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!

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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

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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.

A conference in Virginia Beach…

My latest adventure took me to Virginia Beach, to accompany the hubs to a work conference.  I can only recall being in Virginia Beach twice in my life, once at least fifteen years ago for a concert that got cancelled (boo!) and then back in middle school on a field trip.  We don’t live terribly far from the area but it has never been on my short list to visit.

Arriving at the beach, it was what I was expecting but not what I’m used to for a beach vacation.  I prefer quiet, family-oriented beaches with sand dunes, seashells, and very little commercialism so I struck out on all counts here.  I won’t lie, I wouldn’t visit the area again to hang out at the ocean.  However, this trip wasn’t focused on the water so we entertained ourselves at the pool area of the hotel (Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront), at the always delicious Duck Donuts around the corner, and at the conference activities.  We had a free afternoon that we planned to spend at the nearby aquarium but, the rest of the greater Virginia Beach area got the the same idea, so we bailed.

A speaker at the conference had mentioned the Military Aviation Museum in nearby Pungo, so we changed course and headed there.  Luckily, the museum was a short drive past the aquarium, so we were already going in the right direction.  Bombing out on a place that looked appealing for lunch near the hotel, we stopped in at Firebrew Bar and Grill on the way to the museum.  How delish!  Being a Monday at lunchtime, we had the restaurant to ourselves and dined on yummy pierogies, ahi tuna tacos, flatbreads, and pizzas.  The day was looking up!

After stuffing ourselves at lunch, we continued on to Pungo.  The bucolic fields and controlled retail environments made for a great experience on the drive.  Arriving at the museum, we were pleased to find that it wasn’t crowded.  Entering the main exhibit building, the staff gave us a warm welcome and intro to the facility with an overview of the areas to visit.  We saw working aircraft from World War II from the Army and Navy, various German vehicles, an Amphicar, and a real German Enigma machine.  Had we a little more time, we would’ve gone on the tour to visit the additional hangars that featured World War I replica and German aircraft.  If you visit anywhere in the greater Virginia Beach area and are an aviation or history fan, you need to make time to stop here!

Another evening took us to One Fish, Two Fish for dinner and we enjoyed a fantastic meal.  The restaurant is situated in a marina and offers local ingredients and stellar service.  Another place to add to the list.

So, yeah, not a fan of Virginia Beach’s oceanfront but I think the surrounding area has potential for a future visit.  I hear Sandbridge Beach is nice so maybe that would be a good home base to stay and then pop in to some of the other places we enjoyed and find some new fun at First Landing State Park or the Cape Henry Lighthouses.

Where will I go next…?

Ahi tuna tacos at Firebrews Military Aviation MuseumMilitary Aviation Museum

Why yes, a cruise for Thanksgiving would be divine!

Being a vegetarian, Thanksgiving is not one of my favorite holidays.  For my family, it represents a long weekend that is perfect for hitting the road and enjoying some time together.  This year, that meant packing up and heading to Florida!

First stop, Disney World, for a quick one-night stay at Saratoga Springs.  We are Disney Vacation Club members and own at the Saratoga Springs resort but this was our first stay there in several years.  We chose Saratoga since it sits right beside Disney Springs and visiting there was our plan for this abbreviated stopover.  Thanksgiving dinner was accomplished at ‘Ohana at the Polynesian resort (to die for, as always!) and then a few hours at Disney Springs was a delightful treat.  I’m amazed with each trip how much Disney Spring evolves.  So much of the area is brand-new and super fancy!  I love the changes and can’t wait to see everything fully complete.

disney-springs-11-2016

Disney Springs – Town Center

Black Friday morning for me meant breakfast at Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge, no shopping!  We stuffed ourselves and then hopped in the van to head over to Port Canaveral.  Emptying the van and skipping into the terminal at the Port, we got checked-in and waited with the masses.  With boarding group #2, we were some of the first folks onboard the beautiful Disney Dream.  Cabanas for the lunch buffet then a little ship exploration kept us occupied until the lifeboat drill and Sail Away party.

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Pool deck on the Dream after boarding

Sail Away party

Sail Away party (before the crowds hit)

Our stateroom was fantastic!  When I toured the Dream in January 2015, I saw a room type that I had never been inside of before.  I knew when I saw it that I had to book one for myself!  The split layout of these rooms and the two large portholes are amazing.  So much room in the stateroom to spread out and really get settled in.

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Our stateroom on the Dream

During our cruise, which was a super short 3-night Bahamian, the ship docked at Nassau in the Bahamas and Castaway Cay.  As I’ve mentioned before, Castaway Cay is Disney’s private island in the Bahamas and it was all decked out for the holidays.

castaway-cay-11-2016

Island paradise

The ship was also adorned with holiday goodness around every turn.  The lobby featured a beautiful gingerbread house which also filled the air with its lovely scent.

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Dream’s gingerbread house

Pirate night onboard the Dream was a blast (literally!) too with fireworks at sea and the ever-popular Pirate Buffet.  They do such a great job putting out these late-night treats for the hungry pirates!

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Pirate night food decor

Disney Cruise never disappoints and this trip was another memorable one for the fam!

Going solo to Turks and Caicos

Last October, I ventured to the Caribbean to tour some of the Sandals and Beaches brand resorts in Jamaica.  In early July, I jumped on a plane to Providenciales, the hub of the Turks and Caicos islands in the British West Indies to tour the Beaches brand resort located there.  Talk about an absolutely amazing experience!  The resort was gigantic but not in a bad way!  So much to do for the whole family,  a killer beach, plenty of restaurants, fantastic service, and luxurious accommodations!

So let’s see, other than touring the resort and the various room types — it was a working trip — I spent hours on the beach, floating and swimming around.  The water is crystal clear like a pool and the pure white sand is fluffy soft.  Of course, I came home a little on the sunburned side but it was so worth it.  I spent some time in two of the many pools as well and enjoyed those and their swim-up bars.  The nights were filled with delicious food including yummy sushi and a to-die-for French restaurant that I could’ve eaten at every night.

French Village pool

French Village pool near my room

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Grotto at the Iguana pool in the Caribbean Village section of the resort

Le Petit Chateau restaurant

Scrumptious French food, steps from my room!

One morning had an early wake-up call to board the Kitty Katt catamaran tour to snorkel in those beautiful blue waters, visit our own deserted island, and then fly off the back of the boat into the open water on their super fun waterslide.  This was my first experience snorkeling and I had a fantastic time, will definitely do it again!

Kitty Katt catamaran

Kitty Katt catamaran tour, at the deserted island

The resort even has its own waterpark area with five slides, a lazy river, and splash pad!  This area bumps up to the tween/teen fun spot with a diner, kids swim-up pool bar, Xbox lounge, DJ Scratch Academy and kids lounge, and hangout spot with family games.

Pirates Island

Pirates Island waterpark slides and lazy river

The grounds are well-kept throughout the resort and you can always find fountains, sitting areas, hammocks, flowers, small geckos, and friendly faces wherever you turn.

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Fountain in the French Village area

This was my view on the way into the islands and as I was taking off to head back to the States.  I hope that I am seeing this view again, sooner rather than later!

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View from the plane flying over Turks and Caicos

Ocean Isle Beach with the fam

After a recent weeklong stay at Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina, I can confirm that there is such a thing as salt therapy.  It does a body good to plop on the sand, splash in the ocean, and soak in the sun.  Doing so with your family is even better.

Ocean Isle is such a relaxing place with a slower pace that I enjoy so much while recharging from my daily life.  I do work while at the beach but there’s something about doing work on a beach chair in the sand, or from a wicker sofa on a deck in the sun, that really makes the time spent working not so rough.

Normally, Ocean Isle is the place for collecting seashells but this year was pretty much a bust.  We did find a few good specimens but for the most part, the shells were hard to find.  That’s super weird but I chalk it up to high tides all week and the lack of storms in the area that stir up the good stuff.

Speaking of weather, it was perfection!  Warm days, cool nights, no rain… loved it!  I was expecting it to be much more hot and humid than it was but was certainly grateful for the pleasant temps.

The food was good, we hit up all the usual spots that we visit while in the area.  A couple of days at Myrtle Beach for dinner and some time at the outlets rounded out the non-beach time.  This trip was mostly about hanging out at our rental house and spending time together and I think we accomplished that quite well.

Til’ next time!