Author: Kyla

Balloon fiesta
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

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.

Where dreams take flight
Where dreams take flight

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.

Pure joy!
Pure joy!

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.

Nightly Glow
Nightly Glow

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.

He was in awe.
He was in awe.

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.

Mini hot air balloons
Mini hot air balloons

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.

Lift off!
Lift off!

 

Dining at Hollywood and Vine
Dining at Hollywood and Vine

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!

Posing at breakfast with Tigger and Pooh
Posing at breakfast with Tigger and Pooh

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

 

Dining with Daisy Duck
Dining with Daisy Duck

 

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!

View from Loews Miami Beach Hotel poolside cabana
View from Loews Miami Beach Hotel poolside cabana

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.

 

South Beach

 

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.

 

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Never a dull moment

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.

South Beach
South Beach

 

Miami's Seaquarium
Miami’s Seaquarium

 

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!

Posing with Belle

 

  • 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.

Mickey and Minnie at the Dream Along with Mickey show
Mickey and Minnie at the Dream Along with Mickey show

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!

 

Disneyworld's Cinderella's Castle
Cinderella’s Castle

When you plan your first visit to Disney World, you can get overwhelmed quickly by the choices. With four distinct parks that cover a large area, Disney World can be daunting. Where do you stay? Which park should you go to and what rides and experiences are must sees? If it is your first time to Disney World, I recommend staying on property. Here’s why.

 

Mickey and Minnie at the Dream Along with Mickey show
Mickey and Minnie at the Dream Along with Mickey show

 

  • Easy access! There are 31 Disney owned properties and they range from budget friendly hotels and campsites to deluxe villas and suites. Some of these properties, such as the luxurious Grand Floridian Resort and Spa and the more moderately priced Contemporary and Polynesian resorts, are located on the Monorail system. It links the hotels to the theme parks. Other hotels inside the park such as my favorite, Animal Kingdom Lodge, require shuttles and/or ferries to the parks. Being able to take a break or a nap mid day becomes much easier when you are staying inside Disney. You don’t have to travel as far and in my experience, you are more willing to return to the parks at night. Whenever I stay off property, I never end up returning to the park after the mid-day nap. Too much hassle. At least one night, I recommend returning to see the fireworks and parades.

 

Walt Disneyworld parade
Walt Disney World parade

 

  • Extra Magic hours! Every day, one of the four theme parks, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios, opens its doors one hour earlier for guests who stay in Disney-owned properties. What an amazing way to get a jumpstart on your day! This can be the difference between waiting 20 minutes for a coveted ride or 3 hours! If you’re an early riser or your children are, why not enjoy the extra hour in the park.

 

Ride the Jungle Cruise in Magic Kingdom
Ride the Jungle Cruise in Magic Kingdom

 

  • Free transportation from the airport! Disney offers a complimentary Orlando airport- to- hotel bus service called the Magical Express. You should reserve this service in advance and Disney will provide you with special luggage tags. When you arrive in Orlando, you skip the baggage claim and head directly to the Disney welcome center. We’ve used this several times. My boys love watching the Disney cartoons inside the bus. And we love having our bags delivered to our room, for free!
Waiting to ride the Speedway
Waiting to ride the Speedway

 

  • Free self parking at the theme parks and resort hotels! When we didn’t take the Magical Express, we rented a car at the airport and drove ourselves to the parks. Daily parking in the theme park costs $20. That gives you access to parking at all four parks. We felt good staying on property and saving that daily $20 charge.
Watching a parade at Magic Kingdom
Watching a parade at Magic Kingdom

 

  • MagicBands! When you stay on property, you receive a complimentary MagicBand. It is waterproof wristband that you can use as your room key, your key to get into the park and your charge card to make any purchases. You don’t need to bring your wallet or any other cards inside the park. You receive the MagicBands ahead of your stay, sign into your Disney account and link them to your reservation. My boys personalized their MagicBands and used them to unlock special surprises throughout the resort. We liked having one less thing to carry in our pockets.

 

His favorite balloon!

  • Speaking of buying anything- staying on property allows you to use the free delivery service. We only had to carry our balloons! You can purchase souvenirs anywhere inside the park and they will be delivered for free to your room by the next afternoon.

 

Staying off property has its advantages too. You can find great deals at resorts that have shuttles to the theme parks. When you stay off property, you can choose how much Disney you want. Now, it’s up to you to decide. Do you prefer staying on or off property?

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Disney’s Dream cruise ship

My family loves all things Disney and the 3 day Disney Dream cruise to the Bahamas did not let us down!

Here are 8 things to consider for your Disney Dream cruise to the Bahamas:

  • Bring your pirate gear! Pirate night kicked off with a buccaneer themed dinner, followed by a stage show featuring Mickey and the gang. It was fun to see everyone dressed in their pirate gear. The night ended with a spectacular display of fireworks.
Pirate Night on Disney's Dream cruise
Ahoy Mateys!
  • Plan an excursion! Everyday, you can choose to stay on board or take an excursion. In Nassau, we interacted with the dolphins at the Atlantis resort. My three and five year olds were hesitant at first, but once they saw how docile the dolphins were, they waded into the water. Even though it was an extra expense, it was our favorite excursion. How often do you get to pet a dolphin?
Dolphins
Dolphins!
  • Get off the boat at Castaway Cay. This is Disney’s private island. Rent a cabana or lounge on a complimentary beach chair. Disney provides it all- the towels and a huge lunch buffet, frequented by many of the Disney characters. We took a glass bottom boat tour. Our crew taught us about the native fish and the correct pronunciation of Cay—it’s “Key.” After the boat tour, we grabbed beach chairs and jumped in the ocean. There’s a nice set up with waterslides near the shore.
Disney's private island, Castaway Key
Disney’s private island, Castaway Key
  • Enjoy the phenomenal Disney productions. Each Broadway style show lasted about 45 minutes – the right length for young families. We sat in the front and in the back during two different shows and our boys could see well. These high energy productions kept us entertained each night.
  • Take advantage of the kids club. Our boys spent a few hours there while we had a quiet dinner. The boys wanted to return but we had too many other fun activities planned, which brings me to my next piece of advice…
  • Plan your day. You can be as busy or relaxed as you want. In hindsight, I would have slowed down. We tried to do every event and by 8 pm, we were exhausted. We liked our oceanview stateroom with bunk beds for the boys and a curtain to draw so the adults had some privacy. It also had a great balcony with chairs and I liked that there was a water closet separate from the shower and the sink. If one of the boys had a bathroom emergency while someone was showering, it wasn’t a problem. Disney does a great job with those little details that are important to young families.
He loves bunk beds.
  • Choose your dining time asap. We missed the window for the early seating at 6 pm and had an 8 pm dinner time. Each night, you sit with the same people and have the same wait staff, but you eat at a different themed restaurant. We are early eaters, so the second dining time at 8 pm didn’t work for us. We tried it the first night and my boys fell asleep in their food! Our waiter said it was possible to change but we never requested it. Instead, we ate as a family at a buffet area. Chicken nugget paradise!
Right before he fell asleep
Right before my son fell asleep. Can you believe he chose broccoli over ice cream?

8) Be ready for crowds. We went while school was in session, which we thought would be less crowded, but the pools were packed. Disney cruise line, following US Public Health service requirements, requires all swimmers to be potty trained. No swim diapers allowed in the pools or on the slides. There are splash areas where toddlers in swim diapers can go. Our boys were too short for the AquaDuck, the on board water slide, but they enjoyed a smaller water slide on the pool deck. We loved the beach at Castaway Cay and the large pools and slides at Atlantis.

Pint size slide at Atlantis

Overall, it was a fantastic experience. It was crowded but that’s something we expect when we do anything Disney related. This cruise was a fun way to introduce our family to the high seas. We could feel the boat moving at dinner but for the most part, it was smooth sailing. Disney cruise line pays attention to the details and makes cruising with a young family a pleasant experience.

 

Good morning Aulani

We’ve always wanted to take the kids to Hawaii, but we were never brave enough to take the 8 hour flight from Texas. Enter Disney’s Aulani resort on Oahu. Suddenly, Hawaii seemed possible, even with our young kids! We spent a week enjoying the resort and there was still more to see.

 

Here’s my top 5:

 

1) Be an early riser and claim your seat at the beach or pool! Both are family friendly. At the pool, we explored the 2 water slides and the climbing structure at Menehune Bridge.

Fun at the bridge

 

We also enjoyed the character pool parties at the main pool, which is zero entry level. At the beach, swim, snorkel, paddleboard or kayak! There are virutally no waves and the water is clear enough to see the fish.

Snorkeling at Disney's Aulani

My boys had a blast chasing after the fish. We brought our own swim googles. You can rent the snorkels, paddleboards and kayaks. The beach toys are free. My boys loved making sandcastles!

We made birthday cakes and snowmen in the sand.
We made birthday cakes and snowmen in the sand.

 

2) Rainbow Reef- My five year old grew very brave and decided to go into the Rainbow Reef, the island’s only saltwater lagoon reef, full of thousands of colorful fish.

Let's go snorkeling!
Let’s go snorkeling!

It’s only about 8 feet deep and perfect for beginner snorklers. Kids must be accompanied by an adult. Everyone wears an inflatable life jacket and there are lifeguards on duty. The best part- there was a observation deck and a viewing window so I could take pictures of my son’s first snorkeling experience. Awesome!

Loved watching this from the viewing area
Loved watching this from the viewing area

 

3) Aunty’s Beach house: This is Aulani’s kid’s club. The kids can go for open play or for the planned activities. Save yourself some headaches and sign up for the activities before you arrive. I saw some groggy parents lining up at 6:30 am to get their child a spot! Not my idea of a good time on vacation. During their time at Aunty’s house, my boys made space goo with Stitch. This was free, but there were some paid experiences too.

 

4) Get get the daily Iwa! This is your daily guide to what’s happening at the resort. There’s a phone number you can call at 8 am- which we called at exactly 8 am every morning- to find out where the characters will be. We found Minnie and Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Stitch and Chip and Dale.

They're always dancing.
They’re always dancing.

 

These two chipmunks were the best; they always interacted and danced with my boys whenever they saw them. We also signed up for the breakfast with the characters. Honestly, this was unnecessary as we got photos and interactions with all the same characters just roaming the resort. With this resort, you get the Disney flair- a handful of character sightings and a character breakfast, without the rides.

 

5) The Starlight Hui- It is very late at night, usually from 8-9 pm, but if you take a nap in the afternoon and can make it, this show is a must see!

Starlit Hui, Disney's version of a luau
Starlit Hui, Disney’s version of a luau

 

My boys loved it. We didn’t even plan to see it; we just saw a line and jumped on in. It’s crazy how Disney gets you to do that! We showed up at 6:30 pm and waited in line for an hour! Be prepared for a wait if you want to be in the front row. The family next to us played Heads Up on their IPhones which looked fun. They also brought a pizza from one of the resort cafes and a kit to build snowman cookies, also from the resort cafe. It was a great idea to keep their kids busy! The pre show is from 7:30-8. That’s when they teach the kids to hula which is fun to watch. Then at 8, the magic starts.

Aulani's Starlit Hui
Beautiful performance

 

Hula dancers grace the stage while fire dancers perform a tame version of their dance. We had two amazing ukulele players who played all my favorite Christmas carols, plus the Stars Wars theme. It was probably my favorite part! The Disney characters showed up at the very end of the show and led a few dances.

 

Across the street from Aulani, there is a shopping plaza with a coffee shop, convenience store, restaurant and clothing store just to name a few. Hauling groceries back and forth with two preschoolers didn’t work for us so we rented a car. You can rent a car at the resort or the airport. While it’s not cheap to rent and park a car at Aulani, it was worth it for us. We drove to Starbucks, McDonald’s and Jamba Juice within two miles of the resort. One day, we even ventured into Honolulu- be prepared for traffic early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

 

The boys loved listening to the audio guide provided for free by the aquarium.
The boys loved listening to the audio guide provided for free by the aquarium.

 

We visited the Honolulu aquarium (we spent about an hour there and felt that was enough time) and splashed in the famous Waikiki beach (very crowded!). If you don’t feel like renting a car, you can take paid excursions from Aulani too. Check out Aulani’s website to plan your trip!

Sunset at Disney's Aulani resort
Sunset at Disney’s Aulani resort