammals!

At Disney, in all fairness, it was hot too but their parks seem to have more airflow and shady spots to take a break, sorely needed in the summer. We spent the next few days zipping from park to park, cramming in as much as possible so the nieces could hit the highlights in all four parks. Mine Train, Expedition Everest, Big Thunder Mountain, Soarin’, Frozen Ever After, Rock n’ Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, Star Tours, Avatar: Flight of Passage… even time for a spin on the Carousel of Progress. So much accomplished in a short three park days.

Eeyore

We even made time for this guy!

Everyone enjoyed the Happily Ever After fireworks dessert party in Magic Kingdom, despite Mother Nature’s attempt to rain us out. Big negative this time around was the dessert party crowd in the viewing area. Disney recently started offering a post-fireworks dessert party in addition to the pre-fireworks party. Those post-fireworks guests share the same viewing area with the pre-fireworks guests and that stinks. It was much more crowded than we experienced in March – during spring break. Hopefully this changes.

A super fun time was had by all at Typhoon Lagoon, with a Beachcomber Shack (private cabana) rental to enjoy all day long. We also visited Typhoon Lagoon one evening during a private Disney Vacation Club event but that was PACKED! Hard to find an empty chair anywhere and the lines were long throughout. So much for a limited admission event…

 

Typhoon Lagoon

An empty wave pool awaits at Typhoon Lagoon!

When we drive to Florida, I like to try to find fun things to do on the way home, if we have time. This trip had a planned activity on the way home that was thwarted by crazy hot/humid temperatures and rainstorms. I changed my plans on the fly to include a visit to the Catty Shack Ranch in Jacksonville, Florida. This is a non-profit, forever home for wild cats that have been abandoned, neglected, or given up for various reasons by private owners and zoos. If you’re ever in Jacksonville, I highly recommend checking their calendar to see if they’re open to the public for a night feeding that day. Super fun time for everyone, reasonably priced, and a great cause. You can even adopt one of the cats and help support their mission to build new enclosures. For local folks, this reminded me a lot of the Wildlife Center of Virginia’s origins with wild cats instead of native Virginia wildlife. Seeing tigers and lions frolicking with the Executive Director and volunteer staff was truly a memorable experience!

Catty Shack Ranch

Just chilling after a huge rainstorm, waiting on my dinner to be delivered!

Until next time… which happens to be very soon! Toy Story Land grand opening, here I come!

 

 

 

New places and lots of faces… Disney World at Spring Break

A couple of weeks ago, I packed up the fam and hopped on a plane to Orlando. It was Spring Break which meant it was time to go back to Disney! Now, don’t think Spring Break is the perfect time to visit the parks. It is far from perfect with the large crowds and unpredictable weather but sometimes life and responsibilities dictate when we can and can’t vacation. And yes, second most crowded time period to visit Disney — Christmas through New Year’s wins that honor — but fun can still be had by all.

I split my stay with several nights at the newest villa section of Disney’s Wilderness Lodge resort, Copper Creek Villas and Cabins. It was a beautiful studio room with a walk-in shower and great views of the main feature pool at the resort including the Fire Rock Geyser area.

Wilderness Lodge pool and Fire Rock Geyser

Fire Rock is erupting just past the pool

I loved these new rooms and can’t wait to stay there again in the future. The last few nights of my visit were at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas- Jambo House. These are rooms that were converted from original ‘regular’ rooms into villas and I enjoyed a studio there as well with a savanna view. Waking up and seeing the animals was such fun!

Good morning from the savanna!

Do you see the giraffe hiding in the trees?

While the rooms and resorts were fantastic, I had to get into the parks! Let’s see, two rounds of Avatar: Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom (OMG, love it!), a trip down a mystical river on the Na’vi River Journey, a beautiful nighttime spiritual journey with Rivers of Light, and a Yeti trying to chase me down a mountain (wait… what?) Animal Kingdom park is always filled with such interesting experiences. Kilimanjaro Safaris was amazing for one of our ‘two-week’ journeys. We saw so many animals and had giraffes coming up to our safari truck, I mean like right beside us! Our driver had to call for back up to ‘shoo’ the giraffes on their merry way.

Giraffes on safari

Wait… there’s a height requirement on this ride?

Epcot was lovely and filled with delightful scents throughout from the Flower and Garden Festival. I LOVE flowers so this is one of my favorite times to visit so I can look at all of the beautiful topiaries and plants around the park. The butterfly garden is a highlight for me as well. There were so many butterflies flitting about and many more emerging from their chrysalises!

Butterflies

Butterflies, butterflies, how many do you see?

Magic Kingdom was a magical kingdom, as always! Despite being soaked by one of those lovely Florida downpours on the way to dinner, Be Our Guest was still a delish meal. I’m super disappointed that the restaurant is changing to a two-credit meal in late July (and with a funky menu) so this is likely one of my last times there. Fall clients, don’t be surprised when it isn’t on your suggestion list from me as we prepare for dining reservations.

The grey stuff

The grey stuff was divine and so was dining in the spooky ‘West Wing’!

Hollywood Studios is well… in the middle of a transformation. With Toy Story Land opening on June 30th and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge coming sometime in 2019 (no, there is no date that has been announced), the park has a lot of construction going on. I will say that as they work toward wrapping these projects, there are some new spaces showing up in the park that are welcome additions. Baseline Tap House is a fab place for a quick drink, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, and a snack before dinner. The outdoor seating is a great place to relax and people watch while you enjoy a nice craft beer or cider. I loved finally meeting Star-Lord and Groot, a must-do for fans of Guardians of the Galaxy!

Star-Lord and Groot

Yes, you are Groot. And a cute little Groot too!

I also stopped by Typhoon Lagoon for some laps around the lazy river and a nice relaxing day in a comfy lounge chair. No wave pool for me this time but I’ve got some time coming up this summer to brave the waves! Disney Springs was quite busy with holiday weekend visitors but we managed to have a blast (literally) going to Mustafar on a secret mission as a Rebel in disguise as a Stormtrooper at The Void. Battling Darth Vader was a bit intense, just like the heat from the lava. Craziness and definitely on my list for next time too. After that battle, we needed a sweet treat to bring us back to Earth and put the finishing touch on our trip. So I leave this beautiful little bunny cake for you, as the end to my blog post. Happy Spring!

Amorette's bunny cake

Amorette’s Patisserie went above and beyond on this precious little bunny cake! These are only about three inches tall!

Return to Punta Cana

I was invited to the Dominican Republic again this year for a Top Agent Retreat… who would decline a trip to an island paradise? The island had recently been hit by Hurricane Maria but the only visible damage to the area that we were in was some downed trees and stripped foliage. The ocean was glistening and the pools sparkling; it was time for some fun!

This year’s trip took the hubs and I to the Riu Palace Bavaro and I’m not going to lie, not a big Riu fan. The things we enjoyed most about this resort were the pool with its tile loungers and the Costa Caribe drinks. Gratefully, the Costa Caribe’s were plentiful and the pool was a delight.

Riu Palace Bavaro poolCosta Caribe drink

While in Punta Cana, we had the pleasure of touring other resorts. These are referred to as site inspections in travel agent lingo. What does that really mean? Up and at ’em early, zipping from resort to resort, viewing various room types, meeting the staff, checking out the restaurants, pools, and other amenities, etc. If anyone ever steals my phone, they’ll likely wonder why I have so many pictures of the inside of hotel rooms, bathrooms, and mini-fridges.

The other places we visited were the Nickelodeon Resort Punta Cana and I totally would’ve enjoyed spending the trip there. With a clean design and not an over-the-top kid feel, I would definitely stay here on a future trip. Their waterpark area was such a fun amenity for resort guests! For a mere $4k/night, you could even stay in Spongebob’s house!Spongebob's House

Aqua Nick waterpark

Next up was Chic Punta Cana, an adults only resort. Here you can stay in a six-bedroom Mansion villa for about that same $4k/night if a pineapple under the sea wasn’t your cup of tea. Not looking to blow the budget? The other room categories are much more affordable and some even feature the swim-out rooms with infinity pools!

Chic Punta Cana

Next up was Royalton Punta Cana, which we visited last year, but is always a beauty. As far as impressive views from the lobby, this one is right up there.

Royalton Punta Cana

There were two other Riu resorts on our list to tour, Riu Bambu for families and Riu Republica for adults only. Riu Bambu is one of the five resorts that was in our resort’s overall complex – with Riu Naioba, Riu Macao, and Riu Palace Punta Cana. Riu Bambu is a very pretty resort and I’d have preferred to stay there over ours. The layout and vibe here was better, newer decor, nice central restaurant area, and a cluster of pools close by.

Riu Bambu

Riu Republica had a nice clean look but definitely not my taste. There was more of a party vibe here, especially at the pools, and this resort will cater to spring breakers in 2018. Great for that age group, not so much for mine. 🙂

Riu Republica

Last up for this trip was Excellence El Carmen. This is also an adult only property and you could feel the step up in quality here. The rooms were much bigger and OMG, this honeymoon room had a private balcony with a swim-up, its own small pool, and jacuzzi tub.

Beachfront room view

Private balcony with swim-up

2017-10-06 15.46.12

Private pool, jacuzzi tub, and lounge bed

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

I’ll leave you with the recipe for the Costa Caribe, in case you’re interested. I highly recommend these and can’t wait for a return to the DR to try them again!

Until next time!

Amber

Costa Caribe

Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights #27 (#hhn27)

Howdy!  It’s time for another guest blog post — this time from the Hubs.  Enjoy!

Being a lifelong lover of the macabre, I’ve always wanted to take Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights for a spin, but it’s never been in the cards. That changed this year, when a surprise birthday trip included not only our daughter, but our teenage niece — who, as it so happens, is a big fan of horror movies. (By her own admission, the only things she can’t handle are creepy twins and scary clowns. That’s called “foreshadowing.”) So, as the rest of the group headed to Disney Springs for some restaurants and shopping, Niece (not her actual name) and I headed to #HHN27 for some pants-ruining fun.

First off, the map:

#hhn27 map

The map for Halloween Horror Nights #27

The little red letters are the haunted houses (there were nine altogether: American Horror Story, The Shining, The Fallen, Dead Waters, The Horrors of Blumhouse, Hive, Scarecrow: The Reaping, Ash vs Evil Dead, and Saw), while the yellow sections are Scare Zones — themed areas where performers roam free to pounce on you as you walk by. Upon entering the park, the very first thing we saw in the very first Scare Zone was the creepy ghost twins from The Shining, standing there being all creepy. As a direct result, we decided to start with some rides. So, proceeding through the nonexistent line, we hopped straight onto Transformers. Personally, I find Universal’s rides repetitive — it’s like the pitch for every ride since The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man has consisted of, “Hey, remember Spider-Man? It’s like that, except with {insert hot intellectual property here}!”

But I digress. Halloween Horror Nights isn’t about the rides; it’s about the scares. (As a matter of fact, several attractions are closed during the event since their queues are repurposed for the haunted houses.) It was well time for a haunted house, and, with me being a huge Evil Dead devotee for more years than I care to admit, Ash vs Evil Dead was the logical place to start. And since it’s horrific in a haha sort of way, it couldn’t be so bad for Niece, right?

It scared the absolute bejeezus out of her.

To calm her still-pounding heart, I decided it was Harry Potter time. Now, referring back to the map above, Ash vs Evil Dead is at the bottom center, while Harry Potter is at the top right. If you’ll notice, the walkway between the two is in no way, shape, or form yellow. (This will be a very important factor in my upcoming defense trial.) As we headed that way, however, Niece froze in her tracks. When I asked what was wrong, she said simply, “That’s a clown.”

As it turns out, that was a massive understatement. It was not a clown. It was a plethora of clowns. Scary ones. With chainsaws.

We ducked into a Simpsons-themed food court and made our way along its entire length to an exit at the opposite end. As we peeked out in an attempt to determine whether we’d managed to circumvent the murderous clowns, I noticed a teenage girl sitting at a nearby table. No food, just sitting. Eyes wide, she said, “You can’t go out there. THEY CHASE YOU.”

The long route to Harry Potter it was, then! Backtracking through the restaurant, we exited the door through which we’d entered, taking precisely zero notice of the support column right outside said door. Two steps later, a theretofore unseen clown lunged out from behind that column and brap-brapped his — quite realistic, I might add — chainsaw right in Niece’s face. Until that moment, I never knew it was possible to launch scream-powered tears out of one’s eyeballs with such astounding velocity.

 

We did eventually make it to Harry Potter via the long way around, but any further haunted houses were to be solo affairs while Niece waited it out in a no-scare zone (the performers don’t follow you into shops or restaurants). While, as I mentioned before, the size of my Evil Dead fandom is only surpassed by the ego of one Ashley J. Williams, if asked to pick a Best of Show I’d have a hard time choosing between that and The Shining — both were extremely well done experiences, and really managed to capture the essence of their respective properties.

So, would I do it again? In an elevated heartbeat I would! I’d just do so knowing that, when Universal says Halloween Horror Nights is too intense for most guests, they sort of mean it.