Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bookings, Books and Other Travel Planning Activities

This week we're having fun in Washington D.C. but I'm still busy making plans for our next adventure, Europe.  I've booked a few other things in the past week such as our rental car and our tickets to Neuschwanstein Castle.  I think that's the only activity we're going to plan ahead of time, the rest of the tickets we'll buy on the same day.  I'd like to stay flexible on things we do in case the weather doesn't cooperate with us.

I've also brought along some interesting reading for the upcoming trip as well.  I'm working my way through a family guide to Paris that's given me some great tips as well as additional places that I'd like to check out if time allows.  I've also started on a basic photography book.  I'm pretty disappointed with the way my pictures from the Amazon turned out so I'm hoping to come back from this trip (and even from D.C.) with some much better quality photos.

The more I read and plan the more excited I get about this trip.  I really cannot wait to experience Europe and all it has to offer!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Feature: CitySights Bus Tours, New York City

I just realized that I'm once again watching The Hunger Games as I write my Friday Feature.  What is it with this movie and my travel blogging?

So this week's feature is about the CitySights NY bus tour.  Brandon and I have had the opportunity to ride this hop-on hop-off double decker bus three times since we've moved to New England, each time with different family members visiting from out of town.  We've always chosen the same route, the Downtown tour, because we felt that this route shows the best highlights of NYC for first-time visitors like our family.

CitySights ticket pick-up is conveniently located in Madame Tussaud's on 42nd St, about half a mile from Grand Central station.  We usually walk there but you can take public transportation as well.  The line for picking up tickets can be quite long so I recommend only having one person go in to pick up the tickets and the rest of the party can hang out at the McDonald's next door.

The double decker buses are a super easy way to see everything in New York City.  The hop-on hop-off option lets you visit the areas of the city that you want to see in more detail.  The subway option gets you from place to place but doesn't offer the views that a double decker bus does.  Each bus has a guide that announces interesting information about each major attraction or district but some guides are better than others.  We've had one that was excellent and humorous and one that sounded like she was simply reading from a script.  The kind of guide you get on your bus can pretty much make or break your experience on the bus tour.
One of the better guides.  I don't recall his name

Because we took the Downtown Tour 3 times Brandon and I tried to make each tour seem new by hopping off at different locations to check out the sites.  Our first trip on the tour we ate lunch in Little Italy, our second trip was combined with a ferry trip to see the Statue of Liberty and our third tour was mostly spent near Rockefeller Center and Central Park.

Stopping in Little Italy for lunch
The Verdict:  ★★★★ The double-decker bus tour is a must-do if you're visiting New York City for the first time, especially if it will likely be your only visit to the Big Apple.  Does that mean you have to choose CitySights?  Not necessarily.  We saw Grayline and Big Bus Tours doing the same routes and probably for around the same price so take your pick.  We really enjoyed the Downtown tour combined with a trip to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island but now that all of our family has been to NYC at least once we probably won't do the bus tour again.

When to Go:  Any time is a great time to see New York City.  Christmastime has the beautiful tree at Rockefeller center and you can visit Macy's Santa Claus.  Summertime is warm and sunny, perfect for picnics in Central Park. 

Other Tips and Tricks:  Book your bus tickets online for a better rate than in person and remember to wear sunscreen!  Moving around the city on the top deck may feel breezy in the summer but that sun is still beating down on your head.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Feature: Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg, MA

A few weeks ago my sister and nephew (Ninja) came to visit and we decided to take a last-minute trip north to our closest Great Wolf Lodge near Boston.  My sis and nephew had been to one near their home in North Carolina but we had never been and I'd been dying to check it out, even considering a weekend trip for Stink's upcoming birthday.

We booked a basic room for a Thursday night at their cheapest rate, $159 per night.  Considering it includes admission to the waterpark along with other free activities I thought the price was well worth it.

The Room:  Our hotel room was your basic hotel room, 2 queen beds, a large bathroom and amenities such as a fridge and coffee maker.  The only thing differentiating it from any other hotel and Great Wolf Lodge is that it was decorated in a woodsy theme but not too overdone.  A nice little bonus was a free Shutterfly coupon code for an 8x8 photo book to celebrate your Great Wolf Lodge vacation.

Our room

Free photo book coupon code!
While our room was quite a hike from the waterpark I'm glad we stayed in that area of the hotel instead of the rooms that surrounded the Howlin' Timbers Play Park.  If you're a light sleeper or are traveling with an infant I would recommend requesting a room away from that area.

The Waterpark:  The water park at the Fitchburg location is divided into two parks, separated by a hallway that you have to cross over to from one of the other.  It's a bit inconvenient stepping into that cold hallway while dripping wet just to get to a different area of the park but it's not too bad.  Great Wolf boasts 84 degree weather in their waterpark but that's still roughly 14 degrees below one's normal body temperature so the water can feel quite cold when you first step in, especially in winter time.
The kiddie pool we used the most

One section of the water park has 2 water slides, a large wave pool and a kiddie pool area with three short slides for the little ones.  We mostly stayed in this kiddie pool during our stay, going down those slides over and over and OVER again.  There are lifeguards everywhere, constantly scanning the waters for kids in trouble, however they don't seem to be on the same page when it comes to pool rules.  Brandon went down the kiddie slides with Stink on his lap for almost half an hour straight before taking a break.  When they returned to the pool a different lifeguard was on duty and told him that lap rides weren't allowed and that put an end to Stink's sliding for the day.

The wave pool
The other section of the waterpark has another 2 slides, a very large indoor/outdoor jacuzzi (perfect for warming up if the water feels too cold!), a lazy river and another kiddie area with pools.  This kiddie pool area has the large bucket that fills with water and dumps every few minutes.  Ninja was pretty freaked out by the bucket when it almost took his pants off once and we didn't want Stink to feel like she was being waterboarded so we stayed away from this area.  I enjoyed floating in the lazy river quite a few times and the outdoor jacuzzi was a great way to test whether we would enjoy a trip to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.  We even took Stink out there for a bit.

Other Activities:  There's plenty of other things to do at Great Wolf Lodge.  Free activities include a ropes course, one about 15 feet up for older kids and a smaller one about 2.5 feet off the ground for young ones.  Other free activities are the storytelling times, a table for coloring in the lobby, ping pong and a giant checkerboard.  Activities that are extra include the arcade, a 4D ride, laser frenzy, putt-putt golf, bowling and a few rides for the little ones, similar to the ones you see at the mall.  There's also the MagiQuest game which is popular with the older kids.  Ninja wanted to try it out until he was told it takes about 3-4 hours to complete one quest. 

Enjoying the coloring table while we checked in
Stink LOVED the obstacle course and did it 3 times with our help.  Ninja also enjoyed the same ropes course, though as a 5-year old he was tall enough to go on the bigger ropes course with an adult.  
Stink's favorite activity: The ropes course

We tried the arcade games but were disappointed that none of them lasted very long so we felt they were a waste of time and money.  Each game and ride costs PawPoints that are loaded onto a card.  To get a new card costs a $1 fee but reloading the card with PawPoints does not cost any fees.  After our disappointing time in the arcade we chose to use our remaining PawPoints on the kiddie rides.  We didn't try the putt-putt golf, MagiQuest or bowling during our stay.

Merchandise in the gift shops
Part of the MagiQuest
Kiddie rides that Stink thoroughly enjoyed

The Food:  When we arrived we had planned on eating at the Lodge Wood Fired Grill restaurant for lunch versus dinner in order to save money.  Unfortunately the restaurant wasn't open so we found the pizza place Hungry Like a Wolf and ordered a pepperoni pizza for $13.99 to share.  The pizza was quite delicious and a great option if you're eating on a budget.  Brandon also ordered a reusable cup for $12.99 which gave us free refills during our stay and future stays.  Considering a bottle of soda is $3 and Brandon filled up about 8 times during our one-night stay we're glad we made the choice, especially if we return in the future. 

Lodge Wood Fired Grill menu
Hungry As a Wolf menu
We ate dinner at the restaurant and I was thoroughly disappointed in my $25 overcooke ribeye steak with undercooked vegetables and no salad.  The service was slow even though there were less than a dozen tables occupied that night.  Later that evening we enjoyed ice cream cones at Sweets and Eats.

My disappointing dinner
CAKE!!!  But we got ice cream instead

The next morning we ate at the same restaurant for a buffet breakfast.  It was an add-on that I chose at booking.  $40 for our party of 3 adults and 2 kids was a very reasonable price for such a large breakfast and something I would get again.  Selections included fresh fruit, custom omelets, french toast, cereals and breads, sausage and bacon.

The Verdict:  ★★★ Great Wolf Lodge has a military discount coupon code HEROES20 that we used to get 20% off our room rate, though some nights they have a similar 20% offer for non-military guests.  I would go again if we could get the same $159 rate that we paid before.  Weekend rates tend to be almost $300 per night and I don't feel that Great Wolf Lodge is worth paying that much for, especially when a $20 resort fee is added to your bill on top of that.  The resort fee irks me a bit because it's not exactly optional and is a little deceptive by not being reflected in the room rate when you're searching online.

Where to Eat:  Hungry as a Wolf has excellent pizza but I don't recommend eating at the Lodge restaurant for anything other than breakfast but Great Wolf also has a Dunkin Donuts.  Fitchburg has plenty of dining options as well if you don't want to eat at the hotel, though outside food can't be brought into the waterpark area.

Other Tips and Tricks:  I suggest bringing a rashguard if you or your children get cold easily.  We brought Stink's swim vest but Great Wolf provides those as well.  I recommend bringing your own towels because the swim towels that are provided are the small, scratchy variety and a little too harsh for drying off the little munchkins.  Guests can start using the waterpark as early as 1 pm on their check-in date and all day on their check-out date so we packed a separate bag with our towels and bathing suits and left our suitcases in the car until our room was ready.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Booking Day!

After much planning and researching today is the today that I finally booked our flights to Europe.  We will start in Iceland for 3 nights, flying to Munich for 5 nights and then end our trip in Paris for 3 nights.  I also booked our hotel in Munich but I'm waiting for my free weekend certificate to arrive before I book our Hilton hotel in Paris. 

Unfortunately we were a little too late in booking this trip and missed out on our first choice B&B in Iceland, Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse.  I'm SUPER bummed about that because I was really looking forward to staying at this place and letting Stink meet some Icelandic horses.  So I'm back to the drawing board on finding accommodations in Iceland and this time I think I'll stick with what's on Expedia because I have a $25 reward certificate that I need to use.  That means having to increase my budget a bit since Minna-Mosfell was ridiculously cheap but I was under budget on our flights so it all balances out.

So the next few days will be spent re-researching hotels near Reykjavik, booking a rental car and getting ready for our trip to D.C. in less than 2 weeks.  I'm so excited to start traveling again!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday Feature: 'Ohana Character Breakfast at Disney World Orlando

During our first trip to Disney World with Stink we made reservations for a character breakfast at Disney's Polynesian Resort in Orlando, FL.  Our entire family went so it was a party of 11 adults and 3 kids and that required a bit of coordination.

My aunt and uncle live in Orlando and made the reservations for us so they had to be the ones to check us in at the restaurant.  The reservations are pretty strict and after they were almost 10 minutes late showing up we risked missing our reservations.  I made a mental note to always be punctual to any future Disney reservations.

Upon check-in you're escorted over to a tiki-themed hut for a photograph before being led to your table.  I admit that I was pretty disappointed in the posed photo section; I had hoped to have our pictures taken with the characters at the hut.

The restaurant has a distinct Polynesian theme to it and we were greeted warmly by the staff before being seated.  The breakfast is all-you-can-eat style with foods like the classic Mickey-shaped waffles, tropical fruits, scrambled eggs, and fried potatoes.  The juice that was served was excellent and Stink really enjoyed having a taste.  All the food is brought to your table hot and fresh and is replenished quickly.

During the meal each character comes out separately and makes their rounds to each table, greeting guests, signing books and posing for photos.  Again I was disappointed in the photo opportunities because I had purchased Disney's PhotoPass (now called Disney Memory Maker) so I had gotten used to the idea of having Disney photographers around to take our picture with characters.  This isn't the case with the 'Ohana character breakfast. 

Each character comes around while being led by a Disney employee but they aren't photographers and didn't offer to take our pictures.  I'm sure they would have if we asked but our party was large enough that we could get someone else to do it.  Our meal involved a lot of getting up, autographs, shuffling cameras around for pictures, then sitting back down for a few bites to eat before the next character shows up.  We met three characters: Lilo, Stitch and Pluto but the Disney website says that the characters you'll meet are subject to change.  Stink loved all the characters, especially their noses, but all our pictures looked a bit awkward and I wish we had taken the time to take better pictures.

Aside from meeting the characters there is a short 'Ohana Family Parade that the kids can participate in.  Everyone is given musical instruments like maracas and they march around the restaurant to sing and dance.  It was a great experience and Brandon even carried Stink around so she could participate.

The Verdict:  ★★★★ At $29.99 per person the 'Ohana breakfast is reasonably priced (especially for Disney) and the food is fresh and delicious.  The only downside is being interrupted every 5 or 10 minutes for character meets and the parade which led to our food getting cold before we could finish it.  It would be nicer if the characters did one round together so we could enjoy our meal while the food was still hot.  With that said, I would still do a Disney character dining again but next time we would let Stink choose so it may or may not be the 'Ohana breakfast.

How to Get There: The convenient thing about the 'Ohana character dining is that the Polynesian Resort is on the resort monorail so it's an easy ride from any of the Disney resorts.  We chose to drive from our resort (Old Key West) and parking was free. 

Other Tips and Tricks:  The 'Ohana character dining is pretty popular so reservations should be made well in advance and be sure to show up early!  Also, if you would rather enjoy your meal while it's hot you can always meet the characters, have them sign your autograph book and then take pictures after you're done eating.  Once the characters make their rounds to all the tables they hang out for a bit in the restaurant for guests to meet again and take additional pictures.  For us it was a great opportunity to take a large group photo because by then everyone was done eating.

Child Friendly?  Is anything at Disney NOT child friendly?  Stink was only 11 months old when we did the 'Ohana breakfast but she still thoroughly enjoyed it.  Her food options were limited to the scrambled eggs and some fruits so we made sure to bring baby food along to fill her tummy.

Pet Friendly?  No

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Finalized Itinerary for D.C.

Things have been incredibly hectic in our house.  My sister and nephew came to visit last week for a last-minute trip before it got too cold for their warm Southern blood.  I also got a seasonal retail job which has been zapping me of all my energy.  Good thing Brandon is no longer working and free to take care of Stink all day.  We signed up for a few annual memberships to keep us busy and Stink is now officially a passport holder.  I can't wait to start filling it up with adventures.

With less than 3 weeks until our trip to Washington D.C. I've finally finalized our itinerary.  Our original plan was to stay 3 nights but after signing up for the Hilton Reserve card which gives us a 5th night free when we stay for 4 consecutive nights it seemed like a no-brainer to extend our stay by a few more days.  Even with those two additional days, though, we're still unable to see all the attractions in the D.C. area and had to make some choices.  So without further ado here is our finalized itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive, visit Smithsonian National Zoo's Zoolights in the evening

Day 2: Visit Smithsonian National Zoo (in the daytime!) and visit historic Georgetown

Day 3: Tour the White House in the morning, visit National Air and Space Museum in the afternoon

Day 4: Visit Union Station, National Postal Museum and Library of Congress in the morning and take a tour of the US Capitol in the afternoon

Day 5: Spend the day at the National Mall (Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial)

We're making this a pet-friendly vacation since Oso rarely gets to travel with us anymore.  Most of the time he will have to stay at the hotel but the National Mall is pet-friendly (provided you don't bring the dogs up the steps of the memorial) so he's coming with us on that day.  He might also join us for the jaunt around Georgetown.

I'm really looking forward to our little vacation and hope the weather cooperates for us!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Feature: Beardsley Zoo, Bridgeport, CT

With Connecticut being such a small state it's no wonder that we only have two aquariums and one zoo.  Our state's zoo is Beardsley Zoo in southwestern CT.  It's about a 1.5 hour drive for us and the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI is actually a closer drive but we've been to both and each will get their Friday Feature post.

I've always had mixed feelings about visiting zoos and aquariums.  On one hand I feel that they are great educational opportunities for children, especially for those who will never have the means to see these rare and wonderful animals in their natural habitat.  On the other hand I feel sorrow for these poor creatures who are confined to such a small living space.  When Brandon and I lived in Washington I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center so I'm very aware that some animals cannot be released back into the wild.  These animals are best suited for places like zoos or other educational programs.  Still, I feel that if animals must live the rest of their lives in a zoo they should at least be comfortable.

So that is where my mindset is while I write this post.

While Beardsley Zoo isn't one of the largest zoos I've been to it does have some unique animals and exhibitions.  Our favorite one is the indoor rainforest exhibit, perhaps because it brings back so many memories but also because it's a well-done exhibit.  There are bats, anacondas, caiman and also various species of monkeys and birds.

Inside the rainforest exhibit


Throughout the rest of the zoo there are tigers, a prairie dog exhibit, bison, otters, pronghorn and wolves.  They are currently working on a new exhibit for Andean bears in the area that used to house llamas.  Stink seemed to enjoy the zoo more than the aquarium, probably because the animals are more interesting to look at than fish.
You can poke your head in a tube to get a different view of the prairie dogs
Inside the wolf observation facility

At the center of the zoo is a cafe, indoor carousel, and pavilion with a small playground.  Live music is sometimes played at the pavilion during zoo events.  Toward the entrance of the zoo is a small gift shop, a greenhouse and animal research station.  Sometimes the station is open to the public and you can have the chance to handle animals like reptiles and tarantulas or feel the soft fur of a bobcat or mink.

The Verdict:  ★★  Beardsley is a little old and dated with unique but small exhibits.  There is a small farmyard area within the zoo but I was disappointed to learn that you can't feed the animals like you can at Central Park Zoo in NYC.  Some exhibits like the peccaries could use some new toys and replacement of the viewing glass.  Overall we would go back if we happen to be in the area but other zoos like Central Park Zoo and Roger Williams Park Zoo are better.

Where to Eat: I think Brandon would disown me if I didn't mention his all-time favorite restaurant chain, Puerto Vallarta, is only 15 minutes away in Orange, CT.  We're very fond of Mexican food and their service is quick and excellent.  Order sopapillas for dessert; they're not on the menu but they do serve them. 

Other Tips and Tricks: Beardsley Zoo offers a military discount for active duty and retired members: one free admission plus a 20% discount for the rest of your party.  Other activities within the zoo like camel rides (summer), hay rides (fall) and the carousel are at an extra cost.

Child Friendly?  Beardsley Zoo has something for all ages to enjoy but I recommend it for preschoolers and older.

Pet Friendly?  No