Sunday, January 22, 2017

{Disney} Character Dining and the most bang for your buck!

It's no secret that we're fans of Disney character meals.  The girls enjoy the entertainment of meeting characters while they eat and in many cases, we save time by not having to wait in line in order to meet the characters in the parks.  Not all character meals are the same.  There are different themes and characters, and pricing amongst the restaurants vary and can change based upon the time of year.  This post focuses mainly on cost with some other factors taken into consideration.

Disney Dining Plans

If you're on the Disney Dining Plan or the Deluxe Dining Plan, you'll most likely want to dine at the more expensive restaurants in order to get your money's worth.  Otherwise, you may have paid more for the dining plan than the out of pocket cost of the meals.  That being said, here are my top 3 picks for character dining with a meal plan:
  1. Dinner at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, located in Epcot
  2. Dinner at Chef Mickey's, located in the Contemporary Resort
  3. Dinner at Cinderella's Royal Table, located in Magic Kingdom
Note that the character interaction at all three of these restaurants is highly rated.

If your little ones are princess fans, Akershus is the perfect (read: much less expensive) option over dining in Cinderella's castle.  It's still pricey compared to other character meals, but on the dining plan, you will only use one table service credit versus the two you would have to give up to dine in the castle.  Akershus's theming is medieval castle which will appeal to those wishing to dine in a castle setting.

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Chef Mickey's is extremely popular and features the "Fab 5" which results in higher meal costs.

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I know there'll be arguments over my choice of dinner at CRT, but hear me out.  It is extremely expensive when paid for out of pocket, so, for many, eating here under the dining plan makes economic sense.  Yes, it can be argued that you are losing an additional table service meal on your dining plan which doesn't make economic sense (for some), but you have to consider what you're receiving in exchange for the use of that extra table service credit.  Not only are you able to meet Cinderella and dine in her castle, but the food is the best tasting of all the character meals.  Quality over quantity here when it comes to food.

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Paying Out of Pocket

If you're on a budget, here are my top picks:
  1. Crystal Palace, located in Magic Kingdom
  2. Supercalafragilistic breakfast at 1900 Park Fare, located in the Grand Floridian
  3. Breakfast at Tusker House, located in Animal Kingdom
Tip:  Breakfast is usually the least expensive meal.

Crystal Palace is the most cost friendly character meal.  The character interaction is always fun and entertaining, and there's a decent selection of food at the buffet.

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The breakfast at 1900 Park Fare is lively and amusing with a satisfying buffet.

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I debated on whether or not to include Tusker House here.  I included food selection in addition to the cost in weighing my decision.  We've eaten breakfast here twice.  Obviously, we enjoyed it so much the first time that we returned again.  The second time was not so great.  The restaurant feels cramped and crowded, and the handlers rushed the characters.  There's a huge selection of food and if you don't have a million slow guests in front of you, the food is tasty.  When it takes a year to wait in line and return to your table with a plate of cold food, not so much.  I don't often see bad reviews of this restaurant so the thought (hope) is that we just happened to eat there on a bad day.  

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Last Week's Meals

I've discovered that the girls don't like eating the same meal more than once every three weeks.  I had been rotating favorites to every other week and they were hitting burnout so now I need to rotate even more.  Here's the meal plan from last week:

Sunday - Shaved steak and cheese subs with grilled onions, peppers, and tomatoes
Monday - Spaghetti squash with marinara sauce, shredded mozzerella and breaded chicken tenders
Tuesday - Swedish meatballs with egg noodles and roasted broccoli
Wednesday - Goat cheese and tomato quiche with potatoes
Thursday - Panko crusted chicken tenders with mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts and tomato slices
Friday - Pizza

The spaghetti squash cost $5.90, which I think is completely outrageous.  Such a bummer because it's so easy to roast and shred but I can't justify spending that much on a regular basis.  I'll have to limit my purchases to squash sales.

Let's talk about roasted veggies for a second.  It's such a quick way to add vegetables to your meal and the girls like the taste.  Who doesn't?

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I made a slightly different quiche last week because I had a fresh tomato I wanted to use up.  This one consisted of goat cheese, tomatoes and fresh basil.  My basil plant from last summer is still (somehow) alive.  I also cooked up a batch of old school potatoes - sliced potatoes sauteed in butter, salt and pepper.  This is another quick meal but the girls tire of it so I won't be able to use it again for a few weeks.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Great Wolf Lodge - Review and Tips

Research

We decided to give the girls a family experience for a Christmas gift this year.  Because we only wanted to stay at a hotel for one night and the girls enjoy pools and swimming, it made sense to look at nearby indoor water parks.  I researched the following three indoor water parks located here in Massachusetts:
  1. Great Wolf Lodge
  2. Coco Key
  3. Cape Codder Resort
Right now, Great Wolf Lodge is extremely popular in our area.  We know of so many people who have stayed there and raved about it so this is where I began my research.  Because of the quote I received for a one night stay, I decided to look into the other two options to see if they were less expensive.  Coco Key is connected to a hotel, which offers package deals for the water park, but one can also buy a day pass for the water park.  Unfortunately, all of the hotel deals were geared towards families of 4.  We would have been able to book a hotel/water park package and add a cot to our room in addition to purchasing a day pass for the family member excluded from the deal.  Once all was said and done, the cost was the same as Great Wolf Lodge.  I was slightly turned off by the fact that Coco Key sells day passes.  A weekend in the winter is prime time and I feared the park would be operating at full capacity with day pass sales.

I next looked at the Cape Codder Resort located in Hyannis.  The indoor water park is smaller than Coco Key and Great Wolf Lodge but I knew the girls would have enjoyed it regardless.  While the cost was much less, guests' pool time is limited to check-in time (3:00) to check-out time (11:00.)  (Their website has been updated since my research last month and now states that guests can access the pool at 1:00 on day of check-in, even if their room is not ready.)  The Cape Codder also sells day passes and as with Coco Key, I feared crowding.

We ultimately decided to book a room at Great Wolf Lodge because of the time we would be able to use the water park and the fact that they do not offer water park passes for non-guests of the hotel.  Guests have access to the water park at 1:00 on the day they check-in.  Even though you need to check out of your room at 11:00 (unless you have a late check-out reservation), you are still able to use the water park for the entire day on the day you check out.  There are showers and changing rooms for you to use as well.   

Review

We stayed at Great Wolf Lodge this past Sunday night, a holiday weekend.  We arrived shortly after 1:00 in the afternoon and, as expected, the lobby was packed and the line to check in was long.  Fortunately, the front desk was well staffed and the line moved along.  While Rich waited to check us in, the girls and I explored the lobby and found our way to the water park.  Despite the official room check-in time of 4:00, our room was ready at 1:30.

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Our room was a deluxe queen suite which consisted of two queen-size beds and a twin-size sleeper sofa.  We were excited to have a room on the top floor as one of our pet peeves is listening to the stomping and bed jumping of hotel guests in the room above ours.  The room was spacious and contained a mini-fridge (the bigger size), a microwave, and a table.

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The water park is actually split in two with a short hallway between the different areas.  The girls started off at Big Foot Pass (navigating the floating wooden "lily" pads) and then moved to the raft and traditional water slides.  They loved it all and then we decided to check out the other area.  Up to this point, Rich had been accompanying the girls on the rides.  In the other part of the water park, Rich and the girls rode the River Canyon Run.  Rich isn't a fan of heights or twisty rides so he was pretty much finished after that.  The girls swam around in the wave pool and then I braved the Howlin' Tornado with them.  More than once.  That ride is no joke.

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When you check in, each guest receives a wristband not only for water park access but it's your room key as well.  You can also charge items to your room so there really is no need to bring valuables to the pool.  There are clusters of tables with chairs set up throughout the water park and three long rows of chairs in front of the wave pool.  That afternoon, every single table was "taken" but hardly any tables had more than one occupant.  More than half of the tables were simply marked as occupied with towels and other personal items.  The same can be said for the chairs in front of the wave pool.  We were in that area for more than an hour and there were some chairs with items but I never saw anyone come to those chairs to use their towels, etc.

Being a holiday weekend in the winter, the water parks were crowded that afternoon.  We opted to stay Sunday night instead of Saturday night because it cost less, so the assumption was made that it wasn't considered as "peak."  If you wanted to ride the Howlin' Tornado or the River Canyon Run, you waited in line for at least 30 minutes.  The girls complained of kids swimming with their eyes closed in the wave pool and running into other guests.  The wave pool is large but it was too full of people.  It was a completely different story after dinner.  We returned around 7:00 and there were no lines for the smaller raft rides and the wave pool was much more enjoyable.  The same can be said for first thing in the morning.  The crowds aren't there because most guests are eating breakfast and packing up their rooms before heading to the water park for the afternoon.

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We ate dinner at Lodge Wood Fired Grill located in the hotel.  Based on reviews, we skipped the buffet and ordered from the menu.  I had the crispy chicken sandwich with fries, which cost $11.  Our food was on par with chain restaurants such as Fridays or Applebee's.  My sandwich was okay - the honey mustard was a little too thin for my liking.  I thought the kids' meals were overpriced at $7.50.  The meal included an entree with a side and drink, no dessert.  And interestingly enough, the kids' meals were thrown onto the back of what the hostess referred to as the "adult menu" and no prices were listed.  There were prices for all of the other food, including desserts, but not for kids' meals.  Seems odd to have an item on the menu but no price.  We did not eat breakfast at this restaurant due to the terrible reviews of the buffet.  Instead, we picked up some items at Dunkin Donuts, located in the lobby.

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Tips
  •  I would suggest making your reservation as far in advance as possible because their rates do increase with time.  I had been given this tip by another mom and then I witnessed it myself firsthand.  I priced out a certain date and when I went back a week later, the same exact date and room was $20 more.  I thought GWL was tracking my IP address so I asked Rich to make a mock reservation the next day and the price had increased by another $10!
  • Be sure to create an account on the Great Wolf Lodge website as there are special offers available only to members.  I saved 25% by doing this. 
  • Bring your own towels.  The towels provided are considerably smaller than a beach or even a bath towel, and the lodge requests that you leave the towels at the water park.  
  • During colder months, be sure to have a warm cover-up or a hoodie, etc. in which to wear when walking back from the water park to your room.  Certain areas outside of the water park were chilly.
  • Bring two bathing suits per person so you'll have a dry bathing suit to wear instead of having to put your cold, wet bathing suit back on.  I made sure the girls had two bathing suits each so after dinner, they had a comfortable bathing suit to wear.
  • We noticed that when the water parks opened in the morning, some guests rushed in and placed towels, bags, etc at tables to reserve them.  And then some of these guests left the water park.  I know this is a common complaint of many different types of resorts and here, employees do not do any monitoring to discourage guests from doing so.  If you are planning to eat lunch/dinner in the water park and will need a table, be on the lookout for an empty one early on. 
  • The water park is less crowded first thing in the morning and after dinner.  And obviously during the week when school is in session.
  • Manage expectations.  You need to walk through a loud, bright arcade in order to reach the water park.  My kids didn't even ask to do anything in the arcade because, for our family, arcades and the like are super rare activities.  Plus, they knew we were there to use the water park.  We had discussed this from the get-go.  There are other activities such as mini golf and bowling, etc.  The cost of your room includes access to the water park and that's it.  There are a lot of extras that can easily add up.  Plan accordingly.  (Also, the arcades were super crowded after dinner.) 

Final Thoughts

Water parks aren't my thing (or Rich's) but we knew that the girls would love it and they did.  After we'd experienced the raft rides with them, they were able to ride with each other and give us a break.  Except for the Howlin' Tornado - like I said above, that one is no joke.  Rich and I both agreed that Great Wolf Lodge is a nice alternative for local families with young children who don't want to travel out of state to a water/amusement park.  I personally couldn't imagine staying there for more than one night at a time but I know for other families, this is their vacation and so they stay for many nights and do more than just spend time at the water park.

Overall grade from the kids:  A  (Emily gave it an A++++++)

Overall grade from the adults:  B

Some of the aspects of our stay were excellent, such as access to our room at 1:30 instead of 4:00.  Cleanliness and the food and service at the restaurant were definitely a B.  I was surprised that there weren't more employees in the water park.  For example, the wave pool had two lifeguards but a pool half of that size at Disney has three lifeguards.  Sunday night, the water park was less crowded but the lines for the Howlin' Tornado and River Canyon Run were sooooo slow because only one employee was working both rides at the same time.  Earlier in the day, there had been an employee for each ride.  In addition, finding towels and personal belongings on 90% of the chairs was frustrating at times.  All it would take is one employee to monitor and remove items that have been untouched for over an hour, which is a practice other resorts use.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Growing . . .

One of the comments I heard over and over again after friends and family had received our Christmas card in the mail was how much older the girls looked in the photo.  That was unintentional.  Well, as unintentional as an image can be.  The dance studio had our card hanging up in the lobby and so the topic for discussion at dance for a few weeks was how fast kids grow up.  One night the girls' dance teacher, who has known them since they were little preschoolers, told me she had asked Allie if I ever tell her and her sisters to stop growing and Allie had said no.  I had to think about it for a minute.  Do I? I think I more reminisce on their itty bitty days which leads me to how difficult those days were and where we are now.

I loved having three snuggly, absolutely adorable, little baby girls but I also didn't sleep very much those days.  When you're pregnant, everyone tells you to sleep as much as you can before the baby arrives.  Pregnant with three, I didn't sleep much at all because I was constantly uncomfortable.  If I wanted to move from my left to my right side in bed, I couldn't just roll over.  I had to scoot and climb out of bed, rearrange the gigantic body pillow and then climb back in.  I could only stay in one spot for a few hours at a time before the weight from my midsection became too much to bear and so I would have to find a new position in which to rest.  Sometimes I rocked in the glider in what was supposed to have been Abigail's room and whispered to them.  I wanted them to know how much I loved them in case I never was able to tell them here in this world.

Those early days were so sleep deprived and chaotic, I did look forward to the day when life would be "easier."  Although, everyone with triplets will tell you that it doesn't get easier - the difficulties of multiples change with time.  True.  But at least I can mostly sleep through the night now.  And I'm not demand feeding three infants.  I never wanted to wish away time but sometimes it does feel that way.  And then I read a comment from another stillbirth mom.  She said she loves seeing her children grow because her daughter, who was born still, will forever be a baby.  I'm so glad I happened to read this as it gave me a whole new perspective and it's so completely true.  What a blessing to watch our little ones grow and shine.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Keepin' it real

Since the new year, there's been an increase in self-portraits (different from selfies) on my IG feed.  Some have been amazing and inspiring and so I thought I would give it a shot despite not having much patience for that type of photography.  "That type" being the kind that requires a remote.  And so I tried but the lack of natural light was hampering my progress and I gave up after two attempts.

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(Lazy self-portrait)

Legit question:  Is it "in" now (and I know saying that makes me sound old) to say that you are uncomfortable or shy in front of the camera?  I know a lot of people and photographers really are but I don't understand the blogger/instagrammers who make this claim but their IG feeds are basically photos of themselves.  One stated this and I seriously thought she was being sarcastic at first.

Speaking of Instagram, have you read this article? Confessions of an Instagram Influencer.  Kind of eye-opening.

A photography blogger once wrote that those who use the strap that came with his/her camera are either amateurs or showing off which camera he/she has.  (Have I already talked about this?  I feel like I may be repeating myself.)  What about the practical people who really don't care?  I know there are more comfortable straps but I haven't taken the time to research and so I use the strap that came with my camera.  Call me an amateur but go ahead and poll 100 random people on the street.  How many even know what D750 means?




That's me on an average day.  Most days, I don't wear makeup.  There are days I dress nicer - like if Anna has an appointment.  But for the most part, I'm dropping off/picking up the girls from school (in a big winter coat) or sitting in the dance lobby (in a big winter coat) or running errands (in a big winter coat.)  Almost everyone else I know, who isn't dressed for work, dresses this way.  It's the norm in the real world but sometimes, the online world looks totally different.  I can't imagine wearing a silk blouse around the house all day while I do laundry and cook and clean.  (I'm looking at you stay-at-home mom fashion bloggers.)  I actually wear pajama pants when I'm at home - so comfy.






I was reading an article the other day about Whole 30 and I thought, Hey, maybe, and then quickly returned to eating my ice cream.  I am eating better but I still believe in moderation.  And ice cream.  After many, many, many years, I started lifting weights again. I'm not loving it but I like the results so I'll suck it up.  I've been running three times a week, very slowly trying to get back to three miles without that spot on my left leg flaring up.

Good night!