Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Our Best Disney Tips

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Disney Tips

Our family is currently having the time of our lives at Disney World for the Social Media Moms Conference and I was reminded of our family’s first experience visiting the Magic Kingdom and what we learned during that trip.

Are the tips I shared then still helpful? You bet! In fact, coming into this trip armed with the “insider” tips we learned during our first visit has made this one a lot smoother, even though it’s a bit different because I’m also attending a conference.

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So I thought I’d take a moment to share again how we planned for Disney and what we learned (for further information on each tip, be sure to read the original post), and give you the opportunity to add any of your tips or tricks you’ve learned in visiting Disney World in the comments!

1. Advance Preparation Tips

  • Financially: start saving and looking for deals as soon as you start thinking about your trip.
  • Safety: print out current photos to carry of each child, bring a sharpie to write cell phone numbers with, and assign buddies.
  • Meals: plan for snacks and drinks before heading to the park.
  • Souvenirs: buy them at a local Disney store or the party store and pack them with you!
  • Navigation: load all needed GPS info beforehand.

2. Ride Tips

  • Make a family plan: list the rides everyone wants to go on by importance.
  • Visit rides with longest wait times first.
  • Use FASTPASS to get through longer lines faster.
  • Add the Wait Time App to your mobile phone to check ride wait times.

3. Photograph Tips

  • Capture your children’s view – not only of them seeing things, but how they see it (get down to their level).
  • Capture the moment – as many of the hilarious ride moments as you can!
  • Take pictures on the go, too – in the car and at the hotel – using both phone and regular cameras.
  • Remember a family photo: scope out someone who can take a picture of your family in front of something you like.
  • Capture the nighttime magic – do a bit of research in advance to know your camera settings so you can get some good memory shots of the fantastic light displays.

Now it’s your turn – what can you share with us about the best way to experience Disney?

 

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Family Travel: Exploring Saugatuck, Michigan

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Our family spent the most glorious week in Saugatuck, Michigan last week and we wanted to share with you our experience traveling to this fun little Midwest destination for your family travel. Words like epic, most relaxing vacation ever, and best vacation of our life may have flown out of our mouths. Sometimes the sweetest destinations are the simplest and lurking practically in your own backyard.

Saugatuck is a little harbor village that celebrates diversity and offers a fun artsy community for visitors to explore. Recently The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Saugatuck/Douglas as one of the “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” in the U.S. and the writers and editors of Midwest Living Magazine ranked Saugatuck/Douglas fifth among the top 100 vacation destinations in the Midwest. Saugatuck happens to be just an hour and a half from our home, yet it seemed a world away and happened to be our first visit to the town.

Rental properties abound in this town and it is just a matter of selecting your house early enough and finding one in your price point. We searched on HomeAway to find our own dream property. I took on a freelance job and squirreled the money away for our vacation and when we saw this rental in Kingfishers Cove, we knew it would be perfect for us. A gorgeous little log cabin with modern amenities was our heart’s desire and we made it happen.

To save on this expense, you could definitely split the property with another family, book during the week instead of paying for weekend rates, or cut expenses by selecting a smaller size property. Remember that the properties book quickly and you need to plan a couple of months in advance to grab the premium spots in town.

When I asked around on Facebook about the best things to do and see while we were in the area, everyone had their own favorite spots in the town and a bucket list of fun activities to do there. We made a list of everything we wanted to do from the responses (this one from Travelmomiac was among my favorites) and we did everything on our list.  After our week of exploration, here are our family’s top recommendations for fun in the Saugatuck area.

Swoon Over Retro

The antique stores in Saugatuck are phenomenal and full of thoughtfully curated antique items that will have you wishing that you brought a moving truck to take it all home with you. We stopped at so many fun little shops along the main drag, but our favorite was the Blue Star Antique Pavilion. You could literally walk the store for miles and miles and never see the same thing twice. The store is over 50,000 square feet and it was named the best of the best in  Antique Mall in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin by Lake Magazine (July 2005).

You can end your visit with a delicious lunch next door to their building at the Saugatuck Brewing Company.  This award winning micro-brewery has 2 chefs delivering fresh and innovative food that is the perfect way to end a day of antiquing. There are always 12 different beers on tap, and a Hard Cider, that tastes like champagne, and loads of other fun drinks. Emily highly recommends their root beer. She said it was the most amazing thing about the brewery.

Head Downtown

Downtown Saugatuck is full of cute little shops to visit and spend an afternoon browsing in. Many of the shops seemed very tourist geared, but there were some hidden gems along with lots of shops offering wine tastings and food samples to try.

We visited the Saugatuck Drugstore and grabbed ice cream at the soda fountain counter for a midday pick-me-up. The cone pictured above is a SMALL so we recommend ordering a kid size cone so you don’t end up with a belly ache from all the ice cream. There is nothing like sitting at an old-fashioned ice cream counter and the kids loved their delicious treats.

Marro’s Restaurant was on our family’s agenda for our last night of vacation celebration feasting and it did not disappoint. You can order small/lighter portions to save a little money or order the regular size portion (seen in my picture above) and split it between two people. We ordered the Linguine Ala Pescatore and it was a generous portion of mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops tossed in a spicy red sauce that was absolutely divine.

My daughter ordered the mac and cheese which came out on a platter and looked like chicken nuggets. Deep fried macaroni? Perhaps the world’s most delicious kid food ever.

We ended our downtown visit with a stop at Tuck’s Treats and grabbed a cupcake ($3.99 each) to split for our dessert that evening. It was rich, moist, and decadent. It is a cupcake that you can share among two or three people due to its richness and size.

Catch a Sunset

The sunset was absolutely breathtaking and worth catching in the evening after a great meal together. We caught a sunset over at Pier Cove and it was worth every moment of effort. My daughter actually said this was her favorite part of our trip and, as you can see from the photos, the view was absolutely stunning.

We are adding more sunsets to our family’s travel agendas since this is such a fun and free activity to partake of. The sunset in Saugatuck did not disappoint and the kids loved dipping their toes in the water.

Head to Holland

Holland, Michigan is just thirteen short minutes away from Saugatuck and happened to be one of the highlights of our trip. The shopping in Holland offered fabulous unique and boutique options that could have you window shopping for days. I actually enjoyed the shopping in Holland more than Saugatuck because of the variety of shops they offered and how cute the town was itself.

They offer an amazing Famer’s Market (Open Wednesdays & Saturdays 8am – 4pm May 16 – Nov 24 and Saturdays only thru Dec 15) that had just about everything your heart could desire.

New Holland Brewing Company is a fantastic spot to visit for a great sandwich and pint of their Mad Hatter Beer. The sandwich options were so delicious that my husband and I ordered the two we liked best and split them. The kid’s menu offered generous portions for big appetites.

We ended our feasting and took back slices of Crane’s Pie (located in downtown Holland) for dessert and did a pie taste test. I loved the cherry while my daughter was in love with the red raspberry. It was the perfect way to end a day of fun shopping and eating.

Go On a Dune Buggy Ride

We ended our travels with a Dune Ride together and I have to say that the Saugatuck Dune Ride was one of the highlights of our entire trip. The driver shares the history of the dunes along with a fun comedy routine that keeps families engaged with the historical information. The buggy ride is like a fun roller coaster and you can ride up to 60-65 miles through the hilly dunes.

The ride takes you to the highest dune where you have ten minutes to let your kids run around like crazy down the dunes, where you are able to take pictures of the prettiest scenery I have ever seen in my life, and where the driver will even happily take your family portrait for you.

We ended our trips with sand in our mouth and aching faces from smiling so hard which is the way all vacations should, perhaps, end.

We hope you enjoyed the review of our family’s experience in Saugatuck. Be sure to visit our Travel section for more ideas on great family travel!

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Tips for Your Next Disney Magic Kingdom Trip & Ideas for Capturing the Magic

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Our family spent our Thanksgiving holiday in Florida this year.  It was our first real family trip and our first time heading to the Magic Kingdom. I am a Disney newbie although I had the incredible opportunity to see many Florida sites with the Orlando Visitor’s Bureau with my son last year as a trip for just the two of us.

I will admit it, I was nervous about it all. I wanted to surprise them, I wanted the day to be magical, I wanted the weather to cooperate, I wanted the crowds to be minimal, I wanted us all to have the best time of our life.

Is that too much to ask?

Lucky for us, all of these things really did happen and we had a magical day at the Magic Kingdom.

Accommodations were provided by the grandparents as well as a cooler filled with drinks and snacks for us to take on the road and a few to nestle in a bag that I carried with me.  The truth is, we went into it knowing it was going to be an expensive day. We also went into it prepared financially for this day and I worked some extra freelance jobs to cover the expense.

Here is what we learned from our experience at Disney:


Preparation is Key

Financial Preparation- Whenever our family is tackling a big financial project, we set aside money into a separate savings account to prepare for whatever that financial goal might be. Consider talking with your bank about opening accounts for your Disney trip. Have an automatic transfer made for $25 or more each month put into this account all year long and then you will have the money saved when it is time to make your family trip.

Savings can be had when booking your travel through places like AAA and additional savings can be found while visiting in Orlando by printing a free Orlando Magicard to take with you when visiting restaurants and attractions while you are in Orlando.

Safety Preparation- I don’t need to tell you that Disney is a big place and safety is very important when visiting theme parks.  Each child was assigned a buddy to be their partner throughout the days and they were to hold their buddy’s hand while we were there.  We took additional safety precautions by printing out recent pictures of our children to keep in our wallet and bags just in case something should happen and they were separated from us. With a handy Sharpie, I wrote my cell phone number on their arms so if they were separated from us, someone could call us and reunite us quickly.

Meal Preparation- You can bring snacks and drinks into the park with no problems. We packed fruit snacks, granola bars, and bottles of water for our day in a bag with no objections. Rely on these snacks and bottles of water to help cut some of the costs. I recommend visiting this MouseSavers page to find the best cheap eats while you are at the parks.  We did get table service for the evening, but you want to call ahead since reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance of your vacation. Since we called the reservation number that morning when we arrived, we ended up at the Plaza. The table service was about twelve dollars more than the fast food service in the park and quite a bit better with a lot more food included with our meal. If you want to explore the menus before you go, you can view all the menus for the parks here.

Souvenir Preparation-  Souvenirs are a big expense and children can be plagued with horrible cases of what our family lovingly calls, “a case of the gimmies.” At the same time, I remember the amazing souvenir ears I got and how much I wanted those items when I went to Disney.  I hit the Disney store for t-shirts and small toys which were a third of the price as they were in the shops and a girlfriend recommended picking up ears at a local party store (only $5.99 each). The kids were thrilled with their ears and shirts which they wore throughout the park and they did not even ask for anything while we walked through thanks to this little bit of preparation.

Navigation Preparation- When you pick up your tickets, you can pick up a handy map of the park. Thanks to my iPhone I was able to get some reinforcement on the map with Disney’s Magic Kingdom Tour Guide GPS+ from CXI Gaming (cost was $1.99) and helped us navigate the parks easily and find what we needed quickly. We also had everything in our GPS before we left for getting to the park and how to get back to where we were lodging.

Getting the Most Out of Your Ride Time

Make a Plan of Attack- Along with your Navigation Preparation, discuss as a family what rides are most important to you and order them in a list of importance. The rides with the longest wait times we rode first so that we could make sure that we got those out of the way before the crowds and wait times got really long.  If you aren’t’ sure what rides would be best for the age group of your kids, I do recommend buying the Disney’s Magic Kingdom Tour Guide GPS+ from CXI Gaming (cost was $1.99) because this actually gave you a plan for your day based upon your age group. They have tour plans for adults & teens, parents of preschool children, parents with children ages 4-8, and senior Disney lovers.  It gave us a great starting point for deciding how to make the most of our day.

Use FASTPASS to Make the Most of Your Day-FASTPASS isn’t anything you need to sign up for, it is simply a way to place a reservation on rides with long wait times. On your map that you receive when you come in, it will have a FASTPASS icon next to the rides that you can FASTPASS. In the Magic Kingdom, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Jungle Cruise, Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, & Peter Pan’s Flight are the rides you can FASTPASS. Head to those rides and a machine will be available to insert your ticket and a receipt will print out when you can come back to the ride with a one hour window that you can cash in on. Head to other rides with shorter wait times and then come back at the designated time to go through a faster line.

Add a free Wait Time App to Your Mobile Phone- No need to invest in a pricey Wait Time App, just the free Disney World Wait Times app will work perfectly since all wait time information is user generated. Check the wait times on the rides and use that to help decide which rides you want to go on.

Capturing the Magic

It is the most magical day of our kid’s lives and the last thing I wanted was terrible pictures that didn’t showcase just how amazing our day was.  My parents have this great picture of me when I was a little girl wearing my mouse ears, posing with the characters, sunburned and freckled cheeks, grinning with the biggest toothless grin at five that is still one of my favorite pictures from my childhood.

Capture Their View-  When Emily saw the castle for the first time…well, I could start bawling just thinking about it. I wanted to see that moment over and over so I captured her first gaze at the castle and then got to her eye level and took a picture at her level at exactly what she was seeing.  Having pictures both of them seeing this magical beauty and the magical beauty itself are captures that your family will never forget.

Capture the Movement- How can you capture the hilarious and dizzy feeling of some of those rides without movement in the picture.  Capturing motion in photography is so much fun especially when riding on the teacups. I focused on the bag in this picture as we spun around and and around.  I recommend this article if you are looking for more tips on how to capture motion blur in your pictures.

Take Fun Pictures on the Go-  My camera equipment can get awfully heavy so we took turns with the big camera and I relied on my mobile phone when I wanted to capture details quickly and easily. I love Camera+ and Instagram for sharing fun pictures on the go. It is such a fun way to take a quick photo, add an effect, and send it to family and friends to keep them updated on how your day is going.

Get a Family Photo- I will admit that I looked for someone who had a camera like ours to take our family picture. If you have a point-and-shoot,  finding someone to snap a picture should be really easy.

When I handed off my camera I switched it to Aperture Mode (Av on my Canon) and changed the Aperture to f/7.1. I was really worried we would be out of focus and Disney is a very busy place. I then used Picnik to crop as many of the background people out of our picture.

They have people all over the parks taking pictures and you can have them snap your picture for their portrait and then ask them to take one with your camera too. They know the best spots with good lighting and backgrounds for your family photos. Best of all, they know how to work cameras.

Capture the Nighttime Magic- Nighttime magic was tricky to photograph and may require a little research on your part. When I took pictures of the castle I was so disappointed. The colors were off and lights were blurry. It was not the magical pictures I had hoped for.

Over dinner, I went on this Disney Photography Blog and found this information how to capture the nighttime parade. I took test shots after our dinner until I was happy with the lighting and able to capture some of the nighttime beauty at Disney.

What are your best tips for doing Disney on a budget? Do you have any tips for making the most of your time at the parks? Please share!

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Below is our big reveal to our children when we told them they were heading to Disney. It was the thrill of a lifetime to get to surprise them with the news that they would be seeing the Magic Kingdom for the very first time. It still brings tears to my eyes that we got to have such an incredibly magical day with them!

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Happy Holidays, Friends!

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

I hope you all have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving. We are off on a secret mission to surprise our children. We have packed our bags and are on our way to the Sunshine State to see both sets of grandparents and to share a Thanksgiving meal with them.

The ultimate in surprises is happening this week and we can’t wait to surprise our kids with a trip to Disney and see their faces when we tell them that we are going there for the day. It has been an extremely difficult secret to keep and I am hoping to capture the big reveal on camera. I have lots of surprises in store for this trip and I am so thankful that we get to do this as a family.

We hope you have a very Happy Thanksgiving! Sending lots of love to each of you this holiday!

Content will resume as normal on Monday. Until then, enjoy ever moment that you can with your precious families!

xoxo,

Amy

KeyLime Cove Indoor Water Park Family Adventure

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Our family was invited on a trip to review and share our experience with you on the KeyLime Cove Water Park in Gurnee, Illinois. To say that my children were more than thrilled about this trip opportunity would be an understatement. Although this may surprise you, we have never taken a family vacation before. I travel so often with my own work that my husband uses his vacation time for my work travel and our family travel has been pushed off because of this. Although Gurnee is just a few hours from our home, we could not have been more excited to experience the water park for ourselves and share it with you!

KeyLime Cove Water Park is situated in the town of Gurnee, IL and is just three short blocks away from Six Flags Great America.  We had fun not only exploring the water park, but also had the opportunity to explore the restaurants in town and get to see all of the cool things that Gurnee offered.  TripAdvisor named Gurnee one of the  Top Ten Vacation Destinations in 2009 and we could definitely see why. With outlet malls, an amusement park, a water park, and great restaurants… it would definitely be a town we would like to visit again and again.

The rooms had a tropical feel to them and we were in a Queen Deluxe Stateroom that offered two queen beds, a sofa bed, a refrigerator, a dining table for two, and a flat screen television.  The room was spacious and had plenty of room for the four of us. The hotel can house parties up to twelve, by giving everyone adjoining rooms that connect and each room can hold two to eight guests.

The refrigerator in the room was a fabulous way for our family to bring our favorite breakfast foods, lunch foods, and snacks and have them on hand to keep our extra spending down. Thanks to the dining table and couch, we even had a place to enjoy all of our food in the cozy seating area.  Since we saved so much on our dinners we were able to enjoy dining in the resort in the evenings, as well as checking out other fun restaurants in town through the help of my Yelp app on my phone.

More pictures of their accommodations can be seen here.

There is truly something for everyone in the KeyLime Cove water park area.  My children are 5 & 9 years-old and they both had an incredible time at the water park and with over 65,000 square feet of water park space, it is no surprise that we had no cries of boredom that day.

Younger children have their own separate area with small slides and shallow depth for the toddlers in your family. Children that are a little bit older can enjoy splashing in a larger water park structure complete with oodles of slides, from small to large with slides that could accommodate children both large and small.

For the older and braver kids (and adults), the Hurricane Vortex boasts a 44-foot drop and makes you feel like you are spinning in a top. Wahoo & Screamin’ Banshee are two other fun slides that you can ride on with inner tubes and have 40-foot drops and they loop through the exterior of the building. For the really brave, two enclosed body slides are also available.

My 9 year old just made the height requirement for the Hurricane Vortex which was 48″ tall.  Thanks to his recent growth spurt, he was able to do every single one of these slides and he truly loved them. He even did the body slides on the last day. When my husband told me that he was moving really slowly through the body slides, a lifeguard offered a tip and said that his rash guard shirt that he was wearing could have been slowing him down. Once he removed his little shirt, he was a human cannon ball and shot through the slides at lightning speed. Luckily, his mother was sitting on the lazy river and had no idea what was occurring up there.

Being of the old and not brave variety, I did try the Hurricane Vortex, the Wahoo, & the Screamin’ Banshee which was quite impressive for me.  Our entire family also enjoyed hanging out in the Washout Wavepool, where the water is meant to simulate the ocean and you can lounge around in beach chairs or on an inner tube to enjoy the waves.  Ride the waves into the Keylime Creek  and you can loop all through the water park and coast along in your inner tube on the lazy river and enjoy every moment of being lazy for a change. Both the wave pool and the creek can be enjoyed with children of all ages. Parents can double up on one inner tube with their smaller children or laze around solo holding on to the handles of your child’s tube.

Regardless of what age your child is, lifeguards were present in a big way there and were vigilant about watching children in the play area and also reminding them of safety when exiting the slides and keeping everyone safe when going down the slides. I witnessed one child who could not find his mom & dad, and a lifeguard was there in three minutes flat to take care of him. A first aid station is located within the facility and life-jackets are available for smaller children to make sure that they are safe.

Just as impressive as the water park itself, the Leapin’ Lizards kid’s activity center was my kid’s favorite hangout and where they wanted to spend all of their downtime. They had everything from a bean bag toss game, to checkers, to oodles of art supplies, and toys for the kids to play with. My daughter spent hours coloring princess pictures and my son & I enjoyed a few rounds of checkers between water sliding.

The most impressive part were the activities that were available to the kids each day. A dry erase board outside of the activity center listed that days activities and would include things like my making a foam hand for hi-five day to celebrating birthdays for that particular month to Mario Kart Wii racing in the evening.

My son talked the employee’s ears off about video gaming and no one ever seemed anything, but interested in what he had to say. He had a blast in the Mario Wii Kart competition which yielded him coins to spend at the RipTide Arcade while my daughter submitted endless coloring sheets for the coloring contests and came home with jewels from their prize boxes. A dance party was held in the evening and Emily got the party started with the employees which made us so proud that all of our Just Dance Wii game practice has been paying off.

Of course, my son’s favorite part was the RipTide Reef Arcade with over 8,000 square feet of gaming fun. My husband kept remarking how impressed he was with the game selection as well as how up-to-date the games were that were offered.  The boys spent some money at the arcade,  which led to tickets,  which led to spider rings, which led to tears because only brother got a spider ring, which led to more games, which led to a purple jelly bracelet for someone else, which led to happiness. In all seriousness, there were so many great family-friendly games to choose from and the boys had a blast playing in here in the evening.

With our first family vacation under our belt, we now feel like we can do anything. When we asked the kids if they would like to spend a day at Six Flags… they regretfully… declined.

No, they wanted to spend the last day on the water slides. Playing in the activity center. Eating the food at the resort. Playing in the arcade.

I think that should speak for itself on how much fun we had together and how thankful we were for the opportunity to explore this resort.

I have a very, very good feeling that we will be back soon!

Our family received a free stay at this hotel in exchange for our thoughts and opinions on the water park and its services. All opinions expressed are our own and we received no additional compensation.

Presto Pesto Pasta Con Pollo & the BHG Cook-Off

Monday, October 4th, 2010

One cooking competition just wasn’t enough for this girl and since I had such a fun success with our Trees in Your Ears Pasta dish for the Kenmore cooking competition, I thought I would give another cooking competition a try, but this time with Better Homes & Gardens Magazine. Each participant was asked to select a recipe from the Better Homes & Garden Cookbook and create a dish with your own unique spin on it. It sounded like a fun challenge, but more importantly, an exciting opportunity to see the beautiful BHG Test Kitchen!

The cooking competition is built to surround the launch of the new Better Homes & Gardens Kitchen Collection line that will be available at Walmart.  The company is offering an extensive product line that includes three lines of pots & pans that come in Tri-Ply Clad 18/10 Stainless Steel, Non-Stick Hard-Anodized, & Non-Stick Porcelain Enamel and will retail for $159 in the stores. Lucky for me, I was given a set to practice my cooking with for the competition and I will have ten sets to giveaway over the next few weeks leading up to the competition.

My new set hit my doorstep while I was in Wilmington, NC and I was very excited to share the set with someone else. As a blogger, I get so many great things that come my way, but the real joy is in the sharing of those items with others. When I saw this set of cookware, I immediately thought of someone very special in my life that I wanted to give it to…my friend Ed. I might be at a disadvantage by not using my set to practice with, but when I share with you the story of Ed, you will know why I was so thrilled to share them. Ed told me I could share his story with my readers today so I wanted to share that with you.

A couple of years ago, I met Ed while shopping at Aldi Supermarket. We were standing in the frozen foods section and he came over to me and asked me what the difference between chicken tenderloins and chicken breasts were. I launched into an explanation of what the chicken tenderloin was and asked him what he was using it for. When I found out it was being mixed into a manicotti, I told him to go with the chicken breast to keep his dish economical. It was then that he looked up and told me, with eyes filled with tears, that he was now the cook in his family.  In his eighties, he had never cooked before in his life and now, due to the health of his wife and  grown son, he was now the one who had to cook for his entire family and he had no idea how to do it. I grabbed a scrap piece of paper out of my purse and wrote down my cell phone number for Ed and told him he could call me anytime and I would help him with whatever he needed. I told him he stopped the right girl, that the livelihood of my business is built around helping people save money and get dinner on the table.

Over these past years, Ed has called me to ask for recipes or to just talk about the different challenges of cooking. He told me he hates to bother me because he knows how busy I am with my kids, but I always tell him that I am here for him whenever he needs me. Emails are exchanged and every once in awhile, his number will pop up on my phone before his trip to the grocery store. I have become friends with the cashier at Aldi and each time I am in, we chat about our updates on Ed and how he is doing.

This last week Emily and I gathered the makings of a few meals at the grocery store, a big container of donuts, and our Better Homes and Gardens Pots and Pans and loaded them in the car for Ed. I was armed with slow cooker recipes, menu planning sheets, and we came to spend the morning with Ed to help him with his cooking.

Emily sat at their kitchen table eating hundreds of donuts covered in chocolate,  while I got Ed’s dinner in the slow cooker and we worked through some of the ideas I had for ways he could get dinner on the table and begin planning his trips to the store. I don’t know if we really helped or not, but we were both really proud we tried. Over and over I told Emily how special she was on the way home and what her visit did for Ed & his family. I have never been a more proud mama.

Ed told me I am his angel which makes me cry. That day he stopped me I was exhausted with a strong-willed three year-old. I had that feeling that every mother has where I felt  I just couldn’t keep up with anything in my life. When Ed stopped me that day,  Ed gave me a renewed purpose to my step and made me feel like I was useful again. I am just as grateful to him as he is to me.

I never win popularity vote contests so I have no anticipation of winning this one at all. I feel like I already won the day I sat at Ed’s kitchen table and could share with him something that I hope will make cooking easier for him and his family.

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Without further adieu, here is my submitted dish for the cooking competition adapted from the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook! I wanted to build upon those flavors of this dish and replicate my favorite dinner from a local Italian restaurant that we love to eat at. With the simple addition of sautéed mushrooms, spinach, and sun dried tomatoes, it takes this easy dish to an elegant level with minimal effort. Of course, no dish is complete without my signature addition of lemon zest and a squirt of lemon juice to freshen and lighten the flavors. It is an inexpensive way to add a  hint of freshness to every bite and brings the sauce all together beautifully!

The best part about the dish, in my opinion, is that it incorporates items that I already have in the pantry and can easily be pulled together with leftovers in the fridge. Leftover chicken, vegetables, and any type of pasta can be pulled together for a dinner that is worthy of an evening gathered with friends and family around the dinner table.

It’s up to you if you want to give away your convenience food secrets though. I promise to never tell!

Presto Pesto Pasta Con Pollo (modified from Presto Penne with Roasted Chicken)

2 Tbsp olive oil

8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced

8 ounces bow tie pasta

1 jar of pesto sauce (8.1 ounce)

2 ½ cups rotisserie chicken, diced

½ cup sundried tomatoes, cut into thin strips

2 cups fresh baby spinach

1 lemon (zest and juice)

Salt & Pepper to taste

Finely shredded Parmesan cheese (optional) for topping

In a 4-quart Dutch oven cook pasta according to package directions. In a large sauté pan, cook mushrooms in olive oil (approximately five minutes) and season them to taste.  Drain the cooked pasta, reserving ½ cup of the pasta water. In a small bowl, mix together the pesto and the ½ cup of pasta water to make a sauce.  Sprinkle spinach on top of the mushrooms in the sauté pan and pour the hot pasta on top to help wilt the spinach. Add to the pasta mixture, the sundried tomatoes, rotisserie chicken, zest & juice from a lemon and pesto sauce over the pasta. Give the mixture a gentle toss to combine. Season the pasta to taste. If desired serve with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

Serve with a simple side of crusty bread or dress the dish up with a side of Roasted Green Beans and Pumpkin Cornbread Muffins for a meal to entertain with!

If you would like to give this dish your vote, you can vote for me daily here! A one-time registration is required to vote, but after that you just click vote once to cast a vote!

Family Travel: Exploring Wilmington, North Carolina

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I got the opportunity to travel to Wilmington, North Carolina for a trip with Homewood Suites by Hilton to explore the family-friendly attractions and budget-friendly travel that you can find there. The trip was hosted by Homewood Suites in conjunction with the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. I had no expectations for what to expect from the trip, other than the opportunity to have a little getaway and I was thrilled when the company said that I could bring along a guest. Unfortunately, the kids had already started school and  my husband would need to stay with them. It is rare that I get to share a trip with anyone else so I was excited to bring my best friend along for the weekend. Who could turn down a girl’s weekend that is all-expenses paid?

We set off for Wilmington and got to stay at the beautiful Homewood Suites by Hilton Wilmington Mayfaire which was a short 5 minute drive to Wrightsville Beach. I have stayed at a lot of hotels over the course of the years with my business, but I have never stayed at a hotel that offered more amenities to their guests than this one.

Room rates start at $120 a night and the company admits that they are not the cheapest in town, but that they do strive to offer the best service and the best amenities for their guest.  I am used to paying for my internet, some dry cereal for breakfast, and paying for any extra frills that I might desire so I really was genuinely shocked by what the hotel offered.

All of the rooms offer a full kitchenette that includes a full-size refrigerator, a two-burner stove, cooking utensils/tools with service for four,  and a dishwasher. For no additional charge (other than the actual price of groceries), you can call ahead and have them stock your refrigerator for you before you even arrive for your trip!

The hotel offers a free huge hot breakfast seven days a week and a bigger bonus for family’s on a budget, was a “Manager’s Reception,” dinner Monday through Thursday for free, that included a full delicious dinner, a kid’s buffet for dinner, and wine/beer for the parents while you are staying there.  As an example of the dinner choices, two of the offerings the nights we were there were tortilla-crusted tilapia and home style meatloaf including two side dishes. I have never been to a hotel that offered a full dinner and full breakfast  for free for its guests and this is available at any of the Homewood Suites locations.

The rooms also offered DVD players and (for no charge)  you could select a family-friendly movie to watch with your kids. Baskets of cookies were available for a free late night snack and a free coffee & tea bar were always open. These little inclusion are the things that I love to look for in hotels especially when it comes to keeping my children entertained and fed well.  The coffee bar is a tired vacationing parent’s dream and it is the first time I have actually loved coffee at a hotel.

Other important inclusions were free wireless internet, grills on-site if you wanted to grill for your lunch, and they even had a little putt-putt golfing for the kids near the pool and hot tub that didn’t cost an extra dime.

Yeah, all of that starting at just $120. I figure just the breakfast, kitchenette in every room, the family entertainment, and the free dinner with beverages would really help to keep our family on budget.

If you were wondering just how pale I am, this picture speaks a thousand words. I was really missing my giant beach umbrella, but used the shadow of my friend Becky and an expert tuck and pull to allow my dress to keep me covered at the beach. I always chant to myself that someday I will be a beautiful old lady and everyone will envy my pale skin… at least that is what I like to tell myself!

In all seriousness the beach was simply stunning and I loved dipping my toes in the water and collecting shells for the kids while enjoying the peacefulness of the ocean. It was beautiful and it was so nice that it was only minutes from the hotel!

The Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau were so gracious to allow us the opportunity to explore Wilmington’s family-friendly offerings. We toured the Battleship North Carolina, The Children’s Museum of Wilmington, the Cape Fear Serpentarium, a horse drawn tour of downtown Wilmington, North Carolina Aquarium Fort Fisher, and sampled delicious seafood chowder at Michael’s Seafood, took two boat tours of the beautiful beach, downtown shopped, and enjoyed all of the town’s offerings.

I can’t wait to share with you more as it gets closer to vacation season about my experience in both North Carolina and Orlando for some fun ideas for family travel. I will say that of the places we visited, I loved the Children’s Museum of Wilmington and the North Carolina Aquarium Forth Fisher the absolute best and can’t wait to revisit them for a trip with my own family. The enthusiasm of the employees was enchanting and I know that we could spend a whole day just visiting these two spots alone.

I have to say my favorite part was just getting the opportunity to relax! We spent an evening window-shopping in the Mayfaire shops, grabbed a delicious pizza one night, popped popcorn and watched silly girl movies like, “Fame,” and ate ice cream cones. I loved everything about Wilmington and can see it as a new destination for our family!

In full disclosure, while I was there, I found a new place to write and will be joining the SuiteTrip website for the next few months (through Homewood Suites)  to share ideas on budget-friendly travel and ideas for making travel enjoyable as a family. I can’t wait to share more ideas with you there! It was an unexpected new freelance job that I am really looking forward to!

Disclaimer: We were invited by Homewood Suites in conjunction with the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. for an all-expenses paid trip to experience Wilmington, NC  and share with our readers about our experience. All-expenses paid means that our travel, hotel stay, visits to area attractions, and food were covered by the company. We will receive no other additional compensation for this particular project and are asked for our honest opinions without any further obligation. To find out more about how things work here at MomAdvice, please feel free to visit our official Disclaimer page!

Where is your favorite family vacation spot? Where is somewhere you would like to explore? Feel free to share!

Smart Strategies for Saving Time & Money When Flying

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Over the years, I have been doing a lot more travel than I ever dreamed I would be doing. When you travel frequently, you quickly learn that you need a lot less than you think you do, proper planning will save you hours of frustration, and each trip is a lesson on how to do it better.

I wanted to share with you a few tips to help you save time and money on your next flight. These are my tried and true strategies that I employ each time I fly and I hope they will help you on your next trip.

Check in Online- The biggest timesaver for me has always been taking the time to check in for my flights online twenty-four hours before my flight.  You can save so much time and can also avoid having to wait as long at the airport if you have checked in for your flight early. What would normally take an hour can now take twenty to thirty minutes just by using my computer at home.

While you are checking in online, print out all of the documents you might need for your trip and store them in a folder together. I keep all trip itineraries, meeting information, agendas, and check-in information for the returning flight together.  Pull this together with your freshly printed boarding passes and put this in your carry-on luggage or purse for easy access.

Keep Your Bags Light- Most airlines now charge for you to check in your luggage, not to mention the hassle of waiting at baggage claims for your luggage to arrive when you are anxious to start your trip.  The largest allowed size for carry-on bags is 22×14×19 inches, but you can maximize your packing by in a quality soft-sided carry-on bag, which will be roomier than a more rigid bag.  Just by packing light, you are able to shave approximately $50 on a round-trip flight!

If you are traveling as a family, divide the luggage up between each family member and consider investing in one small roller bag for each child that they will be able to maneuver themselves.  Child size luggage can be found at discount stores like Target, Walmart, TJ Maxx, and Marshall’s. Even with this investment, you can still easily save $25 on the way back because you won’t need to check a bag. The bonus is that they can use that bag for years to come, making it easy to recoup your travel investment.

The best part about keeping your bags light though is that you can use this as an excuse to not buy so many travel souvenirs on your trip. Consider that light bag as not only a savings for not checking in, but the ultimate excuse to not indulge in those pricey gift shops.

If, in the end, you are unable to reduce your luggage to be carry-on compliant, paying for your checked bags online can sometimes save you a few dollars each way!

Pack Smart- It seems that it is always the people that do not take the time to pack wisely that become the most flustered or are asked to step aside by security. The most important thing to note is that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules require that passengers only carry liquids in three ounce containers in no more than one, clear, quart-sized bag.

Visit freebie sites like Freebies4Mom.com, DealSeekingMom.com, or MommySnacks.net and stockpile sample size toiletries and detergent for your trips that will comply with these federal guidelines. If you travel frequently, reusable travel containers can also be a fantastic investment that can be refilled with the items you already have from home. Make sure to store this bag right on top for easy access, as it will need to be removed from your bags when going through airport security.

Underneath this bag of toiletries, tightly roll your clothing to prevent wrinkling and to maximize the space within your carry-on luggage. Choose clothing that can easily be mixed and matched and make sure to prepare for what weather conditions may be awaiting you. There is nothing worse than being at an amusement park with your family during a torrential downpour and paying $15 for an umbrella or heading to a state with warmer weather and paying $35 for a junky tourist sweatshirt because you are freezing.

Last, make sure that any electronics that will need to be inspected rest on top next to your toiletries until you get through security.  The ones that will not need to be run through separately will be easier to scan if they are right on top and those that require a separate scanning will be easy to access for this procedure.  Remember that everything can be rearranged in the bag, once you get through security, to protect your electronics from harm during travel.

Thrifty Snacking- The days of meals and snacks on flights are long gone so it is important to have a thrifty snacking strategy to avoid spending $50 at the airport while waiting for flights. Pack food items that will travel well both ways to reduce your spending. Items like protein bars (avoid anything with melting chocolate), trail mixes, apples, and oranges are all great items to tuck away in your bag for a snack while you are waiting. If your flight is leaving during the lunch hour, spend a little time packing lunches that can be eaten in flight or while waiting at the airport. This little effort of planning can easily save you $7 per person.

While you are unable to bring any liquids through security, there is one easy strategy you can take to save on those $5 waters at the airport. Tuck an empty reusable water bottle in your bag and fill it at a drinking fountain when you get through security.

Frugal Entertainment- It is easy to keep everyone entertained on the flights, but it also requires a little strategy, particularly if you are bringing children. Consider packing one set of things to do on the way there and one small set of things to do on the way back to keep your children happy. Library books, magnetic travel games, coloring books, a deck of cards, puzzle books, and even your child’s portable gaming system are great ways to keep them entertained.

It is important to keep in mind that electronics do have to be turned off at the beginning and ending of each flight, so don’t just rely on that Nintendo DS, DVD player, or that iPod to hold their interest. They will be glad that you packed a coloring book or reading material when the time comes to switch them off. As an added savings, don’t forget to bring their headphones for these electronics, as the airline will happily charge you for each set you might have forgotten.

I hope that these tips will help you on your next flight and don’t forget to tuck those items away to save time for the next trip. There is nothing like having a bag of toiletries that are already packed, a special set of items that are already preset in your bags to keep the kids entertained, or  the travel pillow already packed in your bag to save you time for your next trip.

If you want more great tips on travel, be sure to visit our Organized Travel article before heading out for your next vacation!

What are some ways that you save time and money when you are flying? I would love to hear your success stories or lessons learned!

An Orlando Treasure: GatorLand

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Ethan and I had a fantastic time in Orlando and I am looking forward to sharing about some of the attractions that we visited and ways you can save on enjoying many things in Orlando while you are there. We truly enjoyed our visit to Orlando and the experiences and memories we created together were just priceless.

To start this series, I wanted to share with you my absolute favorite place that we visited and some ideas for ways that you can save on your ticket to this attraction and many others that you might be visiting. You might be surprised to hear that it wasn’t Disney that holds a special place in my heart. In fact, it wasn’t anything that I thought would be that exciting, but I was quickly proven wrong by an amazing little theme park called, “GatorLand.”

GatorLand definitely is not a new attraction to Orlando residents, but we had never heard of it before and my little guy was so excited to see a few Florida gators for himself. GatorLand might sound  like a quaint touristy spot to visit, but it is, in fact, a 110-acre theme park and a nature conservatory for the city of Orlando.

When I say theme park though,  it isn’t the kind of theme park that you might think of when heading to Orlando. They have no big relationships with corporate companies, real animals (not mechanical ones) are located there, real people are guiding you and sharing about the animals, and kids are gobbling up every minute of these beautiful animals and their stories.

Upon entering, we were introduced to the four very rare white alligators that are currently residing in the White Alligator Swamp. These are not Albino alligators, but a very rare breed that actually have blue eyes and the white pigmentation to their skin. It is thought that there are only a dozen of their kind in the world, and four of them have happily made their home there. Technically, they are named leucistic (loo-SIS-tic), which is basically a genetic defect which produces their white pigment and the bright blue eyes that make them so unique.

While there were many alligators there, there were perhaps a few hundred more birds that are located on the property. They had everything from herons, to wood storks, to vultures that were happily residing near the alligators that were lazily swimming in the water. Our tour guide informed us that the birds love to make their nests and be near the alligators because the alligators protect them (and their eggs) from other predators. The alligators have no interest in bothering the birds and the birds know that they can make a home there.

The spot is a hot one for photographers and people come from all over the world to photograph the birds there. Photographers can buy a  pass and come in the early morning hours to sneak a peek at the birds. It was quite unbelievable all of the varieties of birds that were on the property. It would be a great place to bring a trusty bird guide and discover birds with your children!

Kids can get a closer look at the alligators in their “Gator Wrestlin’ ” arena. No worries, there was no wrestling other than the wrestling required to get the animal out of the water and give kids the opportunity to learn more about these fascinating creatures. They offer survival tips on what to do if you are ever in the path of a gator and share facts about what makes alligators so unique. Stunts, like the ones pictured above, showcase the strength of the alligator’s jaw.

For an additional $5, they offer the chance to pose with a real alligator, in the arena, which my son was very eager to do. The extra five dollars goes towards the care and food for the animals. This was all done under the watchful care of their trainers.

If your children love the creepy crawlers, then they won’t want to miss the Up Close Encounters Show. You never know what kind of animal you might be introduced to next as they unveil a variety of different snakes and spiders from behind the crated boxes. Volunteers are brought up from the audience for the great unveiling which the kids will definitely get a kick out of… especially if their mom is the one that gets selected!

There is so much more to do that we didn’t even get a chance to see while we visited. They offer a train ride around the property, a water park that the kids can play in to keep cool, and you can even sit down and have lunch or a latte there.

The price of admission is as follows:

Adult- $22.99 (if purchased online, $19.99)

Child- $14.99 (if purchased online, $11.99)

To save a little more on your visit to GatorLand, head over to print out a free 2010 Orlando Magicard which provides year-round savings at more than 75 area establishments including attractions, accommodations, restaurants, dinner theaters, ground transportation, golf courses, and cultural arts.

The Orlando Magicard is free and can be downloaded at VisitOrlando.com/deals, requested for mail delivery by calling 1-800-551-0181, or picked up at The Official Visitors Center in Orlando. The 2010 version of the card provides expanded offers including theme park deals and other significant savings options such as free nights plus additional free amenities at area accommodations; buy one ticket, get one free offers at attractions; or straight discounts up to 50% off.

If you use the Orlando Magicard at GatorLand, you can score a free train ride for each paid admission.

As a parting gift, on our way out each child got to hold a baby alligator.  The kids were so excited and were all amazed at just how tiny these alligators start out.

I was so taken into the moment that I even took the opportunity to hold the baby alligator myself. If you know me at all, you know that this is so not like me. I will say that my son couldn’t have been more proud of his mommy and I am so proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone a little!

We would like to thank GatorLand for giving us the opportunity to explore and learn more about what they offer and to experience a place in Orlando that we would have never known about. It is a hidden gem that I highly recommend if you are ever in the Orlando area.

Disclaimer: We were invited by the Orland/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau for an all-expenses paid trip to experience Orlando and share with our readers about our experience. All-expenses paid means that our travel, hotel stay, visits to area attractions, and food were covered by the company. We will receive no other additional compensation for the project and are asked for our honest opinions without any further obligation. To find out more about how things work here at MomAdvice, please feel free to visit our official Disclaimer page!

Do you have any hidden gems that you have found in your state or in another that you highly recommend visiting for a family vacation? Please feel free to share cool things about your own town or links to past entries on great places to travel!

Notebook Experiments: Can I Make My Hotel Stay Better?

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Experiment: Can I make my hotel stay better?

Experiment Taken From: Notebook Entry 10.30.08

Materials Needed: Please see Digital Bliss for the full instructions. This post was written by Angie, over at Blog Coach, so please be sure to check her site for additional great blogging resources!

Results: While I am off traveling, I wanted to share with you two of my favorite sites to use while I am away from home. If you are ever away (with kids or without), give these sites a try… especially if your room comes with free Wi-Fi!


iSerenity was perhaps my favorite resource on that list because I hate all the sounds from my neighbors and out in the hallways of hotels. In our house, each of us has a sound machine in our rooms so I really love having some type of white noise when I sleep. I tuned into the sounds of the ocean and it helped so much to cut down on the background noise so I could get some sleep. This would have been a great resource too when my children were smaller to help them sleep better too.



The other site that I used was Kukuklock. Is it just me or does anyone else have trouble figuring out how in the heck to set these alarms in the hotel rooms? A little manual would be helpful! I set my alarm on my phone in my room, but I like to have a back-up alarm just in case. I went ahead and set it to the rooster setting and it was as easy as pie to set.

I headed to bed and woke up to the sounds of the ocean with roosters crowing over the waves. Yeah, it was pretty freaky and I thought I fell into an alternate universe for a moment there, but it worked like a charm.

Conclusion:
I plan to use these sites every time because it helped me sleep better knowing I would wake up on my time and I could eliminate the background noises in my room. I hope you can check these out on your next trip!

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I am so excited to open our Notebook Experiments up to everyone and I hope that you will be able to participate this week or in weeks to come! I will be posting this each Wednesday so please mark your calendars if you plan to participate. You can post your entries at any time throughout the week and then leave your entry in the links below.

We have this handy banner that you are more than welcome to use, but it is not a requirement! It is just something you can add to add a little sparkle to your entry.

Rules for Participation:

1. Choose anything from any of our notebook entries (past or present) to do with your family. We have hundreds of bookmarked links of crafts, ways to save money, and organizing ideas.
2. Complete an experiment from the notebook and share about it on your blog or website. We would love to see pictures of what you accomplished or a detailed description of how your projects turned out. Please include a link to this entry, a link to the original posting of the entry (at the original craftster’s blog), and (to help us relocate the project) the date or link of the notebook entry where you found it. You can use the same formatting as our entries or you can just include that information in your post in your own unique way!
3. Post a link below. Please include your name or blog name & a fast description of your project. Example- MomAdvice (WHO bread)

I can’t wait to see what you create and what you find inspiring!