Monday, March 24, 2014

Planning a Disney World vacation with kids! - The Basics

We just booked our next trip to Disney World and as we get serious about making plans, I thought that some of the strategies we use might be helpful for someone else planning their WDW vacation with kids. There are so many sites and books with advice on planning every detail of your trip, it's easy to find an answer to any question you might have, and it's also easy to get overwhelmed. We are not experts, by any stretch of the imagination, but we do have a pretty straightforward approach to making our trips smooth and successful.

I've read that anticipating a vacation can actually bring more pleasure and lasting positive effects than the actual vacation. For some, that anticipation may be visualizing yourself relaxing in your vacation destination. Fo me, that anticipation manifests in some major Type-A planning. If you don't enjoy planning, maybe some of this info will make it easier for you to arrange your trip. And if you do enjoy planning, this might be right up your alley!

We took Alice to Disney World for the first time when she was twenty months old, in January 2012 (and wrote about it here and here). Ivy will be about the same age for this trip, though we'd hoped to go when she was closer to two. We're using what we learned on our first WDW trip with a kid and as we've traveled since then, to plan the best possible itinerary.

I'll share some of our general planning strategies, what we're doing this time and how it's different or similar to our last trip. I hope some of this info is helpful for you, and that you get to take your kids soon!

So let's get started!

First, a word about our travel philosophies, which are in full effect on Disney trips. Here's my easy 8-step guide to having fun while traveling with kids.
  1. Overplan the logistics. We try to budget, schedule, and plan for every logistical detail so that the trip runs smoothly and we don't have to panic about anything at the last minute. 
  2. Underplan the schedule.  We try to be really realistic about what we can fit into a day, accounting for travel time and stamina and herding small children. When planning so many details so far in advance, it can be tempting to think you can squeeze in a bunch of extra stuff. Lower your expectations about what you can accomplish, especially when traveling with kids.
  3. Overplan the time allowances. We give ourselves a ton of time to do accomplish our underplanned schedule. Whether it's getting to the airport, from the hotel to the park, from park to park, etc., we allow ourselves plenty of time to it. Figure out how long it actually takes to get from place to place, and add 50% more time (or more), plus time to solve problems like traffic, getting lost, lines, etc. Figure out how long it takes everyone to get up and ready in the morning and double it. I prefer to start earlier and get there in time without rushing or panicking. I'd always rather spend my spare time amusing myself (and kids!) at the destination than stress about getting there AND miss out by being late.
  4. Lower your expectations. Again, especially when traveling with kids. Things will go wrong, meltdowns will happen, you will run out of time, stuff will get sacrificed. Don't stress, don't let it ruin your attitude, your day, or your trip.
  5. Buy as much convenience as you can afford. If you can pay for a service to save you time and energy, do it as often as you can afford. Spend your dollars to save your time and energy for enjoying your family and your vacation. If you are tired, stressed, and cranky because you are trying to save some money, everyone and the vacation will suffer. 
  6. Add 20% to your budget. Carefully estimate your trip costs and then add at least 20% on top of that. Once you've budgeted the money and are on your trip, try not to worry about ordering the extra item at dinner, or buying the souvenir or experience you really want. 
  7. Manage your kids' expectations. Give kids some control, eliminate anxiety about the unexpected, and hopefully eliminate some whining. Let your kids know the plan for the whole trip, and for the day. Let them know when and where meals will be, and what kinds of special treat options may arise. Let them know what kinds of things to get excited about, and what you are hoping to fit into the day. Give them as many choices as possible; what to eat, what to ride first or second, when to enjoy their treat. Give them spending money, and let them know what they can choose to spend it on (i.e., souvenirs only, or treats as well), and when they'll be able to spend it (set aside a designated time for shopping). Give them advance notice for transitions (after this, we'll be heading to _). 
  8. Have a drink. Seriously. The Magic Kingdom only serves alcohol at one restaurant, but the other parks have lots of places to get an adult beverage. You're on vacation. Relax, and enjoy!
We enjoyed an adult beverage immediately on arriving to our hotel...

THE BASICS - Budget, Dates, Hotels, Resort Travel, Gear, Logistics

+ Budget
Full disclosure, I used to work for the Disney company, and we still have family that does who was able to get us a discount on our hotel room for this trip. We've enjoyed some form of employee discount on most of our trips, but unlike our last visit, the room is our only discounted expense this time. Update: I forgot that we'll be using employee complimentary admission, which is a substantial savings. Some of the admission tickets are leftover from my stint at the company, and some are from our still-employed family. But we will NOT have any discount on food, merchandise, or any other purchases.

We plan for trips as far in advance as possible, usually at least eighteen months out or more. We ballpark our best guess for the entire trip cost, and set a monthly saving goal. We knew this trip would be more expensive than our last, since we wouldn't be able to use my employee discount (ouch ouch ouch). This works well for us and allows us to save comfortably and always have something to look forward to!

A special note about budgeting for dining:
  • We're budgeting somewhere around $130-$150 a day on dining for all four of us. This includes one table-service meal a day, counter service meals, snacks, treats, and alcohol. We try to over-budget for our plans, so that it averages out over the trip or we come in a bit under. 
  • We've never included a dining plan with our trip, so I can't offer any advice there. We always check out the option and compare it with our budget, and we usually find that our budget is still a little cheaper and offers more flexibility. 
  • We are also budgeting around $200 for groceries for our room.

+ Plan Your Dates
  • Check the special events calendar (here's another comprehensive but unofficial one). Unless you are specifically attending a particular event, try to avoid major crowd draws like marathon weekends. We'd love to go to Epcot's Food & Wine Festival some day, but I hear it's a nightmare trying to push any stroller, let alone a double, so we'll save that for when we've got bigger kids (or none with us at all!)
  • Consider the weather. We come from the land of no humidity, and no real "weather" to speak of, so I try to avoid the high heat/humidity season, and any kind of thunderstorm or hurricane weather whatsoever. January has great weather (just avoid the holidays and marathon weekend), but it's worth mentioning that if you go in the low season, a lot of things may be closed for routine maintenance and renovation (like your hotel's pool!). The park calendar will list any attractions that will be closed for refurbishment, and the hotel may be able to tell you if any amenities are planned to be closed, but there may not be any warning. I've been twice in September, and both times enjoyed overcast weather that kept the temperatures down. Granted, once it was because Hurricane Ophelia was parked just off the coast, so that could have gone a different way.
Last Time/This Time
  • Last time we went in January and the weather was perfectly warm but not too hot, except when I was wearing jeans in the afternoons. We'd planned to go in January again but decided to push up our trip to earlier in the year. We wanted to avoid the holidays and the Food & Wine Festival, so scheduled for September - as late in hurricane season as possible before Food & Wine starts. I am already thinking about what we'll all wear to stay cool!

+ How Long To Play?
  • Consider how long you can afford to stay and play, how many days you can survive the parks, and how long you can actually stand to be on vacation with your kids.
    • Walt Disney World has 4 theme parks and 2 water parks, and that doesn't even include nearby Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (Wizarding World of Harry Potter!), SeaWorld or LegoLand (which isn't actually super nearby), or any other Central Florida attractions like Kennedy Space Center. Decide what's important for your trip, and how many days you need to do it. As much as I'd love to visit Harry Potter and friends, it's not worth the off-property hassle or ticket price to work that in to our trips. We might try it if our kids were older, but I think we might just wait until they finish building the Wizarding World here in California!
Last Time/This Time
  • Last time, we planned 8 total days: 
    • 1 travel day,
    • 1 "down" day
    • 2 park days
    • 1 "down" day
    • 2 more park days
    • 1 travel day. 
  • This time, we're planning 9 total days, with an added day for a water park. Later, I'll say a bit more about how we plan and schedule our days.

+ Choose Your Hotel
This can be tricky. There are SO many hotels with so many options and there are lots of factors to consider. Decide on your budget, and check the starting rates for the hotels in each group. Disney separates the hotels into a few categories: DeluxeDeluxe VillasModerate, and Value. There are also camping options on property, and the "other deluxe" Swan & Dolphin hotels which are on resort property and serviced by the resort, but not fully owned or operated by Disney.

The first steps are easy:
  • Figure out your lodging budget.
  • Check availability for your dates
  • See which hotels are available and within your price range. 
  • Consider your priorities - this is where it gets tough.
    • Do you want/need a balcony?
    • Do you need a kitchen, or separate living and sleeping areas?
    • Do you want to be within walking distance to Epcot or the Magic Kindgom?
    • Do you want a fabulous pool, spa, or restaurant on location?
    • Do you want to see giraffes and zebras right outside your bedroom window?
  • King-size beds are available at all resorts, but are not as plentiful as double queen rooms and some of them are handicapped-accessible

Here are some of our thoughts on the different options:

Studio, 1-bedroom, and 2-bedroom options available, all with kitchens. Washer and Dryer in the 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom units. Great option for larger groups and older kids. All at lovely Deluxe Hotel properties. Can't go wrong here, but definitely the priciest option.

One standout here are the Treehouse Villas at the Saratoga Springs resort. Treehouses! There are some drawbacks (long bus rides, and a transfer from the hotel to the Treehouses, no grocery or convenience store nearby), but I think this would be a really fun place to stay, if you're looking for a bit of a different experience.

Deluxe options are generally great hotels with lots of theming and Disney magic. Most have very grand lobbies and interior hallways to access rooms. These properties have slightly bigger rooms, most with balconies, and very nice grounds, pools, and amenities. Though, for the price, the rooms are not as "deluxe" as other luxury hotels and chains you may have experienced (Four Seasons, etc.). You are really paying for location and Disney conveniences, and the overall property and theming. 

Grand Floridian - Sort of the crown jewel of the resort. Beautiful property with very nice restaurants and amenities. Boat and monorail access to the Magic Kingdom, monorail access to Epcot. A convention center hotel.

Animal Kingdom Lodge - One of our favorites, but we're saving it for when our kids are older and can enjoy and remember a bit better. Beautiful property, great amenities (pool, restaurants), and SO FUN to see animals right outside your room. One of the furthest away, so takes just a bit longer to get around.

Contemporary (& Bay Lake Towers Villas) - We've never stayed here, but seriously considered it. You can walk to the Magic Kingdom. Amenities look nice and the California Grill restaurant is supposed to be one of the best on property. On the monorail line. A convention center hotel.

Polynesian - Seems to be a beloved option. We've considered staying here, especially to multi-task and get a little island flavor. They have a dinner luau show that is not exclusive to hotel guests, but is expensive and requires reservations well in advance. Hotel looks lovely and amenities look nice.

Wilderness Lodge - We've never stayed here but we visited for dinner and walked around. The hotel is lovely and the restaurants and pools looked great. Some of the rooms have bunk beds! We definitely considered for this visit, and will keep it high on the list for future visits. 

Yacht & Beach Club - Walking distance to Epcot, nice location on Crescent Lake across from the Boardwalk. Great pool. Older hotel, it's not as grand of a property as the first few Deluxe hotels listed here, and the rooms needed some renovating/refreshing when we were there two years ago. Dining options aren't great, we missed having a comprehensive quick-service food court. One of the resort's convention center hotels. 

Boardwalk - Walking distance to Epcot. Looks like sort of a no-frills option in the deluxe category. Amenities aren't very exciting, but there are a few dining options at the Boardwalk. One of the resort's convention center hotels.

Swan & Dolphin - both look like very nice hotels. Both have good restaurants, but of course you can dine there no matter where you stay.

Moderate hotels have slightly smaller rooms and no balconies, and though the theming is a little less extravagant, there is still lots of attention to detail to make each hotel and each area of the hotel feel like unique environments. Moderate hotel rooms are in free-standing buildings so you will have an outdoor walk from the bus and lobby to your room. They are extremely large properties, so it can be up to a ten minute walk, depending on where your room is located. But the grounds are beautifully themed and maintained, which is something you don't get to enjoy as much at a Deluxe hotel.

The dining options are limited to more casual table-service restaurants and quick-service counters or food court-style restaurants. 

You can always visit a deluxe hotel for a fancier dining experience at one of their great restaurants, but be aware that there are no buses directly between hotels. You would have to take a bus from one hotel to a park or the Transportation Center to catch a bus back to your hotel.  It can be difficult to get from one hotel to another after the parks have closed. 

I think all the moderate hotels are pretty equal as far as accommodations and amenities but the Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter seem to be a stand-out in this category. And they are both really popular and well-liked. This hotel gets consistently high ratings in guest satisfaction, and I've seen it called a deluxe property at a moderate price (minus the balcony!). The French Quarter property is the smallest of the moderate hotels (about 1,000 rooms compared to 2,000 in the Riverside and other complexes), so it is quicker and easier to get around the resort. I've also read that it is very quiet and doesn't feel as crowded. The rooms were redecorated in 2011, and the "Royal Rooms" have extra princess theming. The French Quarter buildings have elevators, unlike Port Orleans Riverside and Caribbean Beach Resort, which is kind of a necessity if you have kids in strollers.

The Coronado Springs Resort hotel is a huge convention center hotel - one of the largest single-level convention center hotels on the East Coast. You won't know if there will be any conventions scheduled during your visit, and it shouldn't inconvenience you, but it can be a different dynamic at the hotel if it's full of business travelers.  

The value hotels have more utilitarian grounds and buildings, with smaller rooms and beds (doubles?!) and one quick-service food court-style restaurant apiece. They all have a different theme, so you can cater to your sports, music, or movie lover, or your child of the '80s.

One stand-out is the new Art of Animation Resort, which has amazingly detailed theming in the rooms and also offers the only multi-bedroom option outside of the Deluxe Villas. There are Little Mermaid-themed standard rooms, as well as Lion King, Cars, and Finding Nemo family suites. Separate bedrooms are so nice for families with kids - both young and old - and it's great to have a separate living room area. I really wish there were more options like this in every pricing category. I hear this resort can be a bit noisy, so take that into account if you want a more relaxing experience, or you or your kids are light sleepers. Here's a thorough review, if you want to read more.

Again, there is a lot to consider and a ton of options which each offer something unique. Do some research and boil it down to the things that are most important for the experience you are looking for. 

Last Time/This Time
  • Last time, we stayed at the Beach Club. We loved that it was walking distance to Epcot, since we always spend a lot of time there. We wanted a balcony so we could hang out and enjoy an adult beverage while Alice was in bed without waking her up. We also loved the pool, but half of it was closed for refurbishment while we were there in January. We didn't love that it's an older property and didn't seem like it's been kept up and refurbished very well. It also didn't have great dining options, like the food courts you can find in the newer properties.
  • This time, we're saving some money by staying in a moderate hotel, at Port Orleans French Quarter. We won't have a balcony but after our trip to Monterey, we feel pretty confident that we'll have good success with bedtime using that iPad+headphones+adult beverage model.

+ Getting To & Around The Resort
  • Magical Express: If you are staying at a Disney resort on-property, you can arrange to take the complimentary Magical Express bus from the airport, and back when you leave. You pick up your luggage from baggage claim, load it into the bus, and don't have to worry about it again until you are in your room. When you book your hotel, just make sure to select the free Magical Express option, and enter in your flight details. If you book your room before your flights, you can call to add the Magical Express to your reservation.
    • Disney World is about 20 miles away from the airport, but it can take about an hour to get the bus loaded and to the hotel. The convenience (and price!) outweighs the wait, for me. Especially if you're staying on resort property and won't need to rent a car.
  • Resort Transportation System: Disney offers great transportation all over the property. Every hotel has a bus bay with constant bus service to each park, as well as Downtown Disney and the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC). Buses run from an hour before parks open and an hour after, and until 2am from Downtown Disney. 
    • It can take a while to get a bus, and to get from park to park. In the mornings, to arrive in time for Early Magic Hour, we try to be at the bus stop 30-45 minutes before we want to be at the park. At the end of the day, there can be a lot of people in line, but there are always enough buses that you aren't waiting very long (at least in my experience!).
    • If you want to go from hotel to hotel, you can transfer at a park, TTC, or Downtown Disney. If it is after park hours, Downtown Disney is your best bet. 
    • Some hotels offer boat service as well. You can take a water taxi to the Magic Kingdom from the Grand Floridian, Polynesian, and Wilderness Lodge. You can catch a water taxi to Epcot from the Crescent Lake hotels - Boardwalk, Beach & Yacht Club, and Swan & Dolphin. And you can reach Downtown Disney by water taxi via Port Orleans Riverside & French Quarter.
    • There are also three monorail lines; from the TTC to the Magic Kingdom, the TTC to Epcot, and the Resort Monorail, which services the Magic Kingdom/TTC/Contemporary, Polynesian, and Grand Floridian.

+ Gear
  • Carseat: We always book airline seats for the kids and bring their carseats, even if they are under two years and can qualify as a "lap infant." Once out of the newborn stage, neither of our kids were "lap infants." I feel that the in-flight safety is worth the cost and hassle, especially if you are renting a car at your destination. I would much rather haul our own seats than trust a rental company's seat. Alice is big enough now to sit nicely in an airline seat without needing to be strapped into her carseat, and since we won't need it in a car once we arrive, we'll leave hers home for this trip. We just stash the seat in the hotel room and haul it out again when we're ready to leave.
  • Stroller: You'll have to fold your stroller on the resort buses, so consider how easily your model collapses and how much stuff you'll be able to take out and carry. I would not recommend an umbrella model for the parks' terrain, but then I'm a sucker for an easy ride.
    • We debated bringing our double BOB (best all-terrain maneuvering, terrible all-day storage) or the Baby Jogger City Select Double (great storage capacity and flexibility, a little unwieldy on varied terrain). Ultimately, we concluded that we didn't want to risk any damage to our own strollers and we didn't want to hassle with them in the airport. We decided to enact Jon's rule to buy away the hassle by renting one. 
    • The parks offer daily rentals, but you have to return the stroller before you leave. I do not want to be hauling sleeping kids over my shoulder for any further than absolutely necessary, so even though kids can't stay in the stroller on the resort bus, it's worth having stroller you can roll right into your hotel room.
    • There are plenty of rental companies and options, but after a little research - and a recommendation from a fellow blogger - we made a reservation with Orlando Stroller Rentals. Started by a mom, this "Disney Featured Provider" company will drop off and pick up your stroller rental at your hotel's bell services. I love that they give each stroller a rigorous, white-glove cleaning with a non-toxic, all-natural cleaner before and after your reservation. They offer Baby Jogger models as well as the Special Tomato Jogger, with complimentary parent consoles and rain covers and a souvenir cooler with ever rental. I'm super excited to try the new Baby Jogger Summit X3 Double, which is supposed to be even better than the BOB, and it has a way bigger storage basket. Plus, the rental will cost about half of what the parks charge per day with at least twice the convenience. And we can use it to go running if we want!
  • PeaPod: We bring a KidCo PeaPod when we travel. Alice has used it since she was 18-months old but she's getting a bit big for the model we have. Pretty soon, we'll have to graduate her to a proper, big-girl bed when we travel. Ivy will probably use it on this trip. It folds up into a super small case, small enough to pack into your carry-on. It sets up easily in no time at all, and takes up way less space than a pack-n-play. Alice has always felt really cozy and safe in it and it's great that she's always sleeping in a familiar space, versus a big, strange bed in a new place.
  • ERGObaby 360 baby carrier: This April, ERGObaby is launching a new version of their super popular ergonomic baby carrier that allows baby to ride facing outward (see more here). This will be one only a couple of front-facing carriers that are ergonomically correct for baby. I won't get into the front-facing carrier issue here, except to say that the new ERGObaby model allows you to have the option in the safest possible way. I mention it here because I think it's a great way to safely restrain a wiggly baby or toddler while riding attractions and still let them have a full, unobstructed, frontwards view. I would love to have this option at the parks (I'm specifically remembering trying to restrain Alice on the Kilimanjaro Safaris while an enormous bull was standing just a few feet away). It also allows the versatility to switch back to a heart-to-heart carry if baby gets overstimulated, or will be napping. For any ride that you are comfortable bringing your baby on, you should be able to ride with your baby in a carrier. This would be a great choice for any new mom, and particularly for travel. I can see this being useful on the plane as well to contain a kid in your lap and still let them play with toys and read books, and let you stay safely seated.

+ Groceries
We find it difficult to get all four of us up, dressed, and out the door in the morning quickly enough to get to a restaurant for breakfast. And frankly, breakfast is the least exciting meal at most Disney restaurants. I like to feed the kids a quick, healthy breakfast (fruit, yogurt, bread + nut butter, etc.), and then stop for coffee and maybe a pastry treat we can all share. This also helps us get to the fun stuff faster, instead of wasting time at a restaurant. So we like to have a stock of easy to eat breakfast food that we can enjoy in the hotel, and a few snacks to eat in the room or on the go. This was especially important when we went with Alice because she would only eat a handful of really specific things that we knew we wouldn't be able to order off the menus (like sweet potato/cottage cheese mush - yum!). Luckily, Ivy can already order off the menu or share our dishes, but there are still some things we'd like to have on hand for her. 

Last time, Jon's cousin graciously agreed to ferry Jon to a grocery store so he could stock up on the provisions we needed. This time, we're planning to use a grocery delivery service so we don't have to  inconvenience our dear family or waste any vacation time shopping. You can also choose to ship a box of supplies to the hotel, pack an extra suitcase with your own food and supplies, or call a taxi to take you shopping, but I think it's easiest to have the groceries brought right to our door without having to shlep anything myself. I repeat - they will bring your beer and wine RIGHT TO YOUR ROOM (without room service prices)! All Disney resorts will accept these deliveries and hold them in their bell services area. They have cold storage available as well, if your delivery includes perishables, but there is limited space. I'm planning to put in my order well in advance and select delivery for shortly before we arrive to cut down on any potential problems.

There are plenty of services to choose from, but looks great. They've got fine prices, easy website with plenty of choices and healthy options. 

+ Other Logistic
  • Laundry: All of the hotels on resort property offer self-service laundry facilities. On our last trip, we brought enough clothes and cloth diapers for half our trip and planned to wash everything on our mid-trip "down" day. This would have worked great, except that we didn't scope out our plan once we arrived to the hotel. That morning, we put on our swim suits and headed to the laundry room so our clothes could run while we played in the pool. Unfortunately, we discovered that ALL of the washers and dryers were broken (at a Deluxe resort). We were able to use the machines in the Villas area, but because there were only two washers and dryers, we ended up having to sit with our clothes until they finished. That ate up a big chunk of our relaxing day. This time, we're planning to use eco-friendly or compostable disposables so we don't have to pay an extra bag fee to bring our cloth diapers, or spend time and money washing them on vacation. We may still plan to do a load of clothes, or use the hotel laundry service.

+ Safety Tips
  • Safety Tattoos: When we travel, the kids wear awesome temporary tattoos with our cell phone numbers. We make sure they always have one on that is fresh and legible. We used them on our first trip, before Alice could talk. Now that she's older, she can tell someone her name - and ours - if she's lost, but she's still too young to memorize our phone numbers. So now, she knows that if she gets separated from us, all she has to do is find another mama with kids or a cashier and show them her tattoo. There are lots of options for this product, but we like Safety Tats
  • ID Photos: We take pictures of the kids every time we leave the hotel room. In case they get lost, it's a great idea to have a photo of the exact outfit they have on at the time.  
An outfit ID shot.

+ MagicBands & My Disney Experience
WDW is now using MagicBands as your hotel room key, park admission ticket, dinner reservation, Photopass, and FastPass+ all combined into a convenient bracelet you can wear. From your My Disney Experience account, you can link up your hotel reservation, tickets, friends and family and start planning your itinerary - you can even choose Fastpass attractions and times in advance*. You can also customize the color and text on your MagicBands, and they will be sent to you in advance of your trip, all connected with your trip details.

Disney advises that you carry your MagicBands on your person when you arrive for your trip, rather than packed in your luggage, so they'll be available right away to check in and start using (if you use the Magical Express bus, you may not see your luggage again until you get into your room).

They also advise that the "MagicBand uses radio frequency (RF) technology and can be read by short and long-range readers located at the Walt Disney World Resort. If you prefer to use an RF card, which cannot be detected by long-range readers, you can request an RF card at your Disney Resort hotel, and you do not need to customize your MagicBand." I'm sure that the parks are using a lot of this RF data to better understand crowd control and patterns. I personally think that's useful info that will ultimately benefit attendees, and I like the convenience of the MagicBands but the card would surely be just as convenient and give you more anonymity, if that's important to you. 

*They are still testing and working out the FastPass+ system, so it's not available to everyone yet. 

Ready to play!
So that gets us through booking the trip, getting to the hotel, checking in and getting situated. If you like to wing it and fly by the seat of your pants once you're on vacation, then you are all set! If you are crazy like me, you might want to take it to the next level and plan your Disney World days as well... In the next post, I'll write more about how we do that!

In the meantime, here are some other helpful links to help you plan your trip.

Official Walt Disney World website
AllEars Dining Menus - menus for every restaurant on Disney property
Disney Parks Moms Panel
The Unofficial Resort Guide to Port Orleans

Monday, March 3, 2014

Monterey Mini-Break: The Beach!

By our second afternoon at the aquarium, the girls were getting a bit over-stimulated and tired and cranky. So we threw on our swimsuits and headed to the beach just down the street from the hotel. 
The sand and surf and fresh air were relaxing and refreshing for all of us. The girls had a great time playing in the sand and freezing their toes in the rising tide. I had a great time picking shells and treasures from the coarse sand. 

We freshened up at the hotel and then headed right back to the beach for dinner at the Fish Hopper, overlooking the little beach where we'd been playing earlier. Jon had found a tiki bar a few blocks away, but decided he'd rather eat closer to the ocean and take advantage of the view. We certainly enjoyed the otter that swam right up to the rocks where we had been earlier, and kept an eye out for dolphins and whales in the bay.
And then it was more Downton and wine for us while the girls were sawing logs.

On Sunday morning, we planned to go running. We'll be running our first half-marathon at the end of March and our training program had a nine-mile run scheduled while we were in Monterey, so I plotted out a route in advance. I did some research to find popular routes long enough that we wouldn't have to repeat it more than twice, and straight enough that we wouldn't be constantly turning with the stroller. One recommended route was on the Monterey Peninsula Recreation Trail, which happened to pass right next to the hotel. Like, we could walk out the door right onto it. Sold. I mapped out the trail, and found that if we started at the hotel and ran to one end and then all the way to the other, we'd hit our mileage pretty close and end up at a great beach for kids.

So we all slept in a bit and then got up and ready to run. While the girls were putting on their swimsuits, I shook the sand out of their water shoes. I decided the best way to do that was to open the screen-less windows and shake the sand onto the outer windows ledge. Which worked great until I dropped the shoe onto the patio of the ground-floor room below. Awesome.
There it is, just one tiny shoe staring at me and reminding me to think a little bit harder. Embarrassed, I explained to Jon and Alice what had happened. Jon asked why I hadn't just shaken them out in the trash can. I had no answer. Alice immediately burst into tears. I told her that I was sad about it too, since she probably wouldn't be able to wear it to the beach that morning, and that I was mad at myself   for not thinking of a better way to accomplish that task. But I reassured her that we could solve the problem, not on our own, but with a little help. I called the front desk and explained myself, and they let me know that someone was booked in that room but they were checking out that morning and they'd be able to get the shoe back to us after 11am. So, Alice put on her sneaks and we were out the door. 

I wish I'd thought to take some photos on our run, because the scenery was great, but my phone was in my arm band and I was concentrating too hard on finishing. It was a bit foggy when we started, and the perfect temperature for running with a nice cool breeze. We ran past boats in the bay, behind a sea wall full of sea lions, seals sunning themselves on the rocks, the wharf, and through stands of eucalyptus. It was a great place to run and it was awesome to have a different view with so much to see. And I was super proud that we finished the run with a great pace. For the first time, I was encouraged that we'll be able to finish the half!

We took a small break during the run to stop at a deli and pick up sandwiches for lunch. After we crossed the finish line, we stopped at the Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove to eat our lunch before we headed down to the beach. We were surrounded by a lot of interested wildlife and on our way down to the beach, I had the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream and feed a squirrel right out of my hand. PSA: Don't feed people food to wild animals, and certainly don't do it out of your hand. But SO CUTE!!!

And then we slid the stroller down the steep ramp to the beach and rolled it onto the sand, and played in the sun and sand for a while. 

 Ivy loves the water but she was a little bit out of sorts (teething, hungry, tired, tired of vacation). I don't know if it was too cold (so cold!) or if she just wasn't feeling it, but she splashed around for a few minutes and then gave me these faces.

 Aw. I hate when Fun Ivy gets sad. She's got the saddest little sad face.

We played around for a little while longer and then headed back to the hotel for a little pool and hot tub action before we went back to our room to rest and freshen up.
 We had a great dinner of appetizers (and beer, obviously) at the Cannery Row Brewing Company.

And then we took a long walk down to Fisherman's Wharf so we could see some salt-water taffy being made right before our eyes.
 The only way it would have been better is if Alice could have picked out all her own taffy. But we filled a bag with a half-pound of different flavors without any trouble.
Ivy wanted everything, of course.
And Alice was pretty pleased with her bag of taffy.
We enjoyed the stroll home and we all tucked into bed, tired after a long, fun weekend. We slept in again the next morning, but got going and packing as soon as we woke up. After the girls were dressed, we dropped them off at Grandma and Grandpa's room for a bit so we could finish packing up without anyone unpacking it all right behind us. With no one helping us, we finished in a jiffy and even had enough time to sneak out for breakfast and coffee. We hit the Starbucks around the corner and then hung out at our favorite beach spot and enjoyed the foggy morning.
Then we hit up a little shop Jon had been eyeing the whole weekend and got some delicious cinnamon rolls. We ate them at the hotel, overlooking the foggy ocean, and didn't even have to share them with anyone except each other.
We settled the bill and threw everything in the car and were on the road only a few minutes after we'd wanted to be. We were planning to stop in San Luis Obispo again for lunch, but this time we had a much more glamorous destination in mind. 

We didn't tell Alice anything about the Madonna Inn beforehand, but headed straight to the bathroom when we got there. We had to walk past the steakhouse to get to the bathrooms though, and Alice was sufficiently wowed by the decor.
While I changed Ivy's diaper, Jon took Alice into the men's room so they could both experience the wonders of a rock waterfall urinal. The waterfall is activated when you step into place - a feature I suspect is relatively new. I snuck in to take a few photos. The waterfall is awesome, though I'm sure I'd appreciate it even more if I was a boy, but I thought the giant clamshell sinks were pretty rad.
And then Alice came into the ladies room with me. I thought the iridescent wallpaper was spectacular, but Alice was most impressed with the chandelier hanging over the stalls. 
The place just defies explanation. If you have the opportunity to go, definitely do it, if only to admire the restaurant decor and enjoy an enormous piece of champagne cake. We passed on the cake this time, but Jon and I want to come back alone and enjoy a weekend in one of the uniquely decorated guest rooms.
We stretched our legs with a stroll through the little garden out front and took some photos with the the lovely flowers. 

And after another three+ hours of driving and whining, our lovely mini-break had come to an end. I hope we get to visit the aquarium again soon enough to see the new "Tentacles" exhibit opening in April. We had a great time, and it was just the break we were dreaming of during our busy January!