It’s up, up and away to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. More than 700 hot air balloons take to the sky over a nine day period every October in Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to the festival website, it is the largest balloon event in the world! It’s an experience you don’t want to miss.
What happens at the Balloon Fiesta? : There are daily morning (7 am) and evening (6 pm) sessions. Attend both of these if you can. At 6 am, there is a Dawn patrol show followed by a morning glow, where the balloons light up on the ground. Then all eyes turn to the sky for the mass ascension when hundreds of balloons in all shapes, sizes and colors take flight.
When should I get there? : If you go on the weekends, set your alarm for 4 am and be out the door by 4:30. We arrived with plenty of time for the 7 am mass ascension. Many of the people who left their hotels at 6 am were stuck in traffic by the time the balloons took off. The Fiesta coordinators encourage you to use public transportation- either the bus or the train. Take the train for fast service. We heard some people who said the bus lines lasted for more than 2 hours. Wow! When the morning glow finished, we returned to our hotel for a nap. The fiesta park is open between the morning and evening sessions, but no balloon events happen during that time. Around 4 pm, we came back for the nightly glow which starts at 6 pm.
That’s where the balloons stay on the ground and light up. I was surprised how close we were able to get to the balloons. The crews took the time to speak with us, answering all of my boys’ questions and handing out pins.
What to wear: Be sure to dress in layers. We needed our winter jackets before sunrise, but by mid morning, we felt comfortable in light jackets and t-shirts. Be prepared for wind. It can be too windy for balloons to lift off so be sure to check ahead of time. I followed the Balloon Fiesta on Twitter for the latest updates. One of our mass ascension’s was significantly delayed. We were thankful to have the VIP tent where we could enjoy hot drinks. You can also walk around the park grounds and buy fast food, drinks and souvenirs from vendors. My boys loved the mini hot air balloons. Many vendors sell these, so don’t be afraid to shop around. We found a variety of prices for the same item.
When to book: Now! People start booking a year in advance. You can buy tickets online. Tickets usually run about $8 for adults and children under 12 are free. We bid on and won on a VIP experience through a charity auction which was well worth it. You can pay extra and buy your own VIP experience online by joining the Gondola Club or Chaser’s club. For more information about planning your trip, visit the fiesta website.
There are many options when it comes to dining with characters at Walt Disney World. You can have a sit down meal, or eat buffet style, and you can meet the classic Disney characters or Disney junior friends, just to name a few. Here are my family’s favorite character dining experiences.
Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort
Meals served: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
Who’s there? Meet Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy, and Donald. It’s a typical American buffet with a Disney twist. Picky eaters rejoice! My boys loved the MIckey shaped waffles for breakfast and chicken nuggets and mac and cheese for dinner. You can tell we’re not exactly food connoisseurs!
Hot tip: Book about 2 hours before the Wishes fireworks show. You can see the spectacular show from a platform opposite from the Contemporary.
When to book: Early! Book about 180 days before your visit. The restaurant is very popular and easily accessible by monorail from the Magic Kingdom.
1900 Park Fare at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort
Meals served: Breakfast and Dinner
Who’s there? We had both breakfast and dinner here. At dinner, we saw Cinderella, Prince Charming, Lady Tremaine, Drizella and Anastasia. The stepsisters were a hoot; they had my boys in fits of laughter. Prince Charming taught them how to bow and Cinderella wowed them with her charm. The buffet included prime rib, and the most delicious strawberry soup. Seconds please!
Breakfast included visits from Alice, the Mad Hatter, Winnie the Poo and Tigger and Mary Poppins. Since the Grand Floridian is also on the monorail, it is easy to start your day here.
When to book: You guessed it: 180 days in advance. Are you seeing a theme? These dining options are quite popular. But don’t despair. I missed the window on one of my trips and I ended up getting a reservation with the help of my hotel’s concierge. Your best bet may be the breakfast for last minute cancellations.
Hollywood and Vine at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Meals served: Breakfast, lunch and dinner
Who’s there? In the morning, we found our favorite Disney Junior characters: Jake from Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Sofia from Sofia the First, Handy Manny and others. At dinner, we saw Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Daisy wearing their best Hollywood outfits. We celebrated my sons’ 4th and 6th birthday with a special cupcake for each boy and an extra big hug from all of their favorite characters. It was well worth the cost of dinner!
Even though character meals are expensive (check Disney’s official site for latest prices), they are always a highlight of our Disney trips. We can interact with our favorite characters, take pictures and get autographs in a relaxed setting. Bye bye long lines for a 10 second interaction with a Disney favorite! These three happen to be my family’s favorites but there are plenty of other options for character dining. Check out the Walt Disney World site for more information. Happy dining!
Miami’s South Beach is more than just a hot spot for young singles; it’s a great place to take your family! With year-round tropical weather and clear blue water, Miami is a fun destination for families looking to be outdoors and enjoy the sun. Here’s our advice on where to stay and what to do.
1) Stay in the heart of the action: South Beach! There are many choices, from budget to luxury hotels, on Collins Avenue in the heart of South Beach. We spent spring break week at the Loews Miami Beach hotel which was steps away from the white sand beach. The hotel is also close to a pedestrian only area with plenty of restaurants and shops. Our boys loved how clear and calm the water was; we could see fish swim by. We rented a cabana by the pool which I would highly recommend.
After a few hours by the pool, we walked across a pedestrian and bike path to the beach. Included with our poolside cabana was a lovely beachside cabana. The complimentary toys kept my boys busy while waiters stopped by refreshing our drinks and offering us food to purchase.
2) Visit the Miami seaquarium. My boys enjoyed the interactive exhibits and the tropical reef. The Flipper dolphin show was one of our favorites. Those dolphins performed amazing tricks. At the Manatee exhibit, we were face to face with Florida’s famous mammal. For the 16 and older crowd, there’s a trainer for the day program.
3) If you like animals and animal shows as much as we do, check out Jungle Island and the Miami Zoo. Jungle Island is home to more than 1,000 parrots as well as big cats, primates and reptiles. It’s great for preschoolers who love seeing colorful birds. The Zoo is fantastic for all ages. It’s larger than Jungle Island.
4) Right across the causeway from Jungle Island is the Miami Children’s Museum. It’s perfect if it rains and you need an indoor activity. From interactive exhibits to plenty of construction toys, you can find something to keep your children busy for a few hours.
5) Take a trip to the Everglades! If you’re up for an adventure, you can’t miss a tour of the Everglades. You can hike, bike, boat, or kayak. For young families, try one of the guided boat tours of the Ten-Thousand Islands.
Miami is now one of our favorite family destinations. We can’t wait to return! What are your favorite things to do in Miami and where do you like to stay?
We love Magic Kingdom for all of its kid-friendly rides and experiences. We usually spend the most time in this theme park. Here are our top 5 experiences in Magic kingdom that you won’t want to miss.
- Captain Jack Sparrow’s Pirate Tutorial- Disney has the best casting department! We stumbled upon this free, interactive pirate tutorial in Magic Kingdom our first day. Captain Jack Sparrow had the mannerisms and looks of Johnny Depp. It was spot on! He and the other pirate encouraged children to volunteer to become pirates. The children learned a quick battle sequence and then received their pirate certificate for participating or even watching if they wanted the certificate. It was a quick 15-20 minute interactive show that enthralled my boys.
- The meet and greet with talking Mickey Mouse, and other Disney pals and Princesses- It’s not everyday you meet a talking Mickey. The costume usually prohibits Mickey from saying anything. That’s what makes this interaction so special. You can find him by the entrance of Magic Kingdom at Town Square Theater. Here, listen in.
The other characters are hit and miss. Sometimes, they will take a picture with you, sign your autograph book and move you along. Other times, the character will interact with your child, telling jokes, and listening to their stories. We’ve had great luck with Queen Elsa and Princess Anna. Goofy always makes my boys laugh too.
- The Enchanted Tales with Belle- In this interactive show, any child who wants to can land a part in the re-tellling of the day Belle falls in love with the Beast. It’s a quick play and it’s fun to see your child perform. My boys were the Beast and the salt shaker. Makes for great photo opportunities!
- Slow moving rides through your favorite Disney stories- We loved Peter Pan’s Flight and Under the Sea- The Voyage of the Little Mermaid. It’s dark inside all of these rides. My boys hesitated at first but they loved seeing the animatronic characters act, sing and dance.
- Parades- Dance with your favorite Disney characters at the Move it! Shake it! Dance & Play it! Street party. Admire the floats during the 3 pm Disney Festival of Fantasy parade. Be sure to line up at least 30 minutes early for the best standing spots along the front circle. Don’t forget to watch the Dream Along with Mickey show by the castle. There are brief fireworks at the end. My boys loved seeing all of the characters in one place.
I admit; I was a doubter. I didn’t want to pay extra for a VIP tour. I’ve been to Disney World many times and feel I have mastered the FastPass system. That’s Disney’s online system that allows you to reserve access to coveted attractions, rides and meet and greets with characters. You can choose up to 3 FastPass selections a day and it’s easy to use inside the park and before you get there by downloading the mobile app. That said, you only get three choices and then you are stuck with everyone else waiting in lines that can be hours long. Waiting hours for a two minute ride or meet and greet can be frustrating and anti climatic. This visit, I decided to go for it. I booked a VIP experience and even though it was expensive (check current rates here), it was worth every penny. Here’s why.
- No more stress! Leave the planning to the professionals. There are a variety of tours from which to choose, including the Ultimate Day for Young Families VIP Tour. In this tour, you begin in Magic Kingdom riding some favorites such as Peter Pan’s Flight, It’s a Small World, and Under the Sea- the Journey of the Little Mermiad. Then after lunch, you’re whisked off to Hollywood Studios for rides and interactive experiences such as the Disney Junior Live show and finally you land in Animal Kingdom. The entire tour lasts 7 hours and it is only offered Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. It costs $299/per person. Since we were there on a Monday, this was not an option. Instead, we created a custom tour of Magic Kingdom which exceeded our expectations. In eight hours, we saw everything we wanted to see in the Kingdom with very little wait time. We went on all the rides aimed at preschoolers and saw every Princess and Disney pal. The talking Mickey near the park’s entrance was amazing! Queen Elsa and Princess Anna engaged my boys with jokes and hugs. Eight hours is a long time, especially with young children. By the end of the day, my three and five year olds were smiling from ear to ear. We took it easy the next day, sleeping in and relaxing by the pool.
- Virtually no lines! Our tour guide maximized the FastPass system and planned out our day so the most we waited for any ride was 10 minutes. She told us the best places to eat and led us to the best spot to watch the parades and shows. The Dream Along with Mickey show by the Castle is a must see.
- No map required! Even though I’ve been to Disney World many times, it is always changing. There are always new rides, exhibits and character meet and greets. That’s why I valued having a professional with us who knew the best ways to get us where we wanted to go. I didn’t touch a map or look at any showtimes. It was all masterfully handled by our tour guide.
I cannot say enough about how much I loved the VIP experience. If you have a tight budget, I’d recommend staying in a less expensive hotel and splurging on the VIP tour. You won’t regret it!