Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hollywood Studios Tips with an (Almost) Toddler

I knew I wanted to follow up my Epcot post with Hollywood Studios because in my mind I felt about Hollywood Studios going into our trip the way many people feel about Epcot (i.e. they don't really consider it a place to go with younger kids).  Even after pouring through several guidebooks, we couldn't find many things we thought Baby O would be interested in so we purposefully only scheduled a half day there. Granted, if we had been wrong, we were more than willing to change our plans to spend more time there, but ultimately we weren't wrong.

Not that Hollywood Studios isn't a fun park for an older group. The Aerosmith Rollercoaster and Tower of Terror both receive high marks on the thrill factor, but (1) based on our toddler-centric research, we only had one "must ride" attraction and (2) none of the restaurants are all that great so we wanted to get back to the hotel by lunchtime.

Our morning at Hollywood Studios began at 8am due to the Early Magic Hours. The original plan was for Husband to run ahead right at 8am and get Fast Passes for as early as possible for the whole group for Toy Story Mania and then we'd just wander around until our reservation time. Unfortunately, the plan didn't work out exactly how we envisioned.

Perhaps I should take a minute to explain Fast Passes.

The basic idea is very simple: you approach the ride you want to ride and there are two options (1) get on the line to ride  or (2) scan your room card/Magic Band and get a reservation for an exact time to come back to ride. There are several advantages to getting a Fast Pass. First, you don't have to wait on ridiculously long lines (for what's honestly a mediocre ride) with a toddler. Second, you can plan your day a bit better. If you know you have Fast Passes to Toy Story Mania at 10:45am then you can plan to be in that area of the park around that time checking out other less popular rides, instead of just darting from one side of the park to the other looking for short lines.

Some things to note about Fast Passes:
Magic Band color options Photo credit
  • You can only get one Fast Pass at a time with your room card. We visited Disney during the room card/Magic Band transition period so we had both room cards and Magic Bands. This was awesome because we had room cards which allowed us to send Husband ahead to get popular Fast Passes for the whole group, but then we also had the Magic Bands which allowed us to reserve three Fast Past Plus rides per day.
  • Fast Pass Plus is the same thing as Fast Pass, but you can reserve it in advance. There is an app that you can download on your phone (or you can just sign in on the Disney website) which allows you to schedule Fast Pass Plus rides weeks in advance of your trip! You can change it up until the reservation is set to begin so you are never boxed into anything (unless a ride "sells out" of Fast Pass Plus opportunities).
  • Fast Passes do sell out. There are some rides that are just really popular. If you are planning on riding one of those, go get your Fast Pass as soon as you enter the park. There is nothing more upsetting than showing up at a ride at 2pm and seeing that the Fast Passes are sold out for the day and your only option is to wait two hours! With Fast Pass Plus, a ride will no longer appear as an option on your mobile device: that means it is sold out.
  • Totally random tip: if you have multiple people in your party with smart phones, have them all download the Fast Pass Plus application. Then you can connect your Disney profiles to indicate you are on the same trip. My mom and I did this and were trying to set up our Fast Passes one night for the following day. My Disney profile was only connected to my mom, Grandma, and Husband. My mom's was connected to everyone as she was the "lead" account. I managed to secure very in demand Fast Passes for my group of four while my mom's account told her that the ride was sold out for a group of eight. However, once I had my group of four signed up, she was able to go in as the "lead" account and piggyback the rest of the group into my reservation! So don't be afraid to play around a little bit to try to get what you want!
  • Not all rides have Fast Pass or Fast Pass Plus options. And to make things slightly more confusing, some rides have Fast Pass kiosks other than at the ride's entrance (this is due to space issues). If you are looking for a Fast Pass kiosk and can't find it, ask a Cast Member (park employee) and they'll be happy to help out!
  • Fast Pass does not open until the park's general admission opening time.
This last bullet is the one that got us: even though the park was open at 8am, Fast Passes didn't start getting distributed until 9am. So while Husband was there, ready to go at 8am, he didn't actually get a Fast Pass until after 9:30am. I suppose he could have just stood there for an hour waiting, but what's the fun there? So he walked back to meet us and figured he'd go back. Unfortunately, when he did 500 of his closest friends were already on line ahead of him!

So that snafu hampered our plans slightly. The other not so great aspect of the day: it was POURING! Luckily I had packed three disposable ponchos in our Disney survival kit (post forthcoming) so we were able to cover Baby O's stroller and stay moderately dry. I don't think the rain sweetened any of our enjoyment of the park though!

While we waited to go on Toy Story Mania, we took in the Muppets 3D show. I love the Muppets so this was a fun one for me. Again, as evidenced in the photo, Baby O was not thrilled with the 3D glasses but he managed to sit and watch without creating a major disturbance so that was appreciated.

We also ducked into The Legend of Jack Sparrow to get out of the rain. This is really a 8 minute show with a hologram Jack Sparrow. One kid from the audience gets to participate, but the rest of the group just stands there. The hologram technology is pretty cool: it actually felt like Johnny Depp was in the room with us!

The other attraction we saw was the Voyage of the Little Mermaid, which is a live action/puppet stage show retelling of the Little Mermaid. Baby O enjoyed this one because he liked all the singing and glow-in-the-dark fish. Ursula is HUGE and could be scary for some kids.

Husband and Baby O on Toy Story Mania.
Finally, it was time for Toy Story Mania. This ride is all kinds of awesome. I felt bad because ultimately by the time Husband got Fast Passes for this one, he only had five room cards so Pops and Brother-in-Law volunteered to sit this one out. Had Baby O not been with us, I would have volunteered to wait on line with them so I could ride a second time: the ride is seriously that fun. If you do end up waiting on line, the line area is FREEZING. I have been on this line twice, five years apart and was a Kathleen-popsicle both times. Bring a sweater to toss over your shoulders! Also, the line area is kind of fun. I felt a little bad that we were missing some of the stuff that the people waiting got to see (not so bad that I would have subjected Baby O to a two hour line, but a little bad!)

Basically the ride itself is an interactive 3D carnival. You ride with one other person and you move from game to game. You pull the string of your "cannon" to shoot at targets on the screen to get points. At the end, the game tells you who won in your car. It's really such a neat concept and the popularity of the Toy Story movies certainly doesn't hurt!

Lolli and Baby O (and random purple poncho lady) wait to
get into the Legend of Jack Sparrow theater.
By the time we had done those four things (and shopped for a Mr. Potato Head doll for Baby O and a Slinky Dog for Aunt Suzanne), it was just about lunch time. Our hotel had a pretty nice food court (Landscape of Flavors at the Art of Animation) so we decided to head back there rather than try out the supposedly questionable food at Hollywood Studios.

The one restaurant that I had on my "emergency" list was Studio Catering Company; however, the appeal there was the outdoor seating (it was raining) and the proximity to the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground (which was closed, we think, for the season, which was stupid because it was 70-80 degrees while we were there!)

Ultimately, I'm glad we spent a rainy morning at Hollywood Studios. We weren't expecting to get much out of that particular park anyway so the rain didn't exactly dampen the atmosphere. I would have been more sad if it had rained the one day we spent at Animal Kingdom.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Epcot Tips with a (Almost) Toddler

Epcot, I think, has a bum rap among parents taking their children to Disney. I hear a lot of friends saying how they don't expect to spend much time there or that they intend to skip Epcot altogether. While initially I thought I felt the same way (don't we all just think of Epcot as someplace to go and "drink around the world"?), after visiting Epcot with Baby O, I realize how completely wrong I was! Not only did we have a great time at Epcot, but we spent nearly two full days there (not counting the one evening we went back sans Baby O).

While the "countries area" (real name: World Showcase) is what people think of when they hear Epcot, there is actually a whole separate park section (named Future World) that exists before you even enter the World Showcase. In fact, most days the two sections open at completely different times (be sure to check the schedule for each specific day).

On this trip our first Epcot experience was without Baby O so we were able to check it out and get a feel for what he might like before we returned the following day. My Brother-in-Law happens to love Epcot so when on our first night, the park had extra magic hours until 11pm, he eagerly suggested that the young'uns' (i.e. me, Husband, sister-in-law, and himself) head over to check it out.

Future World is divided up into two sides: on the left is Test Track, Mission: Space, and Universe of Energy* and on the right is the Land, the Sea and Imagination!.

Future World: Left

Test Track: I didn't go on this one, but Husband, Brother-in-Law and Father-in-Law (Poppi) did. Basically you design a race car and then get to drive it to see how it performs in real race conditions. This ride is super popular so unless you want to wait for more than an hour, get a Fast Pass (go there first thing when the park opens/you arrive as the Fast Passes can sell out!). Basically the general consensus was that this ride was fun, but the fellows were disappointed that they didn't each get to design their own cars. After their design performed poorly, they spent the rest of the day accusing each other of being the chief designer! There is a height requirement of 40 inches so most, if not all, toddlers are going to be sized out.

We sent this picture to Disney in case they wanted to use
it for upcoming promotional materials. We have surprisingly
yet to receive a response!
Mission: Space: This seriously shouldn't even call itself a ride. It should be called a "thrill miserable horrible experience". I could seriously talk for days about how horrible Mission Space: Orange is but I might end up with PTSD for recalling the experience. There is a tamer "Green" level option that Gary Sinise (America's professional "not an astronaut but plays one on TV" astronaut) seriously spends 15 minutes while you are online trying to convince you to go on instead. We laughed the video off, thinking, "How bad can this ride be? The line is only 15 minutes long and we're at Epcot!" Turns out the line was only 15 minutes long because the fireworks were about to start and everyone was lined up for the show. Oh if we had known.

Not even a joke picture.
This was us after the ride.
Ultimately you get into a pod that is about the size of a midsize car. The pod then folds in half so your "controls" are closer to you. Each "astronaut" is assigned a job (i.e. engineer, pilot, captain, something else random that I've blocked out). I should have suspected something awful was about to happen when I saw that the pod was equipped with genuine barf bags. The ride then simulates being launched into outer space and flying to Mars where you almost fall off a cliff. My Brother-in-Law, who normally thoroughly enjoys thrill rides, said that he was fine until we almost went off the cliff. At that point, he was ready to lose it while I was ready to just live on Mars because I was having a horrible thought that they might make us fly back to Earth! (They don't!)

It was, without a doubt, complete and utter misery. Although the four year old who got off the ride immediately after us (and was kind enough to stop and talk to us on the benches that we laid down on!) loved it so maybe this is a perfect ride to take your toddler on. There is a height restriction of 44 inches for the Orange side.

Universe of Energy: Ellen's Energy Adventure: Many folks around my age may recall visiting Epcot as kids and going on the "dinosaur" ride. Well that ride is gone and has been replaced with this movie/interactive ride featuring Ellen DeGeneres. The entire experience is about 45 minutes long and includes a preshow featuring Ellen falling asleep and dreaming about Bill Nye the Science Guy offering to take her on a journey to understand energy. Once you enter the theater, Ellen's "dream" continues and ultimately the theater seats themselves start moving around in a big block. The dinosaurs are still included in the show, but their presence seemed a little forced. Baby O didn't care though: he is all about dinosaurs, even big, scary, fighting dinosaurs like these were!

Spaceship Earth

Baby O really liked Spaceship Earth. The cars are continuously moving so the line never gets very long (I'll have some examples of non-continuously moving cars when I discuss the Magic Kingdom and seriously just the unloading/loading process holds the line up a good 10-20 minutes!). You wind your way up to the top of Spaceship Earth while a voiceover in your car talks about advances in technology since the beginning of man. There are animatronic people along the way, which could be scary (particularly some scenes with fire), but Baby O really liked it. His favorite part was on the way back down: the car tilts backwards and there is a touch screen. You pick a few of your likes/interests on the screen and then watch a funny video of your "Future" based on your responses. Cute stuff.
Future World: Right
Imagination!: This pavilion contains two separate rides: Captain EO, which is back after a 16 year absence, and Journey Into Imagination with Figment. Captain EO is about 20 minutes long and is total cheese. It was fun to watch, but Baby O wasn't too impressed. He didn't like the 3D glasses, but luckily the screen doesn't look too crazy when you aren't wearing (I checked about forty times to make sure I wasn't destroying his young eyes!) 
He preferred Journey Into Imagination with Figment, which has been revamped a bit since I remember riding it as a kid. It now features Eric Idle as a scientist who sends the rider on a journey into imagination which ends up being interrupted by Figment, a pesky little dragon. Toward the end of the ride, there was a loud POP that startled Baby O a bit, but the pop was just leading to the big singing finale so he didn't mind it too much. When you exit the ride, you enter ImageWorks, the third area of the Imagination! pavilion which is basically hands-on experiments for kids to play with (a bit over Baby O's abilities, although he did really enjoy a piano which is on the wall). 
The Land: Of all the components of Future World, The Land is probably the most dull. The big thrill ride is Soarin' which simulates a hang glider touring above parts of California. There is a 40 inch height restriction, which is on the low side, so that should give you some insight into the ride's craziness. Husband, Brother-in-Law, Poppi and Mimi (Poppi's wife) went on this one and none came back terribly impressed. In fact, I think some were jealous that we had used their time away to meet Chip and Dale!
The second ride is Living with the Land, which tours a greenhouse. For some ridiculous reason all our guidebooks told us to get Fast Passes for this ride. I can seriously only think that this was some sort of elaborate joke because the ride was totally dead. It is a stop and go boat ride (i.e. not continuous like Spaceship Earth) and when we got to the front of the line, there were five empty boats just sitting there. Once we loaded into ours they sent it off barely 25% full. It was neat at the end to see some of the wacky fruit/vegetable hybrids they are growing (ten pound lemons!), but don't go out of your way to ride this one.
The Seas with Nemo & Friends: This was a super popular pavilion for Baby O while we were at Epcot. Here visitors can find: the ride of the same name and Turtle Talk with Crush. Both are really popular so get Fast Passes or head there first thing in the morning. The ride basically retells the story of Finding Nemo as you ride around in shells. Turtle Talk is ridiculously cool for anyone, regardless of age. You file into a room (kids can sit on the floor in front) and Crush from Finding Nemo appears on screen. He talks for a bit and then takes questions from the audience! Kids can raise their hands and Crush will call on them by describing them. Then he answers their questions with specific answers! The technology is really amazing and supposedly they are using the same technology to have "costumed" characters (i.e. Mickey, Donald, Goofy) finally be able to speak with park guests! The show is about 15 minutes and runs continuously, but without a Fast Pass you might be waiting a while!
World Showcase:
Lest you think we never ventured into the World Showcase portion of Epcot: we did! With Baby O, we were there for lunch and then quickly ushered him back to the hotel for nap. With our adult group, we stumbled around post-Mission: Space Orange, trying to regain our bearings and end our misery!
There are actually a few rides in the World Showcase, but we only went on one: Gran Fiesta Tour starring the Three Caballeros in Mexico. It is in the back of the market building on the left-hand side. It is along the same vein of It's a Small World, but is themed after the Three Caballeros movie featuring Donald Duck. Another ride that we considered riding but it looked closed (it wasn't) was Maelstrom in Norway. It's a boat ride too but has a slight drop (28 feet). There's no height restriction and the drop is obviously no Splash Mountain, but it might be a bit much for the younger crowd.
For lunch with Baby O, we ate at the Tangierine Café in Morocco. My family is part-Lebanese and this type of food is very similar. While the chairs were iron and not exactly ideal for an almost-two year old, he managed. The portions were really big and we totally could have split entrees if we had wanted. Personally I found the falafel to be a bit on the dry side, but the lamb was super delicious! The baklava was a nice different type of dessert from what we had been getting at other quick-service restaurants. We were on the dining plan and for one quick-service credit, we got an entrée that included rice or fries, a dessert, and a drink. Baby O had chicken fingers which he enjoyed. These actually had just a touch of seasoning on them so they were a little something different for him too!
The other place we ate was at the Kringla Bakeri in Norway. I had read online so try the School Bread so after Mission: Space Orange, we did. Ohmygosh it was delicious! It was seriously the only thing that made me feel even slightly better when my head was spinning post-Mission: Space Orange. My sister and I split a piece the first night and then another day we went back and got THREE more! We also talked Mimi into getting some! School Bread is a slightly sweet bread filled with custard and sprinkled with coconut. It's not very rich and the only negative reviews I've seen are from people who were expecting more of a cinnamon bun flavor. That is not what School Bread is: it's really more like a honey flavored dinner roll with custard inside. In any event, it is ridiculously delicious! As we waited to place our second order, I started singing about how tasty School Bread is and I'm not kidding when I say that a few people in front of us changed their orders! And as we were leaving the park (still singing!), everyone kept asking what we were carrying because it looked so yummy! I'm convinced we changed some lives that day! On the dining plan, School Bread is one snack credit, but even sans dining plan it was less than $3/roll!
Here are some of the other possible dining options that I had chosen:
Sunshine Seasons (The Land) - This is a food court style restaurant with stations (grill, soup & salad, Asian noodles, sandwiches, bakery & breakfast). Everything here is cooked to order and personalization (due to allergies, etc.) is honored without issue. There is a ton of seating but it can get crowded (it wasn't really when we were there) and can be difficult to maneuver with a stroller. The Strawberry Shortcake and Beet Salad are supposed to be particularly good.
Les Halles Bakery (France) - This bakery opens at 9am and is one of the few attractions in World Showcase that opens before 11am. There is ample seating (both indoor and outdoor) and a large service area. There are savory options that could be a nice lunch for a meal plan snack credit (standouts are said to be quiche, bisque, and sandwiches). If they offer to toast something, say yes!
We did do a table service meal at Epcot too, but I decided I am going to do those meals separately since there is a ton I can say about each of them.
All in all, we had a great time at Epcot (Mission: Space Orange notwithstanding) which surprised us. Baby O really enjoyed it there too. We weren't ever there late enough to see any of the fireworks shows, but I've seen one before and it's pretty amazing (this from someone who hates fireworks!) They light up the whole World Showcase Lagoon and set all kinds of things on fire and then ultimately turn the Spaceship Earth into a big projection screen. Pretty awesome, but way past Baby O's bedtime (and the one time we were there for the show, we were Mission: Space Orange incapacitated!) I'd definitely advise folks to at least consider visiting Epcot for at least a half day. With a park hopper ticket, you can always go to a different park after lunch, but I think you may be surprised, just like we were, at how fun Epcot, even with an almost toddler can be!

* The "Wonders of Life" pavilion is still present at Epcot but isn't currently in operation for any ride or attraction. It is on the left-hand side of Future World between Mission: Space and the Universe of Energy


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Tips for Disney with a (Almost) Toddler

In November we took then Baby O to Disney World. (In my mind the transition to official Toddler didn't happen until his second birthday last month so since he was only 22 months old for our Disney trip, he was still a baby!) A lot of folks thought maybe we were taking him too soon but we went anyway because:

1) It was a fun opportunity to get the whole family together. And by whole family I mean me, Husband, Baby O, Mimi and Poppi (the in-laws), Lolli and Pops (my parents), Great Grandma, Aunt Suzanne and Uncle Brad (my sister and her hubby). The ratio of adults to child for our Disney trip was, at times, 9:1. Pretty awesome!

2) I really like Disney World and wanted to go back. You may recall that the Princess in my blog title is from my running the inaugural Disney Princess Half Marathon back in 2009. I hadn't been since then and thought it would be fun to take Baby O.

Husband was initially in the "he's too young" camp. He wanted to wait until Baby O was old enough to remember the trip, but honestly I'd previously been to Disney World three times and the only time I had actual memories of was the time when I was 27! I have vague memories of being there as a 5 and 9 year old but nothing specific or concrete. So if we were waiting for Baby O to retain actual memories, it was going to be a long time!

Finally, Lolli said that she'd go with us whether Husband came or not. Because he didn't want to be a party pooper, Husband agreed and we started planning.

Disney World with a (almost) toddler is not a trip you can plan on a short time table. The fact is that you need to do research before you go: where to stay, where to eat, and even what rides to go on. Because Baby O has such a defined schedule, it was really important that we not ever be stranded an hour away from the hotel at naptime. Or if he wanted to eat, we needed to have a list of acceptable restaurant options all around the park so food was never more than five minutes away!

Luckily both my mom and I like planning vacations so we each got to work, came together to compare our decisions, and made a final list.

Our first decision was when to go. Summer was out: it is ridiculously hot in Florida during the summer and Disney World is crowded because of school vacations. Same goes for weeks in February, April and October when schools are on break. Holidays are super popular too: Halloween, Thanksgiving and, of course, Christmas and New Years. There are a few formerly slow weeks that Disney now hosts various running events so we avoided those as well.
In the end we settled on the week of November 14-21. In 2013, this was a Thursday-Thursday and our trip ended one week before Thanksgiving. This week turned out to be perfect because the weather was pleasant (we were able to wear shorts and enjoy the pool, but it was never unbearably hot), the lines were short (we joked that the longest line we stood in was when my sister wanted Starbucks one evening!), and, best of all, some of the Christmas decorations were up! By visiting during this particular week, we managed to get the whole Disney Christmas experience with crowds significantly smaller than would be there for the next six weeks! Perfection! 
Our next big decision: where to stay. Our options were a bit limited in this department because we needed a suite for our group. Lolli, Pops and Great Grandma were staying with me, Husband and Baby O so we could tag team nighttime babysitting. Surprisingly, Disney doesn't have a lot of rooms available for groups this large, but the suites that were available were cheaper than asking for adjacent double rooms. Ultimately we zeroed in on the Art of Animation Resort.
Let me back-up a bit and explain why we wanted to stay at a Disney resort. There were a few reasons actually. First, staying at a resort means that you can take advantage of "Extra Magic" hours. Each day one of the four main Disney parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom) opens early or stays open late in the evenings. While the evening options turned out to be nice, we were really interested in the early morning options. Baby O is habitually a painfully early riser in the morning. Rather than hanging out for hours in the hotel waiting for the park to open at 9am, we were able to be up and out for a 8am park arrival. That extra hour was key, especially when naptime can strike anywhere from 11am-noon!
Second, we considered renting cars for transportation, but ultimately utilizing Disney transportation made more sense. My parents drove to Florida and we had a car seat for Baby O, but we knew that there was a possibility that we would not all be arriving/leaving the parks at the same time. By staying on the Disney property, we had constant access to buses that could take us to the parks (or to the other resorts) whenever we wanted. This way, Husband could take Baby O to the hotel in the car and put him to bed then when the rest of the crew was ready to leave the park, we'd hop on the bus and be back in less than 15 minutes.

Photo credit
Third, staying at a resort is part of the Disney experience in my mind. One thing I do remember from
a childhood trip to Disney is the Caribbean Beach Resort and it's awesome pools. There is just something that makes the experience all the more magical when it follows you back to the hotel! That said, our room was a really great theme: Finding Nemo (other options at Art of Animation are The Little Mermaid (no suite option), the Lion King, and Cars). I've actually never seen the Lion King (*gasp*) and wasn't particularly moved by Cars so Finding Nemo was a perfect choice. Even more so because after we made the reservations, a girlfriend let me borrow her son's Nemo costume so Baby O was able to dress as Nemo for Halloween! We also got him the Finding Nemo blu ray so he could watch the movie ahead of time and get familiar with the characters!

Our room was small (one bedroom, a pull out couch and a Murphy bed that folded into the wall and became a table), but there was two bathrooms and honestly the point of the vacation wasn't to hang out in the room so it was perfect for us. Baby O was thrilled with the Nemo theme, which carried over into the awesome pool and splash pad that was right outside our door! The resort dining hall (Landscape of Flavors) and the gift shop were close too (if you stay at the Lion King or Little Mermaid themed rooms, both are a serious hike!)

From Top Left: (1) Signage outside the property, (2) Enormous Finding Nemo themed splash pad next to the main pool at the resort, and (3) Mickey fun on the Murphy bed (which revealed this sweet picture of Nemo and Marlin cuddling! Awwww!
As much as we liked the Art of Animation Resort, it was not without some issues. One of the reasons it's classified as a "value resort" is it's distance from the Disney parks. Granted, it's not that far away, but we did spend a decent chunk of our day traveling (particularly since we were coming back for nap each day). Husband and Brother-in-Law both decided that next time around, they wouldn't mind paying a bit more and potentially staying a few less days in order to cut down on our travel. I'm not sure I'm in 100% agreement because the only way to significantly reduce our travel time is to stay on the monorail line and those resorts are super pricey! They also really only save you time when traveling to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot since those are the only two parks on the monorail line.
We tried traveling both ways to the parks (via car and via Disney buses) and we got burned both ways at least once. Husband and I waited nearly 30 minutes with a super exhausted Baby O before an Art of Animation bus arrived at Animal Kingdom and then once it finally did come, it stopped at Blizzard Beach before heading to our hotel! What would have been a 10 minute drive turned into an hour-plus voyage. Arg!
For the Magic Kingdom, however, buses are the way to go as they bring you right up to the park entrance. The parking lot is on the other side of the water, meaning once you park you still have to either take the ferry or the monorail to the main entrance. The monorails come pretty regularly but weren't running the first morning we were there so we ended up on the ferry. Luckily we were the last group that got on the boat before it left, but poor Aunt Suzanne, who arrived five minutes later, had to wait 30 minutes for the ferry to turn back around! Add to that traveling time the fact that you might have to take a tram to the monorail station from the parking lot and you are looking at a pretty long journey (particularly if you have to fold and unfold a stroller four times!) My parents, who took the bus on the other hand, waltzed up to the front gate within 10-15 minutes of leaving the hotel!
So basically my advice would be take the bus to the Magic Kingdom and, if you have the option, drive to the other four parks.
I think that's enough for today's tips. I have a ton of tips and advice specific to each park that I'll post separately. I hope this is helpful to someone. There are so many choices when it comes to a Disney vacation and I so appreciated reading lots of different reviews and experiences that I wanted to put our vacation experience out there! I also want to make sure to document it somewhere so next time we go back I'm not having to reinvent the wheel!
Stay tuned for my tips on each of the four Disney parks - Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios - with a (almost) toddler!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Toddler O pictures!!

So after posting all about Stitch Fix, it occurred to me that I didn't even post a picture of Toddler O! What a horrible mother I am!

Here is a shot of us from Disney World in November. I had found a similar pose online and really wanted to capture this shot for Christmas cards so I insisted that we try about four different times. My brother-in-law finally captured this beauty on the last night (ignore the folks behind us - they were obviously edited out for the card)!

And here is one of me with my sweet little boy at his second birthday party. Can you believe Toddler O is 2 already?
Okay now I can get my "mom card" back!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stitch Fix aka My Triumphant Return to Blogging, eh?

Being a stay-at-home mom has been wonderful and really treating me well these past 18 months since I made it official, but I'm sad to report that as much as Baby Toddler O and I may be thriving internally, fashion-wise I'm merely a shell of my former stylish self.

Case in point: Husband has been asking me for years to throw away three sweatshirts which I've owned since high school. I really don't understand his problem with them since I only ever wear them around the house when it gets chilly but whatever: it bugs him and I'm a nice wifey. I found two sweatshirts for $5 each at Old Navy and promptly threw out the high school sweatshirts. But now I have been wearing the new sweatshirts out in public, several times a week! So now I've gone from wearing old sweatshirts, but only at home to wearing new sweatshirts every single day as my outfit. Is it progress because they are new or regression? I'm not sure.

I can report that I have only worn yoga pants out of the house once and while it was a glorious and freeing experience, I've decided that it might be a bit too dangerous to have that much stretchy-comfortableness available to me, particularly since Husband and I have counted at least a dozen frozen yogurt/ice cream shops within ten miles of our house!

Which brings us to another situation: my closet is empty.

Not figuratively empty as in there are 3000 things in there and I'm whining to Husband, "I have nothing to wear!", but literally empty as in I have maybe 15 things hanging in my closet right now and a good 10 of them are sleeveless or short sleeved t-shirts, thus completely inappropriate to wear given the foot of snow in our front yard.

"What happened?" you ask.

Well a few things: first, I finally got down to business and decided it was time to lose the baby weight. I gained nearly 20 pounds trying to get pregnant and then another 30 actually being pregnant so I had a big task ahead of me. I started around this time last year: counting calories, getting back into running and attending boot camp-style weight training classes taught by a friend of mine.

The good news is that my hard work paid off: I lost the baby weight plus an additional 15 pounds.

The bad news is that now none of my old pre-pregnancy clothes fit anymore: they are all too big! I kept some of them around for a while before finally realizing that not only was I saving these clothes for a world when I had to go back to work (yuck) but for a world where I had also gained 20 pounds (double yuck!). I listed most on roxy's Effortless Anthropologie Trade Market Facebook group and sent the rest off to Goodwill.

Second, I panicked and decided my house was trying to suffocate me. A little backstory: we bought our house in 2007 right at the height of the real estate bubble. The minute the ink was dry on the paper our house was worth significantly less than what we paid for it so what initially was supposed to be our "starter home" where we'd have one baby and then move has turned into our "stuck here indefinitely home". So Husband and I started talking about Baby 2 and I'm thinking I'm all ready to start trying sometime this year and then I wake up that night at 2am in a panic: where are we going to put this baby? We have three bedrooms: ours, Toddler O's, and a guest room that we use a ton because my parents visit several times a year and stay for a few weeks each time. We are so packed into our current house, there isn't even floor space to blow up an aero mattress! I definitely freaked out and came to the New Years Resolution that we need to make better use of our space.

This led to a complete home purge. I went through every box and bin and trashed a ton. We made countless runs to Goodwill and several dumpster drop-offs at my sister-in-law's condo complex. Ultimately we turned out laundry room into an office, will turn our downstairs den into a guest bedroom/workout room, and Toddler O will move into the guest bedroom at some point down the road. Granted we aren't even close to getting pregnant again but just having all this done now makes me feel so much better since it won't be weighing down on me when I'm as big as a house and eating instant mashed potatoes and grilled cheese sandwiches like it's my job!

So all my beloved Anthropologie clothes have been sold or are on the market and most of the rest of my wardrobe got donated. What's a girl to do?

Start shopping, of course!

Now back in his infant days, Toddler O was a great shopping companion. I'd pop him in the stroller, he'd conk out and I'd run all my errands. Perfection. Not so much these days. First of all, good luck getting Toddler O to sit in his stroller. Sometimes snacks help lure him in but other times he arches his back or goes boneless or just thrashes so much I can't even grab hold of a limb to strap in. When I do get him in, I've got to keep him moving or else he gets bored. I can occasionally find a mirror to entertain him (vain little boy loves looking at himself) or he'll spot another person to flirt with, but otherwise I'm dealing in minutes not hours. And if he decides he wants to walk that day? Forget it. It takes all my energy to stop him from pulling every cardigan off the shelf that I can't even be bothered to stop and consider if the cardigan now lying on the floor is cute.

Enter Stich Fix. I first read about Stitch Fix on one of my new favorite food blogs: Ambitious Kitchen. The idea intrigued me and I did a ton of research before finally asking for a Stitch Fix gift card for Christmas.

Stitch Fix is a personal styling service. You fill out an extensive questionnaire about your style, size, and budget preferences, and they send you a package of stylish goodies to try on at home. Each "Fix" is unique and hand-picked! After filling out your profile, you schedule your "Fix" date. There is a $20 styling fee but that cost is a credit towards any of the items you decide to purchase. You have three days to decide what you want to purchase and if you buy all five items in your "Fix", you get a 25% discount! Anything you don't like goes into the enclosed postage-paid envelope and shipped back. So I can do my shopping at naptime! So easy!

I specifically asked for no accessories or jewelry because of my desperate need for actual clothes. I also requested no dresses just because wearing a dress in the winter with a toddler is just not realistic. You can also add special requests if you have an event coming up (my mom scheduled a "Fix" and asked for items to wear on her upcoming South Pacific cruise!)

Ever the planner, I read about 2000 Stitch Fix reviews before finally taking the plunge (and even then it wasn't even my money I was spending!). The waitlist was about a month (I think lots of people got holiday gift cards!) and I was seriously counting down the days until my "Fix" arrived.

A note of warning: once you get notification that your "Fix" has shipped, if you want your items to be a complete surprise, avoid visiting the website. I accidentally learned that the page will default to "Checkout" where all your items will be listed out. No biggie as there were no accompanying pictures, but I did find out that I had four tops and a pair of pants on the way.

The package arrived during naptime (perfect timing as we usually get packages later in the day!) and I immediately brought it inside.

Here's my box - it was stuffed to the brim with goodies and I couldn't wait to tear into it! Look how pretty it was all packaged! Seriously, like Christmas!

One of the coolest things is that Stitch Fix doesn't just leave you to your own devices to style all your new clothes (because honestly those of us that are enlisting the help of a personal stylist clearly have no ability to handle such a large task). With each item, they send this adorable card that shows various ways to style your five items.
I was super excited when I looked at my style cards: I loved every single outfit and, not only that, could totally see myself wearing these outfits with Toddler O in tow!
On to the fashion show! Please forgive the location of our pictures: it was dark by the time Husband got home and Toddler O's playroom has the best light in the house. Just ignore the ABC play mat and train table in the background!
I confess that I cheated a bit and Googled the name of this top before it arrived. There were a few different colorways, including a tan/beige one which I was really hoping I didn't get. The burgundy was really pretty and the fit was well (this was a medium). The price was reasonable ($48). The thing that stopped me from keeping this shirt? I literally had just sold this shirt on roxy's Trade Market and it just seemed too similar. If I was fine with parting with the old version, there was no reason to replace it with a new version!
Um, how cute is this cardigan? It was only $28 and doesn't it totally look like something "Adorable Lawyer Kathleen" would have worn to court? Unfortunately the appliques seemed just a little too delicate for toddler paws and I was worried about the sweater getting ruined. It fit fine buttoned (another Medium), but gapped way too much when open. My stylist suggested I wear this over another top she sent but there was no way that was going to happen: this thing barely cleared my side when unbuttoned. I returned it.
This entire outfit was seriously love at first sight. I pulled the jeans out of the box and thought, "Yowsers, there is no way these are going to fit." They are size 30 but they have stretch (and good stretch - not "super tight, can't even think about eating dinner stretch". I was shocked that they were long enough too. I had specifically mentioned having a hard time finding pants with the correct inseam so my stylist totally came through on this one! I can't believe that I've literally tried on 200 pairs of pants, trying to find the right fit and my stylist sent me one pair and they fit perfectly! At $78 the price seemed reasonable but it really was the fit that sold me! I don't have any black pants so these will transition nicely from casual (worn with one of the aforementioned Old Navy sweatshirts to a Super Bowl party) to dressy (perhaps dinner out with Husband?)
The top is a similar dolman style as the burgundy top above. I was a little disappointed that I got two tops so similar, but it worked out since I didn't keep the burgundy one. This top is actually a similar color to a pregnancy top that I really loved so I liked it right away! It was $48 and the fit was very nice: I liked how it was drapey on top but then came in at my hips. I kept this whole outfit!
This is the sadest item in my box. I loved it on the style card. I loved it in person. Then I put it on me and, "Ugh." It is a bit too baggy in the hip area to work on me (although the sleeves fit fine so I think that is just the style). I so wanted this one to work but alas it wasn't meant to be. It was $38 which seemed like a steal.
So ultimately I kept two items and have already worn them a few times! When you check out, they ask for feedback about your "Fix" so I was able to say things about so many dolman items and the cardigan being too big and the applique cardigan being a bit too delicate. The stylist takes all that into consideration when preparing your next "Fix" (mine is coming right before my 33rd birthday - oy!)
So if you are on the fence, I definitely recommend trying Stitch Fix out. Here is a link to sign up. Full disclosure: this isn't a sponsored post. I paid for my "Fix" with my own money (well, with my own Stitch Fix gift card purchased by my sister); however, if you sign up using my link, I get a $25 credit. How cool is that? So use my link, sign up and then tell your friends to use your referral link!
Now that I'm actually getting dressed again in the morning, I'm hoping to maybe pop back in now and again, but I was so excited about Stitch Fix that I just had to come out of my semi-retirement and tell everyone about it!