Monday, February 22, 2016

monday morning catch ups.

/1/ About a week and half ago, I asked Anna's kindergarten teacher for recommendation on age-appropriate chapter books. She emailed me the list, but also ended up lending us a couple. We finished reading Flat Stanley: His Original Adventure the other day. Both Luke and I thought this book wasn't bad, but the problem with reading chapter books is that while Anna can comprehend it, sometimes Will can't follow the story...so we are still trying to figure it out. Do we just read to Anna and read picture books to Will separately? One good thing about Flat Stanley is that it is gender-neutral -- it kept Will interested and Anna, who's more tomboy than girly, liked it too. We will probably read this one next.
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In case you are interested, here is the teacher's list of recommendations:

- Ramona the Pest (Cleary) and other books by Beverly Cleary
- Ivy & Bean (Barrows)
- Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (Dahl)
- Charlotte's Web
- Flat Stanley
- Mr. Poppers Penguins
- Pippi Longstocking

The following are series:
- Junie B Jones - these have a particular sense of humor which you must approve
- Cam Jansen
- Henry & Mudge
- Nate the Great
- Amelia Bedelia
- Judy Moody - these are older, 3rd grader

/2/ I love that Anna is no longer doing ballet and that it frees up our weekend. In the past, after all her activities (ballet & piano), it was hard to plan anything else on Saturday. Now that ballet is out of the picture, she has piano from 9-9:30a and that's it. SO NICE. I have to admit that I was very happy when she voluntarily said she didn't want to do ballet anymore. I know I was the one who signed her up, but then a couple months into it, I didn't really see the point of it anymore. Sure, she was having fun, learning to follow instructions, getting exercise, blah blah...but in the end, I would much rather have our family time back.
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/3/ Over the weekend, we took a really quick trip into DC and visited the National Museum of Natural History. The highlight of the trip included Will accidentally hugging a stranger, showing the kids that rocks are not all made equal, and that giant walking leaf (I thought it was a real leaf!).

/4/ Summer camp is on my mind and I am trying to plan out Anna's summer. Will is easy because he will just continue on with the summer session at his school, but now that Anna is in public school, we are entering a new territory. I have found out that majority of summer camps do not actually operate for 8 hours a day. Think 9-4p, or something even crazier like 9-3p. Those kind of hours just don't work for us working parents! Either way, we will have two weeks of vacation again this summer. I know one week will be reserved for Williamsburg, but since we are saving up for a bigger trip (potentially) later this year, I am thinking a staycation for the other week. Luke suggests both weeks in Williamsburg, but we will see.

Are you thinking about your summer vacation in February like I am? 

[+/-] Extra Sugar!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Our Fantasy Cruise: Getting There and Back

Very quickly, I just want to crank out one last post about our cruise vacation! After this I promise to stop talking about it :)

Depending on the exact time, but generally, good deals on airfare can be found in January/February from DC to Orlando. In fact I found a deal that could have flown the 4 of us to MCO for less than $700. But the time (think 6am departure) sucked and, more importantly, we didn't want to take any chances (delays and whatnot) when we have a boat to catch. So to be on the safe side, we ended up piling into our minivan and making the drive to Port Canaveral, which is 865 miles from home.

The first time (back in 2014) we drove to Orlando, we were crazy enough to think that driving through the night actually made sense. While we were all soundly asleep, Luke said he was falling asleep himself in the driver seat. Say WHAT?! So, this time, of course, we decided to drive during the day.
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Embarkation was on Saturday so we started our journey on Friday morning, at around 8am. Our drive down was very smooth. The kids alternated between playing with tablets and Pokémon and the hours flew by quickly. I even packed myself and the kids lunch (Luke had beef jerky). Not only it was healthier than any place we could have stopped at to eat, but it also saved time and money.
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^^Somewhere in North Carolina.^^

On Friday night, we stayed at a Hampton Inn just outside of Savannah GA. We picked that hotel so we would just be 4 hours away from Port Canaveral. Then on Saturday morning, we made the short drive (well, short in comparison to the day before) to finally reach our destination!
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^^Seeing the Fantasy for the first time!^^

The drive back home was similar, we stayed overnight in Fayetteville, NC. Luke and I agreed that next time, especially on the return trip, we will make the drive all in one day. It was only about 4:30pm when we got to Fayettesville and the kids were actually asleep at that time. We could have easily drove for another 6 hours to get home, I think, without the hassle of unpacking and packing for just one night.

Parking at Port Canaveral for a week was $120, so all in all, including gas and food along the way (we used points of the hotel stays), we spent less than $300 for the driving portion of the trip. Definitely a better bargain than flying!

{Disney Fantasy Cruise posts: 1, 2, 3, and 4}

[+/-] Extra Sugar!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Our Fantasy Cruise: Ports of Call and Final Thoughts

Previously: 1, 2, and 3
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Ports of Call

We actually didn't spend too much time on the islands at all, so this section of my trip report will be fairly short.

After two "days at sea", we finally got off the boat and arrived at Tortola! We talked to a local lady who gave us two beach options: Brewers Bay Beach, which is smaller and less populated with just one restaurant, or Cane Garden Bay Beach, which is the opposite. She assured us that both beaches were "kid-friendly with gentle waves." We picked the less populated, Brewers Bay, and hopped in the cab. Our driver drove us up and over the mountains and down to the other side of the island. Well, the short version of the story is that the waves were too strong for my kids (I see other kids playing happily though), so I ended up building sandcastles with them while Luke swam by himself. A rather forgettable excursion!
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^^Can you spot Luke and Will?^^
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^^We didn't last longer than 2 hours at the beach and it was $48 RT to get there.^^

When we got to St. Thomas the next day, we decided to just walk around the touristy area around the port. We actually had some fun memories at St. Thomas, but I will save a certain little boy from embarrassment and not document them here on the blog! I will just have to try my hardest to always remember them, haha.
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Almost as soon as we got off the boat, the kids wanted back on because they didn't want "to go to the island." I remember on our previous cruises, on port days, the boat would be practically empty, but not the case with DCL. Apparently, lots of families choose to stay on the boat even on port days. I guess we are not the only ones who think it is too much of a hassle to do excursions with young children, and the boat is a lot cleaner and nicer anyway.
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^^Browsing cheesy souvenirs.^^

Final Thoughts

As I said in the very beginning, our trip was just OK and, even though I have written about all the good things, here are just a few things that made the trip average overall. Keep in mind that these are just our dislikes, they may not bother you at all.

-- Being on a schedule. Our nightly schedule looked like this: live entertainment at 6:15p and second seating dinner at 8:15p. The shows typically ended at 7p, and I hated waiting for another hour or so for dinner, especially with two antsy kids. However, I do want to mention that if we didn't want to wait for our regular dining, eating at Cabanas was always an option, but dining room dinners are a huge feature of the cruise and we didn't want to miss any meals. Eventually, we showered the kids before the 6:15p show time so that after we got back from dinner at around 9:30p, the kids just went straight to bed. Less stressful that way.
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^^At our private balcony for the sail-away.^^

-- The kids club was a disappointment (see why here). Also, while the kids were at kids club, there weren't much stuff for Luke and I to do. We are not the type to sunbathe or have a drink by the bar. We walked laps a few times on Deck 4, but often Luke read a book in the room while I wondered aimlessly around the ship or spied on the kids outside of kids club. Having said that, it WAS nice to have a break from parenting, though.
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^^If I had to guess, we were probably waiting for dinner here.^^
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-- Missing Castaway Cay. Our original itinerary was like this: Two back-to-back "day at sea", Tortola, St. Thomas, another "day at sea", and Castaway Cay. When they announced that we weren't going to Castaway Cay, that meant yet ANOTHER "day at sea". By then, we were just done with being on the boat. Honestly, the last day was kind of a waste for us.
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-- Finally, value. When my brother asked, "How was the trip? Did the kids have fun?", I responded with, "Trip was OK. The kids would have the same fun with a pool in Williamsburg." He said that I always say that after every trip, and reminded me about Great Wolf Lodge. I just had to laugh as I texted back, "Yeah I don't know why I never learn my lesson." Despite the good family time we had, I felt that we could have that "good family time" anywhere, we didn't necessary have to pay $5K for it. But for what it is worth, I wanted to try cruising with the family and I did. Next time, we will try a less expensive cruise line. Now I am not saying that DCL was bad AT ALL, I just wish it came at a more affordable rate, although the price premium was definitely noticeable in the service and cleanliness.

[+/-] Extra Sugar!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Our Fantasy Cruise: Recreation, Characters and Princesses, and Things I Want to Remember

Continue on with our Disney Fantasy trip report. Read here and here to catch up.

First, a picture of AquaLab. I mentioned it in my previous post, but didn't post a picture of it, so here it is. It is basically a water playground with lots of fun features for the kids to get wet. I was surprised that this space was always pretty empty whenever we went. It even has benches for the parents to sit while watching the little ones play. A great play area, in my opinion. 
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Recreation

We only tried Goofy Golf and while the course was cute and adorable, it was way too windy (we did it on a "day at sea" day) for it to be enjoyable. So I recommend doing it on a port day, while the boat isn't in motion. Either way, the kids are definitely getting better at mini-golfing. Most of the time, they even got the stance right :)
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Characters and Princesses

Anna and Will aren't particularly interested in Disney characters/princesses, but before we left, I saw this awesome idea for getting their autographs on a mat frame and turning it into a keepsake, into something that might actually see the light of day when we get home. This idea stuck with me and it became a little personal project.

But once we got on the boat, for the first six days of the cruise, I didn't do anything. The kids didn't beg to have their pictures taken with Mickey and I wasn't about to force it either -- the lines were often too long and I didn't have the mat frame with me anyway.
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But then they announced that we weren't going to make it to Castaway Cay and instead, there would be extra sessions of character appearances while we float at sea for another day. As I said, that was such a sad news (missing Castaway Cay) to me, but that meant I was able to do my little project after all.
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^^I still see two blank spaces that would have been perfect for Anna and Elsa to sign, but the kids were DONE.^^

So that morning on the last full day of the cruise, for about 75 minutes, I dragged the kids all over the boat, with the promise of glow sticks when we get home, and got a total of 10 signatures :) Mission accomplished.

Things I Want to Remember
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(in no particular order)
-- Kids rushing down the hallway and competing on who gets to open the door.
-- Similarly, pushing buttons in the elevators was also a huge thing. "Anna, you didn't really push the button because I already pushed it."
-- Kids taking turn to sleep on the top and bottom bunk. They both wanted the top.
-- Anna saying that her favorite part of the cruise was "sleeping with Charmander." Um, you can do that at home?
-- I randomly chatted up with a mom in front of me while waiting in line for Daisy Duck and she asked, "Do you feel that it is loud in your room? I can hear lots of kid noise in mine." Turned out, our rooms were next to each other. LOL.
--Going up to Flo's Cafe and bringing down fries, spicy chicken patties (Luke ate 3), Mickey pretzel, and fruit to eat in our room, for an afternoon snack.
-- Will eating so much bread and Anna mac n' cheese. I loved having salad for lunch. Luke ate lots of crab legs.
-- The kids were ALWAYS together at the kids club. They really are besties, when there are no other options, ha.

Up next: The ports of call and my final thoughts :)

[+/-] Extra Sugar!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Our Fantasy Cruise: Pools, Youth Activities, Entertainment, Dining, and Shops

In this post, I will talk about the things we did while on the boat!

Pools & More

Hands down, the kids enjoyed the pools the most while on the boat. The Mickey's Pool on Deck 11 is where the kids spent most of their pool time. It's not big and gets very crowded during peak hours (~11a to ~5p), but the kids were very happy to just splash around. The Donald's Pool, directly in front of Funnel Vision (that giant movie screen), is a bit deeper and the kids only played there when we got in the water with them. I have to say that even though it gets crowded up on Deck 11, we never had trouble finding a table for eating or loungers to put our stuff.
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See that enclosed acrylic tube above? That's the AquaDuck and Luke and I rode on it twice. We just left the kids in Mickey's Pool and off we went! I think possibly only on a Disney cruise would we feel comfortable doing that. As we went down and around the ship, we looked for the kids below. It was a lot fun :) 
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The kids were too short for AquaDuck, but there is a kiddie slide, Mickey's Slide, that Will went down over and over.
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Nemo's Reef is a whimsical water play area for kids 8 and under. There is another splash area, AquaLab, on Deck 12, that older kids can go to. My kids went there too and had a ball as well.

Youth Activities

The Oceaneer Club/Lab is what Disney Cruise Line (DCL) calls their kids club. I was really looking forward to the "free" childcare, where I could just drop off the kids and the adults could do things on our own. But as it turned out, the kids club left me slightly disappointed.

Here is why: While the Club/Lab has organized activities (Magic PlayFloor, Piston Cup Challenge, Super Sloppy Science, etc), led by the counselors, there are also computer games and big screen TVs at every corner of the space. Now I don't know about your kids, but mine will ALWAYS choose computer games over anything else. So basically every time we dropped off the kids for 1-2 hours, they were getting 1-2 hours of screen. I know I am slightly neurotic when it comes to my children and screen, but I just wished the counselors were better about encouraging the kids to participate. However, I do know that they have a no-force policy, so I guess the problem here is just me, not DCL's to blame :)
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^^A small section in the Oceaneer Club, Andy's Room!^^

For what it is worth, the kids did LOVE the kids club and always wanted to go. It's open from morning till late at night and you can leave your kids there all day if you like (they even feed the kids there). We received a wristband for each child that checks them into and out of the facilities. Even with a massive number of kids coming and going at all times, security is tight so you won't end up with a missing child or anything :) I have to give credit to DCL for operating it so smoothly.

Entertainment

Every night at 6:15p we enjoyed live entertainment at the Walt Disney Theatre. I can't believe we actually made it to all the shows! It made me feel really good about "getting my money's worth", ha.
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The shows were good, especially the two that weren't entirely Disney focused -- a juggling act by Charles Peachock (from America's Got Talent) and a comedy/magic science show. As for the other Broadway-quality shows, including an Aladdin musical, I did enjoy the singing and dancing to popular Disney songs but they weren't Luke's cup of tea. Again, the kids liked everything. I think they got a great exposure to live performances on the trip.

Besides the live entertainment, we saw The Good Dinosaur at the Buena Vista Theatre. Luke and Will also watched the new Star Wars movie in 3D on the cruise.
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Finally, this is Anna and me on Pirate Night. We were up on the deck for “Pirates in the Caribbean” Deck Party, another singing and dancing show. Eh, that one was just alright. Then later that night at 10:30p, fireworks went off. I remember that we were all ready for bed, but at 10:29p, we ran upstairs in our pajamas to catch the display.

Dining

Oh man, we ate way to much on the cruise. And because we ate dinner late, at 8:15p, we went to bed with full tummies every night. So bad! Definitely our unhealthiest vacation yet :( BUT, as far as what we ate, they all tasted very good :) My most favorite was the warm chocolate lava cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on Captains Gala night. My mouth is salivating right now thinking about that gooey deliciousness. If you ever find yourself on Disney Fantasy...go for it!
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The DCL has an unique approach to dining: Over the seven days of our cruise, we rotated among three themed restaurants, Royal Court, Animator's Palate, and Enchanted Garden. Our severs followed us from restaurant to restaurant each evening, which was nice because eventually they knew our likes and dislikes and we didn't even have to ask for anything. Our head sever was excellent and impressed the kids with his cool magic tricks and awesome napkin folding skills.
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^^Decorating cupcakes at Animator's Palate.^^

For breakfast and lunch, we ate either at Cabanas (buffet) or Flo's Cafe (fast-food type place serving pizza, burgers, fries, and more), both on Deck 11. The kids had so much pizza, mac n' cheese, fries, and Mickey bars on the trip.
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Oh, another honorable mention as far as food goes is the spicy chicken sandwich at Flo's Cafe. SO GOOD. While on the boat, I told Luke that this is what I am going to miss the most. Haha, and it's true, I am definitely missing it!

Shops

There are several shops on the Fantasy. My mom gave each kid some vacation money and they used it to buy two lightsabers.
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^^This picture has nothing to do with the said lightsabers, but just for fun.^^

Whew - this post is getting too long. Thanks for making it to the end.
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^^"I love cruising!"^^

To be continued...

[+/-] Extra Sugar!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Our Fantasy Cruise!

Boy, it felt good sending the kids to school this morning. After all those snow days, followed by our cruise vacation, the kids haven’t had school for what seems like forever. I am happy they are finally getting back to some structured learning!

Anyway, we are back from our highly anticipated Disney cruise! Unfortunately, I thought the vacation was just so-so. I mean, It wasn’t bad (no one was sick), but it also wasn’t supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (haha) like everyone on Cruise Critics said it would be. I will go into all the details in later posts, but I just want to highlight a few good things about the cruise in the meantime.
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Luke and I have been on 3 cruises before, and I will say that the Disney Fantasy was BY FAR the cleanest ship we have ever sailed on. On our Carnival cruise, I was squeamish to even just step out on our balcony, but on the Fantasy, I had no problems going out there barefoot. In the public areas of the ship, everything was spotless. The public restrooms, especially, were always sparkling clean. The service we received? IMPECCABLE. Everyone was friendly and helpful, always greeted us with a smile. The ice machine never ran out of ice. Towels on the pool deck were warm and aplenty. Disney characters all around. It was a very nice boat!
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We were supposed to have 3 island stops -- Tortola, St. Thomas, and Disney's Castaway Cay. Unfortunately, because of a mechanical trouble, the ship had to reduce its speed and we couldn't go to Castaway Cay AND make it back to Port Canaveral (where we departed) in time. So we had to skip Castaway Cay. That was a total bummer news to me because this Disney's private island was actually what I looked forward to the most of all the island stops. Instead, we received a $200 on-board credit, which did not make up for it at all, in my opinion.
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^^A nice scenic shot of St. Thomas!^^

Even though I said the cruise was only so-so, we had a good family time. No working, no school, no cooking, no cleaning. What's not to love?
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^^Kids enjoying a night swim on Deck 11!^^

And here is our stateroom. I can't believe that I don't have a better picture of our room so please excuse this selfie photo. Disney cruise staterooms are designed to accommodate families -- there is a queen sized bed (NOT two twin beds pushed together like other cruise lines), a sofa that turns into a bed, and above the sofa, a twin bunk pulls down from the ceiling.
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I wouldn't say there is plenty of room, but big enough and definitely bigger than a standard cruise industry room. There is a privacy curtain that pulls across and divides the room into two. So after putting the kids to bed, I was able to keep the light on and read the Navigator to plan out the next day.

When we booked our cruise, we booked a restricted-fare category stateroom, which meant that we were guaranteed a certain level of stateroom (in our case, a Family Oceanview Stateroom with Verandah) or above, but our stateroom wasn't assigned to us until just a couple of weeks before our sail date. This allows the cruise to fill the ship up efficiently while allowing people like me to save money.

But even with the heavy discount, this Disney cruise was THE most expensive family trip we have ever taken. I am not convinced that it was worth the value, and I will dive more into it in my next posts.

[+/-] Extra Sugar!