Saturday, December 26, 2015

Walt Disney World Trip Report: Planning and Arrival Day

Ask me a few years ago if I would ever plan a family trip to Walt Disney World, and the response would have been a resounding NOPE, not gonna happen.

Although I grew up quoting Disney movies and wearing out the Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid soundtrack cassettes in my parents' car stereos, I had a vague yet overwhelmingly unattractive idea of what a Disney trip entailed: oppressive heat; seas of sweaty, stressed people; overpriced everything; and a pre-travel planning process that looked something akin to another full-time job.  Couple that with my husband's social anxiety, which can make sprawling, crowded, unfamiliar places the stuff of nightmares, and it was a clear no-go for us.

The more Matt began to connect to Disney, though, and the more we saw the stories Disney weaves from a little one's perspective again, the more that definite no began to shift until it became a full-fledged member of the maybe list.  And for me, even a maybe warrants extensive research, itinerary drafting, and general playing around to sort out whether it's doable.

Early on in that research process, I came across Shannon Albert's WDW Prep School, a website dedicated to helping people plan Disney World trips.  I pored over each post and listened to her podcast WDW Prep To Go every time I was in the car or flying solo in my kitchen.  Shannon's infectious enthusiasm for Disney and her six-step planning process led me, quite unexpectedly, to fall in love with Disney World and to feel confident in booking our family's trip for December of this year.

We decided on a December trip because we wanted to experience Christmas in the parks.  However, we selected dates that would get us there in between the heaviest crowds around Thanksgiving and the Christmas-to-New Year's surge.  Our final plan included five nights at the Wilderness Lodge with three park days, plus tickets to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party on our final night.

On Monday, December 7, after a year of planning, Erik, Matt, and I walked into the Wilderness Lodge for the first time.  From the very first cast member's "Welcome home," we truly felt it.  We'd found a second home.  It's not an exaggeration to say that this trip changed our lives.

Our arrival night was low-key.  We settled into our room and tried to assess how the hotel's DVC expansion might affect our trip (short answer - other than a not-great view and a sweet little treat from the hotel management, it didn't), then we headed to dinner.

We had a 6:40 dinner reservation at Chef Mickey's, so once we were all set in the room, we headed down to the boat dock for a ride over to the Contemporary.

On this first ride, we swung by Fort Wilderness first and got to watch the sun set over Bay Lake.  I hadn't anticipated using the boats as much as we did throughout the trip, but we did come to rely on them pretty heavily, and they were absolutely a highlight of our Disney routine.

Chef Mickey's was, for us, a great first meal.  Matt has an affinity for the main Disney gang and had received both a surprise invitation letter from Mickey the night before our trip and a welcome box of goodies in our room, so getting to begin with The Mouse himself, as well as Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto, was perfect.  It didn't hurt that, the rowdy dining room filled with families helped to mask his post-car-ride squirreliness, too.

Well-fed and grinning from ear to ear, we headed back to the Wilderness Lodge for the night.

This is Part 1 of our trip report.  As I continue the write-up, I'll add links here to each day's post.  Next up: The Magic Kingdom.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Little Moments

Today is our last day of summer before the school year starts back.  I feel like we've lived this season fully, and I have lots to post here to catch up and document all the adventures we planned and shared over the long sunny days that made up these last couple of months.

This morning, though, I'm thinking about the unplanned moments.  The little unexpected bits of happiness that will linger in my brain and represent the best of what this summer offered.

Smiling faces on a train.

A funnel cake (my first) unceremoniously shared in a sweltering car still parked in the Six Flags lot.

Dancing with Matt (because music) in a ballroom full of strangers.  Oblivious to the crowd.

Long roadtrip talks with Erik while Matt napped in the back seat.  Reminders of why we're best friends.

Live music, heard and followed, which led to a community concert surprise.

The sounds of my too-loud family members telling stories in the hotel room next door, transporting me back to all the summer nights I lay in bed at my grandparents' house hearing those same voices float up from the downstairs kitchen to tell me everything in the world was just fine.

I am so thankful for these memories and for the mindfulness of summer that allowed me to catch them and sear them onto my heart.

Since I was very young, the calendar in my mind has always ebbed and flowed along school year lines, so I feel the new of a new school year in August far more acutely than I feel the new calendar year in January.  My wish for this new year is that I carry with me that mindfulness, make plans for big adventures, but keep a weather eye out for the little moments.

Thank you, summer.

Happy new year.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Blueberry Picking

At this point, I'd venture a guess that Matt is at least fifty percent blueberry.  When those tiny fruits are in the house, he maintains a blue-smeared grin, sneaking them a handful at a time and eating frozen ones like ice cream.  If you pay any attention to produce prices, you might be thinking that this is an expensive habit to maintain.  Enter the u-pick!

We've established a trip to Leavelle Farms in Buhl as an annual tradition for our family and look forward to it as the temperatures start to rise.  From the first day of summer vacation this year, Matt asked me each morning to check online to see if the berries were ready (they're usually good to go around the second week of June).

The bushes produce some shade, but it definitely helps to go as early as possible to beat the heat, so we hit the road early on opening day.  I aim for at least two gallons per trip, and I love that the owner provides little ones with tiny buckets so that they can contribute to the haul.  Matt worked on filling up his bucket for maybe ten or fifteen minutes before abandoning it to set up a "kitchen" among the twigs and leaves that had fallen to the ground under the bushes.

So far we've consumed most of this year's berries straight out of the fridge.  I do make a habit of cooking up something on picking day, though.  This year we kept it really simple by way of waffle dinner with blueberry compote - berries cooked down with sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Pie Lab and Moundville Archaeological Park

Pie + Ideas = Conversation

Conversation + Design = Social Change

I believe in the transformative power of food.  It's common ground (everybody eats) that also conveys history, culture, and unique community stories.  It's necessary fuel but also central to so many celebrations and opportunities to serve others.

Breaking bread with others, in any form from crusty baguette to salty-sweet pie crust, matters.

So, with its mission to bring community members together for positive change via pie consumption, Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama has been on my radar for a while now.  On one of first free summer days this year, Matt and I hopped into the car and took a little drive down south, picking up Beard along the way.

It's a quirky little spot with salvaged and recycled furnishings, mix & match dinnerware, and a rural south industrial vibe (is that a thing?).  We grabbed a quick bite of smoked chicken salad (and a hot dog for Matt), as well, of course, as a couple of slices of pie: Matt and I shared a light, sugary slice of coconut cream, Beard had key lime, and we boxed up a piece of lemon chess for Erik.  Tasty pie, good company, and a message we can all get behind.  Not too bad for Summer Adventure #1.

On the way back from Greensboro, we passed the turn-off to Moundville Archaeological Park, another item on our list.  

Fun fact: from 1st grade through the first semester of 12th grade, I planned to be an archaeologist.  My version of summer camp was going on digs run by our local museum of natural history, and Moundville was the destination of many an elementary school field trip.

So we decided it made little sense to drive right by the place without stopping in to say hello to the mounds.

Hello, mounds!

The park celebrates and preserves the remains of a Mississippian settlement that served as a bustling town as well as a religious and political center for about 500 years.  The mounds were used as residences for prominent village figures and for support and ceremonial purposes.  Only a few remain safely climbable today, and climb we did.  Though the building atop the mound we climbed is no longer open, it's well worth it to head up the steps and check out the view.

After touring around the site, we made our way to the Jones Archaeological Museum, which reopened in 2010 after a major renovation.  The museum offers exhibits featuring Native American artworks and artifacts and helps to tell the story of life among the mounds.    

Not bad for a day's adventuring.  And a good reminder that spots worth checking out are just a few miles down the road.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Summer Adventures List - Preschool Edition

I love my job.  I love being a teacher and would not trade the daily challenges, joys, and complexities for a thing.  But for two glorious months* each year I step out of the classroom and recharge with my family.  Heaven.

Last summer was the first time that I got the feeling Matt really got our summertime adventures.  At three, he expressed preferences and reminisced about our trips to the u-pick farm and McWane Center, as well as our daily park runs.  So this spring we've been talking up a storm about summer and plotting the adventures we might have.  With his help, I've compiled the Summer 2015 non-negotiables.  Let the adventures begin!

*Hey, Phineas and Ferb, how'd you wrangle those 104 days, huh?