Planning for our cruise is still under way

In just 61 days, my family – along with my parents and brother – will embark on a Caribbean cruise as a joint celebration for my dad’s 80th birthday and my husband and my 20th wedding anniversary.

cruise list

Yes, we got our passports taken care of in February (or March for our son since they didn’t think the first birth certificate was official). We booked our shore excursions early too.

Occasionally over the past few months, we have briefly talked about things to take on the cruise and even bought a few things – water shoes, biodegradable suntan lotion and a new camera since ours stopped working on our last beach trip.

Now being a major planner, I need to start thinking about what we are going to pack and whether we need to buy anything else for the trip. One of my major concerns is over packing. It is easy to want to bring everything you think you might need, but the cruise cabin is not very big. We won’t have tons of room so packing smartly is needed.

Formal Nights

CIMG2188On our cruise, there will be two “formal” nights. Soon after we booked our cruise in December, we bought my daughter two nice dresses that were on an after-Christmas sale. Both my husband and I are already set for these nights, but my son has never really had the opportunity to dress up. I thought we might get by with dress slacks and a dress shirt. No so. Jase wants a suit, so he can be like daddy. (My husband is an attorney and often must wear a suit, though he hates it.) Now we bought Lexie’s dresses the next size up since we were buying them eight months before the cruise. I have been holding off with buying Jase’s suit. i am too afraid of a growth spurt causing it not to fit. I think we will buy it in July – a mere month before the trip.

Toys and kid technology

Typically when we travel, the kids pack a backpack with toys, stuffed animals, and their iPad/iPods. On our trip to Disney World last year, they were required to be able to carry this backpack through the airport. On this trip, I assume we will do the same, but I really want to limit at least them bringing any small toys that could get lost. Part of me doesn’t think they will use their toys very often but there will be some down time where they may need to get away from all the stimulus of the cruise and relax in the room.  Their iPads will go on the trip too but will be regulated to staying in the cabin.

And packing isn’t the only thing I need to think about. I am going to have to figure out how much cash we need to take for tipping of the people on our shore excursion and for buy souvenirs at vendors who don’t take credit cards. That reminds me…I need to add letting the credit card company know we will be out of the country, so they don’t think our cards were stolen to my list. See? So much to do and think about for a planner like me.

Planning our next vacation (already!)

While driving back from the beach last month, I began talking to my husband about next year’s vacation. This year we went to Disney World. CIMG3203The beach has always been an annual June trip since my husband has a conference at South Padre Island each year. (That is going to change as next year the conference is moving to a new location.)

As soon as I mentioned a trip for next year, my husband sighed. “We haven’t even gotten back from this one!”

Of course, he wasn’t too surprised. I began planning our Disney World trip last year as we drove back from the beach. With Disney World a lot of planning really is involved – especially at least six months out if you want to attend certain activities or eat at a few select restaurants.

The thing is I like planning. It is almost as fun for me as the actual trip. Since Disney World was an expensive trip, we will do something cheaper next year. That means staying in Texas. Two years ago, we did Disney and then followed it up with a short trip last year to Corpus Christi. For next year, we are planning to go to Houston and Galveston (for the beach).

So I will spend a few evenings this month looking at activities in Houston and their related costs. I will check out hotel rates and locations. I won’t plan out the whole trip this early, but I do want to figure out how long of a trip we need to plan for and how much it will cost so we can save up for it.

Now next year is also my husband’s and my 20th wedding anniversary. We try to go on a trip every five years to mark our anniversary. It didn’t happen on our 10-year anniversary as Jase was born three weeks before the date. (We did celebrate 18 months afterwards with a trip to Disney World – but we took Jase with us so not really the same type of celebration.)

On our 15 year anniversary, we left the kids for three nights with my mom and went to Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure in Orlando. (The original Harry Potter section had just opened three months before we went.) It was a nice short trip without the kids.

Now we are considering another trip without the kids. Where we will go, I am not sure. We talked about returning to Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure as the new Harry Potter section opens this year. Or we could go back to Las Vegas which we haven’t been to in nine years. I suggested a short cruise, but my husband doesn’t love cruises like I do so that is probably out.

But with the Houston trip to plan and the desire to re-carpet the upstairs, our plan to go somewhere may just end up being an overnight trip to the Riverwalk. So that is why I am going to be spending a few days looking not only at our trip to Houston but possibly a longer trip for my husband and I to take. Knowing how much it will cost and how many days he will be away from work will allow us to have more options than if I waited until next year to plan these trips.

Planning a trip to Disney World – Part 3

Our Disney World vacation is getting so close – just a few weeks away in fact. In case you missed the two other parts of my series…

In October, I wrote a few tips for newbies to planning a Disney World vacation (buying a guide book, making advanced dining reservations six months before your trip, and visiting the Disboards for up-to-date information).

In January, I wrote about staying on Disney’s property (verses at an off-site location) as well as some extras we are doing like Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for my daughter and Pirates League for my son.

There are so many things I could cover, but I think today I will talk about an ever-changing development as well as one of their annual events. (To check out a full list of other special events, click here.)

Fastpass Plus

This is an ever-changing thing as Disney tests out their new fast pass program. As I write this (May 2nd) this is how the Fast Pass program works, but you can always check the Disboards for up-to-date information on what has change.

Fastpass is basically a way to skip the stand-by line for a ride. In the past, you pulled a paper pass but now everything is electronic. Every guest who has already purchased a ticket (no matter if they are staying on property or off) gets to book 3 fastpasses in advance. Those staying at a Disney resort can book their passes 60 days in advance. Those staying off-site, can book theirs 30 days in advance.

I know. You are wondering how you can even know what rides you will want to ride at what times – especially so far in advance. As I have said before, there is a lot of planning involved in going to Disney World. Yes, you can wing it but expect long lines. Fastpass is meant for you to skip some of those waits and to guarantee you get to ride your favorite rides or see a favorite attraction with a minimum wait.

At 60 days out, I booked my fast passes – even getting the coveted one so Lexie can meet Anna and Elsa. (The stand-by line for the Anna and Elsa character meet-n-greet is typically over three hours long.) Now I can change and rearrange them every day or even the day of our trip to the parks. Of course, some of the popular rides and attractions may not be available.

And just last week, they added where you can get a fourth (and fifth, sixth or seventh) fast pass after you have used the first three pre-booked passes. (Selecting one new fast pass from their kiosk and then another after you use that one.)  And those additional passes don’t have to be in the same park which is great for us who have park-hopper passes. (Park hopper means we can go to any park – Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot – throughout the day. The other option is to buy a one-park a day pass.)

If you are going to Disney World and need help deciding on which Fastpass to book, click here for a list of which fast passes are the most sought after and which save you the most time.

Star Wars Weekends

One of the reasons we are going to Disney World in June is to attend their Star Wars weekends, which run typically the last two weekends of May and the first two of June at Hollywood Studios. (This year they are offering Star Wars weekends for FIVE weekends. We will be there for weekend number four.)

DSCN3051Star Wars weekends offers meet & greets with Star Wars characters, autographs and Q&As with actors from the movies or animated series, special parades and fireworks and of course purchasing special Star Wars merchandise. And for the first time ever, they are even offering two special meals – one featuring Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Minnie and Chip and Dale in Star Wars costumes and the other featuring Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Greedo and stormtroopers. We will be checking out these both. (They are a limited time offer – only running from May 4 to June 15.)

Every day when I check the Disboards’ Star Wars Weekend thread, there is some other tidbit of information – special passes, tricks for signing up for Jedi Training Academy, or that you can trade trinkets with the Jawas – on the board.

Oh and as luck with have it – we are attending the same week that Mark Hamill (Luke Skywaker) will be there. This is his first Star Wars Weekend. It should be fun. If you have a Star Wars fan in your family (I have two), then you should definitely consider going during this event!

 

The thing I hate most about party planning – the RSVP

Throwing a party for your child can be a lot of work. I don’t mind the actual party or even the planning of my kids’ parties. In fact, I love designing their invitations. What I hate is waiting for people to RSVP.

alexa 6 invitationNowadays, so many people don’t RSVP, or they wait until the last minute. I invited 14 girls to Lexie’s birthday party at the beginning of the month. Three days before the party, I was still missing more than two-thirds of the RSVPs.

By the time of the actual RSVP deadline, I had heard from 65% of the attendees. In the past, I have ended up sending out a reminder to parents I have not heard from.

“Hi – Lexie’s birthday party is this Saturday. I know she would love (insert child’s name) to come her party. We hope you can make it.”

This typically gets me some extra responses, which are most often a “No. We can’t make it” but does garner a few “Oh. I meant to RSVP.” For Lexie’s party, I didn’t resort to sending emails as I had eight girls coming and decided not to bother with garnering responses from the others. I just sometimes don’t know why people don’t RSVP to parties or wait to the last minute. Are they waiting for something better to come up?

I only received two “No. We can’t make it” messages. I think people really don’t think they need to send a “no” reply. I admit there have been times that I don’t send my regrets when we receive an invitation. Of course, with Lexie’s party, I was a little nervous. Days after we had passed out the invitation, I saw a few of the kids walking around with the invitations at school. I began to worry that the invitations weren’t going to make it to their parents.

As it turned out, I had eight girls scheduled to come but only five of them actually showed up. One girl was sick the two days preceding the party, and I had spoken with her mom about the possibility that she might not be there. The other two were just no shows. This, in my opinion, can be as bad as people not RSVPing and showing up to a party. We had planned for those girls to be there. We had goodie bags ready for them and depending on the party place, sometimes you have to pay for those you say are coming whether they show up or not. Luckily, Chuck E Cheese gives you up to 4 no shows, so I only paid for the kids who actually attended.

For me the worst part is just waiting for those RSVPs. Because so many people do it at the last minute, I end up worrying that we won’t have a good attendance at the party. I think this fear that no one will show up is what has kept my husband and I from throwing our own parties. Of course now that we have kids, parties for them are inevitable.

I know parties aren’t supposed to be a popularity contest, but it is almost impossible for it not to be. It is hard when you go to one party, and nearly every kid invited shows up and at your party, you get only five kids.  I don’t know why there is such a difference in attendance. Maybe it has nothing to do with popularity, and some parties are just at better, more convenient times. I do know that when Jase turned 5, he had very few kids from his class come to his party. He didn’t care. He had a blast.

As for me, I just want people to respond to those RSVPs!

This is the second in a three-part birthday series. Last week was birthdays that fall during a holiday or vacation. Next week – searching for that impossible to find gift. 

Planning a Trip to Disney World – part 2

As I mentioned back in October, we are planning a trip to Disney World in Florida. We will be there during the first week of June – as soon as the kids get out of school.

Since my last post, we have booked our airfare – non-stop flights on Southwest both ways – and we have booked our resort package. As I said before, we prefer to stay at a Disney hotel, so we are immersed in the “Disney bubble” during our stay.

CIMG0289When my husband and I went on our honeymoon to Disney World, my grandmother paid. We stayed at the Caribbean Beach Resort. We loved it. In fact, we stay there each time we go. We have had no desire to try one of the other 20 on-site resorts.

For those of you traveling to Disney World and looking at staying on Disney’s property, they offer resorts at three price levels – value, moderate and deluxe. With each move up to a higher priced resort, your amenities get better. For the budget-conscious families, there are values with over-the-top Disney themes. The moderates and deluxes still have a Disney feel but without going overboard. Rooms get bigger, and you gain more dining and recreation options as you pay more for your resort. The location of the deluxes are always the closest to the parks. The Caribbean Beach is a moderate level resort closest to Epcot.

Now in December we went ahead and booked our package, which includes our resort stay and park tickets. You can of course find deals outside the Disney website for both tickets and hotel, which can save you some money (but not always). We, however, have always just bought from Disney so that everything is ready for us when we arrive. Now Disney is not running any promotions for June yet, but I will be watching for them this month and will call and have any room discounts they offer applied to our reservation. That is one good thing about Disney, they make it easy to adjust an already existing package.

The reason we went ahead and booked our package is that our 180 days before our trip was fast approaching. As I mentioned in the last post, at 180 days before your trip, you can make dining reservations. If you have a package booked, you can actually make your reservations for the first 10 days of your trip at your 180-day mark.

So on Dec. 6, I got up early and logged in online to make our reservation to eat dinner at Cinderella Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom and our Donald’s Dining Safari breakfast in the Animal Kingdom.

Disney2012 042

We also never miss eating at the Sci-Fi Dine In (pictured to the left) at Hollywood Studios, and since we are going during the last weekend of Star Wars weekends, I needed to get that reservation as soon as possible as Hollywood Studios will be busy.

Now this isn’t to say that you can’t book your dining reservation later. You don’t HAVE to plan six months in advance where you want to eat. But if you want an extremely popular place or a character dining experience, you need to book as soon as you know where and when you want to eat. If you wait until you are at the theme parks, you will most likely find yourself turned away from the restaurants. Restaurants at the resorts may have same-day reservations but again, any of the really popular place (especially during peak vacation days such as the summer, spring break, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas) will be booked in advanced.

Also at our 180-day mark, we booked the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in the Magic Kingdom for Lexie. (There is also a location in Downtown Disney.) We have her princess makeover appointment in the afternoon before our dinner at Cinderella’s castle. I am sure she will love it. For Jase, we have him set up to become a pirate at Pirates League during the same time.

IMG_1793During Christmas week, we received a personalized package from Disney to get us excited about our upcoming trip. It certainly worked on Jase who excitedly read the whole brochure and kept coming to tell me all the things we could do with our magic bands. The package included the brochure and a Mickey flash drive.

The flash drive takes you to a website where they discuss magic bands (colorful bands that allow you to enter your room and the theme parks) and fastpass + (a system where you can book rides at popular attractions without having to stand in line). Of course both of these items are new to Disney with testing beginning this past summer. These two programs are still in the test phase and many changes have happened over the past months. This is one reason I stay on the Disboards to keep up on all the changes. You just have to ignore the Doom & Gloom group who are balking at changes to the Fastpass program. So far I am looking forward to the changes and we have already customized our magic bands though they will not ship to us until May.

 

Planning a Trip to Disney World – part 1

I love Walt Disney World. It would be my choice destination for a vacation, and we would go more often but as those of you have gone (and stayed on property) know, a trip to Disney World in Florida is not a cheap, or even for that matter, a relaxing vacation.

35984130069Disney World is in Orlando, Florida and consists of four different theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom), two water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhon Lagoon), a mini-golf course, four regular golf courses, a sports complex and a mega-shopping/entertainment center (Downtown Disney) in addition to fishing, sailboats, canoes, water skiing and whole bunch of other activities. There are 20 on-site hotels and numerous ones in the area. We always like to stay “on property” as it keeps you in a “Disney Bubble.”

My husband’s first trip was on our honeymoon. I had been numerous times as a child as my grandparents lived in Florida, which allowed us to go every so often. My husband and I went back for our five-year anniversary and had plans to return every five years. Then right before our 10-year anniversary, my son Jase was born. So instead of going in May or June like the previous two trips, we waited and went in December when Jase was 19 months old. His second trip wasn’t until Lexie came along. When she was 21 months and Jase was 4, we made another trip in December. (That is a wonderful time to go – great weather, low crowds, and it is decorated for Christmas.)

DSCN3051Our last trip was in May 2012. We had planned to go as soon as Jase got out of kindergarten. But a month or so before we went, my husband lost his job and decided to start his own business. He didn’t feel he could be away from his new endeavor so my mom stepped in and went with us. But my husband felt left out so we are planning a trip at the beginning of June 2014. We picked this time mainly because we will be at Disney during their Star Wars weekends.

Most people who have been on a Disney World trip know that there really is a lot of planning involved. Those newbies are often overwhelmed by the sheer size of Disney World and all it has to offer. So I wanted to write just a few tips to get any beginners pointed in the right direction.

1.) Buy or check out a guide to Disney World – This is a good way to get an overview of everything offered and is even helpful for those who haven’t gone in a while to find out about the new attractions or other changes. Both the Official guide or any of the unofficial guides are good. I personally like The Unofficial Guide to Disney World.

Another good option is to check out AllEars.net.  You can find some great information there but do verify pricing or menu items listed with the actual Disney website.

2.) Visit the Disboards This is a good resource for information that is coming from people who love Disney. You can learn A LOT from these people. But I will warn you that there are some “hot” topics that you will want to avoid such as how to cheat the system. There is no way to list all the “hot” topics, but it won’t take you long to find them.

3.) Make Advanced Dining Reservation (ADR) – If you want to eat in a restaurant in Disney World – especially one that features character interaction – then you will need a reservation. Do not expect to walk up to a restaurant and be shown to a table. Many restaurants are booked months in advanced and the chance of a walking up and getting a table for the most popular places is very slim. Disney opens reservations 180 days BEFORE you arrive. DSCN2988I know, I know – how do you know which park you will be at that far in advance? This is why I said you NEED to plan. The hardest reservation to get is Cinderella’s Royal Table where you get to eat in Cinderella’s castle.

If you are interested in other activities such as an appointment for your little princess at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (a hair/nails and make up place for girls 3-12 years old) or a Pirate Adventure for your little pirate, then you will also want to make appointments for these in advance.

I have barely scratched the surface of the things you should know before you go. There is still Fastpass +, Photopass +, Magic bands and a whole lot more. I will be writing about visiting Disney World over the next few months as we plan our June vacation.

A wedding without an invitation

weddingWe went to a wedding earlier this month – a wedding we never received a formal invitation asking us to attend. No, we weren’t wedding crashers.

It was a ceremony for someone my husband met in law school. I wouldn’t categorize her as a “close” friend. This friendship has waned a bit as friendships do. It doesn’t help that we don’t live in the same town.

Mercy and Adam have been together quite a while. They have two kids – the oldest being six. They finally decided to make their relationship “official” this past May. They decided not to have a big wedding and not to have a long engagement. I guess eight or so years together was enough.

A few weeks later we got a “save the date” text from Mercy. They were to get married Saturday, Sept 7th. As the next few months went by we would hear a few other details – Mercy bought her dress (cost $1000), they signed up for a bridal registry at Williams-Sonoma and such.

I kept waiting for an official invitation. Heck we didn’t even know where the wedding was (other than in San Antonio) and what time of day it would be. (That make lining up a babysitter really hard though Mercy told us we could bring the kids to the wedding after all her two kids would be there. Ah, no. Not something I want to do. They would be bored and driving me crazy.)

Finally, it was August and the wedding was five weeks away. No invitation. My husband texted Mercy. She said she was still working on them. Two weeks go by and no invitation. I am starting to wonder if there is even going to be a wedding. And I was still wondering how we are going to line up a babysitter with no information. (About this time my mom was in the hospital, and my father-in-law was scheduled for surgery at the end of August, so I was thinking my choice of babysitters might be slim with everyone recuperating.)

Finally, Mercy admits that she is having a hard time justifying spending money on invitations. Umm…you spent $1000 on a wedding dress that you will only get to wear once, but you can’t afford invitations? She can do her bridal registry for expensive items from William-Sonoma but can’t get out an actual invitation to her wedding?

I know wedding invitations are expensive, but she is only inviting a few friends and family. She probably doesn’t need more than 30-40 invitations. With all the options online nowadays, I am sure there are some cheap options. Heck, if she is really opting to save money. she could go to Wal-Mart and buy some fill-in-the-blank type invitations.

And while I am a traditionalist and would like a printed invitation, I know the times are changing. In a world where you are more likely to get an e-invite than a physical invitation I would rather have that than nothing. At least then we would have all the details. As it is, we had to piece together through several texts to find out the date, time and location. We were never even asked to RSVP. I couldn’t figure out how she was planning a dinner reception without knowing who will be there.

As it turned out, everything went fine – except we were five minutes late due to a traffic jam and pretty much missed all of the 7 minute ceremony. The bride looked beautiful and the reception was nice. I guess everything turned out okay but I must admit – I still think she should have sent out some sort of invitation. If nothing else, it will keep me from going crazy.