Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Audrey's First Day of Kindergarten

Monday was Audrey's first day of kindergarten!

I decorated our breakfast table with a Happy First Day of School theme.  I just made a sign and decorated with some simple school supplies, but I thought it turned out pretty cute!

My original plan was to make homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast, but as the time drew closer and my energy level grew lower, we went with store bought powdered donuts instead, along with some fruit and scrambled eggs.  The girls were surprised, and I loved hearing their reaction when they walked into the dining room that morning!

Of course, we had to take the traditional back to school picture.

And you all now that I love a good side by side comparison, so here are a few of those.

Then it was off to school!

Here she is waiting in her spot in line to go inside.

Then they were off!

With her backpack in front of her classroom door.

When we picked her up at the end of the day, she seemed to have had a good day!  Here she is with some of her friends after school.

And so it begins.  People keep asking how I am doing with her going to kindergarten.  I'm fine.  I'm not really sad about it.  But it is just weird.  Weird to think how our lives are now changed, and we won't ever go back to the way it has been the past 5 1/2 years.  For the next 13 years, Audrey (and then Isla too) will be going to school every weekday for nine months out of the year.  Perhaps bittersweet is the word I am looking for to describe how I feel.  I'm excited for what lies ahead in our future.  And perhaps I am a little sad about saying goodbye to the days of her being home with me all day every day.  It is definitely going to be an adjustment for all of us.

Audrey is going to a public elementary school, which is new territory for both Daniel and I, as we went to private elementary schools.  Then we both went to public school in middle and high school, but both of us were in pretty small school districts.  We are not in a huge city here, but the district is much, much bigger than what either Daniel or I experienced as kids.  So it's a little scary, sending her off to the big public school system!

However, her elementary school comes highly recommended to us.  We moved into this house last year mostly so we could get her into this school.  It is a little smaller than some of the other elementary schools in the district, with just 300 kids total.  So far, I've been really impressed with all that I have seen.  The staff is a very close knit group, and they all go on and on about how much they love the school.  It helps that our friend is Audrey's teacher too, so we have a source for getting the inside scoop on what's going on there.  Parents are strongly encouraged to be involved.  It has the feeling of a smaller private school even though it is a part of the big district.  So I am looking forward to spending the next eight years with the girls in this school!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Twas the Night Before Kindergarten

Audrey starts kindergarten tomorrow!  It's so hard to believe that she is big enough to go to school and spend a whole day by herself away from us, and then to do that again every day for the next school year!  And then for 12 years after that!

I think both Audrey and I have mixed feelings.  We are both excited.  We are both a little nervous.  Audrey has been especially clingy this weekend.  She has probably given me 500 hugs and told me she loves me over and over again.

We are excited because Audrey's teacher is one of our friends from our small group.  She has a few friends in her class that she already knows, so it is not completely a brand new world for her.  I think having familiar faces around will help her out a lot.

Today we went to her school for the Meet the Teacher event.  They had this cute sign to take a picture with all of us when we first walked into the school. (Isla is still boycotting all posed pictures!)

There are 27 kids in Audrey's class!  That is a lot of kindergartners in one small space.  I have the utmost respect for kindergarten teachers!  I could never do it.  Here's a glimpse of her room during the open house this afternoon.  I can't even imagine what it will be like tomorrow morning with 27 excited kids in there!  Good thing we already know that her teacher is amazing and able to handle all of them with ease.

This is Audrey's chair and table where she will sit!

Tonight our small group got together for some ice cream at Dairy Queen.  All the kids were lined up here, waving and saying hi to all the cars in the drive thru.  I'm sure they loved it!

How many kids can say that they got to eat ice cream with their teacher on the night before kindergarten??  Cael had Mrs. Guikema for kindergarten last year, and this year Joel and Audrey will be in her class.

Now it is time for bed.  Tomorrow morning will be here soon!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Family Movie Night: Brave

With Audrey starting kindergarten next week, I've been thinking more about scheduling intentional family time.  Up to this point, we spend so much time together every day that I have never really thought about being intentional about it.  However, with her starting school and our schedule getting busier, we want to be more purposeful to make sure that our whole family spends regular time together.  For this year, we are going to go with Friday Family Nights, and try our best to make Friday nights a night when our whole family does an activity together.

To kick it off, we had a Family Movie Night last night.  I've seen a lot of people in the online Disney community throw fun Disney themed movie nights, and I've always thought it would be fun to do one with our family.  We decided to go with the movie Brave for this one.

I printed out movie tickets from this site, and told the girls that they had to have their ticket to get into our movie night.  They were so excited to hold onto their tickets all afternoon and then give them to me when it was time for the night to start.

If you know me, then you know I like to go all out with party decorations.  It would have been fun to go all out for this movie night, but I didn't decided to do it until just a few hours before we started.  Plus, we really don't have the extra money to splurge on fun stuff like themed movie nights (because we are in the process of giving Disney World ALL of our money for our upcoming vacation!!).  So this was thrown together with store bought food and random stuff I found around the house.  Nothing too fancy!

Our menu was pretty simple, but I tried to tie it into the movie to make it a little more special.

I bought a few of these princess digital clip art sets a while back to make an autograph book for Audrey at Disney World.  So I used the Merida princesses from those sets to make the menu and placecards.

This plaid blanket was the only thing in my house that I could find that looked like it would kind of fit with the Brave theme, so I threw it on the table.  I served the "witches brew" (which was just berry blend juice) in wine glasses to represent medieval goblets.  Though we ended up giving Isla a smaller cup with a straw so she didn't spill her juice or break the glass or both!  The girls did think it was really fun to have such fancy cups on the table!
I made plain old pasta and marinara sauce, using rotini noodles to represent Merida's curly red hair.  (Except my girls don't like marinara sauce, so I made a bowl of plain white noodles for them!)

In the movie, Merida gives her mom a little pastry/cake that has a spell in it which causes her to turn into a bear.  So I served the girls "spell cakes" (store bought iced cookies because I didn't have time to make anything.  I wanted to try these Scottish Sweet Buns, but it didn't happen) with the warning to eat at their own risk!

After dinner, we played this Coin Archery game, where the girls tossed coins and tried to land on the target.  They thought it was SO much fun.  It was fun to watch them play and laugh together.

Then it was time to watch the movie.  I had some coloring pages for them to work on while they watched it.  They intently watched the first 45 minutes of the movie or so, but then they just wanted to get up and play.

For a movie snack, we had Bear Popcorn Mix (since bears are central to the plot of the movie), which was popcorn, gummy bears and chocolate Teddy Grahams.

It was a really fun night for the whole family!  While it looks like a lot when I type it all out like this, it really didn't take much effort at all to pull everything together.  The girls thought it was just great.  I think we will definitely be doing another themed movie night again with a different movie!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Disney World: Restaurants and Advance Dining Reservations

Disney Restaurants:  My Reviews
There are plenty of places to eat all over Disney World:   in the parks, at the resorts, and in Downtown Disney.  In true Disney style, many of them offer a unique atmosphere and interesting food choices.  We have only eaten at a few restaurants at Disney, but I can't really think of any bad experiences.  Here are a few reviews from what I can remember.

Cape May Cafe (character breakfast)
In 2011, my dad treated us to a character breakfast at Cape May Cafe (located in the Beach Club resort) featuring Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy who are all dressed in beach attire.  The breakfast was a pretty standard buffet breakfast (nothing fancy), but from what I remember, there were lots of different options and plenty of kid-friendly offerings.  The characters here were GREAT!  They interacted with Audrey so well, each one spent plenty of time at our table and she just loved them!  Cape May Cafe is slightly less popular than Chef Mickeys (I haven't been there yet), so it is a little easier to get a reservation here when you want to have a meal with Mickey and friends.  All character meals are expensive.  The food is probably not worth the money, but the characters were a lot of fun and most people come for the characters not the food.

Crystal Palace (character dinner)
In 2012, Daniel's parents treated us to a character dinner at the Crystal Palace located in Magic Kingdom.  This is a dinner buffet with characters from Winnie the Pooh (Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet were there for us).  Again, I don't remember there being anything special about the food.  But it was a big buffet with plenty of choices.  At the time, Audrey really loved Winnie the Pooh, so this was a great way for her to meet those characters.  I'm not sure if this would be as much fun with older kids who have outgrown Winnie the Pooh.

Dinner reservations aren't too hard to get here, but during free dining at least they will probably be pretty booked.  The most popular reservation time is the 8:00 am pre-opening breakfast, as this allows people to get into Magic Kingdom before the rest of the crowds!

Whispering Canyon Cafe
Daniel and I ate lunch at Whispering Canyon Cafe (located in the Ft. Wilderness Lodge) last December.  It's a fun restaurant, where the waiters interact with you and do silly things, like bringing LOTS of ketchup to your table if you ask for ketchup.  We just had sandwiches with our lunch, but everything was really good!  On a Sunday in early December, we did not need a reservation here for lunch as we were able to just walk right in and get a table.  I'm not sure how crowded it is at other times of year.  Dinner is probably more popular here.

Raglan Road
Daniel and I also ate at Raglan Road in Downtown Disney on our vacation in December.  We made the mistake of showing up on a Saturday night with no reservations.  We were able to get in and eat, after an hour and a half wait!  Since it was just the two of us hanging out with no plans, this worked for us.  But it would have been pretty easy to get a reservation here, if only we had planned ahead.  I don't recommend just showing up here without reservations.
The food was worth the wait though, as it was all good.  Daniel had shepherd's pie, and I had baked potato soup and a salad.  My soup was really good, possibly the best baked potato soup I have ever had (and it's a favorite of mine, so I've had it lots of places!).

I think those are all the table service meals we have eaten at Disney.  I know we had a quick service lunch at Pecos Bill's at Magic Kingdom, and it was pretty good.  We also ate a quick service lunch at Pizza Planet in Hollywood Studios.  It is modeled after the Pizza Planet arcade in the Toy Story movies.  If you look, you will find lots of horrible reviews for Pizza Planet.  But I don't remember it being bad.  I think our pizza was decent, and it is a fun atmosphere, especially if you have a Toy Story fan in your group.

Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs)
I am typing this blog post after checking once again for dining reservations for our upcoming Disney trip.  It's possible that I sometimes check the Disney website multiple times a day in hopes that I will be able to get a reservation for the right restaurant at the right time.  It's a little ridiculous!  But that's the way it is at Disney World!  Somehow they have convinced me (and thousands of others) to play their game and make our restaurant reservations SIX MONTHS  in advance.

You can make reservations 180 days before your arrival date for all table service restaurants at Disney World.  For some of the more popular restaurants, it is essential that you DO make your reservation during the first minutes of your 180 day window, or else you may be out of luck.

We are going during free dining, which means everyone is trying to get the best, most popular and most expensive restaurants to take full advantage of their free meals.  So if you book your trip during free dining, and if you care about getting into popular restaurants, be ready to make your reservations online 180 days in advance.  I got up early (5:00 am) 180 days in advance to book my reservations for our trip which was originally scheduled for November.  I got every restaurant I wanted, at the exact times that I wanted.  It was perfect!  And then we changed our trip to September, and I lost all of my reservations.  I have been obsessively checking online for open reservations, and gradually I have been able to find most of them again.
Here are the reservations we have right now (subject to change as I am still on the lookout for openings at a few places):
  • Dinner at Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary Resort (this is a super popular reservation so if you want to eat here, book ASAP!  This is a buffet meal with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Pluto)
  • Lunch at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot (a princess character meal that includes a free photo and a princess parade with all the princesses; there are usually five princesses that greet your table.  Belle, Ariel, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are common.  This is Norwegian food, with a cold meat/cheese buffet and made to order hot entrees)
  • Lunch at Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood Studios (a character buffet with Disney Jr. characters, currently Sofia the First, Doc McStuffins and Jake, features a dance party with the characters)
  • Dinner at 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian resort  (a character buffet with Cinderella characters.  Word is that these characters are a lot of fun, especially the stepsisters!)
  • Lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern in Magic Kingdom 
Most of our meals are character meals, because those meals are expensive.  So with free dining, I feel like we are getting the best bang for our buck.  Plus our girls, specifically Audrey, really enjoy characters, and meals are a great way to meet them up close and personal without waiting in long lines.  Most of the character meals are buffets, which wouldn't be my first choice.  But with kids, buffets are a nice option as they offer lots of options.

I'm still trying to get a dinner reservation for Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom.  This is THE hot ticket right now, as everyone wants to eat there!  It is a Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant, built to look just like some of the settings in the movie.  For lunch, it is quick service, which means you don't need a reservation.  So if we can't get a dinner reservation, we will try for lunch there.  Because lunch lines get really long, Disney offers a Fastpass for Be Our Guest at lunchtime, if you are staying on property.  This Fastpass is usually available 28 days before your trip, and you can get it here. It allows you to skip most of the line, and you can even preorder your food ahead of time.

I'm sure that there is much more to be said about food, restaurants and Disney world, but this post is more than long enough!

Up Next:  Touring Strategies

Friday, August 8, 2014

When Should We Go to Disney World?

This question can have two different meanings.  When should we go to Disney World, as in at what age should we take our kids?  Or it could mean:  when should we go to Disney World, as in at what time of year should we plan our trip?  I will attempt to answer both of those questions in this post.

At What Age Should We Take our Kids to Disney?

Our previous trips to Disney have been with little kids.  Audrey was 2 1/2 on our first trip, and on the second trip Audrey was 3 1/2 while Isla was 9 months.  It's hard for me to give a good answer to this question because I have never been to Disney when my kids are older.  I also really think this question is going to differ between families and kids, as all kids have different personalities and interests.

Many people have asked me, since I am planning this once in a lifetime trip while my kids are (almost) 6 and 3, if it would be better to wait until they are older, so that they can remember the trip.  Maybe it would be better to wait?  But I don't think this trip is a complete waste of time and money just because they may not remember it.

I am a big proponent of preserving memories through pictures.  Audrey remembers almost everything we did on the trips we took when she was 2 and 3, and she still talks about it all the time.  I don't know how much she remembers from actually what we did and how much she remembers from looking at pictures of what we did, but my guess is the latter.  Does it matter whether she remembers doing it or she just remembers doing it because she saw a picture of herself doing it?  I don't think so.  It's one reason why I take so many pictures, so we can remember everything!!  We have photo books printed from our previous trips, and the girls love to look through them still.

Another problem people point out with taking little kids to Disney is that they can't ride on all the rides  This is true.  We will skip many of the big headliners either because the girls are too short or they are too scared.  If we went 3-4 years from now, the girls would probably both be tall enough to ride everything.  But my hunch is that they would still be too scared.  I would like to be wrong about this, and I want to encourage them to try new things and be brave.  But I think it's highly possible that I could be right.  I just don't see either one of them growing up to be the thrill seeking type.  So even if we went when the girls were bigger, there is still a chance we would still be riding the same little kid rides we will ride this year!!  (As a grown up, that is STILL what I prefer, even though I am plenty tall enough to ride everything).  (Also if they do grow brave enough to ride thrill rides, we will be planning a trip to Universal and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!!)

There is a lot of "magic" at Disney World that is really cool for the 2-5 year old crowd.   The characters, the parades, the silly/cheesy shows...all of it is so much fun for a preschooler.  I know there are plenty of older kids and adults who still love all those things as well.  I just feel like a big part of Disney's appeal is geared at the preschool age group.   So I think taking your kids at ages 2-5 is a great idea!  They will have so much fun, and if you take pictures and show them the pictures in years to come, they will remember it too.

On the flip side, Disney is known for doing everything over the top.  It is a pretty intense place in terms of stimulating all of your senses, and that can be overwhelming to a younger child (or any child).   It's definitely smart to take into consideration your child's personality and what will be best for them at Disney.  But this doesn't mean you don't have to go.  You just have to use common sense when planning your day! I'm already thinking through what we can do to help Isla enjoy the experience, as she doesn't always do well in large crowds of people.  And Audrey does not like loud noises or fireworks, so we will most likely be avoiding all the fireworks shows each night.

If your kids are school age, then you also have to take into consideration whether you want to take them out of school or visit during the busier summer and winter breaks (see next section for more on this).  I really wanted to go last spring, before Isla turned three (because she would have been free!) and while Audrey was still in preschool.  But that didn't work for us.  I feel a little guilty because Audrey will miss four days of kindergarten on our upcoming trip.  I feel like we can do this in kindergarten since she doesn't have daily homework or as much responsibility at school.  But as the girls gets older, I don't think I will want to pull them out of school for a Disney trip. So that's another reason why we think it is a good idea to take our trip when the kids are still fairly young.

Overall though, I think Disney does a good job at appealing to a wide age group, so there really is something for most everyone no matter what their age.

What Time of Year to Visit Disney

In recent years, I think it is safe to say that Disney World is crowded year round.  No matter when you go, you will always find crowds.  However, those crowd levels are relative, and there are definitely times of the year where the crowds are higher than others.  Taking into consideration how crowded it will be is probably the number one factor in how I determine when we will go.  I just don't like crowds and prefer to go during the least busy times.

We have only taken our trips in February.  In both 2011 and 2012, we went during the second week of February before President's Day weekend.  I thought it was crowded while we were there.  However, I know that February (with the exception of President's Day weekend which is very crowded) is one of the less busy months at Disney.  So I would hate to ever be there when they are really busy!

Another thing to take into consideration is the weather.  It will be really hot in the summer months.  Weather in the winter months is more unpredictable, and it can be especially rainy during August and September.  We had lovely weather during our trips in February, with highs around 80 and sunshine for every day we were there, but that may not always be the case.  I've had friends take trips in December/January where they were wearing winter coats and gloves one day and shorts/t-shirts the next day.

There are a lot of resources available to help decide the best time of year to go, so I don't feel like I need to go into much detail here.  Generally the busiest times are around Easter during spring breaks, June and July (especially the week of the 4th of July), and the week of Christmas.  This chart is helpful in picking when you want to go based on the crowd levels and weather.

I'm looking forward to our upcoming trip in September as the crowd levels are supposed to be fairly low.  I know the weather is supposed to be pretty hot, and I am a little worried that we will be stuck in a lot of rain or even worse, a hurricane!  But we will buy rain ponchos and be prepared for the downpours!!

Up Next:  Restaurants and Advance Dining Reservations

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Disney World: Finding Extra Money for your Trip

So I mentioned at the beginning of this series that this is a ton of money for us to save.  We've been planning since early in the year, and I have been trying to come up with every possible way that we can earn some extra money!

Both Daniel and I are fortunate to have opportunities to earn a side income, me with piano and photography and him with running sound, so that has helped us a lot to save money.  I'd say a majority of the money from this trip is coming from those little side jobs.  However, I have found some other ways to make additional income for our trip.  It may not seem like a lot when you look at each of these components separately, but added together, it can make a difference!

Save your Pennies
We have been saving all of our change this year!  We started the jar in February when Audrey first told us that she wanted to go to Disney World.  I told her we could go when the jar was filled up!  We've had a few friends and family give us their spare change, and Daniel cashed in a $50 savings bond and got it all in quarters to add to the jar.  The rest of the money is just from collecting our spare change.  Every time I use cash, I have only been using bills.  Then I put all the change straight into the Disney World jar.  I have a bit of a habit of driving through McDonalds and getting a Diet Dr. Pepper for $1.09.  I almost always paid with $2, then put the rest of the change in the jar.  This little habit of never spending change does add up over time!

Today, we filled up the jar!  The total was $181.54.   I was hoping that we had $100 in the jar, so this far exceeded my expectations!

Have a Garage Sale (or Two)
It's no secret that I love to have garage sales.  I love getting rid of extra stuff we don't use, and I love being able to make a little money from it.  For the past few years, I have been having two garage sales per year. And I always manage to find enough stuff to sell!  If you don't have sales as frequently as I do, then you probably have even more stuff to sell with the potential for more profit.
In May, we had a garage sale (and lemonade stand) and made about $150.  This weekend we had another garage sale (and lemonade stand) and made about $115.  All of the proceeds from both of these sales went to our Disney World fund (probably about $25 of it went into our jar mentioned above).

I have friends who make good money selling their kids clothes at consignment stores.  Most likely you will get more for your clothes at consignment stores than at a garage sale.  So that's something to think about if you have a lot of nice kids clothes.

Buy Gift Cards at a Discount

You can purchase Disney gift cards at Target with your Red Card for 5% off.  You can also buy them at Sams Club at 5% off ($150 in gift cards for $142.50).  5% off doesn't seem like much when you are just buying a $50 gift card.  But when you pay for your whole Disney package with 5% off, it can add up.  I purchased $2000 in gift cards and used them to pay for our trip, saving about $100 total.  It's kind of a pain to slowly enter each $50 gift card into the computer system, but saving $100 in the end was worth it for me.

Earn Money by Shopping or Searching the Web
I frequently use several different apps and websites to earn cashback and gift cards.  I didn't plan this as well this year, but I could have saved over $100 towards our trip if I would have used these more purposely.  I would recommend the following:  (In full disclosure, these are all referral links for me.  So if you sign up for any of these, you will be helping me out.  But I'm not sharing these to get the referrals, I just genuinely want to help you save some money!)

  • Swagbucks:  This is my favorite way to earn some extra money, and I have been using Swagbucks for years as my search engine.  Sometimes I do surveys or try some different ways to earn Swagbucks, but most of the time I just earn Swagbucks for searching the web, which is something I would already do anyway.  I generally redeem my Swagbucks for Amazon gift cards, but you could also redeem them for Paypal money too if you want to use the money for a Disney trip.  Since January, I've earned $35 in Amazon gift cards, but you could potentially earn more if you were a more dedicated Swagbucks user.
  • Bing:  This is another site that rewards you for searching the web.  You can earn up to 15 credits per day for doing web searches on your computer (and another 10 for mobile searches).  Then when you have 500 Bing credits, you can redeem them for 500 Swagbucks, which can then be converted into a gift card for Amazon or Paypal or some other retailer of your choosing.  I just started Bing a couple of months ago, and I've earned one $5 Amazon gift card this way so far, plus I'm on my way to a second one.
  • Ebates:  This is one I have used for a long time to earn money back on online purchases.  I especially use it during the Christmas season. I also always order my contacts online, and I always order through ebates to get 8-10% cashback!   Every quarter, your cash is sent to a paypal account.   In the past year, I've earned $32 back using Ebates, and in previous years it has been much more.  Since I started using ebates in 2008, I have gotten $398.69 from them.  Especially if you shop online a lot, this is a super easy way to make money on purchases that you would still make anyway.
  • Ibotta:  Ibotta is an app that gives you cash back for purchases made in stores (and a few online).  Ibotta gives you a list of things to purchase, and then you earn various cash back when you purchase those things.  Using your smartphone, you have to scan the barcode on the items you purchase, and then take a picture of your receipt and send it to them.  You can redeem your money for Paypal cash or various gift cards.    I just started using it in February and I have made $41 so far in my Paypal account.  (You just have to be careful because it is tempting to buy things just so you can get the cash back.  But if you are buying things that you don't need or want, it is really not saving you any money.  So try to only use it for items that you would normally purchase anyway!)
  • Checkout 51:  Checkout 51 is similar to Ibotta, but simpler with a smaller list of things to buy.  So far I have $10 in my account, but you can't cash out for a Paypal check until you get $20.  So I'm still waiting to get money for this one.
If I add up all the things listed above, that is over $600 that we could save for our trip, with the possibility of even more.  I think it's worth the effort to find these little extra ways to earn and save money!!

Next:  When Should We Go to Disney?