Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Toy Story Land changes to FastPass+ and park hours

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Toy Story Land officially opens in Hollywood Studios on June 30th.  This means that guests with the ability to book FastPass+ 60 days out can now make FP+ reservations for new Toy Story Land rides.  (Don't forget that when you book a package through Disney and you make your FP+ at the 60 day mark, it is for your entire vacation - up to 14 days.)

Hollywood Studios operates under a tier system for FastPass+.  This means you can't make 3 FP+ for any 3 attractions.  According to Disney, with Toy Story Land opening, the tier system will be as follows:

One FP+ for
   Slinky Dog Dash (a roller coaster)
   Alien Swirling Saucers
   Toy Story Mania (existing attraction)

Two FP+ for other rides/attractions.

This is obviously to prevent guests from making FP+ for the 3 Toy Story attractions at the same time.  My prediction is that the Slinky Dog Dash will be the most popular of the three.  Toy Story Mania is not new and roller coasters always tend to be popular.  Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is a perfect example.

Disney has also announced that beginning on July 1, Hollywood Studios will be open from 8:00 am to 10:30 pm (for a limited time.)  They will also be adding Extra Magic Hours for Hollywood Studios.  Disney is operating under the assumption that Toy Story Land is going to bring more guests to Hollywood Studios, which for many is a half day park.

My strategy

Aim for FP+ for Slinky Dog Dash during the second hour after park opening.
Arrive to HS early.
Standby for Alien Swirling Saucers first
Check Toy Story Mania standby


I've added a new page, which can be found under my blog header, for Disney Planning + Tips.  Previously, I just had a bunch of links thrown under links to my trip reports and I wanted to clean it up, making it more user friendly.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

12 Free/Inexpensive Things to Do and See on Cape Cod

I always find it difficult to write introductions, so this will be short and sweet.  I pulled together this list of things to do and see based on our experiences on the Cape.  Not everything has to cost $$$ and I prefer to save whenever possible.  

1.  Cape Cod Canal

Let's start with the very beginning of Cape Cod and the paved bike trail that runs along the canal.  Here I'm talking about the side of the canal before you travel over the bridges.  The path itself is just over 7 miles long but there are several access points along the way enabling you to bike, run or walk as much or as little as you'd like.  You'll even see people just hanging out, watching the boats and fishermen.  Note that there are well-maintained bathrooms at several locations along the canal.  (With kids, I'm always aware of the bathroom situation.)

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Tip:  Grab lunch or dinner at The Seafood Shanty and head across the street to the picnic tables overlooking the canal.

2.  Woods Hole Science Aquarium

Located in Falmouth, this is a small, public aquarium.  You won't be able to spend all afternoon here but it's a fun spot for a quick visit.  The aquarium has space for seals who are unable to live in the wild.  The seals are feed when the aquarium opens and right before closing.  We found this to be very educational and entertaining.  (Their website indicates that they don't have any seals in residence at the time of this post.)

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Admission is free but donations are accepted.

To read my post detailing a day trip with kids to Falmouth, click here.

3.  Beach Hopping After 4:00

It should come as no surprise that there is a daily fee ($20-$25) for beach parking.  To explore different beaches, head out after 4:00 when parking attendants close up for the day and you'll be able to park for free.  (Bathroom note:  some bath houses close at a certain time while others remain open past the time the parking attendants leave.  The bath houses along the Cape Cod National Seashore have been open into the early evening hours when we've visited.)

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4.  Monomoy National Wildlife Refugee

This is a federal wildlife refugee located on Monomoy Island (Chatham.)  You'll need to coordinate your visit to coincide with low tide or you will not be able to walk along the beach.  This is such an amazingly beautiful and peaceful place.  Check out the small visitor's center first as they have backpacks kids can borrow.  The packs include a handy list identifying all the critters you may see.

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To see all my photos from our visit last summer, click here.

5.  Chatham Fish Pier

Plan a visit in the afternoon to watch the incoming fishermen unload their haul for the day.  You'll also see seals hoping for tasty treats from the boats.

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Tip:  Grab dinner at the Chatham Pier Fish Market.  There are public restrooms here as well.

6.  Salt Pond Visitor Center

Located in Eastham, the Salt Pond Visitor Center is the main visitors center for the Cape Cod National Seashore.  The center holds a small museum, theater and bookstore and I would highly recommend going inside and watching the short film, especially if you're visiting from outside New England.

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This is a popular bathroom/stretching spot as there is a large (free) parking lot and public restrooms.  Take advantage of the trails winding through the marsh and woods.  There is also a bike path that leads to Coast Guard Beach.  Note that, unlike most bike paths on the Cape, this one is not flat.

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7.  Go for a Bike Ride

Cape Cod has over 100 miles of bike paths.  If you can't bring bicycles with you, there are plenty of rental locations scattered all over the Cape.

8.  Tour Nauset Light

Nauset Light is a restored lighthouse located near Nauset Light Beach. which is down the road from Coast Guard Beach.  Check online for days and times.  Note that the tour is brief and donations are welcome.

9.  Province Lands Visitor Center

Similar to the Salt Pond Visitor Center, this is run by the Cape Cod National Seashore.  It's located on the road to Race Point Beach and features a small theater, shop and observation deck.

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10.  Explore Provincetown

P-town is located at the tip of Cape Cod.  The small downtown area can best be described as eclectic, full of shops, restaurants and art galleries.  Each area of Cape Cod is unique, and Provincetown, with its beautiful and end-of-the-world location, is a must see.  The ride up there alone makes the trip worth it.

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11.  Catch a Sunset

Always free!

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12.  Coupons

In most restaurants and shops, you'll find little guidebooks for the Cape.  Pick those up!  They are mostly ads but they also contain coupons, which come in handy for mini golf.

12 Free Cape Cod

Monday, April 16, 2018

Be Yourself

The girls had two days of state-wide mandatory testing at school last week.  Yes, in the days leading up to vacation week.  On Thursday, with testing finally over for the week, the students were told they could have a "spirit day" on Friday.  Spirit days typically mean those who want to participate dress in a certain way for the day.  Sometimes we have a Patriots or a Red Sox spirit day, or sometimes it's dress in comfy/cozy clothes.  Unfortunately, the message trickled down at the last minute and only one of the girls knew what was going on when school was let out.  Her class had decided to have a pajama day.

Later that afternoon, I received an email from another teacher saying that the kids, who had been left in class when the decision was made, opted for a "whatever" spirit day, but most indicated that they would be wearing what they wanted to be when they grow up.  I was left with one kids who didn't know what her class was doing.  At dance that night, a few kids were questioned as to spirit day rumors and based on those responses, along with the fact that the teacher who sent the email typically teams up with the other teacher, I told Child #3 to just go with "career day."  Career day in our home usually refers to dressing as a dancer.

The next morning, there was some hemming and hawing over outfit choices.

"What if I'm the only one who dresses for a career day?"    

"Then you'll be the only one.  Own it.  It won't be the end of the world.  There was a kid wearing a freaking dinosaur costume last month."

We're dipping our toes into the world of "I need to be like everyone else."  It's not that big of a deal here in fifth grade, but I don't know what next year will hold.  Right now, you don't have to wear certain clothes or your hair a certain way.  I completely understand not wanting to stand out in a negative way, but there's something to be said for remaining true to yourself.  I clearly remember junior high and Benetton and Esprit.  I didn't even like those clothes but wanted them because that's what everyone else was wearing.  It's tough.

I feel like now, more than ever, especially with social media, trend-following, which once ended in the teen years, is extending well into adulthood.  Never mind how quickly trends change these days.  I laughed when I saw the comment "that's so 2015" a few weeks ago.  A year ago, more than half the kids pouring outside at school dismissal held a Rubik's cube or a fidget spinner.  I haven't seen any this year.

Oh, Child #3 spirit day update.  Kids were dressed every which way, including several in "career day" attire.

The girls celebrated their 11th birthday last week.  Last month, I found myself saying, "I don't understand why this is so difficult.  You're almost 11."      

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Thoughts from tap class

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The tap class I'm taking has one number in the year end dance recital.  It's a regular routine, not like the dads who dance, which is meant to be humorous.  A few weeks before I joined the class, another mom had said she was going to take the class but she wasn't going to be in the recital because she was starting halfway through the (dance) year.  I assumed the same was true for me.  She ended up dropping the class after the first week, which, yes, did scare me a little.

After my first class, as we all changed shoes in the lobby, the discussion of costuming for the recital came up.  Someone had found and printed from Amazon a handful of sparkly tops.  Our instructor told us to discuss with each other and keep in mind how it would appear onstage.  She didn't want five women in pink and one in black.  Mix it up.  I was curious and looking at the tops when someone asked me which one I would go with.

"Probably that one," I said, pointing to a light pink racerback tank.  "But it doesn't matter because I'm not going to be in the recital."

I had just watched the class run through the first half of the dance and agreed to pick up where they were learning new parts.  Hey, I could Front Irish because the girls had taught me but that was the first dance class I'd ever participated in.

"Oh, you'll be fine.  You'll pick it up," was the response I received.  Hey, I'm glad someone has faith in me, but I'm not so confident.

At the next class, I used my phone to video the first part of the dance.  The thought was maybe the girls could teach it to me.  The only problem with this is that some of the steps are similar to ones in their dances but slightly different.  Emily worked with me on one and the next week, during her dance, kept doing my step instead of hers.  Sorry, little chick.  But they've been awesome teachers.  Without them, I don't think I'd be doing this.  I have my own private tutors.

A few weeks ago, the dance studio checked the spelling of names for the recital program.  Are you in?  Up to this point, I had been learning the second half of the dance and was told that I could just jump in.  The dancers transition from a vertical line to a horizontal and I can flap, flap hop my way from sidestage.  The problem is that there's a triple buck time step shortly after that and while I can do it in slow motion, I cannot put it together as fast as it needs to be for the dance.

Right now, I'm undecided.  I told the owner she could leave my name out of the program and if I feel ready, I can still dance.  I don't need my name in the program.

We've learned the remainder of the dance, which is to the song Mambo No. 5 by the way, and Friday night, our teacher began reteaching from the beginning.  There's the Alexander the girls had taught me back in January and I had forgotten, and a Maxi Ford.  Yesterday morning, I ran 5 miles and then, later in the afternoon, put on my tap shoes and asked the girls to help me.  (Talk about a good workout day.)  "That's good, Momma.  You got it.  Just clean it up."  I have to say that being a runner has helped considerably.  While my heart rate may go up a little or I may feel a slight burn after leg buster warmups, I don't ever feel winded.    

I sometimes feel like there's reverse parent/child stuff going on.  So you know how if a parent excelled at an activity (instrument, sport, what have you), they expect their child to have the same skills?  People at the dance studio expect me to be a good dancer and learn quickly because the girls are so awesome.  I've been told that they had to get it from somewhere.  I'm not quite sure it works that way.  My flaps still get stuck in the mud, but I'm trying and having fun doing it.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Let's talk about the hotels at Disney Springs

You all know about Disney Springs, right?  It's the shopping, dining, entertainment complex located near Disney World in Orlando.  There are 7 hotels in the Disney Springs area and I've been curious as to how it would benefit me, if at all, to stay here versus a Disney resort.  I've read a handful of positive reviews by bloggers (who were comped rooms) but "resort fees" and "parking fees" jumped out at me.  I decided to take a closer look at these hotels for myself.

Here are the 7 Disney Springs area hotels:
  • B Resort and Spa
  • Best Western
  • DoubleTree Suites
  • Hilton Buena Vista Palace
  • Hilton Lake Buena Vista
  • Holiday Inn
  • Wyndham Garden

For purposes of the following comparison of cost, let's assume that we're a family of 4 booking a room for 7 nights in early November 2018.  Here's a breakdown of cost per hotel, including taxes and fees.

Best Western = $1,008.  Does not include self-parking fee of $8 per night.

Wyndham Garden = $1,117.  Does not include self-parking fee of $15 per night.

Holiday Inn = $1,202.  Does not include self-parking fee of $18 per night.

DoubleTree Suites = $1,205.  Does not include self-parking fee of $22 per night.  NO RESORT FEE at this hotel.

B Resort and Spa = $1,961.  Does not include self-parking fee of $22 per night.

Hilton Buena Vista Palace = $2,418.  Does not include self-parking fee of $10 per night.  

Hilton Lake Buena Vista = $2,418.  Does not include self-parking fee of $18 per night.


Now let's run some numbers for Disney World resorts for the same time frame.

All-Star Music = $960.  Does not include self-parking fee of $13 per night.

Pop Century = $1,087.  Does not include self-parking fee of $13 per night.

Caribbean Beach = $1,700.  Does not include self-parking fee of $19 per night.  (Under construction during this time.)

Art of Animation = $2,858.  Does not include self-parking fee of $13 per night.


Items to Note

Airport Transportation - If you're staying at a Disney World resort, you are able to take advantage of Disney's Magical Express, which will provide you with free transportation to and from the airport.  The hotels at Disney Springs do not have this benefit so for a true cost analysis, one would have to factor in the cost of traveling to and from the airport.  For our family, I would be inclined to rent a car.  Well, a minivan because we are a large family.  So now I'd have to increase my cost by several hundred dollars plus the parking fee.

Park Transportation - Disney Springs hotels do offer shuttles to and from the Disney parks.  How are those shuttles in terms of time and crowds?  I don't have an answer to that.  It appears that most leave every 30 minutes.  But because I now have a rental car, I would most likely opt to just drive myself to the parks.  So now I'd have to pay to park at Disney, which would be another $22 per day.

Disney Perks - For 2018, those staying at Disney Springs hotels are able to take advantage of Disney Extra Magic Hours and other benefits offered to guests of Disney World resorts.  You can book FastPass+ 60 days in advance and make dining reservations at the 180 day mark.

Character Meals - Both Hilton hotels offer a character meal on Sunday mornings.  The Wyndham has a character breakfast on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings.

Would I consider staying at a hotel in the Disney Springs area?

I definitely would consider staying at one of these hotels in the future.  For our most recent Disney vacations, we've used a travel agent offering a magical deal.  Basically, we've received a significant discount off of the rack rate at deluxe resorts.  Staying at Disney Springs would be a different type of vacation, but not one I'm opposed to.

As a family of 5, it can be difficult to find hotel rooms allowing more than 4 guests.  Many of Disney's resorts have rooms for 5 people.  I'm happy to report that 4 of the Disney Springs area resorts allow more than 5 guests per room:  Best Western, DoubleTree Suites, and both Hiltons.  The suites at the Hilton Buena Vista Palace are $$$ pricey though and, in my opinion, become comparable to a room at a moderate resort at Disney World.

As you can see from the cost analysis above, it is possible to stay at a Disney World value resort for less.  In addition, costs may vary depending on what type of deal you are able to book.  For example, Disney has not yet released special offers for the fall season.  Likewise, you may be able to pick up a Disney Springs hotel room with a reduced rate, which would make your savings even greater.  There are so many factors (hotel cost, transportation, resort theming, hotel amenities) that need to be looked at and thought about, it really comes down to personal preference and the type of vacation that you want.