A journey of
a thousand miles
begins with a single step
Is a Pacific Coast Highway Trip on your bucket list?
It was on ours and so we decided to pack our bags, book a plane ticket, and make our way from SoCal to the Bay Area and explore in between. We didn't nearly cover the vastness of this beautiful stretch of coastal road, but we chose stops that worked for us with certain goals in mind. And we loved every bit of what we saw, and what we wish we had more time to see.
What did our week+ in California look like winding the up the open highway? Read on!
Some prefer to start further south in San Diego but started our trip in LA for reasons all our own!
1. Flight - we flew Delta and wanted a direct flight. Plus, with our Companion Certificate and Skymiles, we only ended up paying about $400 total for the 4 of us to go to west.
2. Location - we wanted to start south and watch the hills turn into cliffs and dramatically change course. Some may argue a trip from north to south would be better since you ride along the coast (rather than the inner most lane), but for us that didn't make a difference on the drive.
3. Disneyland - we wanted to start the trip with a treat for the kids! Capitalize on all the energy they had and use it for something they would truly marvel over.
What to do in LA? What is there not to do?!
After you pick up your rental, head towards Hollywood. You want a picture with the iconic sign and there are some many good spots to get it from, including the Griffith Observatory, which also includes panoramic views all around. If you're heading down to Hollywood Blvd to check out the sights there, head to shopping complex Hollywood and Highland for great views! While you're there, the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann's Chinese Theater (where these days you can watch new movie releases at) are within sight.
Hungry? Visit Pink's Hot Dogs for this staple in Hollywood since the 1930s. The giant loaded hot dogs of all varieties were delicious and worth the wait at this counter service restaurant with outdoor seating. Just be warned, parking may be hard to find!
Then make it a point to cruise around greater LA County - from driving down Sunset Strip to admiring all the luxury of Beverly Hills to hitting up the pier in Santa Monica for some fun or even just checking out another city along the shoreline. There's so much to do in LA, you can easily spend a few days here!
This was *the* destination for us on arrival - to spend a few days at Disneyland California! The parks are nestled in the middle of Anaheim and really a world all their own. We highly recommend spending at least two days here, as there's enough to do without feeling rushed.
The resort itself has 3 Disney hotels (Disneyland Hotel, Grand Californian, and Pacific Pier), 2 theme parks (Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure) and the entertainment complex of Downtown Disney. Each park deserves a day all their own to fully immerse and explore AND because there's just that much to do! Promise. They have more attractions per park than the sister parks in Orlando!
There’s so much to cover here we have an article all their own for the parks! Read all about our time at Disneyland and why it quickly became our favorite Disney parks - this alone may be the reason you want to come out here!
Make your way past Malibu and the stunning beach communities of So Cal as you head north up PCH. You'll venture into the beautiful city of Santa Barbara nestled along the coasts and the hills, and upon our arrival, covered in smog. It was such a beautiful piece of real estate as we traveled the highway as, we slowly witnessed the change from relatively flat southern Cali.
We also stumbled up on the mission trail here, where we made a bit of an adventure within one. El Camino Real is a collection of 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma, each spread out about 30 miles from each other. The Spanish missions, from a time when Spain held strong in California, are the oldest piece of history in the state and a captivating game to play while you're on your road trip. Look for the bell markers to signify the trail of missions as you travel el camino.
We only had time to explore the mission in Santa Barbara durinfbour short stop here, but wish we had spent even more time in this stunning city on the sea.
Does the name sound familiar, 90s babies? Well it should if you're a Clueless fan. It the namesake for the "Pismo Beach Relief" that the movie was fundraising for. And for us it was such a welcome surprise! Just when we thought we left everything So Cal had to offer, here's this little beach town that just exudes everything you want from California.
We spent just enough time here to park and play in the sand, bit could easily have spent hours more. From the beautiful shoreline to the relaxed surfer vibes, this is definitely the place you want to go to when trying to escape the hustle of the big cities and the bustle of Hollywood. It was the quintessential beach town on the California coast and a welcome stop for us to stretch as we made our way to our next stop!
Here's another name sake for you! Finding Dory, anyone?
With the name dropped so often in the movie, once we saw signs that we were approaching, we made sure to make a stop to just say we've been! Morro Bay was a seaside village lined with shiplap buildings and the sea painted with an iconic rock. We stopped to check it out just because our curiosity got the best of us, and we're glad we did!
We drove to the inlet that approached the famous rock and were greeted by a sea of otters sunbathing in the bay! What a fun surprise to encounter and certainly a place that made us want to stick around long enough to see what this town had to offer.
San Simeon is best known for Hearst Castle, and though we would've loved to spend a day there, with two little ones our plans led us elsewhere. Seashore - to be exact - to watch the elephant seals. This detour on our trip was a treat, because what a neat experience it was to encounter these giants literally feet from us. Sparring and barking in their own environment, doing just what nature taught them to do. The kids delighted in getting to see animals in the wild and we loved the chance to get to teach something up close and personal.
For this roadtrip in 2017 though, this was as far north as we were able to go on PCH. The road was shut down in Big Sur due to mudslides, so we were forced to diverge inland ... which ended up being a fortunate accident.
Paso Robles was our serendipity on this trip!
We would never have planned a stop here on our way up, as its not on the PCH. But since we had to diverge because of Mother Nature, we got to explore such a beautiful part of the state! This central California wine country is filled with beautiful rolling hills and fields of wineries in between hills. We even spotted a black bear as we drove these rural areas, making his way around home.
We made a stop on arrival at Four Lanterns, a family-friendly winery offering outdoor seating, live music and space to roam. Once we finished our visit and by the time dinner rolled around, we head to downtown Paso. A quaint town made up of a main city block and with some chic restaurants and an adorable Central Park. We had a wonderful dinner at Artisan, a contemporary concept with fresh meals and delightful drinks. A welcome reward after a day of driving!
Our drive was a shorter one, but to a very anticipated destination! MONTEREY!
Yes, home of Big Little Lies, where we had just dived into in 2017, so we anticipate seeing what this stunning location had to offer. It was a beautiful coastal city, with a downtown to match its charm, and lined with mountain and boats.
The attraction here, beyond the show that mapped it, is Monterey Bay Aquarium - where we spent an afternoon discovering with the kids. Just the fact that at times you're staring at the sea while looking at exhibits is a fascinating concept all its own! The experience was only topped by the visitors we had at the dinner that evening - seals and otters splashing under our prime view table at Domenicos on the Wharf!
The only thing we missed doing in our short stop here is going whale-watching - we would have loved the chance to see these beasts in their natural home!
It wasn’t initially on our itinerary but we made another trip back and hit up this beautiful beach village. Adorably lined with pristine local shops and eats, Carmel was a wonderful find on our second trip out west!
For wine lovers, this is also a smaller wine region. Though the vineyards are few and most require reservations to tour, the town has plenty of wineries to taste what they grow!
We NEEDED to see Big Sur, so before we continued north, we quickly headed back south to see how far we could go before being turned away. And we did not once regret this decision. This drive is absolutely beautiful - more than words can even paint to life. We made it as far as Pfeffier State Park as we drove the winding coast to see the beauty of it all. Only to be turned around and do it all again! We certainly didn't mind.
On arrival back, we made sure to take the 17 Mile Drive which would inevitably take us to world famous Pebble Beach. We completed this trip with a visit to the chilly shore, but feeling every bit much accomplished that we were able to see this gorgeous piece of California real estate on our trip!
We heard so much about Santa Cruz from others that we wanted to check out this beach town and see what it was about!
For starters, the homes lining the cliffs with prime view of the ocean were stunning. All were quintessential California homes as we would imagine them. But we also used this stop to let the kids have some of their kind of fun again. We spent the evening playing on the Boardwalk as a way to wind down the trip.
Carnival food, rides, games and even local beer is exactly what we needed after so much exploring. And as an added bonus, we had the perfect sunset to top off our stay. We would definitely recommend this as a stop for kids of any age!
On the skirts of Silicon Valley, this city felt like a perfect blend of SoCal meets the Bay. This stop was intentional on this trip, to visit a very dear friend and meet he mr baby boy. And she welcomed us to her home to spend the 4th of July by the pool, grilling out, and living like locals!
The day ended with us heading downtown for official celebrations, including fireworks and eating hot dogs from street carts. It was the cherry on top for a way to spend this holiday!
This wouldn’t have been a stop we picked out on our own, but we’re so glad we were introduced to Filoli. The beautiful garden situated in city limits, this places is absolutely worth a detour to see.
The drive there is tree lined upon rolling hills. On arrival, you’re greeted at a majestic house beckoned by acres of beautiful topiaries. Breathtaking is the least of word I could use to describe it! An afternoon spent exploring these wonders is enough but you could easily get lost here for a whole day!
Half Moon Bay
Imagine a picturesque coast washed away by the sea, where the only thing more impressive is the crashing waves offshore. That’s Half Moon Bay. We stopped here to check out the views, and get a little bit of that California sun & sand. We finished the day with lunch and drinks at the Ritz Carlton where we sat at fire pits to take in the breathtaking views
Our final official stop on this trip didn’t come without a little mishap - reminder to always check your safe before leaving your room! We made it all the way to San Fran to get an early morning cable car ride (without the lines) when we realized our mistake.
So we came back later (on a family reunion) and finished this stop. We hopped on cable car at Hyde & ___ and rode it into central San Fran! Goal accomplished. We visited the Painted Ladies, Drive down Lombardi Street, watched the sea lions bark at Pier 39, walked Fisherman’s Wharf and ate at Boudin Bakery - all the iconic SF things to do!
If you want a quick overview of the city, hop on a double decker! It’s the easiest way to get a lay of the land and figure out the areas you want to explore more! We recommend a stop in the Japanese Tea Garden for some serenity in the city! If you want something a little different to explore (and you’re a fan like us), the Walt Disney Museum at the Presidio is the perfect place to learn about his legacy and see his dreams come to life. Bonus, you get some scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge!
But make sure your finish your trip with a visit to Baker’s Beach for the most spectacular view of the Golden Gate! If you come at sunset, you can watch the day fade to night while your backdrop is painted all sorts of lovely colors.
Need dinner plans? Cliff House is at land’s end, where San Francisco begins as they proclaim! The spot is perfect for a seafood feast and great views. Sweet tooth? You can’t forget Ghiradelli’s - because what’s a visit without a stop!
If you’re headed across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, you can’t skip one of the best things on this side of the bay. Take time to explore Muir Woods and the glory of these fantastic creations of God. The forest will leave you speechless, and if you time out coming at the right time of day, you’ll have a special experience.
We arrived after the park office closed but before the park did, which granted us free entry and plenty of spots to park on site. The best part of this though was the stillness that overtakes the park when it’s not run over by crowds. It truly makes you feel at one with nature and in deep respect for it. On your way down, take in the views of the ocean meets the mountains, it’s another moment that can stop you in your tracks.
And if you’ve worked up an appetite from all that exploring, make sure to make a final stop at In-N-Out if you haven’t yet! There’s something special about this place with the simplicity in its food, burgers and fries with a sauce all their own that you’ll be dreaming of for years to come! Take it up a notch and get your order Animal Style for a truly unforgettable experience. Best off all, there’s always an In-N-Out en route to satisfy your craving!
If you have time, add in Napa and Sonoma to your plans! This region is so different from everything else there is out there and worth a post all it’s own about the places to check out - with or without kids!
Summer is here, and that means this season brings on all the road trips!
Whether you already have one planned or you're counting on making plans on the whim, the dog days of summer are the perfect time to do it.
Road trips can be as short and easy or as long and thought out as you want them to be. But most of all, they need to fun!
So what makes it work? We just had a few of our friends come back from their own adventures so we teamed up with them for extra advice on what made for smooth sailing, as close to perfect as possible!
1. Have a plan. Or at the very least know what you intend of this trip. It doesn't mean you have to have every minute scheduled, but knowing things like when you want to arrive, help to decide when you want to hit the road. And with that, plan accordingly to help make the drive as smooth as possible. The map may say you'll get there at one time ... but traffic, pit stops, and a barrage of other diversions say another.
Knowing when you're planning to leave can also help as you prepare for the trip. Getting the car ready is half the battle when leaving - the other is getting the little ones well-rested for an ungodly hours wake-up call. If you know you're going to hit the road for an early morning drive, have the car loaded the night before. It'll save you the trouble of waking up the lightest sleeper (and forgetting something while you meander half asleep). If you're planning to leave during the day, run out your little ones so they nap on the road. And if your plans involve a meal time departure, make sure you have food thought out - either pack a meal to-go OR make a special stop to start the trip. Nothing can ruin a road trip like hangry people - of all ages and sizes!
When talking about her drive up the east coast, Kristin H. also made the great suggestion of planning drives around traffic patterns. Ideally avoid rush hours in major cities so you're not wasting any precious time, energy or gas! Make it a point to stop during those hours so that everyone can stretch rather than sit in extra long traffic lanes.
2. Bring ALL the snacks! An essential part of road trip success is food - it can make even the hangriest person human again. Just like we mentioned when planning for a trip with little ones, you will be saved with having this one crucial item. Kids especially are never going have an appetitie when its convenient and a pit stop for food may not always be in the optimal location. While packing, make a few intentional grocery store trips and pick up a mix of snacks that can get you through a car trip.
And make it a point to find stuff on sale to stock up on We love Publix and their weekly Buy One, Get One sales and always grab extra to stash when we find unbeatable prices. Wholesale stores can also make all the difference when it comes to this - especially if you're going to be gone for an extended time. Head over to Costco, BJ, Sam's Club or the like and see what you can grab in bulk with savings at your fingertips. Best of all, make a special trip out of it with the kids once you grabbed all the essentials and let them pick out one special treat for the road!
What do you pack? For us, our non-negotiables are:
We load a cooler in the trunk and easily inventory what we have. We try to bring very little of anything that needs to be refrigerated and load up along the way. We also bring a little bit of each snack to the front of the car in a collapsible cooler bag so we can have easy access when anyone gets the munchies. The smaller cooler is also great to transport food in and out of hotels when you don't need or want to bring the whole cooler in.
A collapsible cooler is also worth investing in for a road trip you're flying into! We've done trips where we're eating out of the grocery bags we shopped with, but to have a cooler makes a huge difference in keeping the mess down! We love our SOMMAR cooler bag from IKEA from a few seasons back - the size is great and the price even better. It's currently out of stock, so if you ever come across it, snatch it!
3. Essentials to pack? Just like planning for a trip, we have our list of items that make the trip a little easier. We keep a running spreadsheet that we clean up and edit every time we learn something new and try to allow ourselves an easier system when packing.
Beyond the usual stuff that you'll bring, here are some of our tried and true suggestions that help make trips a little easier.
4. Activities & Entertainment. Once you made a trip for food, make sure to make a special shopping trip for activities too! Or in my case, two trips - one where I'll get some things I know can easily distract and one where the kids pick out something shiny and new.
The Dollar Store and Target are heaven-sent for these trips, as they both have the greatest variety of delights and greatest bang for your buck! Having a small box of crayons and coloring packs for each child is the #1 item to have on the road or for going out to eat. That way, they each have their own special loot that can (hopefully) eliminate fighting.
Books are always a hit with us, so we make a trip to the library to get a few to have. It will continue to spark their love of reading when the book has a theme to match your special trip, so try to look for some specific to what you're doing! Want to try something else fun? Check for a Little Free Library in your neighborhood before you go - "the leave a book, get a book" concept fuels a global community of readers to share what they love. So if you "check" one out from a local box, if you find another while you're on the road and you're done with said book, return it for a new book, from a new city/state! Want to make it personal? Leave a little handmade bookmark for the next reader in the book your return - write down where the book has been on to encourage the next to do the same. I'm sure any bookworm would delight in knowing that they're spreading their love of reading all over (and finding it too)!
Games, whether the store bought kind or self-generated, are the greatest ways to keep everyone in the car happy too! Kristin H. says she loves playing eye spy or how many "cows, flags, trucks, etc" counting games. License plate and find the sign games are also fun, and engage their curiosity to ask more as you talk. Open the dialogue to teach them about where you are and learn something new together! For when you stop, pack a good age appropriate, family-friendly game for nights in. Make sure they are tried & true so you know it was worth taking! Monopoly is our family favorite - easy to play at any age because just the newness of pulling stacks of cards and wads of money keeps our youngest entertained. Trivia games or Uno are also fun to pair off for some fun parent/child team competition. I promise whatever you decide to do will make for an unforgettable evening!
It's also not beneath us to let the kids watch some movies or play some games on the iPad. It's a nice treat during road trips and definitely a welcoming resource, particularly near nap times. Just let the rocking of the car, a good show (or movie) and a tired kid combination allow for a little shut eye. All of you will need some quiet time so if you're willing to allow even a little screen time, it's a break - for all of you!
Lastly, we always like to make sure to have a notebook/pen on hand for journaling/doodling about our trip, and stamps ready to send out postcards from our destinations. Sending postcards to friends has easily beomce our greatest delight on our trips - from picking out something special for that person, getting to practice writing to them, and then hearing about when they received. And knowing we'll get our own in return - it's the sweetest gift that keeps on giving!
5. The drive itself. Try to break the drive into smaller segments to make sure that no one is going to go stir crazy. This particularly helps with any road trip longer than 4 hours. Make it a point to find something at the 5-6 hour mark to stop at, whether it means stopping for a meal, to do some quick sightseeing, or a break for an overnight. This is the whole point of the road trip! Its not only cheaper to drive but it so much more fun to have a journey full of exploring!
Need some guided suggestions? Download the app Roadtrippers to find random things along your route to make the drive even more fun! Others plus in local attractions that can easily make a detour worth it. Social media forums are also a great place to ask questions and pull fun ideas from what to see, things to do or places to eat while you're on the go! And if all else fails, rely on your friends! Nothing beats a suggestion from a friend you trust - they will have your best intentions in mind!
What else should you count on? Not making any plans too close to your tentative arrival. Don't hard schedule something time sensitive as anything can come up. Don't make the trip a race against the clock - this means anything that can't be flexed should not be done on arrival. You could run into too many factors you can't control so allow yourself time to relax, unwind, and then if you have must-do plans, save them for the next day!
6. Pack Patience. Patience is a virtue and it really can be tested on the road. Don't get frustrated in the midst of planning, because something will always pop up. Just control what you can and roll with the punches. Don't let yourself get unhinged if something doesn't go to "plan" - make the best of what came up and turn to plan B. Sometimes its better than A!
Our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway had a unfortunate encounter as we were planning it the weeks leading up. Mudslides shut the most gorgeous part of the highway off forcing us to move our trip inland to head north. As much of a fork in our plans this was, we did our best to research and came up with an alternative. And you know what, it ended up being better than we imagined! We were able to see a part of California that is beautiful in its own right (and does not receive enough credit) AND we still get to visit the monumental parts of the highway that were unaffected. And we know we can pick up from where we left off AND have a few other places to see in a little more detail!
Remember, its the journey not (always) the destination when you're planning to hit the open road. Make the best and enjoy every moment - the smallest ones will sometimes turn into the brightest memories without knowing you're actually making them!
Feel a little more ready for your trip? We sure hope you do! We know we didn't possibly cover everything that could to make these trips work. So if you have any suggestions you want to pass on, we'd love to hear - comment below!
Otherwise, happy and safe travels!
So you’ve decided to scrap the toy gifts and gift an experience ... but now, where do you start?
There’s really not a right or wrong to what to get, but you have to make sure that the gift is genuine and coming from YOU! Make sure that the gift of choice is something you’re willing to carve out the time to do, and that its the perfect gift for the child receiving.
Consider these points when making a gift choice -
1. Make it reasonable. Shopping for a toddler is very different than for an older kid, so make sure the experience is appropriate for the child of choice. There are places some kids can't enjoy because they don’t meet the age or height requirements, or it’s just no longer a right fit. Make sure whatever you’re planning on doing, it something the receiver would enjoy doing too!
2. Cost doesn’t matter! And by this, we don’t mean you have to splurge to make it special. The gift could easily be FREE! Bottom line, there isn’t a minimum or maximum to spend to make it the best gift ever! It’s the experience, not the price – DO NOT break the bank trying to get the right gift. Make it right for them and you!
There’s also an unspoken pact that you’re also picking up the child’s gift only. So if your child still needs parent accompaniment, don’t worry about picking up the parent or other siblings’ cost (unless you feel called to). There’s an understanding that sometimes we just need to be there but it’s not for us, it’s for them.
3. Make it memorable. Most of all, make sure that it’s something that will last forever. There should be no burden in the gift, only happy memories! And memories that fit the children at play.
Here are some of our favorite ideas that have either been given or received that we can recommend as a great starting point when shopping! I’ve outlined activities by price categories and at prices (current as of May 2019). The cost is for a single pass for the gift receiver (or a promo deal when noted), so remember the cost of your own and your child’s ticket too. And that all these can change - visit each particular companies website for current pricing.
Never underestimate the benefits you’re already paying for! Most annual passes have some kind of complimentary pass program, where a few will be handed out for use throughout the year. Use those perks to gift a priceless experience, especially for a child that doesn’t get to experience it!
And these are just a handful of what there is out there! Orlando has a lot more to offer that is popping up and can make an amazing experience gift (for adults too). We've only been able to get so far, but plan to keep searching for more one-of-a-kind dates!
Any big ideas we missed? Let us know so we can add to our list of gifts to give someone that wonderful experience!
When you're some of the biggest Disney fans, you've seen 2 of their 6 international locations, and you're an hour away, what do you do? You go,of course!
But how does Disneyland Paris stack up to the stateside parks? And how do you make the most of your time visiting a place that has to compete with the majestic history you're surrounded with in Europe.
Here's our take on getting the most of your Disneyland Paris visit!
Where to stay?
We chose to stay at a Disney hotel to capitalize on the on-site perks - proximity and Extra Magic Time. Disney has a plethora of properties, including 6 Disney hotels within walking distance of the parks and 2 Disney Nature hotels which are set further out and require a car to access. Disney also has a variety of Partner Hotels in the area that provide shuttle buses to the parks and may offer a little lower price per night of your stay.
We wanted some place that we could maximize our time at the resort and at the same time feel like we were getting an experience worth the price. We chose to stay at Disney's Newport Bay Club, a hotel right onsite and walking distance to Disney Village. Anyone familiar with the Walt Disney World set of hotels, Newport Bay is the equivalent of Yacht & Beach or Boardwalk, taking you back to a time of living on the water and enjoying the luxuries of full scale seaside resorts. The hotel is beautiful, just as her sister properties here in Orlando; and massive - we stayed on a wing that was quite a hike to get to, but that was located directly next to the indoor pool.
Deciding what you want out of a hotel is what works for your family. All Disneyland Paris hotels offer all-you-can-eat buffets and adult lounges on property, but not all have a quick service option for dining. We would have loved to have some of those conveniences, like an on-site restaurant for snacks on-the-go and a fridge in the room to store leftovers (or in our case, milk). Closest proximity to the park is the Disneyland Hotel, which would allow easiest access to the two parks and Disney Village. If you rather skip on big meals and have a fast option for food, then Disney's Hotel Cheyenne and Disney's Hotel Santa Fe both offer Starbucks on property, but are a little further out from the parks. Hotels with moderate pricing but with proximity to entertainment, Disney Sequoia Lodge & Disney's Hotel New York (currently rebranding to the Art of Marvel) should be considered. And if neither of those are in your price range, there are a host of offsite options, but you lose the perks that Disney gives you, like Extra Magic Time to enjoy attractions before the general public.
Disneyland Paris has also already started to implement extra security measures like scanning all bags (and people) before entering the hotel, which I applaud. It was our first touch of reality with the world we live in today; but it was welcome to see a proactive approach to make sure the magic isn't compromised.
Amount of Time?
This is all up to how much you want to do. We wanted the experience so we chose to end our trip here and wind down with some fun Disney days. We booked two nights because we wanted to enjoy two full days in the park. We arrived early enough to enjoy one park, leaving our bags with the porter and able to get settled in to our room after we finished our day.
The parks are located a walk away from the hotel, passing through Disney Village complex and then with a fork in the road to decide which way to go. The set up is very similar to Disneyland California and very convenient for anyone wanting to experience everything in one day. They have some of the big name restaurants they do stateside, like Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood and McDonald's, but also have unique concepts like Annette's Diner (ode to the original Mouseketeer) and a character filled Wild West stage show at Buffalo's Bills.
If you want to spend any time checking out the night-time entertainment, there warrants an extra night just to enjoy a dinner show - and use that extra day to book an excursion to the surrounding area. Disney offers tours to chateaus and small countryside villages to get a taste of the beautiful region outside Paris that hosts their parks.
Disneyland Paris also offers great package deals that may also be worth skipping a stay in Paris and opting to make the commute to the city instead. We had considered this option when we found a package that would allow us to stay on property for 5 nights for the price of 3. The package also included tickets and granted children free admission - so ultimately we'd be getting a 5-day ticket & 5-night hotel stay for the whole family for the price of two adults on a 3-day package. One rate also included club level room, which would give you exclusive check-in and access to the club lounge, with refreshments and light appetizers served all day. In hindsight, the offer was too incredible to pass up - but we did, because we also knew we wanted to indulge in our first time in Paris. But someone wanting to shop savvy, it is every bit worth searching for a package like this!
Which Ticket to Get?
Absolutely buy tickets ahead of time and snag them on a deal, as they'll also be cheaper online than at the park. We had pre-purchased tickets off the Disneyland Paris site as they were running a deal that got Adults in for the price of Children tickets and we couldn't pass that up!
There are two parks to choose from, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios. We opted to purchase a 1 Day Ticket for each park and completely immerse ourselves in that park. And personally, we felt like a day in each park was more than enough time!
The tickets are sold on an attendance calendar so depending on when you visit, the cheaper it is (weekdays early in summer run cheaper than weekends or late summer). The parks also operate on hours depending on season, with Walt Disney Studios Park closing earlier than the original. During our stay, Walt Disney Studios closed at 8pm on weekends and 6pm on weekdays, so we opted to do the newer park first to maximize our weekend day at the park. Disneyland Park remained open until midnight either day. Since we had one park tickets and we wanted to capitalize on our energy and the late hours, we opted to save Disneyland for last.
Walt Disney Studios Park
Walt Disney Studios is the newer park, and reminiscent of Hollywood Studios in Orlando. It houses two of the newer attractions, Crush's Coaster and Ratatouille, which were our main objectives to see. Just like Disneyland, Paris still has the old FastPass distribution system - you don't have a limit to how many you get in a day and you can get your next one after the distribution window on your ticket opens up (which is usually at the ride time). So if you're lucky and get a FastPass for the exact hour you're in (which is possible), you can also get another pass within a few minutes and ride back to back line-free rides.
We made our way in and went directly for Ratatouille since we wanted to all get on a ride together and this one was it. We got our FP and proceeded to ride other attractions in Pixar Place, an ode to Disney-Pixar films like Cars and Toy Story. There we spun on Luigi, had a Slinky Dog Dash and then made it back over to experience Ratatouille. The ride took us on a 3-D adventure in a mouse's point-of-view through the restaurant featured in the movie and the streets of Paris - it was adorable and left the kids squealing!
We caught a few other attractions we didn't have back home, including Disney Junior Live which had different cartoons featured than they do in Orlando, which was exciting for the kids to see! We also rode the underwhelming attractions of Armageddon and the Backstage Tour. The one thing we had high on our list to see before we left for the day was the coveted Mickey and Magician show, which was fantastic! Housed in a theater, this is a production including live singing and stage effects - it was amazing to see the caliber of show that Europe delivers and really can speak to the level of performance this culture relishes in.
The park itself is overshadowed by the Disneyland Hotel, so upon approaching it, you see the beautiful grounds of their flagship property, but no sign of the iconic castle. You pass under the hotel into the ticket turnstiles and only after crossing the official entry of the railroad station do you see Sleeping Beauty's castle.
The park is very reminiscent of Disneyland California, in its simplicity, attention to detail and accessiblity of attractions. It goes back to a simpler time when things weren't as rushed and the experience was greater than the exposure. It had all the classic rides you expect at any of the flagship parks, with enhancements like HyperSpace Mountain (which was unfortunately closed for maintenance during our visit). The park had also just celebrated its 25th anniversary, so it had a sense of grandeur still in the air to celebrate such an event.
The details are so clean and crisp, but it did lack a little of the magic you find back home. We tried to pinpoint what, and couldn't place our fingers on it until after we left - atmosphere music. We're so used to having music ushering us along and making the pace for our walk, that we failed to notice that the parks didn't have much. You heard the faint music from the attractions as you passed by, but as you walk between lands, taking in the park and existing in the moment, there's no soundtrack to live by. Us spoiled Disney kids really fail to see how wonderful something so simple as this is.
The parks also operate on the classic FastPass distribution system, much like Disneyland California. They do have limited attractions offering passes so waiting in lines may be inevitable. But the parks do not nearly have the waits that the stateside parks do, outside the more popular attractions which beckon visitors. It's absolutely worth waiting in line for those, and even more so for waiting for the shows. The performances here are all live and it is incredible to see the magic of that experience come to life. It is also worth noting that all shows are done in a mix of English and French dialogue, so it makes for a truly memorable experience to get a bit of each culture combined.
I could go on for days about our trip there, but I will let the pictures do the talking instead. If you ever have the opportunity and are even a bit of a Disney fan, take the day trip out here. You can take a metro from central Paris which will drop you off at the end of Disney Village and within a two minute walk to either park.
Any other tips?
Any Disney fan will agree, it is definitely worth the experience to see how cultures influence each of their parks worldwide. The parks are very similar but yet so unique in their own way. It brought us so much perspective to ride the Small World an ocean away and listen to the words with true relativity to our time here.
There is just one moon
And one golden sun
And a smile means
Friendship to ev'ryone
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It's a small world after all
If visiting Disney is on your bucket list, make a stop here, its worth it. It's incredible to see what one man with a vision was able to create, all with one little mouse - that has changed the way the world experiences happiness.
So when you're taking a whirlwind European vacation and you're already 11 days in, what do you do?
Stay another 5 days in Paris.
Paris has been a dream of mine to visit. There's something about the city of love that just seems so appealing, and I jumped in to all the hype. And reality is that traveling within Europe is cheap! For the 4 of us to board a one way to Paris on a reputable airline with no strings attached (Air France) cost us $200 dollars (not Euros) TOTAL. We looked at possibly taking the Eurorail but the cost would've been relatively the same and the trip 4x as long. So we pulled out our passports and made our way to Fiumincio and prepared for another half day of travel.
Rome to Paris
Traveling out of the airport in Rome was one of the easiest experiences I've had in my entire life. We got dropped off at the part of the airport for "domestic" travelers - going in and abound Europe. We found the neatly lined desk with the Air France branding and promptly hopped in line for our Delta Medallion perks. Finding an airline that has partnerships and shared benefits is ... amazing! Our section already didn't have a long line, but in true European fashion no one was in a rush. It's not a horrible mindset to live by but we had two little ones in tow that had not had breakfast and standing in line to drop off our luggage was not how we wanted to spend more time. So our nice Medallion line had us seen right away, got our luggage priority boarded, and even got us special access to a security line that was minimally evasive and very quick. Ultimately, from the moment we arrived to the airport through security was no more than 20 minutes. Ah-ma-zing.
We had plenty of down time though, because we always planned with more time to spare just in case. And I'll say this, FCO is not a horrible airport to spend extra time in. It is absolutely immaculate and very kept up with! We found a bistro upstairs and grabbed ourselves a brunch with a mini bottle of wine each as relaxed & discussed all the possibilities in France. This leg of the trip we not planned to a tee, yet. We wanted the flexibility to change our plans, but we also knew there were certain things we wanted to do - like a champagne river cruise of Paris at sunset the night we arrived. Otherwise, we didn't have anything else set in stone (except our final stop)!
Our arrival to Charles De Gaulle was uneventful and very efficient. We were picked up by our driver, slightly late, but quickly escorted to the car. We were on the outskirts of the city so for the most part, the drive was relatively bland - we felt we could be anywhere else. But approaching the Paris proper and seeing the buildings age and become more detailed and ornate was ... breathtaking. We anxiously awaited spotting *the tower* for the first time, which we knew was going to be a sight in itself. But unfortunately, we didn't spot it and knew we'd have to wait until that night.
Our home in Paris was an adorable boutique hotel off Champs Elysees, Hotel Balmoral. We were two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe, so we always had prime view of its towering glory. But best of all, we were only a block from a metro stop. Once again, based off the size of our group, we got a suite on the top floor. But even by hotel room sizes, it was generous. We walked into living space with a flat screen TV, espresso maker, bistro table and with a loveseat that was turned into a bed every night. The substantial sized bathroom was right off the front door and had enough room for a family to utilize; so we could shower and get ready at the double sink all at the same time. Then to the left of the living room was a bedroom with closet space and another flat screen TV. Both main rooms had a little terrace to overlook the neighborhood, and it was as perfectly Parisian as you'd imagine.
We left the hotel to grab and early dinner/very late lunch and start some of our exploring. We ate at Le Vin Cœur, a bar/bistro right near our hotel and ordered anything traditionally French off the menu. Who would've known that steak sandwich (aka hamburger) was a French staple? But sure enough, the kids wanted to try and that's what they got ... with appropriately enough french fries (steak frites)! Chris and I decided on sharing escargot and a cheese platter. And of course have a glass of French wine to accompany all our delacies. The bistro was as French as it came. The waiters vaguely paid attention to us, patrons dined on their own and read the paper, and very often wines paired perfectly with cigarettes. It was so unlike anything American and I was loving it. Paris was so far off to a great start.
After our meal, we made it to the metro after a short walk down Champs Elysses to take the train to Port de l'Arsenal, where we would board our Seine River Cruise. With time to spare, there was a playground near by where we let the kids frolic for a bit before we did a little walk of the area to get our barings. The port is pretty standard with boat docks, many of them private and not much to see. But there was a lively bar/restaurant next to our dock where you could grab drinks as you waited, and though we would were inclined to partake, there were no other kids in the outdoor crowd, so we weren't going to invite ours.
We boarded our champagne cruise with drink in hand and opted to sit outside with prime views of left, right, straight ahead and up above. We learned that the water levels throughout the water ways in Paris vary, so we'd have to go through a lock system to start our tour. It definitely took a little time to go through, but what a fascinating process to teach the kids about, watching water levels officially change before making your way out to the main river.
Paris by boat is stunning, consuming and something I'd absolutely recommend doing to anyone. Especially at sunset. We didn't bank for night falling closer to 11PM though, despite summer hours. Our cruise boarded at 9, so we were in it for the long haul - but when 9 looked more like 5 we started doubting how soon we'd see the City of Lights shine. I won't divulge too much about the sights we took in, as words cannot explain how glorious it really is.
I mean, take a look for yourself -
But there are two things you have to note and the rest experience yourself:
1. Capturing that first view of the Eiffel Tower, regardless of how or where you are, is breathtaking! There's no way to explain the mix of joy, astonishment and true appreciation for where you are until you see such a monument firsthand.
2. Paris looks like it was hand-painted and you're walking through it, like a scene straight out of Mary Poppins. There's no way a city can be this beautiful. And I hope every single Parisian wakes up and appreciates the true beauty their city possesses and cares for it like a new toy for many years to come.
Our first night ended in a perfect way just by hap and circumstance. We left our river cruise with two sleeping babes in our arms. We knew we wouldn't make it with a walk back to the hotel, so we stood in line for a taxi. We were in line no longer than 5 minutes when a cab appeared and the family in front of us proceeded to enter. The driver called our attention in French, yelling "bébé" and motioning for them to leave and for us to come. We were by no means needing a cab based of our short time there, but his gesture warmed our hearts - taking care of our young kids to make sure they got home in the witching hour - there was not a more beautiful way for love to transcend language barriers. As slightly embarrassed as we felt to take someone else's cab, the ride was perfect - we rode with windows down with a slight chill in the air, gently playing classical music as we drove the immaculate streets of Paris. Nothing felt more Parisian than taking in the city of lights than with my two little loves in my arm being taken straight back to our abode by the sweetest Parisian we'd meet all trip.
Paris Day 2
After a good night's sleep, we were up to do more exploring, this time headed to Montmarte, the highest point in the city to take a bird's eye view of Paris. We decided to walk there, since we were only a short two miles from our peak, and we wanted to feel like locals and take in the sights up close. It was an experience to see the city slightly change as we changed neighborhoods but still continue to have the charm and appeal that beckons its visitors. We passed dated metro signs that you see in the Paris of old; we encountered street musicians playing the sounds that we will remember our trip by; we walked by street cafes in full Parisian style - drink in one hand, cigarette in the other; we walked quickly past patisserie that beckoned us in, but after a breakfast full of croissants, hazelnuts, and sugar we had to pass (for now); we basked in front of iconic Moulin Rouge in all its former glory (be warned though its neighbors aren't as glorisous); we hiked (literally) up stairs as we rose the elevation to get to the highest peak. We finally made it Montmarte where we were welcomed by Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and turned around to find a full view of Paris. It was exactly what we hoped for after the 3 mile walking tour we took ourselves on. If walking isn't for you, there's a Metro gondola right at the bottom of the hill that takes you all the way up; and your Paris Metro pass get you with a swipe!
From there, we decided to delight the kids, since they had yet to encounter an operating carousel and take them on a "train" ride through Montmarte. The trip would take us back down to the main strip near Moulin Rouge for an opportunity to get to learn about this region and all it had to offer. It was truly a cute way for us to delight in Paris and get to do something a little different and very relaxing; traveling with kids is about this. Compromise. You have to know when to cut your losses and do what can keep them engaged as well. After finishing our tour it was time for lunch, a late one at that - and we decided to head towards Jardin des Tuileries to delight them a little more.
We took the metro to the Madeleine district, where we decided on Café Madeleine for lunch before the park. It looked like an American diner met a Parisian cafe and its animated atmosphere called us in. We were quickly and tightly seated in a booth made for two (but that's everywhere in Europe) and had the liveliest of servers. He kept the kids entertained with his antics and broken English questions to them, and we ordered a fantastic meal of more steak sandwiches & frites, French onion soup and I got the tastiest raspberry meets strawberry adult drink you could ask for!
With a quick walk to Jardin des Tuileries, we passed the Opera and the glorious sites that this side of town hosts. This definitely an area of elite and it was beautiful. If you need a recommendation of where to consider staying, the 1st or 8th arrondissement are both in locations prime for sightseeing; and especially with kids, you are in the proximity of lovely parks, full of delights to allow them to run off any energy. That's what Tuileries brought to us on arrival, a chance to let them run around a play. The gardens line up to the Louvre (but not the iconic pyramid that sits in front of it), so we got a look at the museum in all its glory. It wasn't on our list of things to do, because frankly, with kids we couldn't. But I have no regrets, especially after our experience at the Vatican and how crowded it was, it was a welcome blessing to be able to say we were okay without it.
Jardin des Tuileries has carousels and playgrounds for climbing, along with being dotted with cafes and full of people strolling. While they burned their energy, we decided we were going to have a picnic on Champ de Mars for dinner and make it a point to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night. Nothing sounded more enticing than to pack our own bag, bring our own wine, and enjoy a quiet night sprawled on the grass as the tower lit up. So we hurried the kids up and headed back to the hotel for some down time and quick naps, because tonight we were going to stay up until midnight. We had to - the night before it only lit up, and we missed it twinkle. And tonight the tower would sparkle every hour on the hour starting at 11 and we needed to see it!
Timing couldn't have been better - a quick trip to the corner grocery store and we packed up meats, cheese, bread, and bottles of very good (& very inexpensive) wine for us! Then at around 8pm we hopped back on the Metro with the Eiffel Tower as our final destination so we could enjoy play time in the park and have a relaxed evening while we waited for her to glow. And that we did have. We stumbled on a playground right next to Champ de Mars where E made a friend, who spoke zero English, while she spoke no French. But they played together nicely and you wouldn't know that language was even a barrier. We easily lost track of time around 9 because the night just throws you off with its showing off. When out of nowhere we hear the roar of the crowd because the tower lit up! And to our surprise, it was sparkling! The night before we were told it wouldn't do so until nightfall, and here we were at 10pm sitting on the Champ and watching this magnificent tower glitter with the most magical sunset to paint the sky. This was breathtaking. And more than anything we could've dreamt of.
Paris Day 3
We used the next morning to sleep in a little and have "breakfast in bed" to wind down from the late night. Today we were off to see Notre Dame and spend the day exploring Luxembourg Gardens. The day started off cold, cloudy and rainy, but it didn't stop us. We had dealt with this and we had more exploring we wanted to do. So we walked to see Our Lady where we did our own guided tour of the cathedral and relished in all its beauty. It was overcrowded as anything else we experienced, but it didn't make it any less of an honor to be there, standing inside of history in all its glory.
After touring Notre Dame, we headed over to get the one coveted meal I wanted on this trip - crepes! We found a place in Quartier Latin, Le Creperie which was perfect more than just by its name. I got as I wished - a Nutella crepe with strawberries accompanied by a mimosa; Chris ordered a savory ham & cheese crepe to balance out our meal, and if I could, I would have ordered more! We decided to burn those much needed calories with a walk to Luxembourg Gardens, followed by some play time.
Luxembourg Gardens is similar to Tuileries in that its an immaculate garden with public access but a lot more family friendly. Upon entering the gardens, we found boat racing going on in the Grand Bassin duck pond - we needed to join in! So for about 5 Euros your kids can rent toy boats for 30 minutes and enjoy sailing them against each other. After racing, we ventured around and stumbled on to a playground, but unlike Tuileries, this one was not free. A cover charge of 1 Euro per person (adults included), got you access to a gated playground - the Mecca of all playgrounds! This place was massive; from sand pits to swings and slides, every corner there was a different set of playground equipment to be devoured by kids. Ours were in heaven!
And quite honestly, this became the best way to end the trip. We decided to call it an early evening, have another picnic dinner at the hotel and prepare for an early wake up call for the last leg and probably the most anticipated by the kids - Disneyland Paris!
What goes into planning a trip?
Some people are fly by the seam of their pants. Whereas the Type A bunch (like me!) want to have every last detail nailed down.
Regardless of your approach, here are some of our go to’s when we set out for our next adventure.
Ready to make plans? Here's our advice.
Budget - First thing's first - how much are you going to spend? You have a magical number in mind on how much you want to spend, but don't spend all that money on air and accommodations alone. You have a vacation to take! While you're researching where to go, take a look at how much you might spend while you're there and how much flexibility you have to alter your plans. Vacation spending can creep up quickly if you don't plan for it ahead of time and next thing you know your allocated budget has doubled out of nowhere.
When planning out your trip, find an amount per person you're comfortable with spending daily and add that into the total trip cost. Any tours you want to do? Price them all out and then decide from there which ones you're willing to cut out if they don't fit the budget. Add in the cost of meals - Are you planning on doing any exclusive meals? How much are you going to drink? How much do you plan to eat? Figure how you're going to get around & cost of transportation - charters or public?
Once you've got a rough estimate, see from there if this trip is really doable, even when cutting costs to save some money. You'll found that there are short cuts to make it affordable - you might just need more flexibility on when to go, where to stay and how many paid activities you do. If those are non-negotiables, then the world is your oyster and you can find another right fit place to go!
We can't state how important it is to factor daily spending in your budget. There's no point in going somewhere and not being able to do anything because you didn't plan for it. And it will also help eliminate surprises from post-trip bills. If you have your heart set on something but don't think you have the means, knowing costs can help you plan ahead to stay with your budget or encourage you to save a little more NOW so you can do everything you plan later!
Flights - There's something to be said about early bird gets the worm - if you're set on a date, then shop early if you can to guarantee you get the exact flights (and seats) you want! Otherwise, use these timelines we follow on when to book a flight - 4 months to 3 weeks for domestic flights & anywhere from 66 days to 200 days internationally.
Accommodations - We book our accommodations with the purchase of our flight because it is very important in making further plans and easy to get out of the way. We prefer hotels to vacation rentals because of the flexibility they offer and we prefer to book a flexible rate at a hotel to one with a zero cancellation policy. When it comes to exploring new cities, sometimes your thoughts on where to stay may change. I'm willing to pay a little extra for peace of mind that I can change my plans if my opinions do. And also know that sometimes the flexible rates can drop in price too - so you can always adjust your reservation to score savings! If possible, pay ahead for your hotels too - then that cost is eliminated and the only spending you'll have is on the extras during the trip.
Travel Insurance - We always, always, always purchase travel insurance once we've booked our trip (flight, accommodations and car all at once)! There are plenty of companies out there, but we prefer Travel Guard as we have found the best rates with them regardless of our journey. Travel insurance can cover you for anything from trip cancellation to trip interruption to or medical coverage if you need to visit a hospital while traveling internationally. For any of the above, just having that safety net for a few hundred extra dollars is worth it.
Once you book your flight, stay and ride (or within 24 hours), buy insurance! They need the total cost of your trip and where you're going as part of pricing your plan, so its better to know those totals upfront. Its also important to buy within the first day, because if you want or need additional coverage, you need to purchase the waiver within the allotted time period. Yes, plans change and you have the flexibility to adjust, but you need to have those elements secured and its worth every last penny in our experience. On our trip to Brazil we faced an over 12 hour delay due to mechanical issues with the plane - and though the airline provided us with an overnight hotel and meal vouchers to get us until our next flight, we still had out-of-pocket expenses incurred. With our travel insurance, we were able to write off any essentials the airline didn't cover and receive reimbursement fairly quickly after submitting our claim to Travel Guard.
If you travel often, we would recommend looking into purchasing annual travel insurance. Annual travel insurance can save on individual trip costs and the need to shop for insurance every trip. Annual travel insurance plans vary so shop around to find the best one that works for you and your traveling needs. Regardless, we can help find insurance needs!
Now that we're booked, what do we do next?
Activities - Book and plan anything you want to do ahead of time. We learned this the hard way when scheduling our trip to London. We booked back in July and then sat on making an agenda for a little too long. There really weren't tours we wanted to do - except the Warner Brothers Studio Tour of Harry Potter. By the time we got around to picking a date, we missed our window for booking this tour - we failed to find out that they sell out months in advance. We tried up to the very last minute to score tickets, but with no luck.
Try to plan ahead where you can and book when you what you must do - especially with plans that are time sensitive, like limited engagements or show tickets. All other plans you have time to shop around for the best price, like one of our absolute favorite sites for tour options, Viator. The site combines various tours into one selling hub to make shopping easy - tour information, length of time, and cancellation policy are all described in each listing. Once you're booked you're given contact information for the actual tour and you're ready to go! We love the ease of navigating the site and finding a variety of plans that can fit our needs!
Map it Out - There are so many great websites and apps for making your trip really come to life and one of our favorites is Google Maps. We love to read up and watch travel blogs on a place we're planning to visit and at the same time take note of key places we want to experience. As we read or watch, we drop pins on a Google map we've created for that city, so we can later start to make an itinerary of what we want to explore. We try to connect the dots (pins) to make realistic walking tours and also color code each day so we have a full guide map laid out. This tool has truly been wonderful in our travels; we can plan our days near each other and make sure we're not wasting precious time (or money) on unnecessary commutes!
If you rather have all your plans made for you, we love Citymappers for itineraries planned from start to finish which include estimated travel times for best planning your day. If you rather explore as you go, and you plan to travel down a road less traveled, try Roadtrippers for cool places to see as you go!
Plans & Flexibility - We lay out all our plans on a calendar, so the whole family can see what we have on the agenda & we can work around, when things come up. We found this extremely effective for our longer trips to keep us on track and to also use as a reward tracker for the kids. Yes, we're on a break from the real world, but etiquette and behavior shouldn't be. We're all entitled to frustration or slight grouchiness because of hunger or lack of sleep, but to let it ruin everyone's mood is not something we tolerate. We strive to make sure that the kids (and adults) work out any issues, shake it off and carry a positive attitude the rest of the trip. For the little ones, we make sure to reward positive behavior with stickers on a calendar - if they collect enough, they earned a special souvenir by the end of the trip.
And just as anything else in life, plans change. You may have hit a delay, or inclement weather has made your outdoor plans non-existent, or it took longer to do one thing which altered what was scheduled for later. Whatever it may be, know that plans may not go accordingly and allow yourself to accept that. You may also just run into to something much better because you weren't looking for it, and it made your trip extraordinary. Accept that you need to have a positive attitude and a plan B when traveling and it'll help your journey go smoothly.
Phone Plan - If you don't have an international cell plan and want to use your phone abroad, look for what options might work for you. Some like to go the route of an international SIM, whereas we opted to check with our provider (AT&T) for plans that work. We knew we needed at least one phone to use to call locally and access Google maps. But we didn't want to be limited on data usage (or pay for the surcharge). AT&T has a $10/day option starting from when you turn your phone on in international soil for a rolling 24 hours. This plan not only gave us flexibility to shut off during the cruise, but also allowed us to use without any wasted time.
Cash & Cards - Most, if not all places, accept most major credit cards. But we had instances where we needed cash on us. To travel, we converted Euros before departure to insure we had cash for our first transfer. Otherwise, we could have paid as we went. We bank with Bank of America who has sister banks worldwide - at those banks we could use the ATM fee free and only pay the conversion for cash pulled. We had several in our proximity in each of our destinations, and going forward we will be mindful of this and the amount we pull prior to traveling.
As cards go, Visa is king internationally Make sure you at least have access to one while traveling. Personally, we prefer to use our American Express because it allows us to travel without foreign transaction fees. Whatever option you pay with, make sure they're aware of travel plans so you don't get declined any purchases and also make sure you bring up a back up card in case one stops working or goes missing. Designate one card for charges you weren't expecting, particularly for an emergency, so you can still have a disposable amount on another card.
We feel like we've got our packing down to a science, many times traveling with just one suitcase for all four of us. What & how do we pack it?
Carry-On - We always pack the essentials to bring on board, in case anything happens like a flight delay or lost luggage. We've learned this through experience about this so we always make sure that we have the following on us to get through any delays.
Luggage - When we pack for an extended trip, one thing we try to do is pack interchangeable pieces so we can use less, more often. Below is a sample of how we packed for 17 days in Europe.
Top Kid Hacks
Here are some of what we found to be the best tricks to keep a kid happy on a trip.
Above all, pack a good sense of humor for any of the unexpected that pops up. They always will! J caught the stomach bug in Europe; or should we say, he caught the stomach bug stateside and it manifested in Europe. Talk about your worst nightmare! But luckily we were well-equipped this trip (unlike any before) with Benadryl to keep the nausea at bay and give him a few hours of lost sleep; along with patience and lots of prayers that none of us would get it on the flight home!
If traveling wasn't an adventure, then I don't know what else it would be. But how else would we ever learn what we're made of? Hope that some of our school of thought helps you as you start to plan your next adventure somewhere!
And if all this seems but overwhelming to you, we can help make those trip plans - and then just leave the packing to you!
For 7 days of our 17 day Europe trip we opted to cruise through the Mediterranean to visit some key ports. We wanted to see a variety of places in one swoop on this trip and with two little ones in tow figured this was the easiest way with a limited amount of time. We've seen places we wouldn't necessarily fly to, so why not do this in Mediterranean where there's so much we want to see. It is one of the easiest, cost effective vacations you could ever ask for in the - but is it the way you want to see the Europe?
Here's some points to consider-
Read on about our cruising trip and decide for yourself how you want to see Europe!
Day 1 Civitavecchia
So two days after we arrived and explored Rome, we headed to the Port of Civitavecchia to embark on a week of cruising the Mediterranean. We opted to do the cruise because we found an unbeatable deal on Norwegian Cruise Line, who with their Free at Sea offer, we were able to book the kids in the room with us for just the cost of taxes. The offer also gave us an additional free selection from Unlimited Open Bar (pay gratuities and taxes only up front), Shore Excursion credit, free Speciality Dining OR free Wi-Fi on board. Though a few of these options sounded tempting, we knew we'd get the best bang for our buck with free Wi-Fi since we wanted to plan as we went. And then with working through a travel agent, we earned enough on-board credit to cover stateroom gratuities and the cost of drinks we did buy on board.
So day 3 of our Europe Trip was our first day to cruise & finally relax since stepping foot on Italian soil. We set a private charter to pick us up from our hotel and drive us about an hour away to the Port of Civitavecchia. Private sounds fancy and every bit expensive, but it was the way to go. For a group of 6, we paid about $30 a person to have a guaranteed way to get there, without the stress of taking a train (the cheapest way to go). On the train, you do have the option to reserve a seat, but the price of that was close to what we paid for our driver and with a guarantee we'd arrive on time. With Italy being notorious for sudden workforce strikes, we wanted to have a stress-free way to start part 2 of our vacation - which wouldn't come with a train. The transfer granted us someone at our door on time, and drop off directly under the cruise ship.
Boarding the Epic was by far the easiest experience I have ever had boarding a ship, and that's a lot to be said as we have some of the most well-run ports in Florida. And I would not be exaggerating when I say we were checked in, through security, commemorative picture taken, and boarded in about 15 minutes time! We went straight to lunch and let the rest of the day ease by, as we had nowhere to be, and could kick back, relax and enjoy that beautiful Italian sunshine as we waited to embark on the rest of our journey.
Day 2: Livorno, Pisa & Lucca
Our first stop brought us to the port of Livorno, better known for Pisa and Firenze (aka Florence). We chose to skip Florence, which is rare for first timers, and headed to a place of more significance - Lucca. Lucca is where my paternal great grandfather was raised and we knew being so close to our homeland we had to pay our respects to the city we had roots in. We hired a private driver via Your Tour in Italy and we decided the itinerary for the day based off what we wanted to do. Once again, a private driver was every bit worth it since we were at liberty to design our day and it surprisingly, was much cheaper than the cruise ship rates for a group preplanned excursion.
We chose to stop in Pisa to see her famous tower on our way to spend the rest of the day in Lucca. Pisa was a sight to see, particularly because there is nothing else in the city other than l'duomo, the baptismal building and the bell tower, better known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It's magnificent to experience something so obscure in person and really comprehend that yes, it is standing and there are people in it too! Hearing the bells ring definitely drove the point home, kind of like staring at a phenomenon you wouldn't think could exist let alone work. Pisa has nothing else to it, other than a little town square and lots of street vendors selling you souvenirs with the tower stamped all over it. Those aspects of our trip made visiting a little somber; its one thing to see tourist shops in Orlando where everything feels made up for a show. But to see these places rich in history have their streets filled with "artifacts" you can wear, definitely takes away some of its ancient beauty. I couldn't even bare to take a true picture of how tourist rich and tacky Pisa could look because its not what I want to recall. The photo below of my 6 year old holding the tower up is the only way I want to remember it, when I remember nothing else at all.
We then made our 30 minute drive through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to Lucca, which resides within thick city walls. Outside of Lucca proper, felt like any other city you were entering with store and gas stations dotting the roads. But within the walls is old Lucca, captured in time. It is absolutely stunning with its immaculately kept interior and the small town charm we didn't find in Rome. We were dropped off to visit the cathedral, Cattedrale di San Martino, which was humbling to know that I have family that have prayed within these walls. After we walked to a square while in search of the building my great grandfather studied art at and instead found a carousel! The kids made a friend after their ride and though one didn't understand the other, they played just the same. We decided to get a proper view of Lucca - so the six of us rented a surrey! The city walls are a city above a city - big enough even drive a car on at parts, so we decided to explore the city overhead! We pedaled the city walls filled with restaurants and beautiful walking trails. And the city itself is just as charming, wrapped up in simple traditions and a quieter lifestyle. It is much more manageable to see but we also barely scratched the surface in seeing it. The best part though was getting to see a place my family has called home, a place that has some of our beautiful history, and getting to share it with the next generation of our tree. We ended our day in Lucca with lunch at Ristorante San Colombano, a restaurant on the wall covered in trees and pigeons with fantastic fresh food. And amazing local wine!
Our driver, Luca, comes highly recommended for anyone wanting to get to know Italy! He did our regional tour but is also a private driver throughout Italy and very much made this way of seeing the country one to consider. He was knowledgable of the Tuscan region, as he calls Livorno home, and was respectful of our time. He allowed us to see what we wanted without feeling rushed, but also gave us an insider's view of a place we otherwise wouldn't know how to tackle. He ended our time there with a stop in his wine shop in Livorno, where we got great Tuscan wine and oils to ship home at very reasonable prices. A free tasting did not hurt to end the day, where our kids enjoyed our time together as much as we did.
Day 3: Cannes & Monaco
We arrived to Cannes as our second stop; France is a country I have always coveted to get to know! The French Rivera is every bit as beautiful as I anticipated, with quaint homes dotting the cliff and beaches. Our itinerary took us to visit Eze, a small hillside walking village on the coast; and Monaco, the country known for its glamour and wealth, and its small square footage.
We arrived early and in true European fashion, our guide right on time, not a minute earlier. This time we booked via Viator, who paired us with Gregory, a local guide very familiar with both Monaco and Cannes. We started with a captivating drive through the hillsides to Eze, even taking in the Alps with her snowcapped tops in the distance as we headed west. Eze’s allure is that its an adorable cliffside village with boutique shopping built spiraling up with narrow passage ways and labryinths to get lost in. The view from the top of the botanical gardens, overlooking the sea, was the peak of the visit (pun intended) to get a full view of the French and Monaco coast that surround us.
After our quick stop there, we made it to Fragonard Parfumeur, a perfumery in the region known for perfumes. And even though this was very much a solicited stop with obvious business opportunities, I welcomed it. We got a preview of what the greats of Chanel and Estée Lauder do, who also have businesses in this region known for the fragrant flowers that bloom here. Best of all, we got a little something unique to bring home – French perfume that can only be found here – the type of souvenir that is always appealing.
Another short drive over and we made it to Monaco, every bit as elite as it sounds. The streets are tight & winding and full of luxury everywhere! Everything about this tiny country is screams big money – it is very proper, crisp and pristine. I understand the appeal of it now, as it is absolutely gorgeous with bountiful views of the sea on one side, and of luxurious homes on the other. We visited the palace, walked the cathedral that Princess Grace wed in, and even got to see one of her daughters being police escorted back to her home. A little added bonus for our visit was that we got to first hand experience the tracks of the Grand Prix, which had just happened a few short days ago. The sound of cars racing is something I’ll always remember about weekend mornings of my childhood, when my dad would wake up early to watch these famous races, that we were now experiencing firsthand. That we got to ride the roads that were so much part of our life and we had a "taste" of racing is an experience I won't forget.
Day 4: Palma de Mallorca
Day 6 we headed to Palma de Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain held back in time. This stop was amazing! We once again were able to do what we loved – discover a city on foot! We stopped by the Cathedral, explored the Arab baths, and walked down their Las Ramblas. We finally stopped for tapas at a street side restaurant where we drank the best sangria we’ve ever had. We finished our trip by heading up to Bellver Castle, situated on a hill looking down at all of Mallorca. The stop was a welcome change of pace to the car trips we had conformed to and made us feel like we were truly on vacation.
Day 5: Barcelona
What a stark difference even moving slightly over is! France to Spain were so different culturally than Italy and it really did feel like you made a transition to new terrain. But we were so limited in time in these new places that we felt like we barely got to scratch the surface in getting know these beauties!
We decided before we arrived to Barcelona to discover this city as we went. We had a full 12 hours at this port since this was another embarkation point. We chose to board in Rome though because of the distance from the city to maximize our time sightseeing. Whereas in Barcelona the port is in the city and proxmity to get there and back does not affect your time to explore. We also decided on just a double decker bus tour to get a scope of what we wanted to see. We mistook the sheer vastness of this city - it is HUGE and not a place that can be easily explored! And to add insult to injury, it was rainy and cold the day we got there. So we made the best of it and explored the city by bus, with stops to check out some of the hot spots.
We did hope off the bus at Sagrada Familia and Parca Guell, but because you can’t just get tickets on the spot, we weren't able to tour. Tickets are time stamped and sold in advance, which I applaud for being very organized and meticulous (really, this type A love this). So we handled it with grace, accepted our plans for the stop in this city, and enjoyed the rest of the bus tour. And we definitely made plans to come back for an inclusive trip in Spain, to explore another family heritage stop and get a better grasp of this beautiful country.
Day 6 Day at Sea
In between all the running around, on our way back to Italy we got a full day at sea. And with that full day at sea we also had the best weather to match. So you better believe we took full advantage of a day to unwind and relax poolside, and also start prepping for part 2 of our trip.
Before we even packed, we found out that NCL also offered laundry service for a flat price as long as it fit in the provided laundry bag. And since we wanted to pack light, we utilized this service to minimize what we packed on this trip and also extend it over an additional week. The day at sea we got our clothes back, washed and pressed and were able to pack for our departure in a few days.
While we handled adult stuff, the kids played. Like most other cruises, there was plenty of activity on the boat to fill both the days and nights. NCL's kids club age policy is 3 so both our kids were old to spend some of their time there, which gave us a chance to enjoy dinner just as the adults on most nights. The kids club also provided great activities by age, including a evening of parades and shows put on by the kids themselves.
Cruising is great, don’t get me wrong. But for us, we felt like we missed out a little. Let’s say those past 4 days were what I earlier called an appetizer of each place. And though without this trip, I don’t think we would have ever just made it over to Mallorca or Cannes, we definitely wish we had more time in the others. And the trade out could’ve been to just discover the places we missed. We also definitely missed out on having the culture and food surround us at night. We got immersed in what we were experiencing we just weren't quite ready to get back on the boat when it was time for it!
Day 7 Naples & the Amalfi Coast
We ventured back to Italy, and into Napoli, the birth place of pizza (though we didn't spend much time in Naples or have pizza). We were there long enough to be picked up again by our guide from Your Tour in Italy and make our way to the Amalfi Coast. We were given a brief history lesson of Naples, discovering that the land we were driving on was created thanks to Mount Vesuvius’ destruction of Pompeii, which at its prime was coastal. We made our approach to Sorrento, where we would get a unique view of the peninsula as we drove the coastal highway. But an accident cut that plan short and we were detoured to backroads. And this was proof in the adage, take the road less traveled. I’m sure the drive down and through Sorrento is absolutely stunning, but we got to explore parts we would’ve never known. We got exclusive peeks at life in these small coastal villages and how beautifully serene it was. How simple life is high up and this far out form the hustle.
We made it to Positano, where we were given time to explore this coastal town by foot. As most small village, its lined with shops, has a central church, and many great places to eat. Its easy to get lost and lose time just exploring here, as life seems so much simpler when there are far less choices. We made it down to the beach, which is covered in dark rocky “sand” and the sea lined with boats. It really is a picturesque location that postcards are made of. After exploring we made our way to La Tagliata, a restaurant built on a cliff where mama cooks in the kitchen and we eat food served family style, with unlimitless wine and a shot of limoncello after our desserts (yes, plural).
After a delicious, hearty lunch and a sleepy ride back to the “mainland” we made it to Pompeii, where we had a guided tour of this city frozen in time. Its quite an experience to first hand hear these stories, and see the monster Vesuvius looming behind us. The city of Naples is still plagued by earthquakes, and Vesuvius remains a dormant but active volcano, which being there in person to see is both fascinating and terrifying. The stop provided to be a little much for the kids, as all they got to see were rocks everywhere, but our guide did a wonderful job of keeping them engaged and entertained. And luckily we had a tour short enough to keep them happy, but long enough to keep us engaged.
Cruising got us but an appetizer of all these places and its really made us long for so much more. To say that cruising here was enough is not even close to the truth. These individual countries need entire dedicated trips to explore them, because even though neighbors, they're truly unique stories on their own. So naturally whats our first thought, how do we get back here soon? Because we caught this Europe bug and we can't help but want more of it!
We also thought cost would make a drastic difference cruising, and I actually don’t think it would. Sure, we got a great deal for the 4 of us to have a floating home for 7 days - guaranteed food, sleep and transportation for a week of our trip. But there are still costs, like the excursions to explore and experience these magnificent places. And most of these are not just managable on foot, so you'd have the residual cost regardless of how we traveled. We also wanted to indulge in the delicacies each of these places had to offer. So there's another expense added to the trip - a very well worth it expense, but one that just made cruising a tad bit more expensive. The food we were given as part of the cruise didn't cut what we wanted to experience.
Cruising with kids is absolutely, positively, 100% the way to go. They had so much distraction on the ship once we got back, and the energy to spare, that dropping them off to play was not even a question. They delighted in so much that they did that we have no regrets in taking this kind of trip just for providing a true break from them from touring. The pouting leaving the ship should say it all!
But if you and yours have an adventurous spirit and taste buds to match, then stay off the boat. You'll get so much out of having a guide that knows and prides in their home country shuttling you around on YOUR schedule and being able to navigate these countries down your own path.
The experience was great and it definitely left us wanting more - to explore more courageously and take the road less traveled next time. But on the other hand, man, did we love these views ...
Our first big international trip was just this past summer with a 3 & a 6 year old on a 17 day trip from Orlando to Rome, around the Mediterranean and ending in Paris. We've done trips out of the country before, but never to this caliber.
And if I'm being completely honest, I had some reservations - let's call it the fear of the unknown. I started to make up reasons why we couldn't or shouldn't do this for an unrealistic moment. They're too young, it's too far, it's too long, it's too much. But then the spirit of adventure and logic set in. We got on our first flight, and I left any worries stateside - the adrenaline of travel is form my liquid courage.
We were flying Delta with a connection domestically to start the trip. I chose to do this as opposed to connecting closer to Rome, just so we could limit going through immigration and booking a long layover to match. We also chose to fly Delta because we found an excellent rate, in Basic Economy though. It was our first time flying on this entry level fare - no bags or prior seat selection included - but we also knew we'd have perks being Medallion members (like free bags) that eliminated the cost. Lucky for us, Delta offers family seating, so in the weeks prior to our trip I called and requested assignment as I was traveling with two young kids. The seating is in the very back of the plane, but it worked out perfectly the day of our trip. Both kids were up extremely early and both had outgrown the trick of a rocking plane lulling them to sleep, so I only had to graciously apologize to one row of people for E's pint sized punch. She actually fought it all the way through our dinner time lay over in Atlanta, until take off to Rome; where after a minor screaming fit ensued, she was no longer able to fight sleep.
Our arrival into Rome was pretty self explanatory and not at all complicated. The airport is very immaculate and the ease of getting around is a dream. Really, it was the arrival you'd want in a new country and such a welcoming start to our trip. We hired a driver for pick as opposed to waiting for public transportation or a taxi, since we wanted a secure source to get us to the hotel upon arrival. The service was fantastic and efficient; we were greeted with a sign with our name and led to a Mercedes minivan for our trip through Rome to our hotel, Best Western Hotel Spring House. Both of which I'd highly recommend.
Best Western Hotel Spring House is located right next to the Vatican, a quieter part of town, but still busy. We chose it less because of proximity to major sightseeing hubs, but more because of location - my parents were staying at a nearby B&B and we wanted to be nearby to get together during our trip. Also, there weren't many hotels available to accommodate a group of 4 (in one room). After some in-depth research, the hotel proved to be *perfect* for families. We had to book a family room/suite because of our size, which in this case consisted of dual-level room with two beds and a bathroom not of European size. The top floor loft had one king bed under skylights for some incredible morning sun when we woke; while the bottom floor had a queen, closet space, in-room safe, mini fridge, and a bathroom big enough for a family (with shower only though). Because our rooms weren't ready at arrival and as an act of hospitality, we were comped breakfast during check-in, which was a great added bonus. We prefer to book hotels that serve breakfast when possible, as morning food varieties don't matter much with kids, so we want the option to eat where we're at.The hotel including it for us was a generous gesture that makes recommending them all that more worthwhile. And for anyone questioning the Best Western brand, its not at all what I expected.
Our arrival day was made up of a LOT of walking (10+ miles) and self guided tours! We strapped on the toddler carrier for E and prepared J for a lot of standing, as we purposely left the stroller at home. We made the decision early on in our planning process to bring a carrier and started the research for one with a a higher weight limit that could also be easily be packed. We went with the Ergo, and actually found a reseller on Facebook Marketplace where we paid saved a good chunk of change on a excellent condition carrier that had been lightly used. It would have been worth every penny of full price though because it definitely getting around manageable and traveling with one less items a dream!
We created Google Maps prior to our trip, dropping pins of sites we wanted to see and then mapping out walking tours according to our pins for each of our 3 days there. Rome is very walkable - I knew it was a major city and expected traffic, but major roads are very avoidable if you want to trail down cobblestone paths. We even made it fun for the little ones by providing them with scavenger hunts in the city that the could do. J was equipped with an old iPhone to take pictures (and load games as necessary), scavenger hunts - both city specific and generic, and a notebook, both for doodling and writing his adventures. The combination of activities definitely made the trip unique for him in how he'd see the city.
We stopped for pizza at a cafe by our hotel, gelato by the Pantheon, marveled at Trevi, watched street performers in piazzas, got lost various times which all ended up being beautiful detours, and finally ended up in the Jewish Ghetto around dinner time. I had received a recommendation to dine at Ba'ghetto Milky -it looks like a dimly lit small cavern upon entering and was fairly empty, which was a welcome sight for hungry & exhausted travelers. The restaurant is meat free, offering minimal fish options, which was a bit of a surprise but also a fun change of pace (to not force our traditional selection). I ordered a fettuccine with truffle sauce and have been dreaming of it ever since; European portions are not nearly as generous as American but not was the perfect amount! Chris got a local fish dish which was delicious but quite honestly not as impressive as my pasta. And the kids ordered an eight slice pizza to share - and finished it themselves if it’s any testament to our day! Yes, we were famished, but the food was more impressive than our need to devour it and hands down we will recommend this restaurant over again. Plus, the neighborhood is up and coming district, full of rich history and stories you don't always hear about Rome - if you can carve time to get to know it personally, absolutely do.
We didn't mind the walk now that we had indulged so opted on the two mile venture back to pass spots we hadn’t yet. It was also an excellent excuse to pack in more calories in the form of dessert cannolis, a first for the the kids (and which they loved it)! We also had some beautiful views of the sun setting in Rome and a chance to enjoy the carousel in the square by the Castel D'Angelo. The unique beauties of this cities, how do I even start to explain the emotions they evoke? Rome by foot was worth every blister and leg cramp we had after the first day.
We decided to book both our tours of the Colosseum and Vatican in one day, since we had the unpredicatability of travel on our other two days there. We booked both with Angel Tours, off a recommendation, and the tour operator easily accommodated our requests and made two tours in a day feasible. We started on what ended up being a private tour at the Colosseum and ventured to the Roman forum before ending slightly before lunch. We hopped in a taxi and grabbed a bite to eat near our hotel, so the boys could change into pants (no knees for visiting the the Vatican) and headed back to meet our guide for our small group tour.
Were back to back 3 hour tours a lot? For exhausted travelers it could be. But was it worth it? Even more so. Both our guides were very knowledgable and attentive to our kids, keeping us engaged and sharing the treasures of these gems. Having an actual person to guide versus an audio recording is also the only way to go. We could ask questions to learn as they explained; and many times we were surprised with how much more we learned. Best of all, they save you a lot of time, which is worth the extra money. Otherwise, you face lines to buy tickets and lines to get in and lines for just about everything else. And this was at the end of May, which isn't even their peak holiday season yet.
We ended our day of tours with dinner in Trastevere, a neighborhood off the beaten path. We wanted to explore Rome like a local and only wish we had a little more time here, but an evening stop made up for a whirlwind day. We had fantastic dinner outside at Trattoria da Gli Amici - or Restaurants of Friends as it literally translates to. It was a cute little cafe with outdoor seating in a lively piazza. The restaurant next door even provided music for us to dine by - along with a few street musicians who came by our table to perform for spare change. The food was superb, as we ordered just about everything off the menu to build a family style meal of sharing. Bread is always served on the table and the bottles of wine at the price of American glasses were refreshing on this warm evening out. And if you need any more of a recommendation here, the restaurant does incredible things with its staff - they employ veterans and those with special needs that typically can't get jobs anywhere else. What charming people to meet and humbling to know you crossed their path & gave their job a purpose. We were the lucky ones that evening which was simply stated, perfect.
After arriving back from cruising for a week, we had one more full day planned in Rome. We scheduled this purposely so we could explore any new parts we missed, or go back and see the things we loved one more time. We opted to move hotels this time, and stayed near their financial district at Best Western - Hotel Artdeco. Though the room was spacious and the bathroom generous, this one fell short of the family feel we had at the previous hotel. We were fortunately near many shops to pick up groceries as needed. Which came as a blessing in disguise, as J had a stomach bug manifest that very morning. So after we checked in, Chris offered to stay behind (since he had a chance to explore Rome in a past life), so J could rest. E and I made way with my parents to have lunch in the city center and then walked over to visit the Spanish Steps. E, in traditional Italian fashion, ate a pizza on the steps as we took in the sights and sounds around us. And after a few hours of exploring and a scoop of gelato later, we headed back to check on the boys.
Thankful for some well heeded advice and medicines to match, J was feeling better and was ready to explore. So our long awaited trip to Villa Borghese was our next stop. We booked our hotel here, due to its proximity to the park and the fact that we had mapped out a day to check it out exclusively (obviously plans had changed). So we made the 20 minute walk over, exploring Italy on foot again, and arrived to the Italian version of Central Park. It was full of life, with skating lessons being taught, a playground full of children laughing, a train passengers to explore, and visitors strolling the tree-lied park on a mild June afternoon. We spotted tandem bikes for rent by the hour and we knew we had to explore in this fashion.
The park is full of pathways that lead everywhere - beautiful fountains, a gallery, another hidden nook or even right to the zoo. Due to our late afternoon arrival and to our kids' dismay, we were not able to visit. But had plan A worked out, we would've spent some time exploring to indulge in this park even a little more. Once we rode every crease & crevice and realized we were ending in the prime spot for the kids, we returned to the playground and let them run more energy out on the playground and play some arcade games situated nearby, with some county-fair like rides.
Our dinner plans took us back to Trevi fountain to the twice recommended Vineria Il Chianti. We gathered that the proximity to the tourist hot spot to may take away some of its local charm, but the raving reviews were enough to lure us in. There is a small courtyard on arrival where you can dine and people watch in the piazza. But if you prefer a more intimate setting, the restaurant itself is situated in a charming villa with dim lights and hidden rooms, including a tea light lit hallway that resembles a runway to the bathroom. The menu was full of amazing feasts that it made it hard for us to decide on just one, so we didn't. We had a beef steak with enough servings to feed 4, a pasta with Bolognese sauce, and the kids had the most fantastic wood-fired pizza for our one last goodbye to this Italian deliciacy.
We ended our evening's adventure with another goodbye to gelato and a trip to drop off some postcards for friends back home. We couldn't find a more loving souvenir for the kids to give then sending postcards back got friends. We tied it in with the objective of getting J to practice his penmanship and spelling by sending mail to his friends back home - a thoughtful souvenir for them, a fun activity for him, and a wonderful memory for all of us. And before we departed Trevi's sight, we hopped back over one more time, with coins in hand and wishes to be sent. We kissed our metals, threw them over our shoulders and hoped we'd soon be back to make more of these memories.
How do I even start describing how amazing this place is? It was mentioned Italians are proud people, hesitant to speak to you if you don't know their language and relatively inhospitable once they realize you are a foreigner. I didn't find any of this to be true. We had nothing but wonderful, warm interactions with everyone we met. It's everything you see out of a movie, with big boisterous greetings and dinner tables full of love. No one ever felt like a stranger and these welcoming gestures left us wanting more. From the gentleman working in the gelato shop giving E candy as she patiently waited for her cone to be filled; to the reserved waiter having a staring contest with J until he laughed. These people have left an impression on my kids and have so much more on me.
Italy has been all I dreamed of and more. There's not a magical age to do this nor know when to start. Too young? There are families literally everywhere, so no, we're not the only crazies walking around with a sleeping tot on our back. We decided what was right for us and now was perfect. Plus, now that we started, we have opportunity to keep coming back; there will be no "what if" dialogues, because we have and now we're on for more. We love this place already and if we didn’t, our last couple days have solidified our desire to adventure more.
It sounds a little early to be discussing plans for the new year, but as vacation plans go, it's just one of those weeks that book up before you even start to think about it! Build in extra time for planning if you're traveling with kids, as it's difficult to narrow down what to do that can be age appropriate for all. But if you're looking for our best suggestions, cruising into 2020 is the only way to go!
For us, in 2017 we decided we would usher in 2018 with a long coveted first - a New Year's cruise! It doesn't sound that complicated, but when you live in Florida and 5 ports are in your backyard, it's not the first resolution for a unique new year, only because you likely have already cruised! The decision really came to us as a solution to the debate on what could we do that the kids will also enjoy? And after having cruised with kids for a few years, it felt like the perfect compromise. And actually created THE best start to a new year ever!
1. The timing is perfect - NO SCHOOL and an excuse to escape winter blues. So you're getting an off period where you don't have to pull the kids from classes and you likely have vacation time to burn too!
2. It's not hot! I mean, its still warm, but it is not the unbearable heat you get over the summer. It is also the perfect time to exchange boots for flip flops and sweaters for cover ups.
3. And let's talk perspective! I woke up on January 1st to pristine waters and umbrella drinks on the gorgeous island of Grand Turk. I can't think of a better to welcome a brand new start (you know, if you're into that stuff)!
And it goes without being said, it gave the kids something to do with a PG rating. We got caught in the monotony of having an early New Year celebration or spending it at home since being out was too much work. But the ship is your home away from home, so you're going out without all the nuances and worrying about the details. Add the bonus that the celebration by no means comes lack luster - you'll be sailing in comfort with a "couple thousand of your closest friends," so the celebration is even brighter than it would be watching the ball drop on your couch. The walks of life you get to surround yourself in such an occasion with; it brings perspective to your place in the grander scheme. This trip sure put a highlight on the "lonely years" of bringing up kids; not knowing what to do with them and not wanting to do it without them.
For this particular trip, we sailed on Carnival Magic out of Port Canaveral for 7 days, though we recommend itinerary and timing over any ship. The kids had the first week of January off, so we used the week after the holiday celebrations started to taper off to keep our spirits bright and this itinerary met our needs.
The ship itself highly promotes the celebration, particularly highlighting whatever sponsor was taking care of them for that sailing. New Year's Eve fell right at the beginning of our trip, which was deemed the ship's “formal night”. Having the celebration on a night where cruise goers were directed to fancy up a little more made the event feel extra special; everyone dressed to the nines and knowing that the party wouldn't even really start until closer to midnight.
During the day, the crew had guests write their "New Year's Wishes" and place them in a balloon which we filled with air. Around 11pm, a party in the atrium featuring a balloon drop in the atrium began. The net holding these wishes were released from a top deck and our wishes would be free to float and where the crew chose a few lucky wishers to win celebratory bottles of champagne. The party continued on the pool deck where the night was lit with excitement as we counted down to midnight. It could not have been a more perfect way for us all to celebrate, together most importantly.
Carnival has been known as the "Fun Ship" and I think at times a little too rowdy for more conservative crowds. But we find that their longer cruises do a better job of having a great mix of people. There were a great mix of people on board - from singles to families so we it was never a situation of feeling out of place. Add the slew of things to do that the longer itineraries feature, we all found ways to unwind for the new year.
The bigger ships feature a whole water park at WaterWorks, which makes cruising a blast for kids! Seuss at Sea themed activities bring a week of entertainment, including character greetings, a passenger story time production, and a brunch featuring foods like Green Eggs & Ham! Our youngest is now old enough to enjoy the kids activity drop offs, Camp Ocean, so we could partake in some alone time to enjoy the spa, go to the gym, or just not have to watch a toddler outdo herself - all of which we gloriously did. Parents designate who have sign in and out privileges so they're not just being released; there's alarms at the gates that will sound if someone comes in without permission; and there's a good ratio of counselors to children so the littlest ninjas (ours) are never out of sight. Plus the kids each get their own pretty cool wrist band to designate them to a muster station should something happen and parents were on the opposite end of the boat. We found that the time after dinner was *perfect* to get their energy out at camp and be able to crash right when we were ready to too. For New Year's they had their own pre-midnight celebration which made it a little extra special for just them too.
For the big kids (adults), we love the eclectic mix of venues we can spend an evening at, whether it be grabbing a drink, listening to live music or watching a show. All have been updated to keep with the changing times, so the thought of dated ships is a thing of the past. And if we don't feel like enjoying an adult beverage, there's a variety of activities from sports, movies, shopping or classes we can take. On this particular trip we decided to upgrade ourselves into a spa level room and capitalize on spa access for the whole week. So while the kids were playing in the kids club, we got to relax and rejuvenate with hot tubs, saunas and treatments. It was definitely a welcome way to end one year and start the next!
The itinerary on this cruise was similar to one we had done before; but this trip we were taking for the experience not the locations. We had the opportunity to unwind in Grand Turk on New Year's Day; discover Amber Cove, Dominica the day after; and explore a little more of San Juan, Puerto Rico. We also got three total days at sea, a nice break that allowed us to rest after the rush of the holidays and recharge as we embarked on a new year.
Looking for a better way to start the year? I couldn't think of a better one than this, especially with kids! We came into January, refreshed, in good spirits and with a (sun)kiss of extra color. What more could you need to feel rejuvenated to tackle a new set of 365 days?!
We did something most annual passholders wouldn’t admit to doing.
We spent a whole day at Magic Kingdom.
As much traveling as we have done to all the other Disney parks, our eldest informed us we had never had done a FULL day at our park. And truthfully, it wasn't something we had necessarily planned to do because it's just so accessible.
As passholders, we're spoiled in getting to go whenever we want to. We make plans off of FastPass availability, do the allotted rides & maybe a few more with low wait times and leave. It's usually a pack-your-own-lunch, splurge-on-a-sweet-treat, we'll-be-home-in-a-few-hours kind of day. It's become easy to come & go to the parks and not fully immerse ourselves in the tourist experience.
But this particular end-of-summer Saturday. we brought their cousin & made our way over to Magic Kingdom for a fun-filled day of playing tourists in our home! And to see if we could do the majority of the park in a day.
The result may surprise most of you, as it did us, because we DID!
So I bet you’re asking, how’d we fair? And it would be selfish of us not to share how we made a magical day out of a HOT August day. Here’s our tried and true tricks that still to this day don’t fail us!
1. Download the Disney World app. Once you have tickets, you can upload them in the system and assign them to a park for FastPass selection at least 30 days before. And if you're lucky enough to be staying on property, you get an additional month and can plan 60 days ahead! The magic trick here and key time is 7am. The system uploads the new date at that time, so have your app open and thumbs ready to go to get the best availability.
We selected a few of the more popular attractions to do right at lunch time, so we could capitalize on the slower morning hours and because the popular rides we were aiming for weren’t available. But you could and should choose an earlier FastPass start time to get more done with minimal waits. Your goal is to get them as early as possible so you can add on more passes during your stay. You should also aim to book Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Peter Pan's Flight or Space Mountain in that order, as they're the most popular attractions.
The app will also come in handy during your stay. Starting a few days before you can check back in for changes and cancellations. Yes, they’ll always happen because plans change once people get here. The morning of is particularly important, because as people get their coveted FastPasses, they may be releasing YOUR coveted FastPass.
Also, you may have to break up your party to get the FastPasses you desire, but you can try for overlapping hours. And if not, you can always try the kindness of cast members. If all members of your party have a FastPass but at varying times, they can usually shift to match one rider’s time so you all can be together. Disney is about making magic happen, isn’t it, and cast members are usually empowered to do so!
2. Come early. They say the early bird gets the worm, right? In this case it's true ... but be prepared for a whole flock of early birds too.
If you skip breakfast & come hungry, there's plenty of quick service options in the park to satisfy your stomach before you get started. Our little gem is heading to Starbucks right when you get in and using the Starbucks app to get extra perks! We use the app rather than cash/card, and for those that don't know, IT IS ACCEPTED PAYMENT IN DISNEY STARBUCKS! You can't redeem reward stars for food/drink or capitalize on promotional offers in the park (those rules don't apply to Disney Springs though) - but you can use the app to pay and GET STARS for what you would purchase in real life anyways! And for those that are spending savvy (like me), use Raise to purchase discounted Starbucks gift cards so you're saving even more! We grab and go, while delighting in our goodness and making everyone else gawk in jealousy.
The parks opened at 8am the day we arrived and we got in a little past 830am. The parks are quiet first thing in the morning, so use the Disney World app to look at wait times and hit any attractions that seem unusually low. Try to ride any of the above that you didn't get a FastPass for early on, especially with wait times that look made up - more on that next!
3. Ride anything with little to no wait. That's pretty obvious, but really, it’s a must.
Once we arrived, the boys decided to head to Tomorrowland and conquer Space Mountain (1) because it only had a 15 minute wait! Fifteen, 1 - 5, I said that right. We didn't have a FastPass for the ride and this was the lowest wait it'd be all day, so the boys got in line. Which left me and Elle to find a ride in the area that she could get on and that they wouldn't care to miss. Astro Orbiters (2) it is!
Once we all finished on our respective rides we met to get on Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin (3) and hopped on after a 10 minute wait. The boys are finally at the age where they can ride non-thrill rides unaccompanied, so they had a blast experiencing this game together.
The rest of the morning we hit up rides according to wait times and tried to get through a slew of attractions without losing any precious time:
(4) Mad Tea Party - 5 minutes
(5)Dumbo the Flying Elephant - 10 minutes + play time under the big top
(6)The Barnstormer - 10 minutes
(7)Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid - 10 minutes
(8)Mickey's PhilharMagic - 10 minutes
We got to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (9) where Elle was itching to go, and it had a 30 minute wait. We decided to swallow our pride and line up, since we had been running hard and it gave us a chance to plan the rest of the day. Plus this attraction also has another play area, which was enough distraction to make the time go by fairly fast.
4. Recharge at lunch and Order Ahead. While in line, everyone agreed they were hungry, so we decided on Pinocchio Village Haus in Fantasyland for pizza and started to make lunch plans.
You can access quick service restaurant menus right on the app, and even better, you can Order Ahead on there - at no extra charge & once again saving you time. We accessed the app and picked out all our meals for lunch while we waited to board Pooh's honey pot. Once our order was complete, we paid, sent, and got back to our day.
The restaurant doesn't charge or prep your order until you hit the "I'm Here" button to advise them you're ready to eat! Once you get to the respective restaurant, go back into your app, advise them that "I'm Here" and wait for an alert that "Your Order is Ready" to head to the Order Ahead line to pick up your meal! It's that easy! This gave us time to find the perfect spot to eat, unwind, and also sit down rather than spend more time in line.
For us, we were able to grab prime seats for lunch - the windows that overlook the "its a small world" ride. Disney has action signs available to hold up to the unsuspecting guests as they sail by to do as you command (in our case, the YMCA and Chicken Dance were the most fun). The boys had a blast holding up markers that told them to do a random dance and applauded their audience for showing off!
Finished with lunch, it was time to start hitting up our first three FastPass attractions - so a little after 12p we headed towards Pirates of the Caribbean (10), followed by Splash Mountain (11), where I became unfortunate victim to get drenched on the way down.
5. Do something different. Since we used our first two FastPasses back to back, we had a little gap of time available before our last of the original three, Haunted Mansion. So we headed to do some shows we never slow down to see - Enchanted Tiki Room (12) and Country Bear Jamboree (13). Followed by something we hadn't before really ever done - Tom Sawyer Island (14). There we got to hide in caves, play on bridges and explore different passageways.
We also managed to find a quiet spot on the water that faced the parade route, so we got a view under shade and unobstructed (in its own right), for a unique way to see the Festival of Fantasy parade (15). It was definitely a hidden gem & welcome surprise! They have chairs and tables set up for picnicking and it would be the perfect spot to open a Mickey bar ice cream, to treat the kids after exploring!
6. Plan ahead. We head to our last Fast Pass after arriving on mainland, Haunted Mansion (16), which we used at the end of its allotted hour (you get an additional 15 minutes on the back end and 5 minutes on the front to access each FP). So while in line, I grabbed tickets for another FastPass. FastPass works in that after you're done with your original three for the day, you can grab more, one at time to use. We purposely put our 3 back-to-back so we could then fill in as we rode. So we got on the following rides and as FastPasses showed up for the ones available, I managed to grab.
7. Minimize spending with snacks. We try to keep our spending to a minimum when we're at the park, and today was no exception. We knew we were going to stop for lunch/dinner and made sure to order single meals big enough to share. We’ll also opt to order an entree and app to split if nothing else on the menu, and then a kids meal and a side for the kids to split as most come with more than enough food to get through the meal!
But since we were also going to spend all day here, we came well stocked with snacks. We love the option that Disney gives, in allowing us to bring snacks with no limitations, so we make sure to have an insulated backpack ready to go. With this we also make sure to bring reusable drinkware to refill with water; the insulated kind too!
If we do have to purchase, we try to make a stop in the stores for a quick bag of treats. A huge perk of being a passholder are the discounts they give in park and stores. That's no exception to food - so if you can find something to eat at a retail location, rather than a food stop - grab it here for less spent! Same goes for drink as some stores carry bottled beverages for convenience, but cheaper than at a quick service restaurant since you can apply your coveted discount to it!
8. Grab the perfect spot for fireworks. Since we had snacked all day, we opted for a very late, very light dinner. We once again used Order Ahead to stop at Casey's for hot dogs and created our dinner menu as we walked over. We found a table outside as patrons cleared their plates, and then waited for the alert that our meal was ready. Since we ate at the end of the dinner rush (around 9p, like we said VERY late), we were seated in the perfect spot for the Happily Ever After (26) fireworks display. We didn't have to worry about people standing in front of us or using our shoulders (and my case, tip toes) to get the kids to see. Everyone around us remained seated and we could peacefully enjoy the show in a contained area, content with our full bellies and rested feet. Perfect!
9. Make a game of it. We love that Disney introduces different ways to see the park, including the Sorcerer's Apprentice game which we always make a point to collect additional cards at the firehouse on Main Street before continuing our game. The game is time consuming though, as you have to hunt for portals and fight villains to unlock the next clue. It definitely is a distraction for the kids on a slow day, but since this was anything but, we skipped playing on this visit.
We did start using Play Disney on the Disney app and were collecting tokens for visiting attractions. Play Disney doesn't require any additional effort though. You just have your phone ready to go as you line up and then you've collected for just visiting. We got through most of the park, so after fireworks, we made it a point to get at least one more.
10. Finish strong. We had managed to squeeze in one last FastPass and really the second to last ride we could nab for the day - Peter Pan's Flight (27). We decided to call it after we had hit this Play Disney point and really our point of exhaustion. The park closed at midnight and we were content with our 10pm end time.
And though we missed doing one of the most popular attractions, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, we had a better than good run. We had four little feet run strong all day, smiling ear to ear and we hit up 27 attractions! We couldn't be happier with how we ALL faired on our day as tourists.
Planning your own day? Here’s the order to nab FastPasses to make your day worth while.
It was a perfectly magical day! The type that you don't typically bank on but end up becoming one of your favorite memories. We're glad we had a little coaxing from a well-behaved kid and allowed ourselves all to be kids again for the day!