Disney (at the holidays) for first-timers!

We recently took our first family trip to Walt Disney World. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s. When Florida was experiencing record-breaking hot weather. blogpost

And we loved it!

We first considered a trip to Orlando during the seemingly endless winter of 2014-15. In fall 2015, we finally decided to go for it and began making plans in earnest. As we started doing some research, we came across many websites and books that basically said 1) You need at least six months, and preferably a year, to plan a Disney trip and 2) You shouldn’t go during school vacations, especially not right after Christmas.

Oops.

In spite of these intimidating warnings, we decided to go and make the best of it. The grownups were mentally prepared for the possibility that every day would be spent shoulder to shoulder with cranky fellow tourists and whiny kids. Instead, we found that each day (and all three parks we visited) exceeded our expectations, with lots of magical moments not only for the kids, but also for the adults.

Here are some suggestions for first-timers based on our experiences:

  1. Consider staying off-site. 
    We booked a three-bedroom condo at Caribe Cove Resort, a Wyndham property in Kissimmee, for our six-person group. The kids (ages 8 and 11) had a room, we had a room and Rachel’s aunts had a room. Perfect. Privacy when we wanted it, plenty of shared space in the kitchen and living room when we wanted to have dinner or hang out. We had a washer and dryer in the unit, and the resort has a nice pool and hot tub, too.
  2. Give up a bit of spontaneity in exchange for the delights of Fastpass+. 
    We didn’t love the idea of planning which ride we’d be on weeks before we had even arrived in Florida, but the Fastpass+ system was fantastic. The joy of skipping a 90-minute (or, in one case, a 150-minute!) line makes a bit of planning worthwhile. We decided to think of Fastpass+ as Disney’s way of guaranteeing that, at least a few times each day, we would get to enjoy a ride or meet a character with almost no waiting. It’s true that you’ll have the best selection of Fastpass+ options 30 days ahead (or 60 days if you’re staying at a Disney resort), but even two or three days ahead of time you can snap up some good passes. Trust us; we switched plans and went to a different park with less than two days’ notice. It’s also worth noting that Fastpass+ is free (vs. about $50 per person per day for the comparable line-skipping privilege at Universal).
  3. Buy some of what you’ll want ahead of time. 
    We ordered matching tie-dyed shirts for the family, found Minnie Mouse ears and Disney lanyards for the kids and stocked up on snacks before we left home. The kids also made their own Disney autograph books. They had Disney gift cards for souvenirs, which meant they were responsible for their own budgeting and we weren’t negotiating over every pin and stuffed animal we saw. We bought food in the parks, but generally not full meals. Expect to spend $5-7 per person for snacks and $10-15 per person for a fast food-style lunch. Ice water is free anywhere that fountain drinks are for sale.
  4. Get to the parks before they’re scheduled to open. 
    We left our condo by 7 a.m. each day, arriving 15 or so minutes later. This ensured a negligible wait at the parking gate and a good spot at the entrance as the parks opened. Generally, we walked right to the attraction (ride, character meet-and-greet, whatever) that we most wanted to do. In many cases, we walked right in with no wait (for rides such as Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom and for the character spot at Epcot).
  5. Use the Disney app. 
    The app is one of the easiest and most effective I’ve used. We could review our Fastpass+ plans, switch them if necessary, see our dining reservations, locate characters, sort a list of attractions by wait time, view the day’s scheduled shows and more.
  6. Don’t follow the crowd.
    This goes for whole parks and for specific attractions. When we heard several Disney cast members say that Dec. 31 is the busiest day of the year at Magic Kingdom, we made plans to go somewhere else that day. When we saw a 60-minute wait for a ride, we did something else instead. Use Fastpasses for your must-see/must-ride activities, and choose attractions with shorter wait times the rest of the day. You’ll experience more of the park and avoid the sensation that you’ve done nothing but stand around waiting.
  7. Leave before your crew gets cranky. 
    Take an afternoon break and go swimming. Grab a nap. Go out for a late lunch or early dinner. But don’t force yourself (or your kids) to keep moving, even if it’s out of a desire to get the most bang for your buck. You’ll all have a better trip if you get some rest when you need it. Then, if everyone’s had a chance to recharge, you can go back and enjoy the evening. It’s likely to be less crowded and cooler, too.

What would we do differently? 

  1. Build in more downtime. 
    Given the length of our drive (18 or so hours each way) and of our kids’ school vacation, we had five days in Orlando. We were determined to make the most of our time, and booked four days of Disney and a day at Universal Studios. In retrospect, a down day would have been great. We could’ve relaxed at the pool, gotten some extra sleep and let our feet take a break after days when we walked eight or 10 miles.
  2. Consider leaving the camera at home in favor of Disney PhotoPass. 
    There were Disney photographers at almost every key scenic spot, attraction and character greeting location. If you don’t own a DSLR, it’s a no-brainer to buy the Memory Maker package for $149 before you go to Disney World. The package includes all those portraits plus photos from the roller coasters. Even if you do own a fancy camera, it’s worth considering just skipping the hassle and letting Disney do the work. If you do haul the DSLR along, as we did, you definitely should jump into the photos and have the Disney pro take a picture with your camera. They were gracious about it and captured some great shots.

Our itinerary:
We had a few books and spent time consulting several websites before we went, but ultimately we did wing it for much of the time. Our week ended up like this:

Monday after Christmas: Magic Kingdom
Highlights included our first glimpse of Cinderella’s castle, meeting Mickey Mouse and Cinderella, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, our older daughter’s first ride on Space Mountain and visiting the Hall of Presidents with our younger daughter (a history buff). We returned to the park at night for fireworks, and we were still on the ferry boat when they began. Seeing them across the water over the castle was probably the best moment of our trip.

Tuesday: Universal Studios
Worth going for Diagon Alley, but we would say the hospitality experience here did not come close to matching the Disney experience.

Wednesday: Epcot and breakfast with Minnie and Friends at the Cape May Cafe
Highlights included Soarin’ (our most valuable Fastpass+ of the week, hands down), walking through the World Showcase and the yummy buffet brunch.   

Thursday (aka New Year’s Eve): Animal Kingdom
We didn’t have big expectations of this park, but it ended up being our older daughter’s favorite of the week. Highlights included the roller coaster Expedition Everest and the Kali River Rapids water ride. The Broadway-style Festival of the Lion King show was spectacular.

Friday (aka New Year’s Day): Magic Kingdom
We returned for a second day at Magic Kingdom, reasoning that we’d enjoy more time to explore the largest of the parks. It didn’t disappoint! We enjoyed the Barnstomer roller coaster (perfect for younger kids), meeting Anna and Elsa and Mickey’s PhilharMagic. We wrapped up the week with classics including It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean.

 

15 years!

Today, Eric and I are celebrating 5,479 days of marriage.

This is an interesting moment in time. We can vividly remember our dating days, but we’ve also begun to picture what our lives will be like when our kids are grown. We hear songs we listened to as teens on the “oldies” station, but not all of our concert outings are for nostalgia acts. We definitely know more than we used to about home improvement projects, but we also know when it’s time to hire a pro to get something done.

For me, the most amazing thing about marriage has been waking up each day knowing that I have someone on my team, someone who encourages me to do better at work and in life. When we do something, we bring out the best in each other. We’ve had such fun teaching together, reading books together, traveling to new places together, even just copy editing each other’s writing. Heck, we have built so much IKEA furniture over the years with so few tears that I know it was meant to be!

I knew Eric was patient and kind when I married him; I didn’t know how important his generosity of spirit would be as the years went on. Because he’s able and willing to keep things going at home on his own from time to time, I have been able to travel for work, volunteer my time in the community and sustain friendships. Maybe women can’t have it all, but we can have so much more when our husbands are true partners in life.

Ogden Nash had it right when he wrote: “To keep your marriage brimming, With love in the loving cup, Whenever you’re wrong, admit it; Whenever you’re right, shut up.”

Mother’s Day survey 2015

mother-daughter dance

Rachel and the girls on their way to the mother-daughter dance

Answers by Sophie, age 10, and Charlotte, age 8

What is something Mommy always says to you?
Sophie: Before you leave, give me some kisses.
Charlotte: You’re cute.

What makes Mommy happy?
Sophie: When the coffee table is clean. Or when she’s drinking coffee.
Charlotte: Snuggles and kisses.

What makes Mommy sad?
Sophie: When she burns the garlic bread.
Charlotte: When I cry.

How does your mommy make you laugh?
Sophie: Seeing her react to some of the TV shows we watch.
Charlotte: Telling funny baby stories.

What was your mommy like as a child?
Sophie: Adventurous and epic.
Charlotte: She lived close to the woods.

How old is your mom?
Sophie: 40
Charlotte: 40

How tall is your mom?
Sophie: 6 feet 3 inches
Charlotte: 5 feet 2 inches

What is her favorite thing to do?
Sophie: Play with us.
Charlotte: Drink coffee.

What does your mom do when you’re not around?
Sophie: Talk to Daddy.
Charlotte: Watch TV.

If your mommy becomes famous, what will it be for?
Sophie: Being the president.
Charlotte: Being a writer.

What is your mom really good at?
Sophie: Writing.
Charlotte: Cooking.
What is your mommy not very good at?
Sophie: Knitting.
Charlotte: Sewing.

What does your mommy do for a job?
Sophie: She works with people from other countries.
Charlotte: She’s a writer at Binghamton University.

What is your mom’s favorite food?
Sophie: Fudgsicle.
Charlotte: Red velvet cupcakes.

What makes you proud of your mom?
Sophie: She’s nice to people even if we don’t know them.
Charlotte: She’s very nice and loving and amazing. Cooler than Rainbow Dash!

If your mom were a cartoon character, who would she be?
Sophie: Not SpongeBob. Jimmy Neutron, because he’s really smart.
Charlotte: Princess Luna.

What do you and Mommy do together?
Sophie: Arts and crafts.
Charlotte: Watch “Goosebumps.”

How are you and your mommy the same?
Sophie: We have the same laugh.
Charlotte: We are funny.

How are you and your mommy different?
Sophie: She goes to work and I go to school.
Charlotte: I have no clue how to cook.

How do you know your mommy loves you?
Sophie: She says it so much.
Charlotte: She gave birth to us.

Where is your mom’s favorite place to go?
Sophie: Paris.
Charlotte: China.

Where does your mom hate to go?
Sophie: IHOP.
Charlotte: IHOP.

What will you remember about your mom?
Sophie: She loves to read a lot like I do.
Charlotte: She’s awesome and amazing and funny and she loves us.

39 lessons on my 40th birthday

I love birthdays, especially when they’re not my own. I like decorating cupcakes, surprising people with balloons, coming up with fun little gifts to put into the mail. This birthday, though? It has weighed on me for a while.

Today I’m 40.

Portrait of the author as a 40-year-old

Portrait of the author as a 40-year-old. Wearing a perfectly imperfect scarf she made with inspiration from Pinterest.

I’m not so keen to be 40. I’m not as skinny or as financially secure as I imagined I’d be. I haven’t written a book or run a marathon. Heck, I haven’t run a 5k! I have calloused heels, a cluttered kitchen and a to-do list that won’t stop running through my mind.

When I turned 30, my husband and I had been married for four years and were just easing into our second year as homeowners. We had a 5-month-old baby and jobs at the local daily newspaper.

I thought I knew a lot.

At 40, more of the known unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld would call them, have taken shape. I may not ever feel as sure of the world as I did at 30. Still, there are a few things I’ve learned that are worth sharing.

  1. Whatever you saw on Facebook is not the whole story.
  2. You can say no.
  3. Life is too short to drink wine you don’t like.
  4. Bad coffee, though, is sometimes better than none.
  5. Everyone looks better without direct flash. (And don’t even think of taking a selfie from anything lower than eye level.)
  6. It’s OK to buy the red car.
  7. The best craft projects for kids can be eaten or recycled.
  8. You’ll never read all the great books that are out there, but it’s sure fun to try.
  9. The only thing worse than owning a house is not owning a house.
  10. My parents were right about almost everything.
  11. Best part of being a mom on a business trip? Taking a hot bath without any interruptions. True story.
  12. Go ahead and cry if you need to.
  13. Egg drop soup and DayQuil are all you really need to get through a cold.
  14. Your children don’t care what you look like in a bathing suit; they just want to go swimming as often as possible.
  15. On a related note, your friends don’t care if you haven’t mopped the kitchen floor in six weeks. Invite them over anyway.
  16. Your vote matters.
  17. Take time to feel gratitude for small things. It’s clinically proven to boost your mood.
  18. If you go camping with someone for a few days and still like each other as you’re packing up the tent, that person is a true friend.
  19. Save the receipt.
  20. Internet friends are real.
  21. You can have frozen yogurt for lunch.
  22. Don’t underestimate the power of a really good back-up plan.
  23. No one else’s project looked just like the picture on Pinterest, either.
  24. Treasure the parenting milestones that don’t get a mention in the baby books. You know, like the first time your kid barfs into the sink instead of into her pillow.
  25. Try to cultivate friendships with people much older and younger than you are. They know how to have fun!
  26. You can’t have too many AA batteries in the house.
  27. Learn to say thank you when someone compliments you or your work.
  28. Go ahead and whoop when you ride your bike down the hill. You’re definitely not too old.
  29. Real friends will tell you when you have something stuck in your teeth.
  30. They will also show up when you’re having a crisis, whether you need help cleaning out your flooded basement or just a hug.
  31. The book was better.
  32. Send someone a real letter with a stamp on it at least once in a while.
  33. Prayer really does help.
  34. Sometimes, you have to toss out all the Tupperware and start over.
  35. Don’t put it in an e-mail if you wouldn’t want your mother to read it.
  36. It’s better to be too dressed up than to be the only jerk wearing jeans.
  37. Legos are still awesome.
  38. So is Play-Doh.
  39. I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline. (I’ve seen this bit of wisdom attributed to Duke Ellington, but it sure applies to writers!)

I’m leaving slot No. 40 empty for now. I’m sure this year will teach me some new lessons.

For Mrs. Freedman on her 70th birthday

Judy Freedman taught my American literature class at C.B. West in 1989-90. That’s 25 years ago, though it feels like about 10 to me. Since then, I’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in English lit and a master’s degree in journalism. I’ve edited three newspapers and a magazine. I’ve even taught writing at two colleges. Mrs. Freedman remains one of my all-time favorite teachers, someone who made a huge difference in my life as a reader and a writer.

Mrs. Freedman in her classroom at C.B. West

Mrs. Freedman in her classroom at C.B. West

What do I remember about Mrs. Freedman’s class? The big experience was certainly reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece “The Great Gatsby” for the first time. We discussed the symbolism in it endlessly. (I can still recall a lively debate about the meaning of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.) We also watched the 1949 and 1974 movie adaptations of the novel. A certain teacher may or may not have spent some portion of that time swooning over Robert Redford. (No major crime, that.) She also let us watch the scene where Myrtle Wilson gets hit by Gatsby’s car over and over. This was the golden age of the VCR, you may recall, and the 1949 film did such a terrible job staging the accident that it left us all in hysterics.

I’ve read “The Great Gatsby” numerous times since, but it has never been as fun and as engaging as that very first experience with Mrs. Freedman.

Mrs. Freedman also introduced us to T.S. Eliot. I’m pretty sure she had us memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or at least a section of it. To this day, it’s rare that I eat a peach without thinking of that poem and of that class.

Mrs. Freedman was ready to cheer us on when we fell in love with a book or a poem. She also allowed us to express our lack of enthusiasm from time to time. I still recall discussing “The Scarlet Letter” with her. I was impressed that she didn’t try to bully me into liking it. In her classroom, I got the first taste of what my academic life would be like as an English major, though I’m sure I didn’t recognize or fully appreciate it at the time.

What else do I recall about Mrs. Freedman from that era? Long denim skirts, paired with button-down tops. A sarcasm that was rare (or, at least, rarely expressed) among our teachers. And, above and beyond all of that, high standards paired with a real interest in her students and their lives.

Happy birthday, Mrs. Freedman! You made a real difference in my life and in the lives of so many other students. Thank you.

Back-to-school love for moms

It may not be popular to say this, especially in late August, but I actually love getting my kids ready for back to school. New backpacks, fresh markers, sharp pencils, all of it! I also enjoy sending little care packages to people, especially to mom friends. Recently, I combined these two things and made a couple of fun, inexpensive care packages for mothers who are looking forward to the start of the school year.

Check out the great little things I found:

Back to school care package

One package included a rejuvenating face mask, jelly beans, nail polish, tea, mints, Advil and a mini picture frame.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back-to-school care package

The other included mints, a mini-picture frame, an emergency sewing kit, Advil, M&Ms, tea and a Sharpie. Maybe more practical!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also had fun thinking of a back-to-school tie in for the container. Here’s what I came up with:

Back-to-school care package

Lunch boxes in bright colors from the dollar store.

Back-to-school care package

These fit into a standard padded mailer with a little room to spare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, for less than $10, I think these are pretty great. I’m already thinking about some happy mail ideas for fall, too!