An Amazing Family Vacation… Just 30 Minutes Away. Tips for Visiting The Woodlands Resort!

The Woodlands Resort Buildings BigKidSmallCity
(See our updated 2016 post HERE. and 2017 post HERE!)

I think family vacations are hard… coordinating schedules, buying tickets, booking hotels, planning out itineraries and packing every kid thing we might need is overwhelming and probably why we rarely take big family vacations. Besides visiting grandparents, we generally stick to day trips.

The trick with this is, we never really take a break from our daily routine and rarely just enjoy free time as a family.

I thought it had to be hard work and a big trip to enjoy a summer vacation, but I just returned from a weekend at The Woodlands Resort and had my mind changed.

The Woodlands Resort Lake and Decks BigKidSmallCity
The Woodlands Resort invited me out for a week and completely changed my attitude towards family vacations. We had 3 days and 2 nights at the pools, bike trails, spa and restaurants… and felt like we had real deal, hard-to-plan vacation… but all we did was book a room, drive 30 minutes and enjoy.

The Woodlands Resort Waterfall at Slides BigKidSmallCity
I had been to this resort for business conferences, but never for a vacation.  I have to say that rooms are nice, the pools are great and the customer service was amazing.

From letting us check in early (as soon as our room was available), to taking in our bags, to finding us bikes to borrow, to carting us around on golf carts to unlocking our room safe when a certain blanket was mysteriously trapped inside to making crafts by the pool, the staff insisted on helping.

The Woodlands Resort Lazy River Tube BigKidSmallCity
The staff did a good job making sure we could just focus on enjoying the resort.  And this is what we did!

The pools include a lazy river, shallow baby pool, splashpad, giant waterfall pool and the big pool with beach entry, palm tree island and water slides.  All around the pools are lounge chairs and poolside food and drink service… but we never stopped to get a chair… we were too busy!

The Woodlands Resort Lazy River Beach Entry Start BigKidSmallCity
The lazy river was probably our favorite pool. The current is slow at the start and you can float down the river. Half way through you find more beach chairs and a water slide. This “secret” slide generally had no line and was a much faster slide than the ones at the main pool. And by faster, I mean that it shot the kids down like rockets.

The Woodlands Resort Lazy River Fast Slide BigKidSmallCity
The second half of the lazy river had a small wave machine that made the water choppy and more fun to float through. At the end, if you don’t walk towards the beach entry, you get pulled back along the river… which my kids just “accidentally” swam directly into each time around. So around and around we went. Floating, swimming, walking through the river, shooting down the slide, bouncing in the waves… and doing it again and again.

The Woodlands Resort Splashpad and Small Pool BigKidSmallCity
In the middle of the pools was the little kid area, with shallow kids pool, splashpad and craft and activity station.  This was a nice break for me, to watch from the edge while the kids floated and splashed.  Also, during the weekend, the staff had constant crafts and activities planned… so between splashes, the kids make octopus puppets, played mini golf and participated in dive contests.

The Woodlands Resort Pool Crafts BigKidSmallCity
Just steps away was the big beach entry pool and horse shoe shaped waterfall pool.

The Woodlands Resort Slides and Waterfall BigKidSmallCity
At night time, the bonfire pit opened up for smores and the pool became a dive in movie theater.

The Woodlands Resort Smores by the Pool
One night we watched the movie, the next we took a nightime walk around the pools and the lake (and found lots of toads).

The Woodlands Resort Dive In Movie BigKidSmallCity
The nights are so busy at the resort that the mornings are pretty quiet. The pools have just a few families swimming and grounds seem empty. The resort has kid and adult bikes to lend guests to ride the many trails in The Woodlands. This seems to be pretty popular, because the bikes were mostly gone when we arrived each morning.

The Woodlands Resort Bike Rentals
We had brought bikes for the kids and just needed the adult bikes to borrow. Instead of venturing out across busy roads (to the trails), we rode around the quiet resort until we were all ready for the pool.

The Woodlands Resort Waterfall BigKidSmallCity
In addition to the poolside food service, the resort has a a family dining room. When we visited, kids ate free during dinner time (kids 12 and under eat FREE 5-7pm with purchase of adult entrée and kids under 5 are always free). We liked it best when there was a Saturday night buffet, because it had good food and was fast (so we could get back to the fun!).

The Woodlands Resort Dining Room Avocados
Maybe my favorite part of the resort was that our room was right next to the pools. We did not have a pool-facing room, but we were just steps away from the water. We could run in, grab some water, reapply sunscreen and be back out in minutes.

The Woodlands Resort Splashing Out of Slide BigKidSmallCity
See our updated 2016 post HERE. and 2017 post HERE!

If you plan to visit the resort, here are some quick tips to help you plan your trip:

  • There are no lifeguards on duty.  The staff is great with helping you enjoy your trip, but you must plan to watch your kids in the water.
  • Floaties and toys are allowed.  Feel free to bring noodles and small water toys.
  • Tubes are provided for the lazy river, but just in the big size.  My kids slipped through (often on purpose)… but if yours truly want to float down the river, bring a small innertube.
  • Bring your life vests if you need them… but if you forget, ask the staff.  We left ours in the car on our first trip to the pool and when we asked the woman at the towel station, she found some vests behind the bar for us to borrow.
  • Wear sandals!  The sidewalks are super hot in the middle of the day.  Bring some cheap flip flops that you don’t mind (potentially) losing.  It makes walking between pools much nicer, and you can kick them off before you jump in.
  • To use the slides, kids need to be 42″… My 3 year old was just shy of this at the front pool… but at the back “secret” lazy river slide, he was just over the mark.  He was certain he had grown between the front and back of the resort.  You might want to check out the back slide if you have the same issue at the front slide.
  • No outside food is allowed by the pools… but we brought our own groceries for snacks and a light lunch to eat in the room.  We stored them in the mini-fridge and this saved us some money (because my kids are eating-machines).  We also brought in gallons of water to be sure we stayed hydrated.
  • Bring lots of sunscreen and run back to your (very close) room every hour to reapply, get a drink and eat a snack.
  • The bike rentals were popular.  If you are not flexible on time or bike size, bring your own bikes.  (Bike rentals are included in the Resort Fee from Memorial Day – Labor Day.  Other times it’s $5 per bike for up to 4 hours.)
  • Mornings were very quiet at the resort.  When we visited, you could have the pool (almost) to yourself at 8:00am.
  • See our updated 2016 post HERE!

If you go, tell us about it!  If you are looking for more easy roadtrip ideas, go HERE!

The Woodlands Resort Lazy River BigKidSmallCity
 

The Woodlands Resort Lazy River Slide BigKidSmallCity
 

The Woodlands Resort Pool Ping Pong Table BigKidSmallCity
 

Address: 2301 North Millbend Drive, The Woodlands, Texas 77380


Kid Friendly Texas Vacation: Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera!

Lodge at Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera
If you are looking for a kid-friendly vacation in Texas, we have a great place for you: Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera, Texas.

Get those cowboy boots, shirts and jeans out of the closet and head to the “Cowboy Capital of the World”, aka Bandera just 47 miles north-west of San Antonio. The Mayan Dude Ranch has been around for a long, long time.

My husband used to go when he was a kid. So when my in-laws wanted to have a family reunion this summer, they chose this wonderful place. The ranch is run by the same family, the Hicks and everyone working there makes you feel like you are part of their family too!

Cabin at Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera
As you drive to the ranch among beautiful hills and horses, you will start feeling like everything is taken care of for you. You can choose between cute cabins throughout the property or a two-story lodge (where we actually stayed).

Stone Cabin Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera
The décor is simple and rustic but the rooms offer all the comfort you need. We chose a double attached room that had a king size bed and two double beds, two full bathrooms and a lot of storage. But you will soon realize that you won’t be spending much time there!

Inside Cabin at Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera
At check-in, we picked up the schedule of the day and my son was excited by everything! Mornings and afternoons, they offer horse rides at the corral. Their horses are very friendly and the cowboys know which horse is right for you.

Horses at Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera
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Tips for DisneyLAND with Kids – Where to Stay, What to Do & How to Make the Most of your Trip!

Disneyland Mickey and Minnie from The Mouse Trip
No long ago, Emily gave us 7 easy steps for making the most of our trip to DisneyWORLD… but what about DisneyLAND? Many of the tips, like the best age for a first visit, still apply… but Disneyland is a very different place and what do we need to know before making the long trip and spending the money?

Lucky for us, Houston Mom and Disney Travel Agent, Amanda, has the tips we need!  She works for TMC Travel – The Mouse Connection and plans Disney trips for FREE.

Look below for the 6 Steps to a great DisneyLAND vacation!

Disneyland Castle from The Mouse Trip
1.  Know Where You’re Going:
Disneyland resort in Anaheim, California is made up of two theme parks. Disneyland Park is the first Disney park ever built and is home to the iconic Cinderella’s Castle as well as 8 themed lands for you to explore. You’ll find MainStreet U.S.A, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Mickey’s Toontown, Frontierland, Critter Country, New Orleans Square,and Adventureland.

The second of the two parks is Disney California Adventure Park which also has 8 unique lands! You’ll find Buena Vista Street, Cars Land, Grizzly Peak, Grizzly Peak Airfield, Paradise Pier, Pacific Wharf, “a bug’s land”, and Hollywood Land.

2.  Stay Close:
The three Disneyland Resort Hotels (the Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier, the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa) are all the most conveniently located and put you right inside the magic! There are also some great “Good Neighbor” hotels that are within blocks of Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park. There is a property for every budget and plenty of suite options for larger families!

3.  Get There Early:
Arrive just prior to park opening and get your day started out right! Less crowds in the early morning means your family can see and do more in less time. Also take advantage of the Magic Morning hours that can get you into the parks even earlier if you are a guest of a Disneyland resort hotel or Good Neighbor property!

4.  FASTPASS:
The current* fastpass system for the Disneyland Resort parks consists of machines that give you a paper “ticket” with a return time. You return to the designated ride during your assigned timeframe and enjoy the benefit of skipping the regular (standby) line. This is a great way to save time and not spend your whole day standing in line!

5.  Take a Break:
I always suggest taking an afternoon break to swim, rest, and just get refreshed before heading back out for some evening magic! If you’ve purchased park hopper tickets you can start your day at one park and then head to another after your mid day recharge!

6.  My #1 Disneyland Tip…..BE PREPARED
When people ask me what I do as a travel agent that specializes in Disney Vacations I tell them “I help people do Disney the prepared way”! I assist my clients in building the perfect vacation package, guide them through dining and fastpass choices, and make sure they have the latest and greatest Disney information.

Things are always changing and there is a LOT of outdated information on the internet. My clients are given the most updated information to make sure they save time and money while making memories!

Find me at MouseTrip and email me at amanda@goTMCtravel.com!

*The fastpass system mentioned as a tip above is slated to change over to the new Fastpass+ system (currently at Disneyworld in Florida). No date has been set for these changes, but they are coming.
Head over to MouseTrip to keep up to date on the latest and greatest Disney information and let me help you save time and money by doing Disney the prepared way!


The Perfect Walt Disney World Vacation: Purchase your Disney tickets and get the dining reservations you want!

Hollywood Studios Walt Disney World
If you are like us, you’ve thought about a family vacation to Walt Disney World, but want it to be perfect.  For the money and the travel, it’s important to me that the visit be magical.  Lucky for us, Emily with 365 Things to Do in Houston knows a lot about taking kids to Disney World!

This post is about reserving your tickets and making that trip happen!  So you can follow along, here are all 7 steps to planning your perfect vacation:

Step One – Decide on a date and length of stay!
Step Two – Decide on what age is best for your child’s first Disney visit!  
Step Three – Select the best place to stay near Disney! 
Step Four – Decide on the best Disney tickets to purchase. 
Step Five – Make the visit easier and consider the Dining Plan. 
Step Six – Pick our your Disney Experiences for the best visit ever. 
Step Seven – Make Disney reservations as early as possible. – Look below!

 

Step Seven – Make Disney reservations as early as possible! 

I like calling the Disney reservation number (407) 939-7675 where I can talk to someone regarding my reservations. They can sometimes offer some extra insight into your plans and answer any questions. However, the Disney website offers a step by step reservation process.

If interested in the meal plan or in dining at some of their amazing restaurants, you will also want to make dining reservations. They can be made 180 days before your arrival day, so the farther out you plan your trip, the better. And Disney now uses Magic Bands which allow you to reserve “Fast Passes” for top rides to minimize your wait in line. Definitely a plus!

Finally, there are a few fun dress-up activities that require advance reservations. But once again, advanced reservations are so helpful in maximizing your experience and allow you to select the day and time you want instead of getting what is available. The farther out you can plan Disney trips, the better!

Get started HERE or by calling (407) 939-7675!


The Perfect Walt Disney World Vacation: Pick our your Disney Experiences for the best visit ever.

Emily Family with Cinderella at Disney World
If you are like us, you’ve thought about a family vacation to Walt Disney World, but want it to be perfect.  For the money and the travel, it’s important to me that the visit be magical.  Lucky for us, Emily with 365 Things to Do in Houston knows a lot about taking kids to Disney World!

More than the rides, I am interested in the experiences.  I want to see my daughter light up as she is transformed into a princess and I want my son to beam with pride as he earns badges and becomes a real Wilderness Explorer.  So, what do I need I need to plan for before our trip?

This post is on picking the best Disney Experiences!  So you can follow along, here are all 7 steps to planning your perfect vacation:

Step One – Decide on a date and length of stay!
Step Two – Decide on what age is best for your child’s first Disney visit!
Step Three – Select the best place to stay near Disney! 
Step Four – Decide on the best Disney tickets to purchase. 
Step Five – Make the visit easier and consider the Dining Plan.
Step Six – Pick our your Disney Experiences for the best visit ever. – Read below!
Step Seven – Make Disney reservations as early as possible. 

Step Six – Pick our your Disney Experiences for the best visit ever. 

There is so much more to the Disney Parks than just the rides and the shows.  Disney prides itself on creating memories and they provide many different opportunities to do so.  Here are a few of the experiences my family has enjoyed over the years.

Keep reading to learn about:

  • Meeting the characters (for brave and timid kids)
  • Photo and Autograph books (plus bags and pens)
  • PhotoPass Cards
  • Becoming the Characters (Princesses, pirates and more)
  • Starwars Weekends
  • Steering your kids toward (and away from) the many souvenir collections
  • Trading pins with cast members
  • Interactive Quests
  • Holiday Festivities

 

Meeting Mulan Walt Disney World
Meeting Characters:
This has been one of the highlights of our trips over the years.  As I mentioned in the beginning, the moment our oldest daughter met Mulan for the first time still stands out as one of our favorite Disney memories.  She was almost 3 years old and Mulan was her favorite princess and hero at that time.  And even as our daughter has gotten older, she still makes a point of meeting Mulan and taking a picture with her during every trip.  I definitely encourage you to take advantage of these moments and to be prepared.

First, purchase an official Photo and Autograph book.  You can get these in advance at The Disney Store, on their website, or at almost any store at Walt Disney World.  We typically have the kids pick out an autograph book from the hotel gift shop on the day of our arrival.  It has become one of our traditions and a great activity after a day of travel.

I highly encourage you to get autograph books that include a photo spot, especially with younger kids.  These books end up being great souvenirs and serve as a mini photo album of the trip.  My little ones happily “read” the autographs and enjoyed the corresponding pictures of each character.  The stores do sell plain autograph books and they do have more actual pages allowing for more autographs.  We did try this one year, but the kids only revisit the books with the photos, even now at the ages of 10, 8, and 5.

Another important advance purchase is a pen that does not smear.  During our first trip, I brought Sharpies thinking this was a good choice.  However, many of the characters’ “hands” would still cause the ink to smear making for a slightly messy signature.  The parks do sell fun pens that can be purchased with the autograph books, but make sure to test it for smearing.

I also encourage bringing a large Ziploc bag (or two) from home.  There are occasional rain showers and many opportunities to get splashed on rides or at cooling stations.  It is nice to be able to seal the autograph book up if needed, even if kept within a backpack.

Also, for any scrapbookers out there, one year I brought a pad of colored “mat stack” sheets on the trip and had the characters autograph a sheet from it as well.  Once we had returned from the trip, I was able to include their autographs in my scrapbook.  It was such a neat effect to have the signature with photos of the characters hugging the kids, signing the book, and then posing with them afterwards.

One thing to mention is that our middle child was much more unsettled about meeting the characters when he was two.  (Although as an infant, he seemed more comfortable with it.)  All our attempts to get pictures with all of his favorite characters had him crying or pulling away.

So, we learned a few things that helped improve everyone’s experience that trip.  If enjoying a character meal, do not place your child on the outside of the table where the characters will be meeting them.  Seat your nervous little ones on the inside, away from the main pathway, where they can watch and wave at the characters but still have plenty of personal space.  Also, if your child is feeling brave enough to get close enough for a picture, get in the picture with the kids but place your nervous one in your arms and on the opposite side of the character.  We were able to catch a few good pictures by the end of the trip using this method.

Next, at most character experiences, you will encounter an official PhotoPass Photographer.  You are still welcome to take pictures with your camera.  However, these photographers are there to also offer their services.  The photographers will typically ask if you have a PhotoPass card.

The first time this happens, definitely accept the card from them.  They will link any pictures they take of your family’s character interactions to this account.  You will keep the card and then hand it to the next photographer next time this happens.  New photos will then be added to your account and so on.

You can have multiple PhotoPass cards if need be (yes, we have been known to leave them back at the hotel the following day), and you are under no obligation to buy any pictures they take.  However, having another set of pictures to choose from is a rather nice option.  As we all know, kids are challenging to photograph.  Photopass has proved to be a “life saver” after we have gone through our photos after our trip and found that one of the kids has their eyes closed with their favorite character.

The photographers are always great at getting family shots (without characters) too.  Family pictures in front of the castle are always a tradition on our trips.  You can view all the pictures at various spots around the parks and at home on your computer.  You can purchase all the photos, select just a few prints, or create an album complete with Disney clipart.

Finally, like I mentioned in the Dining Plan step, I believe that character meals are a wonderful alternative to waiting in line.  The parks have improved their Character Experiences over the years and many of the “top” characters have permanent meeting spots with interactive waiting areas and/or FastPass options.  However, you can make advance dining reservations at a different restaurant every day and get most of the “top” characters in at just a few delicious meals.

For example, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto are all part of a meal at Chef Mickey’s at The Contemporary Resort.  (Explore the website and/or the guide book for character specifics for other meals.)  By combining meals with character experiences, it frees up more time for other fun activities and makes the lines to meet other characters more tolerable.

Disney World Bibbid Bobbid Boutique Makeover
Becoming Characters:
A trip to Walt Disney World is not just about meeting the characters.  Your kids can become the characters in a variety of “dress up” opportunities.

Visiting Bibbid Bobbidi Boutique is the quintessential Disney dress up experience for your little one.  This is where your daughter can be transformed into a princess with every bit of “magic” that you can imagine.      There are a variety of packages to choose from covering an assortment of hairstyles and accessories (and prices).

The most expensive choice includes the price of a costume and a photo package.  We have chosen to go with that option with our daughters as it seems to enhance the experience, truly creating the “fairy godmother-in-training’s” magical transformation.   However, a great money saving option is to bring your own princess dress from home.

This is the one place where it is normal to find countless girls dressed in their very best princess attire traipsing through the parks (Bibbid Bobbidi Boutique created or not).  And if your son is interested in being “knighted,” Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique also offers The Knight Package, a simple, low cost option that includes a funky gel hairstyle, some confetti, and a sword and shield.

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique has two locations and advanced reservations are a MUST.  Just like dining reservations, you can call 180 days in advance from the start of your stay.  Although they sometimes have availability closer to your trip, the farther out you make your reservations, the better it is and the more options you have.

No princess fans in your family?  Never fear, The Pirates League is here.  This is a great alternative to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique located near The Pirates of Caribbean ride in Magic Kingdom.  Here kids (and even adults) can join the “Pirates League” by being transformed into their preference of swashbuckler, from a fierce looking pirate to Disney Junior’s very own Jake.  Girls have some great options too with a pirate or mermaid look to choose from.

During our last trip, my oldest daughter felt “too cool” to dress up like a princess and found The Pirates League to be the perfect answer.  It was mainly hair and makeup with a few fun accessories, just the right combination of dress up and magic.  Once again, advanced reservations are needed.  I do not think The Pirates League has the same demand as Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, but the sooner you make the reservations, the better.

Jedi Academy Training at Walt Disney World
Star Wars:
I am proud to admit that we are a Star Wars family, which made it all that more exciting when we “accidentally” experienced Star Wars Weekends at Hollywood Studios during one of our summer Disney trips.    I had read about it before and thought it sounded neat, but our vacation time was not purposely selected for this event.  It was just a good time for our extended family to join us.

So there we were, waiting to enter the park on a Saturday in June when we spotted a Storm Trooper standing guard above the entrance.  Immediately we discovered the fun of Star Wars Weekend.  Throughout the park, Star Wars characters were seen walking around.  Guests were dressed up in their favorite Star Wars gear as well.  Even Mickey Mouse and his friends were dressed for the occasion!

Our favorite part was watching the parade, which included featured actors and actresses along with the characters, come to a conclusion with the arrival of Darth Vader and his Storm Troopers marching down the path to “The Imperial March”.

Needless to say, this accidental discovery quickly became inspiration for our next Disney trip, this time purposely choosing a dates that overlapped a Star Wars Weekend to enjoy all the festivities.  And since our last trip, Disney has started having Star Wars character meals during this time frame too.

You can eat breakfast with actual Star Wars characters or dinner with Mickey and friends dressed up in Star Wars costumes.  What a fun way to further enjoy Star Wars Weekends!  If you are a Star Wars family like us and are interested in experiencing this intergalactic fun, it is important that you know crowds are a little higher during Star Wars Weekends.  I did find that it was a little more manageable when going to Hollywood Studios on a Friday instead of the Saturday or Sunday option.

Star Wars Weekends is not the only fun experience for Star Wars fans though.  Besides the Star Wars themed area of Hollywood Studios (which is rumored to expand as the new movies are in the works) that includes one of our favorite Disney World rides (Star Tours), Jedi Training Academy is held every day throughout the year.   It is a first come, first serve sign up process, but worth the early morning rush to the park to get a spot for your Padawan.

This has been the highlight for our son over the past few trips, as he learns some lightsaber skills, helps battle Darth Vader, and becomes an official Jedi.  And as parents, seeing his whole face light up he soaks in and enjoys all the details of his Jedi Training has been one of our favorite Disney memories.

Finally, you will find another fun, yet simple Star Wars activity in the Hollywood Studios store Tatooine Traders, located at the exit of the Star Tours ride.  Here you can build your very own Astromech Droid (think R2D2) action figure, complete with a Disney themed hat if desired.  These little droids have joined my son’s Star Wars toy universe and have proven to be a great, interactive souvenir over the years.  You can also build your own lightsaber at Tatooine Traders, another highlight for Star Wars fans young and old.  So as you leave the Star Tours ride, stop to look around this store and consider creating some iconic souvenirs.

Disney World Lanyards
Collections:
As you are probably all aware, Disney is the master at merchandising.  And Walt Disney World is full of amazing stuff to commemorate your trip.  There is definitely a souvenir for every person and personality.  However, as a mom, I want to prepare you for the possible collections your children may discover they “need” immediately upon seeing it at every store at the parks.  With a little advance warning, you might be able to develop a plan and steer your children in a more desired direction that fits your family’s needs and wants.

Magic Bands Accessories – As Disney has now combined your ticket, room key, payment form, and fastpass into one amazing Magic Band, your will find tons of options to decorate and personalize your band.  Magic Bandits are the easiest and most common (and they remind me of the Jibbitz you can buy to decorate Crocs).

Pins and lanyards – Perhaps one of the longer running collections at the parks, guests and cast members (Disney World employees) wear lanyards covered with pins.  Pins can be collected or traded (all cast members can be asked).  When my kids were little, we bought them lanyards and let them select favorite character pins each day to decorate the lanyards.  Then as they have gotten older, they have chosen different themes to focus on during our trips.

For example, my son picked Star Wars themed pins, my youngest daughter wanted only princesses pins, and my oldest daughter picked her pins for each of her favorite rides.  Lanyards can be purchased at most stores (including the hotel gift shops) so it can be an early purchase like the autograph books at the start of your trip.  There are even a couple of starter pack options you can order from The Disney Store’s website if interested, like this pirate themed one.  Definitely have a plan established before your trip though so you won’t hear a constant “Can I get another pin?” each day.

Disney Racers – This is one of our favorite souvenirs for the kids and yet probably not as well known.    Disney Racers are matchbox cars inspired by Disney characters or Disney Parks rides.  Not only are Disney Racers easy to fit in a bag or suitcase for the trip home (something to consider when traveling), they are an affordable and fun option for kids.

Duffy the Disney Bear – Duffy is a cute, stuffed bear available at most stores in the parks and online.  He has a back story and is even a character you can meet at Epcot.  There are a variety of outfits and accessories you can buy for Duffy (think Build-A-Bear) and your kids will see them everywhere.  I think it is a great collection choice for your child who always wants a stuffed animal. You can get one bear and dress it up a variety of ways instead of purchasing multiple stuffed animals.

Vinylmation – These little figurines are found at almost every store, but not something we have purchased yet.  However this might change during our next trip.  Vinylmation figurines might be more appealing to older kids with their funky style.

Coins – Walt Disney World is filled with Disney themed pressed coin machines throughout the parks and the hotels.  This is an easy, interactive and inexpensive souvenir if you come prepared with some extra coins.  And now you can actually purchase a holder for your pressed coin collection from many of the stores in the park.  It is a small, vinyl book with clear, mini pockets to display and keep pressed pennies and even quarters.  Here is an example of one that we own.

There are many other areas of merchandise to collect and enjoy that you and your kids may discover during your trip.  Charm bracelets, Christmas ornaments, hats, and even artwork are just a few other souvenir collections that come to mind.  Hopefully this added awareness will help you be prepared when navigating the stores with the kids!

Interactive Quests:
On our last trip, I discovered Disney World had five interactive “quests” at three of their parks.  Each of these quests gives guests a different mission or way to explore the parks.  Although we have not yet done all of these, I think they are such a fun way to make your Disney trip more memorable, especially with school aged children.

You can be a Sorcerer of the Magic Kingdom or go on a Pirate Adventure to hunt for the Treasure of the Seven Seas in Adventureland.  At Epcot, you can join Agent P’s mission to stop Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s evil plans (inspired by The Disney Channel’s “Phineas and Ferb”) as you explore the World Showcase.  Or, your kids can collect stamps and enjoy a craft at any or all of the 11 Kidcot Fun Stops.  Finally, inspired by the Disney Pixar movie “Up,” guests can become official Wilderness Explorers by earning badges through fact finding challenges at Animal Kingdom.

Disney World Cinderella Castle during the holidays
Holiday Festivities:  
Visiting Walt Disney World during the holidays is truly magical.  The entire resort completely transforms into a holiday wonderland.  Christmas decorations go up soon after Halloween, so if you are given an opportunity to visit the parks in November or December, you will still get to enjoy the festive atmosphere.

One of our trips was during the holiday season when my kids were 2 and 4 years old.  They loved the blending of Disney and Christmas magic!  We did attend Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party one night (a separate ticket) to see it snow on Main Street and enjoy hot cocoa and cookies while watching the nighttime Christmas parade.

Yes, it was just as picturesque and neat as it sounds, but it was also very crowded and overwhelming to our tired toddler and preschooler.  Much of the event was lost on them as they were fighting to stay awake.  So as magical as this event was, I encourage you to wait until your kids are older to fully enjoy the experience.

Halloween brings some extra festivities as well with Mickey’s Not–So-Scary Halloween Party.  Yes, it is “not so scary” so little ones can enjoy it.  However, it is similar to the Christmas Party (separate ticket to attend the nighttime party) so I would also encourage you to wait until after the toddler/preschooler years to take the whole family to it.

Finally, Epcot hosts two amazing festivals each year – the International Food and Wine Festival in the fall and the International Flower and Garden Festival in the spring.  These two festivals obviously appeal more to adults, but having been during the spring multiple times, the kids do enjoy seeing all of the extra flowers and topiaries around the park.  The Flower and Garden Festival also typically includes a small, Disney inspired playground in the park too, which is a great place for your toddler to wiggle and move while older siblings go on the “big kid” rides.

Lady and the Tramp topiary during the international garden show in the spring at epcot Disney World


The Perfect Walt Disney World Vacation: Make Meals Easy with the Dining Plan!

Eating with Mickey at Walt Disney World
If you are like us, you’ve thought about a family vacation to Walt Disney World, but want it to be perfect.  For the money and the travel, it’s important to me that the visit be magical.  Lucky for us, Emily with 365 Things to Do in Houston knows a lot about taking kids to Disney World!

The part of the Disney vacation I’m excited about is not the rides… it’s the magic and the dining.  I want to see the Pirates of the Caribbean and get “It’s a Small World” stuck in my head… but what I really want is to take my kids to brunch and have their favorite characters stop by their table.  And how cool would it be to go breakfast in the park, before it is even open to the public?  And can you imagine dining at a fancy French restaurant, with worn out kids, and not getting one sideways glance?  Emily tells us how to do all of this!

This post is on deciding on the Dining Plan!  So you can follow along, here are all 7 steps to planning your perfect vacation:

Step One – Decide on a date and length of stay!
Step Two – Decide on what age is best for your child’s first Disney visit!  
Step Three – Select the best place to stay near Disney! 
Step Four – Decide on the best Disney tickets to purchase. 
Step Five – Make the visit easier and consider the Dining Plan. – Look below!
Step Six – Pick our your Disney Experiences for the best visit ever. 
Step Seven – Make Disney reservations as early as possible. 

 

Step Five – Make the visit easier and consider the Dining Plan!

The dining plan is a tricky part of trip planning. Here is a link to the official description and details.  Some people love it and some people don’t. And then it can also be very confusing and overwhelming deciding on what is best for your family. I will give you our opinion and a few suggestions that will hopefully help you decide.

We absolutely LOVE the dining plan. In my family’s opinion, (immediate and extended), it makes everything so much easier. You have one card (now magic bands) that serves as your room key, ticket, and meal card, and you don’t have to worry about pulling out cash for each meal or a pricey credit card bill in a few months. It is all paid for with your plan.

And, like most tourist destinations, Disney does mark up the price of food and drink items considerably. So, what might be a $6 meal at McDonald’s ends up being a $12 meal at a “quick service” place at the parks.

We also really like eating “table service” meals while at Disney World. It is one of our favorite parts of our Disney trips. It is a nice break in the day and there are so many great restaurants at the parks.

I also love that we can essentially have a fine dining experience in very casual clothing with young, picky, and typically tired children, and it is seen as normal. I don’t think I would have ever eaten at a French restaurant with my kids before Disney World! The kids menus gave them healthy and appealing options and we were not out of place.

Also, by getting the meal plan, you are essentially paying a set price for your meals per day. So, when eating a “table service” meal, you get a great deal more value for your plan. Most of these meals cost way more than what you pay per person for the meal plan. We ate several, very expensive meals and only had to pay for the tip (and alcohol when applicable). Those meals alone made the dining plan worth while.

Table service meals are also a great way to meet and interact with the characters while at the park. At character meals (which are always table service meals), the characters come to your table so there is no waiting in line – a much nicer way to experience your favorite characters.

The breakfast buffets are all really yummy too. Some of our favorite foods were eaten at the breakfast buffets. And these count as table service meals, so once again these make the plan worth it. I did find a website a few years ago that gives you the price per day and it helps give you an idea how easy it would be to eat more than that amount.

The “snack” options can be confusing. Some people feel they don’t use them all. But, we always end up using them throughout the trip, even if we have to stock up on water bottles and other “treats” that can be packed in suitcases for our travels (like specialty rice krispy treats or bags of pretzels) to use up any remaining ones.

I don’t think people realize that you are alloted so many meals and snacks per night of your reservation, but that it doesn’t matter what day you use them. It is just a total count for your whole stay, including the day you arrive. Once we learned that, we were able to plan our meals accordingly.

So, now to help you decide what is best for your family…
1. Do table service meals sound appealing to you?
If yes, I would do either the Disney Dining Plan or the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan without a doubt and plan to eat at least one table service meal once a day (or more).

2. Are you big breakfast eaters?
If yes, I would definitely get the Deluxe Dining Plan that would entitle you to more than one table service meal a day (breakfast buffets and a table service meal for lunch or dinner).

3. Does your family have any desire to see the characters?
If yes, I would do the Disney Dining Plan or the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan that includes the table service meals.

4. Would you rather stick to fast food and not mess with sit down restaurants?
If yes, the Disney Quick Service Dining Plan is a good option but not a must. It would cover some of the costs but not keep you trapped. Check this to see if the price per person sounds like it is worth the value to you.

 

Making Advance Dining Reservations…
When we go to Disney World, we get the Deluxe Dining Plan that allows us to have multiple table service meals a day. Once again, we love the meals as much as the rides.

Meal times are very important to me as a mom since kids are much happier when they have eaten. I have learned through experience that the timing of the reservation does matter. Even with reservations, you may have to wait 10-15 minutes before being seated. And then a true “table service” meal can last up two hours, so you almost want to plan your meal times with the end time in mind, not just the beginning.

I also have learned that no matter how tired the kids are, when they are young, they will continue to wake up at an early hour. Go with that and start early.

Also, when your breakfast is at a restaurant in the park, you are allowed to enter the park before it opens and get a neat perspective of everything before the crowds arrive. Some of our favorite pictures are done during this before hours time.

 

So with all of this in mind, here is my plan for each day…

  • Table Service/Breakfast Buffet – around 8 or 8:30am (depending on location or how far away the restaurant is from the hotel since you have to allow time to get there)
  • Quick Service meal for lunch or an assortment of snacks – mid-day
  • Table Service meal for dinner – around 5 or 5:30pm

Depending on reservation availability and where we want to eat, we sometimes will end up having to switch it up a bit…

  • Quick Service meal at the hotel for a light breakfast before heading out
  • Table Service lunch – around 11-11:30am (you make this as early as possible so you have time to eat and be hungry again for dinner)
  • Table Service meal for dinner – around 5 or 5:30pm

Selecting the restaurants…

Way in advance, we go through our guidebook or the website reading the restaurant descriptions and menus and make a list of our top choices according to park location. Many of our favorite restaurants are hard to get reservations at, so it is important to start with those when making your advance dining reservations and let the availability of those restaurants determine the plan for the rest of the day.

For example, eating breakfast at Cinderella’s Castle is a must if you have a princess fan in your family. So when I call to make reservations, I ask for our preferred early morning time. Whatever day we get those reservations is the day that we visit Magic Kingdom and then I try to get a dinner at another desired Magic Kingdom restaurant.

Then, we move on to our top choice for an Epcot meal and so on. Once we have the top restaurant reservations made and a tentative itinerary for park visits, we fill in the other meals. We also make a point of enjoying a Table Service meal at or near our hotel for the night of our arrival. After a long day of travel and fast food, it is such a nice treat and a great way to start the trip.

I can give you a list of our preferred restaurants if you are interested and I do strongly recommend you go online or call to make the reservations as soon as you decide on your dates. Reservations can be made up to 180 days prior to your arrival date and some of the top places book fast, especially the character meals. So the farther out you can make your vacation plans, the better.


The Perfect Walt Disney World Vacation: What tickets do you need for seeing all the parks and visiting Disney with kids?

Epcot Center Walt Disney World
If you are like us, you’ve thought about a family vacation to Walt Disney World, but want it to be perfect.  For the money and the travel, it’s important to me that the visit be magical.  Lucky for us, Emily with 365 Things to Do in Houston knows a lot about taking kids to Disney World!

There are a lot of options when it comes to Disney tickets.  You have basic, one park tickets, you have multi-park, multi-day tickets… and options like dining plans on top of that.  So what is best?

This post is on deciding on what options you need for your Disney Tickets!  So you can follow along, here are all 7 steps to planning your perfect vacation:

Step One – Decide on a date and length of stay!
Step Two – Decide on what age is best for your child’s first Disney visit!  
Step Three – Select the best place to stay near Disney! 
Step Four – Decide on the best Disney tickets to purchase. – Look below!
Step Five – Make the visit easier and consider the Dining Plan.
Step Six – Pick our your Disney Experiences for the best visit ever. 
Step Seven – Make Disney reservations as early as possible. 

Step Four – Decide on the best Disney tickets to purchase.

Base tickets include one theme park per day admission. However, they give you options to design your own ticket (officially called “Magic Your Way”). For example, you can add the “Park Hopper Option” which would allow you to switch parks during a day, a convenient perk we always get and that I highly encourage.

This is also where you can add water park admission. If staying at a Disney resort, this is where you can add the type of meal plan you would like (more details to come later).

Again, try to allow at least one day for each of the four parks and have an extra day to go back if you missed something or want to do a favorite ride again.


The Perfect Walt Disney World Vacation: Where is the best place to stay, with kids, at Disney World?

Post updated 6/18/17.

Fireworks at Walt Disney World
If you are like us, you’ve thought about a family vacation to Walt Disney World, but want it to be perfect.  For the money and the travel, it’s important to me that the visit be magical.  Lucky for us, Emily with 365 Things to Do in Houston knows a lot about taking kids to Disney World!

As a kid my family visited Disney World and stayed at one offsite hotel… and I remember being very jealous as we cruised through the Disney Resorts on the monorail.  Easy access to the parks, giant pools, lots of Disney magic… and quick trips “home” for parents with exhausted kids.  So… I asked Emily for her recommendations on places to stay!

This post is on deciding the place to stay during your Disney vacation!  So you can follow along, here are all 7 steps to planning your perfect vacation:

Step One – Decide on a date and length of stay!
Step Two – Decide on what age is best for your child’s first Disney visit!  
Step Three – Select the best place to stay near Disney! – Read below!
Step Four – Decide on the best Disney tickets to purchase. 
Step Five – Make the visit easier and consider the Dining Plan. 
Step Six – Pick our your Disney Experiences for the best visit ever. 
Step Seven – Make Disney reservations as early as possible. 

Step Three – Select the best place to stay near Disney!

I highly recommend staying on property at a Disney hotel. They are amazing!  They have four different categories of hotels (value, moderate, deluxe, and deluxe villa), so there is a hotel to fit any budget and need.  All categories provide great lodging, have fun themes, larger than life pool areas, and offer the convenience of free transportation to and from the Disney parks.

Some of the moderate hotels even have specialty rooms now, taking themes one step further (like a pirate themed room at the Caribbean Beach Resort, complete with pirate ship beds, or a princess themed room at Port Orleans Resort).

Their newest hotel, Art of Animation, is a “value resort” but it offers a great suite option providing three beds and two full bathrooms (including one queen size bed and bathroom being separated by a door so kids can have their own sleep space separate from parents).

These family suites come in 3 different Disney movie themes (Nemo, Cars, and Lion King) making it even more exciting for kids.  Also, by staying on property, you can add the meal plan to your package (more about that later).

In addition, you get extra hours at the theme parks and complimentary transportation to and from the Orlando airport (“Magical Express”).

Next time you visit the Disney World website, start with Where To Stay and browse through the various resorts to find the one (or ones) that appeals to you the most. Because there is a big jump in price with each of the categories, I would suggest narrowing it down to a category (value, moderate, deluxe, or deluxe villas) and I can give you my top choices for that level if you are interested.

Or if you narrow it down to a few resorts overall (across all categories), I can give you pros and cons for your choices. The guidebook also gives simple, great descriptions of the many hotels if you want another perspective.

If, after viewing the Disney World website, you decide the prices are a bit too expensive, one extra tip I have that’s not included in the guidebook is renting a deluxe villa (also known as a Disney timeshare) through a private owner. This is the perfect way to enjoy all the added benefits and perks of staying at a luxury Disney resort, like the Animal Kingdom Villas, on a budget. You can find rates up to 60% off Disney prices on resale websites like SellMyTimeshareNow.com, and still gain the ability to stay right in the park. Disney timeshare villas are also available for sale through current owners, allowing you to own a piece of Disney and come back every year to your favorite resort for less.

If the meal plan does not appeal to you and you are interested in staying at a non-Disney hotel, we once stayed at an extremely nice Hilton, located adjacent to Downtown Disney. It also provides bus transportation and a few other perks that not all the nearby chain hotels offer, and it allows one to use “points” if desired – another great money-saving tip. However, you cannot get the meal plan or enjoy the “Magical Express” when staying at an “off property” hotel.

My favorite hotels to stay at with young children are the hotels located on the monorail adjacent to Magic Kingdom – the Contemporary (my personal favorite), the Polynesian Village, and the Grand Floridian.  All three are considered Deluxe Resorts, and all three have (or will have) Villa accommodations – a great choice when traveling with extended family due to the room layouts and pricing.

All Disney property hotels provide complimentary transportation to and from all the parks.  However, these monorail hotels have the most convenient form of transportation to Magic Kingdom (the favorite among the kids) and to Epcot, with bus rides to the other parks and locations around the resort.

Traveling with young children, I quickly realized that once they hit that point of exhaustion, you want to get back to the hotel as quickly and easily as possible.  Also, if able to stay at one of these hotels, selecting a room with a Magic Kingdom view allows the family to watch the nightly fireworks show from your room.

I found this to be extremely beneficial with my three kids.  We would return to our hotel and get ready for bed.  The oldest child could happily “stay up” to see the fireworks, the middle child was able to stay awake long enough at least once to catch the show and then quickly get to bed, and the baby was already sound asleep.

Now as the kids are getting older, we have a little more wiggle room with evening activities, but nothing beats watching the fireworks from the comfort of your room after a fun day at the park.

My favorite place to stay now with older kids, is one of the Deluxe resorts near Epcot – Boardwalk, Yacht, or Beach Club.  They are in walking distance (or a short boat ride away) to the back of Epcot and to Hollywood Studios.

Since the kids are older, they do better with walking.  They also have a greater appreciation and love for Epcot and Hollywood Studios and enjoy going to those parks multiple times.  You miss the hotel room views of the fireworks, but the kids are old enough to start staying out at night later anyway.


The Perfect Walt Disney World Vacation: What is the best age for a child’s first visit to Disney?

Emily Family at Walt Disney World
If you are like us, you’ve thought about a family vacation to Walt Disney World, but want it to be perfect.  For the money and the travel, it’s important to me that the visit be magical.  Lucky for us, Emily with 365 Things to Do in Houston knows a lot about taking kids to Disney World!

So… what age is best for your child’s first trip to Disney?  You don’t want the visit to be too early… but you also don’t want to wait until the youngest is the “perfect age” and miss out on the oldest kid’s “perfect age”…  So what ages are good to start your family Disney adventures?

This post is on deciding the best age for your child’s first visit to Disney!  So you can follow along, here are all 7 steps to planning your perfect vacation:

Step One – Decide on a date and length of stay!
Step Two – Decide on what age is best for your child’s first Disney visit!  – Read below!
Step Three – Select the best place to stay near Disney! 
Step Four – Decide on the best Disney tickets to purchase. 
Step Five – Make the visit easier and consider the Dining Plan. 
Step Six – Pick our your Disney Experiences for the best visit ever. 
Step Seven – Make Disney reservations as early as possible. 

Step Two – Decide on what age is best for your child’s first Disney visit! 
Our first trip, we had an almost 3 year old and a 8 month old and went with extended family. It worked out beautifully. The oldest did not nap anymore so that was not a concern and the baby was young enough to still be able to nap in our stroller.

Extended family members would stay with the baby when needed (although Disney does provide a wonderful option for parents called “baby swap” that allows adults to wait in line together, have one adult ride while the other stays with the child not going on the ride, and then immediately swap out afterwards so both adults get a chance to go on the ride).

Also, at 8 months, my youngest could sit up in high chairs and happily munch on goldfish and more at meals which helped when we were eating. I brought plenty of baby food, bottles, and snacks in an insulated bag. We were set!

And everything was so magical to our oldest. She met her favorite princess Mulan who treated her like a princess. Both my husband and I got very choked up when she met Mulan… She met her hero. This moment was when I was officially hooked again on Disney World trips.

We did not return to the parks until the baby was at least 2 and a half. He still napped regularly, but could skip naps and do okay. He was also a good listener and did not have any desire to run off. At this age, we rented a double stroller from the park instead of bringing our own which worked well when our now 4 year old got tired of walking.

The love of the characters and the magic were still there, just even better as the kids started understanding and enjoying more rides. Our family went back again when the kids were 6 years old, almost 4 years old, and 6 months old and found the same success as before. Personally I think if you have a preschooler and a baby, going to the parks when the baby is in that 6-12 month old window is a fantastic opportunity not to be missed.

Otherwise, I would suggest not going again until the youngest is at least 2 and a half and only if they can handle the messed up napping schedule and be a good listener and rule follower. It is not worth the stress at that time if your toddler is an explorer. Just wait another year and it will be worth it.

Now, as my kids are 10, 8, and 5, we experience the parks in a whole new way. They love the thrill rides, their energy levels last longer, they learn more (yes, there are tons of learning opportunities!), and the list goes on. I do not think there is too old of an age to go to Disney World. Different ages just provide different experiences… another reason I keep wanting to go back!


7 Steps to Planning the Perfect Walt Disney World Vacation for Families… What time of year to visit, what age is best, where to stay & how to make it happen!

Walt Disney World Castle
Since I’ve had kids, I’ve been thinking about taking them to Walt Disney World.  And I just keep thinking about it because I don’t know where to start with planning the perfect trip.  If we are going to spend the money and haul everyone to Florida, I want it to be magical… and lucky for me, I just ran in to Emily with 365 Things to Do in Houston.

Emily knows Disney!  Read on to learn about:

  • A good length for your Disney vacation.
  • The different Disney Parks to explore with the kids.
  • The best time of year to visit for smaller crowds, good weather and good “Disney Experiences”!
  • The “Baby Swap” ride policy.
  • The best ages for first trips to Disney.
  • The best hotels and best transportation for all ages.
  • How to pick the right Disney tickets.
  • How to make your reservations, to stop thinking about the trip and how to make it happen.

In her own words, Emily tells us about how she fell in love with Disney, again, through the eyes of her children… and the 7 Easy Steps to the perfect vacation!

I still vividly remember the first time I went to Walt Disney World. It was June 1984, the summer after 3rd grade. My family of 5 went on a three-day road trip from McAllen to Orlando. We had lots of experience visiting Six Flags and Astroworld here in Texas, but I do not think we fully knew what to expect with Disney World.

After our first day at the park, we were hooked, and after a week there, we had a new standard of vacation experiences. Every year after that, my older brother and I campaigned for a return trip. We were finally successful in our efforts and returned when I was in middle school (this time, thankfully, by plane) and again in high school. I also was lucky enough to go back again while in college. Each trip was just as fun and memorable as the last!

Then in 2007, I returned to Walt Disney World, but this time as a mother of young children, and I quickly discovered my new passion. There is no doubt that Disney trips are magical to kids. However, experiencing Disney World through the eyes of your children is even more magical. And with every new passion, I became very interested in learning how to enjoy the parks more fully and truly immersed myself in all things Disney travel.

Three kids and 5 Disney trips later, I am now our family’s official travel planner and love planning Disney trips almost as much as visiting the parks. I am thrilled to be able to share my experiences and advice with other parents. I hope I can simplify the planning process and help make your family Disney vacations more fun and more magical.

First of all, my favorite guidebook is Birnbaum Guides Official Guide to Walt Disney World.  They release a new edition each fall and these books do a great job of providing basic information in an easy to read format. I would recommend getting it to assist you in your planning and to help make more sense of my advice.

Below are the 7 Easy Steps to Planning your perfect trip!

[Read more…]


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