Top 20 Tips for Travel with Baby

Traveling has always been a passion of mine.   When I got pregnant in 2015, I knew I wanted to share lots of trips and adventures with our little man, and baby or not. Before Max was a year old he completed more than 12 flights, including a trip from the US to Italy.   While having a baby may slow things down a tad, with a bit of planning and a can-do attitude, I promise you can do it too!

Below I have updated a post I originally shared on the blog last summer, sharing my Top 20 travel tips for flying and traveling with baby.  This original post is geared for babies one or under, but I’ll be doing a follow up post this fall about travel with toddlers too!

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1. PLAN IN ADVANCE

Weeks ahead of time I start making packing lists. Rushing to pack mommy, daddy and baby (not to mention other kiddos) the night before sometimes can’t be helped, but odds are you will forget something.  Make a list and create a small staging area in a closet or spare room where you can start to collect those things you want to make sure you remember.

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2. PASSPORTS AND PASSPORT CARDS

For international travel baby will need a passport, which will be good for 5 years. You will also want to get the passport card for baby as a form of identification. Although the card can only be used for international travel to a few select destinations, you can throw this in your wallet and use for domestic travel to avoid lugging around a copy of the birth certificate or passport in your things.

3. STROLLERS ARE YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND

Take a stroller that that’s easy to use and comfy for baby, and sturdy enough to haul things around the airport.  If you don’t have the stomach to gate check an expensive stroller for fear of it getting damaged, then don’t bring it.  Its not coming in the cabin with you, but you can take it through the airport with you and check it at the gate. You will need to stop at the desk at your gate to get a tag to check your stroller.  When you get on the airplane you will fold up the stroller and leave it at the end of the gate right as you board the plane, and it should be waiting in the same general area for you when you disembark the plane.  The stroller is a great place for baby to nap while you enjoy a museum, seeing the sites, or use as a place to feed baby.  It’s also an excellent caddy at the airport.  It can be hard to manage getting all that crap through the airport, so I would wear my Baby Bjorn Carrier with Max and dump the diaper bag and carry on bags in the stroller. (Side note, Baby Bjorn is also a must have getting on and off the plane with your bags.)

A favorite stroller related packing hack of mine is to attach a large stroller organizer to the back of the stroller to stuff some emergency changes of clothes, some food and a plethora of diapers, which can save a fair amount of room in your carry on bags.

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4. BABY BACKPACK AND CLUTCH

The days of a big handbag are now replaced with a diaper bag, but I still need someway to organize my necessities (wallet, phone, lipgloss, hair ties, sunglasses), so I use a small clutch to contain all my clutter and then stuff it into my carry on or diaper bag. I highly recommend a backpack diaper bag because you can wear it, keeping your hands free for holding your baby, carry on, pacifier, tickets, folding your stroller, car seat, and well, you get the point. :-). There are lots of cute ones out there, but I’ve coveted my husband’s Diaper Dude bag I bought him last year- it’s the most practical and comfortable hands down.

5. CHANGE OF CLOTHES

As a general rule, I pack 2 outfits a day for baby, assuming we will have a food or butt disaster at some point :-). Make sure to pack a few onesies in your diaper bag or carry on so you can do a quick change, or aren’t left scrambling if your luggage doesn’t arrive with you.  Remember to bring plastic bags to put the dirty stuff into (doggy doodoo bags or produce bags are a good because they wrap around what’s inside pretty easily), although if it’s too gross and just a basic onsie, you may just want to cut your losses (no need to carry poop with you for a full day if you aren’t returning to your hotel). Also pack an extra shirt for mom and dad in the event that the baby messes spill over on to you (which they often do).  You don’t want to start a flight for New York to Rome with baby poop on your shirt for the next 7 hours. No bueno!

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6. DON’T STRESS!

A lot is going on at the airport, but try not to get stressed or rushed. There are lots of people without babies who fumble about and take forever to board. Don’t let anyone rush you or make you feel bad. You paid for this flight, and just because you take longer to unpack or may have some crying here or there, its OK.  Other non-baby passengers can do the same thing.  That guy farting up a storm across the aisle or teenager with headphones blaring for the world to hear can be far worse!!  If your baby is a good mood when you board, let him baby smile and flirt with the other passengers around you. That way he’s that cute baby who just happens to be crying later on.  And quite honestly, I have found most other passengers to be very understanding and helpful, with one college girl even offering to “babysit” on the plane for us on our flight to Italy last year!  If someone does give you a hard time, just turn the other cheek and pay all your attention to cuddling and caring for baby!

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7. CAR SEAT

You can use a TSA approved car seat on the plane if you buy a ticket for baby, or you can have a lap child up to 2 years of age. If you intend on getting a car when you land, you will need a car seat, so you will need to bring one along or rent one from the rental car company. Car seats can be very heavy, so I recommend investing in a lightweight travel car seat that’s easier to bring through the airport.  I bought this Costco Carseat  that was recommended for travel on a number of websites – we still love it today.  Keep in mind, you your baby a ticketed seat, your little one it is required to sit in the car seat or an approved harness like this one. Install the seat the way you would in a car- rear facing is ok!!  Car seat hack: Buy a container of bungee cords (which can also be super helpful around the house), and use those to attach your car seat right over a wheely carry on bag – no carrying or lugging anything awkward then!

8. BASIC BABY STUFF

Don’t bring 50 bottles with you – you can only use one at a time. I’d recommend maybe 2 bottles in your carry on and then maybe another one in your checked bags if you are nervous. Always have a fresh bottle or sippy cup ready for takeoff and landing- keeping baby swallowing often will help regulate the pressure in ears during takeoff and descent. Remember, anywhere you travel will generally have bottles and diapers. Anything that you can buy locally, leave at home and take only the travel day essentials with you. If you need a specific formula or medicine, make sure you bring along.  Bring pacifiers, one or two small toys and a book – babies don’t need a huge variety to be happy. I highly recommend stocking up on a few of these Baby Rings too.  They have great textures and colors for baby to play with, look at and chew on, and you can also loop some of their favorite smaller toys or pacifiers through one end and attach the other to you, the stroller or the baby carrier – that way when baby chucks that toy it won’t land on the dirty airplane or airport floor!

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9. SEAT OR NO SEAT

As a general rule, I’ll fly up to 3 hours holding a baby in my lap on a plane, but after that I’ll purchase a seat. Some airlines offer reduced fare for babies, so be sure to call and ask the airline to see what they may offer. Another plus of buying the extra seat is two more possible bags you can carry on board (although that also means two more bags to manage through the airport). If you don’t buy a seat, you will still need to check baby in and get a boarding pass to proceed though security and onto the plane. Even if you don’t buy a seat, still bring that car seat and ask to see if there are any open seats – you can possibly get that baby in a seat free of charge!

10. DOWNLOAD

On whatever mobile device you may have, download some visual apps to distract baby, and some noise maker apps to help sooth baby wherever you travel, and some more interactive ones like the Sesame Street app.  These days, we don’t leave for a trip without our Ipad filled with Moana, Secret Life of Pets and Trolls. Remember to bring your charging cord in your carry on to power up in the airport, and a few battery backups if you have a long flight!

11. RENT A CAR

After flying somewhere new, taxis and trains can sound appealing especially in Europe, but with a small baby and lots of baby gear I think renting a car is the best way to get around on the ground after you get to your destination. Make sure to get one big enough for your stroller and extra baby bags. Having a car will allow you to stop when baby needs to stop and take a break, or have baby’s diaper changed, and is less stressful than trying to rush baby, stroller and a million bags on and off a train before it takes off for its next stop.

12. PACKING CUBES (AND NOT JUST FOR BABIES)

These things are amazing for travel with or without babies, but are especially nice for corralling all the little tidbits like socks, washcloths, onesies, food packets, ect. It allows for easy categorization and organization, especially if mixing mommy and daddy’s clothes in the same cases.  I have found the ones on Someebags to be really nice and have several – they also have lots of other great diaper and travel bags as well.

13. ACCOMMODATIONS

Stay close to the sites you want to see so you can make pit stops back at the hotel pretty easily for meals or naps if you like. It’s also nice to have someplace where baby can crawl around in the grass at the end of the day and stretch this legs. Staying in a rental house or apartment is ideal so you can have access to a kitchen and more space to move around. It’s also great to have a separate sleeping area for parents and baby, and a bonus if there is a washer/dryer inside. If choosing a hotel, call ahead to make sure they can help provide a crib and the room will be big enough. If you are driving (or don’t mind lugging one more item when you fly), I recommend bringing your own portable crib, that way baby has the same bed night after night and you know it’s clean.

14. INFLATABLE TUB

This is a great option to help contain a young baby in a clean space. It’s a good idea to bring along when traveling in Europe, because not all hotels will have a bath tub.  This one is less than $10 and packs easily!

15. BLANKETS

I usually being a soft snuggle blanket to help Max fall asleep and cuddle with, and an when he was tiny, an old swaddling blanket or two for something to put down on the ground when baby needs to stretch his legs.

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16. CHANGING DIAPERS IN EUROPE

Get ready to change baby anywhere and everywhere. In countries like Italy, there are not as many public bathrooms with changing stations readily available. Get a cushy changing mat and get ready for some baby buns in the piazza. No one seems to mind at all, but it becomes a little bit more tricky when changing a diaper explosion.  Just bring lots of things to lay baby on, as well as wet wipes.

 

17. DOCTORS AND MEDS

Before leaving, try to locate through your doctor, recommendations from locals, or even the internet, a pediatrician and/or hospital in case baby needs to go to the doctor. My doctor said if you are flying blind, generally speaking she would recommend going to a university hospital because they tend to have better care and services. Bring a digital thermometer (I like the ones that you can scan their ear or forehead) so you can easily check if baby is just tired and a little off or actually sick. Always have a fever and pain reducer like Tylenol or Advil on hand, some teething aids, and a nasal bulb. If going to a foreign country, also bring any other regular meds with you that baby often takes because it can be difficult to find the same brands that you are used to, not to mention trying to figure out the dosage. In addition to his ear infection, out little dude also got pinkeye, and trying to find drops was crazy (we eventually did succeed in convincing a pharmacist what to give us after going to med school at WebMD). Another great thing to take along to help with dehydration if baby isn’t eating or has tummy issues are these easy to pack powder packets of Pedialite.

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18. FLIGHT TIMES

Try to book your flights that work well around baby’s schedule. While you may be up for a 6am flight, baby might have different ideas woken up at 3am from a cozy snooze to get ready and packed in the car. if traveling internationally, doing an overnight flight where baby can sleep most of the time can be great!!

19. TIME ZONES

When we flew to Italy the time difference was 6 hours ahead of our usual time zone. Max slept most of the way over on the flight, but his schedule was still a little off those first few days. The first night it was tricky to get him to go down to bed because for him it felt pretty early to him, but night by night we backed it down a little, and by the 3rd night he adjusted and seemed to be sleeping and napping close to his regular schedule. On the return he seemed to bounce back in a couple of days as well. Pushing the bed times back or forward just a little for a few days should help them adjust to the new time, and they will be sleeping well before you know it.  If only changing an hour here or there, I’d recommend sticking to their regular schedule to make it easier on everyone on vacation and upon return.

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20. GREAT EXPECTATIONS

It is good to have realistic expectations before embarking on a trip with baby and plan accordingly.

If you are day dreaming of a relaxing trip to the south of France, it is healthy to embrace the fact that as you bask in the sun of the French Riviera, you will be trying to balance a glass of rose in one hand as you apply copious amounts of sunscreen on a wiggling little critter with the other, desperately looking for shade, lugging a beach bag and a diaper bag, chasing baby around quickly blocking baby’s attempts to eat yet another pebble on the beach.   This year, you will not be the person on vacation sipping delicious cocktails, gazing out at the sea for hours on end, drifting in and out of a lovely sleep while reading their new favorite summer novel.  But that’s OK, because you are an amazing mom or dad who is still rocking a vacation in the south of France and having a great time with your kiddo.  They are only little for such a very short time…

Get ready. Babies can cry, get tired, get cranky, require extra equipment, and can get sick (ours got a double ear infection and cold when we went to Italy). That being said, I would take a vacation with baby over staying at home any day of the week.  Hands down. I am so excited to share this planet with my little dude and watch him experience all the amazing things this world has to offer. I will never forget watching him crawl around in the grass under a giant lemon tree in Tuscany, watching the world whisk by him in a busy market in Florence, sitting at an Italian restaurant teething on a hunk of delicious crunchy bread, and going for a boat ride on Lake Como. Vacations, big or small, are moments for families to come together and make memories, and I promise as soon as you are back you will forget the hard parts (well, for the most part anyway), and just look back at those photos and smile.

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To make it easier on yourself, pick an itinerary that is more suited for a baby lifestyle. Choose one or two key places and set up camp for a few days at that destination to minimize unpacking and repacking your and baby’s things. Pick a few items on your agenda that are must see and leave the rest of your schedule open for walking around and just taking in the sights, or playing at a park. A more relaxed itinerary will lend itself to a more relaxing trip for the mommy, daddy and baby.

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Safe Travels!

Rosemary Beach, Florida’s Little Known Gem

Last year a work trip brought me to the beaches of the Florida panhandle for the very first time, and there and then I decided I had to come back someday with my family.

There is an easy low key vibe that’s perfect for relaxing with a beer at a beach bar and listening to country music, and the water was a brilliant aqua color that I had only seen before in the Caribbean. While browsing on Instagram one evening I saw a photo of a building lined street that looked like it was from a little town on the coast of Spain, but when I read location tag it said Rosemary Beach, and we decided that would be our next Griswold style family vacation.

Rosemary Beach is a neo-traditional community constructed as a planned resort development in 1995 by the Rosemary Beach Land Company. This 107 acre community is situated on the Gulf of Mexico between Panama City and Destin along a stretch of road known as Scenic Route 30A. It’s about a 30-minute drive from the closest airport in Destin, but we made the trip by car from Orlando in just under six hours.

The community is anchored by Main Street, donning shops, bars, restaurants, and coffee shops that are located in these beautiful 3-5 story buildings with elaborate balconies flanking the street facing facades. From an architectural standpoint, think Charleston meets St. Augustine meets a small village in Spain… To the north of Mainstreet are shops and restaurants around North Barret Square, and to the south of Mainstreet you will find beach cruiser bikes scattered over a large green that leads to the boardwalk path leading to the Gulf.

The clean lines of these greens are so appealing, and a really fun place to blow bubbles or throw the football with friends. And while many homes in the community have pools there are four community pools in each quadrant of Rosemary Beach, so there will be one close by at all times. I’ve included a link to community map here for your reference.

On the eastern corning of where Main Street meets the green you will find The Pearl hotel, with its distinctive black and white awnings.  This hotel has prime location, trendy rooftop bar, and that comes with a price tag of summer prices near $500 a night, but you will be in the middle of it all. We didn’t stay there, but enjoyed a dinner at the hotel restaurant name Havanas, though also comparatively expensive.

The main draw in Rosemary Beach is, you guessed it, the beach!  The beaches are wide enough to be fun but manageable to navigate and the sand is to die for.  I don’t usually swoon over sand, but it was powdery soft and almost kind of sweaked when you walked.  It was really nice for the kids to play in, and never seemed to get too hot.  My husband got a new beach game called Poleski that we played for hours- the basic premise is that you try to knock off a plastic bottle off your opponents pole with a frisbee.  I’ve included a link to the game here too.

The water was pretty amazing, crystal clear and depending on the day, a brilliant blue or green.  There were thousands of live sand dollars scattered across the sea floor, and tons of fish, crabs, and even a few tiny sharks.  (They didn’t hurt anyone, but they were there and they swam right by.) The waves were big enough to be fun on most days, but still pretty manageable for little ones to play in.

I rented a paddle board for the week, and I also liked using to bet to try to catch little fish with my niece and nephew.  My husband and brother in law would snorkel most days, and would fish in the early morning.

Aside from the beach, the main draw of Rosemary Beach for me was just wandering the narrow streets enjoying the architecture and discovering live music along the way.

Most folks that vacation in Rosemary Beach rent houses. You can go directly to the community’s website for information on rentals, or find one of many rental companies on-line. We had a total of 13 people in our party, so we rented a 3 story beachside house and the adjacent carriage house along the path that lead to the beach. Many homes have a main house and a garage with carriage house that can either be rented together or separately. I’ve included some photos of our house below:

If you are traveling as a couple or small family, renting a smaller carriage house can be a great option to have the benefits of a living area and kitchen of a house without the hefty price tag of a big house.  Book several months in advance if you can, as availability in peak vacation periods is limited. That being said, if you have a flexible schedule you can be put on a list for cancellations and get a really great deal on a house at a fraction of the cost when renters back out at the last minute.  The community pools, fitness center and entrance gates to the private beaches all require gate codes, so make sure you obtain those from your rental company.  Many of the houses have electronic key codes that will be emailed to you prior to your check-in date, so you can just arrive at the house and go instead of going to a rental office and standing in line with 50 other people checking in at the same time.   Bikes, paddle boards, kayaks and grocery services are available through a concierge service, but ask what is included in your house before buying anything else a la cart.  Bikes, beach chairs, boogie boards and beach carts may be included as part of  the cost of your rental.

Aside from driving to the local Publix or a run to the Doughnut Hole for a dozen doughnuts, you don’t need a car to get around Rosemary Beach proper, as most people walk or ride their beach cruisers everywhere. Parking is always pretty tight, so make sure to ask ahead how many private parking spaces you will have allocated to you, as driveways are small and streets are narrow.

Some of the restaurants can be a little bit pricey, so we bought groceries and cooked dinners at home most nights.  A few evenings we would stroll downtown to get ice cream for desert at The Sugar Shack or the equally cute and slightly cheaper Sweet Peddler, located in Seacrest Beach just a short walk down the road.

Outside Rosemary Beach, the long stretch of  Route 30A is filled with one adorable beach town after another, including Seacrest Beach and Seaside Beach, which is where the movie The Truman Show was filmed. Another newer community is Alys Beach, with streets donning clean white buildings and a more tropical vibe.

I’m a little photography obsessed, so I was going a little camera happy the entire trip.    I could take a thousand photos of that water and still feel the urge to keep on clicking – it’s just so beautiful.  Then, well, the architecture!  Whether for your own photo album or on a Instagram, don’t miss these photo worthy locations on your trip!

1.  The Eastern Green.

2. The Western Green.

3. The Pearl Hotel.

4. A Stormy Beach Day.

5. A Sunny Beach Day.

6. The Coquina Pool Entrance.

7. One of a Hundreds of Pretty Staircases.

8. A Killer Sunset (or two).

9. Rosemary Beach Post Office.

10. A Photo of the Whole Family together.

 

A Few of My Favorite Things – Packing Tips for Your Next Beach Trip

We’ve been planning this trip for several months, so I’m super excited to finally see the aqua waters and beautiful soft beaches in gorgeous Rosemary Beach.  Yay!


Packing for the beach can be overwhelming, especially with a toddler, so I wanted to share a few of my favorite things we managed to stuff in the back of the SUV…


1. Favorite Game, Rummikub.
Rummikub comes with us on all beach trips, and I even have it downloaded on my phone to practice for our beach trips, lol.  It’s a game where you try to get rid of your tiles in runs of numbers in the same color, or the same number in different colors.

2.  Favorite Sunscreen, Neutrogena Beach Defense.

This sunscreen goes on silky smooth, and feels like you are wearing nothing at all.  I don’t reapply nearly as much as I should and still never get burnt at the beach with this stuff!

3. Favorite Shoes, Sam Edelman Slides.

These Sam Edelman tan leather slides are my new go to shoe for everywhere, not just the beach.  They go with every outfit and look suspiciously like the Hermes slides that I’ve been stalking on Instagram for the last year.  Plus they are on sale now for under $60.

4. Favorite Jewelry, Kaia Tassel Necklace.

This fun multicolor tassel necklace makes even a plain old white tank super fun, and dresses up any sundress for a night out.  The wood beads make it extra beachy too!

5. Favorite Stroller, Uppa Baby G Luxe Umbrella Stroller.

This is my favorite day to day stroller, and hands down my favorite stroller to travel with.  It is very lightweight and closes up easily, has a great sun shield, storage underneath, and it folds so compact it is easy to pack for trips.  The seat adjusts so that it almost lays out flat, and the flap in the back lets air in keeping baby cool.  Max has slept for hours on end in this thing!

6. Favorite Shirt, Abercrombie V Neck Tee.

Over the last couple of months I think I’ve bought this Abercrombie tee in at least six colors.  It’s a nice fitted cut without being too tight, and v  neck is really flattering.  Even better, they go for under $20!

7. Favorite Beach Towel, Target.

The thing I hate about gigantic beach towels is that it’s hard to carry enough for the whole family without them falling all over the place.  These towels are big enough to get you dry but not too bulky, and they are less than $10 at Target.

8. Favorite Hat, Merona Panama Hat.

This Panama Hat by Merona is lightweight and comfy, plus it packs really well and pops back into shape after being mushed in a beach bag.  Plus, it looks adorable with plenty of outfits (especially on nieces), and it’s under $15 at Target.

9. Favorite Kid Clothes, Toms Paseo Sneakers.

Max’s grandma bought his his first pair of high top Toms when he was just learning to walk and they are still a favorite.  We recently got these Toms low top sneakers and love them just as much.  They Velcro under the lace holes on both sides so they are really easy to get off and on, and they wash and air dry well.  Max has the next size up waiting for him already too.

10. Favorite One Piece, Navy Deep V Ruffle by Abercrombie.


I’m usually a bikini girl, but it’s nice to have a one piece on hand too.  Sometimes I don’t think one pieces are quite as flattering on me, but I happily wear this deep v one piece by Abercrombie around all day.  The deep v it just a little bit sexy, and the and ruffles help hide any imperfections.  It comes in classic navy and red and is on sale right now for only $25.


After our trip, I’ll be putting together a blog post about our trip and visiting Rosemary Beach.  Check out my photos on Instagram for photos for a sneak peak of our trip!

How to Limit Your Wait for Pandora’s Avatar Flight of Passage

Late this spring, Walt Disney World Resort’s Animal Kingdom debuted the visually stunning new world of Pandora, the beautiful land depicted in the visually stunning movie Avatar.   In my blog post below (1) I’ll tell you a little bit about the latest thrill ride, and (2) share my tips on how to avoid a long wait!

Consistent with messaging of other attractions in the park and the movie Avatar, there is a heavy focus on the importance of conservation and the beauty of mother nature.  Pandora’s story is that you are a visiting eco-tourist, offered the opportunity to join Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) for the transformational experience of a lifetime, filled with thrilling expeditions, floating mountains, a bioluminescent forest and winged mountain banshees.  In partnership with ACE, visitors have the chance to fly through the beautiful Valley of Mo’ara.  The two new attractions in this land are the thrill ride Avatar Flight of Passage and the winding river cruise, Na’vi River Journey.

I recently had a chance to visit Pandora and ride Avatar Flight of Passage.  On this ride, guests fly on the back of a mountain banshee during an amazing 3D ride above this amazing landscape.  As you pass through the phases of the que for this attraction, first you will experience the beautiful floating mountains and lush landscape out doors.  Inside, you will pass through ancient caves, a bioluminescent forest, and the science base/lab as shown in the movie.  After leaving the lab you will travel down a long corridor and wait through a few video presentation before moving on to the ride.  As you enter the staging room you will be given a pair of clear 3-D goggles and be instructed to board a motorcycle type apparatus.  Before the ride begins restraints will secure you firmly to your flying banshee from the back.   The ride is  thrill ride version of the simulation ride Soarin’ at Disney’s Epcot Center, but it is exponentially more amazing.  The movie screen for the ride is  the 2nd largest screen in the world, so you will feel absolutely immersed in this land.  I have been sky diving on a couple of occasions, and this experience really felt like flying to me. It is a must do for anyone.  You aren’t permitted to take any videos during the attraction, but if you watch the movie again that will be a pretty good indicator of what is in store. I was able to capture some photos of the que that I’ve included below.


HOW I ONLY WAITED 25 MINUTES

For a limited time, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is open until 11:00 PM , giving guests more time to explore the land of Pandora.

Avatar Flight of Passage is so popular that it’s not uncommon for the line to be several hours long, and I have heard that the que was constructed to accommodate up to 5 hour waits. Note that seating and restraints may prohibit guests of certain body shapes or sizes from riding, there is a. minimum height restriction of 44”, and expectant mothers should not ride this attraction.

The Fast Pass + program will definitely be a great option in the future, but as guests staying at Walt Disney World Resort Hotels can book their Fast Pass + 60 days in advance and there are a limited number on any given day, it is pretty difficult to actually get one in the near future. Guests staying at the hotel can, take advantage of special “Extra Magic Hours” some mornings, and from 11PM to 1AM for a limited time.

So what do you do if you don’t have a Fast Pass +?

SHOW UP BEFORE THE PARK OFFICIALLY OPENS!

Although the parks have official opening times, you can enter the main entry portal of the park in advance of the official opening time and wait to enter your designated land. For example, at the Magic Kingdom you can enter Main Street USA early in the morning and the park greeters will open the gates to Adventureland, Tomorrowland, etc., when the park officially opens.  

The day that I visited Pandora, I checked to make sure there were not Extra Magic Hours that morning and verified that the opening time was 8 AM, I arrived around 7:15 AM and parked in the first two rows of the lot.

By the time I walked to the entry, passed through security and entered the park it was about 7:25 AM. I turned left down the path to Pandora and found this crowd already waiting to enter the land.   

Although officially the park didn’t’ open until 8:00 AM, they opened the gates to Pandora at 7:30 AM and we were off! As the crowd approached the open pathway, half the crowd turned to left to the Na’vi River Journey and I continued to my right to begin the que for Flight of the Avatar.  I slowly walked through 2/3rds of the que and I didn’t’ actually wait in line until I reached the last holding room that is inside the attraction.

In all, I waited about 25 minutes to ride the attraction, walked around Pandora, rode Expedition Everest, and I was home around 9:30 that morning. (We are lucky to live about 20 minutes away from the parks).


OTHER ATTRACTIONS

I waited to experience the Na’vi River Journey with my toddler Max and his daddy later this year, so I can’t provide a personal account of that attraction yet. From what I have read, in this attraction guests float along through a sacred bioluminescent rainforest in search of the Na’vi Shaman of Songs.  I have heard, think Pirates of the Caribbean meets a crazy beautiful bioluminescent rainforest. To learn more about this attraction, click here.

The land offers some great walking paths to get up close and personal with the crazy plants and waterfalls.

You  can visit Windtraders to pick up your favorite Pandorian souvenir to take home.  For a bite to eat, visit the Satu’li Canteen, a quick service restaurant, offering entrees and drinks below $15 (note, alcoholic beverages are sold here).  For offerings on the menu, click hereYou can try some some funky fun beverages at Pongu Pongu, including a bioluminescent frozen cocktail!  Check out the menu for Pongu Pongu here.

To read more about the new land of Pandora, check the official Walt Disney World Resort Website.

 

5 Tips to Make Your Summer Vacation to Orlando Even Better

If you have a trip to Orlando coming up you probably have started planning which parks to visit and what attractions to see. Maybe you’ve even booked a special character breakfast for your little ones to eat pancakes with Mickey Mouse. But lets face it, summers in Florida are hot and the lines for rides can be long.  Follow these five simple tips to help make your Orlando vacation this summer the best yet!

Cinderella’s Castle at the Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom


1. SUNSCREEN

Slather it on.  Immediately. I’m not kidding.  Lots of it and often. Starting the very first day of your trip, before you even leave your your room in the morning, put on that sunscreen.

Don’t try to “get a good base” for a few days – protect that skin from the get go.  Over the years I’ve seen one too many tourists walking around the parks looking like a human tomato.  The summer sun is super intense in Central Florida, and a bad sunburn can make things simply miserable for the rest of your trip.  Don’t use anything less than an SPF 30, but I recommend using SPF 50 or higher if you have sensitive skin.  Reapply throughout the day, find lip balm win sunscreen to keep on those lips, and bring a hat to protect the top of your head from the summer rays. Bring sunscreen from home because it will cost an arm and a leg in the parks.



2. PACE YOURSELF

A trip to Orlando’s attractions is a marathon, not a sprint.  There’s a little bit of Clark Griswold in all of us, determined to see the most that we can.  It’s only natural to want to get the biggest bang for your buck and make sure your family has the best trip ever. The pressure of these expectations can be daunting.  The truth is that you may not get to each attraction at every theme park, but they key is to make sure the time you spend there is enjoyable with your family.

Maxwell tuckered out from a long day in the stroller.

In the summers the park hours run late, so you will have more time to tackle the rides on your agenda.   Wake up early to wait in line outside the park before it opens so you can hit a few of the busiest attractions before the park gets busy, then leave around 1pm.  The mid afternoon hours can be the hottest of the day when you will be the most miserable and accomplish little because of the long lines.  Instead leave for lunch and go back to your hotel for a swim in the pool, or just rest up for a couple of hours in the air conditioning back in your room.  After you had a chance to regroup and cool down, head back to the park in the late afternoon and stay to until closing.  Later in the evening the parks start to clear out because the all-day park goers will finally throw in the towel.  If you don’t want to catch the parades, that is another great time to try to squeeze in a popular ride too.

The resorts on Walt Disney World property offer two other options that speed up the waiting process.  Fast Pass + allows you to book up to 3 rides during scheduled times where you can ride the attraction and bypass the line. You can obtain them at the park or ahead of time on Disney’s mobile app (up to 30 days in advance generally, and 60 days in advance if you are a resort guest).  The Disney resorts also offer extra magic hours where only resort guests can enter a park early and stay after the park closes. The parks for extra magic hours vary by day, so check in advance on-line or with your concierge to for more  details.


3. BEACH DAY

Hitting the theme parks every day for a  week will leave even the most seasoned athlete weary.  Plan a day trip to the beach in the middle of your vacation for a little rest and relaxation. There are tons of fantastic beaches close to Orlando.  For bigger waves and some surfing, you’ll find Daytona, Cocoa or New Smyrna Beach about an hour away on the east coast, and the cute beach town of Vero Beach about an hour and a half away.

Max and daddy enjoying the water in Naples, Florida. Naples and Miami area between 3 and 4 hours away, so plan for an overnight stay to visit those destinations.

The white sands and peaceful clear waters of the gulf shore’s St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach are a little over two hours away. Getting off your feet for the day will do wonders!

Looking out to the water in the pretty beach town of Vero Beach, about an hour and a half from Orlando. Disney has the Vero Beach resort there as well.

The white sands and peaceful clear waters of the gulf shore’s St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach are a little over two hours away.  Getting off your feet for the day will do wonders!


4. EMBRACE THE RAIN

You can count on daily afternoon thunder showers in Orlando between 1 and 5 pm.  The good news is that they don’t typically last a long time, but rain will come down in buckets when it does.

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Standing in line waiting at Hard Rock Live at Universal’s Citywalk.

Before and after the daily rain shower, expect lots of sunshine.  Buy Ponchos before you leave home and carry them with you into the park. The theme park rain gear may have a cute little mouse on it, but it cost much more than that $2 poncho you can pick up at Walgreens.  If it is lightening stay in a safe place to let the storm pass, but otherwise run around in those ponchos and hit as many rides as you can.  Make the most of the time others are waiting for the storm to pass.  The storms clear the parks out, so crowds will die down substantially after the rain too. (The clouds can make for really fantastic sunsets!) To avoid delays at the airport due to thunderstorms, consider flying into Orlando later in the evening and departing the city before noon.


5. EAT WELL

Hydrate with water, as much as you can and whenever you can (not soda). Drink even when you aren’t thirsty.  Summer days in Florida are very hot and humid, making it easy to get dehydrated quickly, especially  little ones. To help save money, consider buying bottles of water and refilling them throughout the park for the day.

Maxwell staying hydrated with his Florida water.

Vacations are full of invitations to eat naughty foods.  Sometimes you just need to snag a funnel cake, but the better you eat, the better you will feel when you are out and about in the parks.  Try snaking on fruits and veggies as much as you can and steer away from fried foods.  Nothing will make you feel more sluggish during a sunny 97 degree / 100% humidity day than pounds of greasy french fries or doughnuts sitting in gooey lump in your belly.  Lots of vendors throughout the theme parks have options to substitute fries for apples at meals.  Hit a local grocery store to pick up some bottles of water, juices, healthy snacks and breakfast items for your room.  You will feel better throughout the day and it will help you save a few dollars along the way too!

Amazing Acai bowls at Press’d at Plant Street Market in Winter Garden, a nearby town about 15 miles north of the parks.

 

Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival 🌱

Last weekend we took Max to the beautiful Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. We are Florida Resident Annual Pass holders, so I try to go each year to check it out.



The grounds at Epcot are always pristine, but the flowers and displays are just stunning, with pods of flowers floating in the reflecting pools.  Throughout the park you will discover amazing topiaries of your favorite Disney Characters like Elsa, Mickey Mouse and Rafiki, and even a butterfly garden to explore.
img_6059Mom and dad, take advantage of the handful of pop up food and beverage booths from the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival. Grab your favorite beer or wine to sit and enjoy as your kiddos let off some steam on the perfectly manicured playgrounds.


We started by riding the Figment’s Imagination ride where Max found his newest love, Figment.  That was followed by a pit stop at the playground, and then we walked around World Showcase and checked out each country.


While daddy got a delicious Grand Marnier iced drink, Maxy went to down on a waffle cone of strawberry gelato 🍓
Before we left for the day, Max stopped to say goodbye to his new friend Figment.  This year it runs from March 1 though May 29th, so stop by if you get a chance.  Click HERE to check out the special events and concert series taking place during the festival.

Planning your first trip to Italy

If you are starting to plan your first trip to Italy,  you’ll be spending lots of time daydreaming about which cities to visit and where to stay.

 

About to climb the Duomo and Bell Tower in Florence.

 

Whether you want to visit the romantic Amalfi Coast, Tuscan countryside, Italian lakes, or ancient ruins of Rome, Italy has it all.  As your travel dates get closer, you may start to have some questions about how things work and local customs.  Below are some practical travel tips for any first timer to the country.


TRANSPORTATION


My mom thinking about whether she’ll be mustering up the courage to drive around Rome.

BY RAIL. Trains are a common form for transportation in Italy. Whether you book a ticket ahead of time or buy one at the station (which is very common), check to see whether it is a high speed train like the EuroStar, a local train that stops at every town. You can get from Rome to Naples in about an hour on a high speed train or 3 hours on a local. If you plan to travel by train, beware of strikes which can shut down the entire grid for a few days.

BY CAR. When I’m not staying in a city, I usually rent a car to get around. You can book cars ahead of time on the typical websites.  Most cars available for rent in Italy are standard transmission.  If you need an automatic, make sure you specifically select it as a required feature.  If renting a car, look for the signs that say “Car Hire”.  The first time I saw this I mistakenly assumed it was for a taxi or driver. Italians drive on the right side of the road, like most European countries. Driving on the major highways is pretty similar to driving in the US except there is no dilly dallying in the passing lane. If you aren’t passing someone get back over to the right lane or you will likely have someone blowing their horn at you to move out of the way. Be prepared for some windy roads and crazy roundabouts, but between a GPS and your smart phone, you should be just fine.  I always like take a small paper map as back up too.


CURRENCY


I can still remember trying to calculate the exchange rate for Italian Lira on my first visit to Florence. Today, Italy is part of the EU and the Euro is the official currency.  This is convenient if you are planning to visit other countries in Europe during your stay. I usually bring a nominal amount of cash with me and then use my ATM card and credit card like I would here in the US. ATMs are typically stocked on Mondays, so if you leave arrive during the weekend, its good to have some cash on hand as the ATMs may run out of cash at some busy locations. You can go to your local bank and order Euro for free or a small fee. Before leaving, contact your bank and credit card companies to notify them of the dates you will be traveling in Italy to make sure they note in their systems to avoid any possible holds on your account for fraudulent activity, and ask for any special international numbers you can call if you need assistance while abroad. Check out the exchange rate before you go too. The Euro was tending exchange much higher than the US Dollar for a number of years (for a while, $1 Euro was close to $1.30 US Dollars) but the two have evened out a little bit over the last couple years (now, closer to $1 Euro equals approximately $1.10 Euro).


TELEPHONE


Ask your cell phone carrier about what plan makes the most sense for you. The majority of cell phones from the US will work in Italy, but they will be much more expensive for to use in Italy unless you get a temporary international plan. Most carriers will let you upgrade your plan for your month of travel and then let it drop off again the following month. Check your monthly usage to estimate what you will likely need for your trip. Some carriers are now offer unlimited texting with international plans, which is a great alternative to spending an arm and a leg on minutes you might not use. Many apps run in the background of your phone, so I typically turn roaming data off and/or set my phone to airplane mode unless I need to access it.

Mapping functions will also use a lot of data. A few years ago my husband refused to get the international data on his phone. One morning in San Remo he went across the street to bring the car around to the front of the hotel, but had to circle the block because of a series of one-way road.  Unfortunately the GPS was with me in the lobby.  About 30 minutes later somewhere close to Monaco he finally gave in and turned on his phone to find his way back, to the tune of somewhere near $400.  Lesson here – don’t scrimp on the plan, it will pay off.

Also, Italian’s answer the telephone by saying “Pronto”.


CAFE


Italians don’t drink large volumes of coffee, its generally smaller and stronger.  They don’t linger around in coffee shops all day enjoying one extra large minty mochachino chocolate chip milkshake after another. Italian coffee is he real deal. It is stronger than anything in the US, and is more comparable to US espresso than coffee. If you want an authentic Italian coffee experience, stand at the bar. Depending on the shop, you either call out your order and then walk to the register to pay, or pay first and bring your receipt to the bar to pick up your order – watch what other folks are doing and take their lead. You will hear the lots of clanking of tiny spoons in small coffee cups as all the locals stand at the bar quickly knocking back their shots in 30 seconds or less. If you chose to sit down at a coffee shop, the prices can be a little more expensive. Also important to note, a coffee shop in Italy is called a “Bar”, so you can tell all your friends you hit the bar every day by 8am on vacation.


YOUR SUITCASE


At the Belmond Villa San Michele in Fiesole, overlooking Florence.

There are those people that shop on vacation, and those people that shop for vacation. Which are you? Italy is well known for famed fashion houses like Versace and Ferrigamo. While you don’t need to be high fashion to go on vacation there, don’t dress like you are going to a Disney World for the day. Personally, I think it’s fun to dress the part and try to fit in with the locals. There are few hard and fast fashion rules, but if you are picking between two outfits and can’t decide, opt for the one that is more dressy. Also, Italians often seem to dress like it is 20 degrees cooler outside and you will see natives walking around donning puffy ski jackets when it is in the 60’s. A few gender specific tips:

UN UOMO– Gentlemen wear pants more than shorts, even in warm weather. If you opt for shorts, try to steer clear of athletic shorts from Nike and opt for dressy ones. A few button down shirts are always good in the suitcase, along with a smart blazer or jacket. Fitted men’s pants are even more common there in the US, and if you really want to dress the part, embrace the man scarf and consider picking up a pair of red pants.

UNA DONNA. Somehow Italian woman have a superpower where they can dash across a cobblestone streets in stilettos like they are wearing running shoes. This has always fascinated me. I reserve my high heels for limited jaunts to and from restaurants in the evenings. In the cooler months, opt for stylish and comfy boots for day walking, and in the summer a smart pair of sandals are a great option. In warmer months, a sundress and a pair of sandals will do the trick for most any occasion; however, some churches and cathedrals still require women to cover their shoulders for modesty, so bring a scarf or cardigan along.


BAMBINOS


Playing in the garden at the Belmond San Michele in Fiesole.

Last summer we took our eight month old son on a trip to Italy. Lots of people thought we were crazy, but I encourage anyone interested to do it!  Italians are family oriented and love babies and children, often going out of their way to interact and engage with your child. Last summer we were whisked to the front of the line of the Duomo in Florence after the security officer found out we had a baby in our party, and when Max threw up all over the silk table cloth and fancy place settings at Belmond San Michele, everyone there was gracious and helpful in a way I totally didn’t expect! A few little tips to make traveling in Italy with little ones a bit easier:

– Plan a smart itinerary. If you have little ones, plan a more low key trip with time built in for running around in grassy areas and to just chill out. 10 hours a day in museums is tough on anyone!

– If you have a long flight there, try to avoid lengthy drives the day you arrive. I learned that lesson after packing Max back into a car seat for a drive from the Milan Malpensa airport to Florence following a 10 hour flight from Miami to Milan. He was a good baby, but that was one tiring drive!

– Most hotels will have cribs or pack and plays for rent.

– Consider renting a small apartment so you have a kitchen to make life a little bit easier.

– There are lots of cobblestone streets and stone paths, so bring a stroller that’s up to the task.  Some of the inexpensive umbrella strollers can be pretty difficult to push. Consider taking something a bit more durable. We also found it to be easier some days to just wear the baby carrier, especially when going through a busy marketplace or climbing stairs.

– Be aware that many public restrooms don’t have changing tables, so be sure to pack a changing pad and change your little one standing up, on a bench or on the floor.

– Let them try gelato. Max was a huge fan!


PARLO ITALIANO?


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The Roman Forum in, you guessed it, Rome.

You don’t have to be an expert in speaking Italian to travel to Italy. In larger cities, many people speak English, but that number dwindles as you travel to smaller towns and the countryside. Italians often speak with passion and many hand gestures. Learning a few key words and phrases before you leave will help you get around a better, and I think it makes things more fun!  I’ve generally found that as long as you make an effort most Italians are happy to help you practice. There are lots of Italian apps available for smart phones when you need them, but learn a few key words and phrases before you go so you don’t have to look like Clark Griswold with your pocket translator in European Vacation. For starters:

  1. Yes – Si
  2. No – No
  3. Please – Per favore
  4. Thank you – Grazie
  5. Hello – Ciao
  6. Hello (answering telephone) – Pronto
  7. Goodbye – Arrivederci or Ciao
  8. You’re welcome – Prego
  9. Sorry – Scusi
  10. I don’t understand – Non capisco
  11. How many? – Quanti?
  12. How much does it cost? – Quanto costa?
  13. I am – Io sono
  14. Let’s go – Andiamo
  15. Very good – Bravo
  16. Where is it?/Where? – Dov’è?
  17. My name is… – Mi chiamo …
  18. Good morning or Good day – Buon giorno
  19. Good evening – Buona sera
  20. Good night – Buona notte
  21. How Are You ? – Come Stai ?
  22. I would like – Vorrei
  23. Wine – Vino
  24. Red – Rosso
  25. White – Bianco

 


DINING


Don’t miss exploring the Mercado Centrale in Florence.  In addition to the vendors downstairs, they have a huge food court upstairs!

One of my favorite things to do when visiting Italy is to go grocery shopping. The cheese, meats, wine and pasta are all as good as you dream about, and then some. Even the sandwiches in the gas stations are delicious! But a few quick pointers will help you navigate the local customs.

– Traditional breakfasts are usually pretty light, consisting of espresso or cafe latte and some type of pastry. At hotels you will find more larger buffets with meats and cheeses.

– For lunch, grab a sandwich (“panini”) or piece of pizza.

– No early bird specials here.  Most Italians eat dinner later in the evening. Many restaurants are open from noon to 4pm, and then closed until dinner around 7pm.

– Traditionally, Italian dinners are ordered in courses, consisting of antipasto, first course of something like pasta, salad, or soup (“primo”), second course of a meat, fish or vegetable (“secondo”), desert (“dolce”), coffee (“caffe”), and to cap it all off, a Disgestivo. No worries though, you can pick just one thing from the menu to order.

– When you order water, specify whether you want regular/still or sparkling water. “Con gas” (with gas) means sparkling water, and “Sin gas” (without gas) means still water. They will bring you a bottle for the table.

– The house wine is usually amazing. Red wine is “Vino Rosso” and white wine is “Vino Bianco”.

– Tipping isn’t standard in Italy as in the US, so you don’t need to necessarily include the standard 15-20% tipping protocol that you would in the US, however, no one would be offended if you wanted to tip a good server a few Euros for good service.

– Be sure to try the food of the region when you are visiting, and the gelato and pasta will be great regardless of where you are headed!   You’ll find more hearty meats in northern Italy, more seafood by the coast, truffles in the Piemonte region near Turin, prosciutto near Bologna and Parma, limoncello along the Amalfi Coast, gelato (in the north) and sorbetto (in the south), and Naples is the birthplace of pizza.

– Try some paprika flavored Pringles, they are my favorite snack!


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Just around the bend from Positano on the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy.

If you need help planning your dream vacation to Italy to savor the best of la dolce vita, check out the travel planning services of Travel Italian Style for authentic and personalized experiences in Italy.

Lake Como 101

Quite simply, Lake Como is my favorite place on earth.

There is no way words can capture the breathtaking moment when you drive over the pass and gaze down at the sun sparkling off the lake like glitter, gently highlighting an ethereal mist hovering over the valley. You lose count of the warm hued stucco and stone villas donning tile roofs nestled along the shoreline, steadily climbing the base of the Alps looming above, eventually just turning into little speckles.  All the while palm trees, pine trees, bougainvillea and wisteria draped trellises decorate the landscape so that it somehow seems unreal, like illustrations from a Dr. Seuss Book.

Just, wow.

 

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I recommend Lake Como, also known simply as “Lario”, as a must see stop to anyone visiting Italy. I love to help others plan their visit, so it only made sense to capture it here.  Below I’ll break down Lake Como 101 by:

  • HISTORY
  • GETTING THERE
  • WHAT TO DO
  • WHERE TO STAY
  • WHEN TO VISIT
  • BOATS AND FERRY TRAVEL
  • RESTAURANTS


HISTORY

About a one hour drive north from Milan you will find Lake Como (or Lago de Como in Italian).  It is located in the Lombardy region of northern Italy just minutes from the Swiss border. Lake Como is approximately 30 miles long north to south and is shaped like an upside down letter “Y”, dividing the lake into three legs, with the famous village of Bellagio located directly in the middle of it all.  The southwestern leg of the lake is the most populated area with the more villages, extravagant villas and resort hotels than the other areas of the lake, while the northern end of the lake is much less populated and known for water sports such as sailing and windsurfing. At the base of the south western shore you will find the 2000 year old walled city of Como, which is the largest city on the lake and a world famous producer of extravagant silks. Traveling from Como north on the western shore of the southwestern leg you will find the other key villages of Cernobbio and Tremezzo, with Bellagio in the center of it all.


Throughout the ages, Lario has hosted famous inventors, artists, world leaders and royalty. If you drive along the lake you will travel over the remnants Via Regina which was created as part of a trade route for the Roman Empire.  During the Renaissance period Leonardo de Vinci traveled to the lake for inspiration. Later, Lario would attract poets Byron and Shelley, and leaders like Winston Churchill who would retreat to it’s shores to paint. In 1945 Mussolini and his mistress were captured and killed in the town of Giulino located along the lake as they attempted to flee to Switzerland.

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In more recent times folks like Gianni Versace, Richard Branson and George Clooney have owned homes on the lake, and and Silvio Berlusconi has likely thrown a few parties in his villa. Royalty and Hollywood glitterati have been vacationing along these romantic promenades for ages, including Price Charles and Princess Dianna, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable, and more recently visitors like Madonna, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Cindy Crawford. I could keep going, but I think you get it, this place is kind of a big deal. Now you have to get here.

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GETTING THERE

Milan Malpensa (MXP) is the best airport to access to the northern lake region of Italy. Within an hour of grabbing your suitcase off the carousel, you can be enjoying your first glass of wine at Harry’s Bar in Cernobbio.  The train runs directly into the city of Como, but if that is not your final destination you will have to take a ferry or taxi your final destination.  

I prefer to rent a car so I can navigate have maximum control over my schedule and stop to take a photo whenever I please.  You will see signs reading “Car Hire” at the airport, where you can pick up your rental car on-site.  Don’t worry, the steering wheel is on the left side, but be sure to ask for an automatic if you aren’t familiar with a standard shifting car.  While the major highways are pretty comparable to what we you will find in the US, be prepared for traffic circles, narrow roads and tight switch backs as you near the Alps which can take some getting used to.

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If you drive, call a private car for you if you plan to have a few glasses of wine with your dinner.  It’s relative inexpensive, let’s you enjoy the scenery, and get through dinner without worrying about getting home safely.  Plus, you may end up with George Clooney’s driver…

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WHAT TO DO

You could spend a week just lounging lakeside watching the ferries pass you by, or if you are always on the go there are tons of sites to keep you busy.

  1. VILLA CARLOTTALocated in the village of Tremezzo, Villa Carlotta is one the most well known estates on the lake, boasting over 70,000 square meters of gardens that you can tour (word to the wise, don’t take a stroller if you have little ones, the terrain is pretty rugged and full of stairs).    Before leaving Tremezzo, also be sure to check out the beautiful promenades of Teresio Olivelli Park (which is free!). 
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    Front façade of Villa Carlotta.

     

     


     

     


  2. VILLA BALBIANELLO: Likely the most noteworthy villa on the Lake, you may recognize Villa Balbianello  from scenes in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones  and Casino Royale,  and the charming movie A Month by the Lake depicting the lake in the 1930’s (worth watching for the beautiful scenery alone).  Built in 1787 on the site of Franciscan monestary, this villa was a residence of the Vistonti family, but later fell into disrepair until US Official Butler Ames purchased and restored the villa after World War I, and in 1974 it was purchased by explorer Guido Monzino, who furnished it with memorabilia from his expeditions and upon his death left the property to l’Ambiente Italiano (the National Trust of Italy).  Today you will find the grounds filled with happy tourists taking photos and it is a popular site for (very expensive) weddings.  You can reach the villa by ferry or a rather lengthy hike out onto the peninsula. The days of the week and times the Villa Balbianello is open to the public varies each season, so be sure to check the website in advance.

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  3. CERNOBBIO: Just northwest of the town of Cernobbio, this town dates back to the 12th century and is the gateway to towns on the western shore of the lake.  One of the streets through the town is so narrow that traffic only runs one way, and is regulated by a stop light.  There are a host of cute shops, some of my favorite restaurants and bars, and yet another beautiful promenade where you can find the perfect bench to scarf down your favorite gelato as you watch the ferries pass by, or perhaps even jump aboard one.  If you have a chance check out beautiful Villa Erba (site of scenes from the movie Ocean’s 12 and Gwen Stefani’s “Cool” video), as well as the stunning Villa d’Este to grab a drink and walk the gardens.

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    Looking up at Cernobbio from the promenade and ferry stop.  Harry’s Bar is the middle of the three buildings in this photograph.

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    Villa Erba

     

     

  4. BELLAGIOYou will find the shores of the charming town of Bellagio teaming with busy tourists hopping on and off ferries all day, as this is one of the most visited sports on the lake.  This is the place to go shopping for your Como silk ties, leather goods, olive wood cutting blocks and Italian art.  The streets are fun and winding, but it is also teaming with steep stairs so be wary if you have trouble getting around or are traveling with strollers.  I enjoy coming for the afternoon, shopping for a few hours, enjoying a bite to eat and the cheery flowers along the shore.

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    The winding paths of Bellagio.



  5. COMO: The town of Como is where the train station is located, and is the most metropolitan city along the lake with the largest population.  You can find hotels and reastaurants at slightly more reasonable prices here as well.  Perhaps slightly less romantic than it’s cousins along the southwestern shore due to its real city feel, it is only a short ferry ride away from those cozier towns. Take a ride up to Brunate on the Funicular between Como and the hilltop village to catch some stunning views of the alps!

WHERE TO STAY

  1. VILLA D’ESTE:  Located in the town of Cernobbio, Villa D’Este is where celebrities like Springsteen, Madonna and Bono stay when visiting the lake.  Originally established as a convent in the 1400’s, this site was converted to a luxury hotel for nobility and the bourgeoisie in 1873.  The grounds are stunning with a beautiful stone mosaic as the centerpiece of the gardens, and a swimming pool that is actually floating upon the lake. The rooms typically start somewhere near $1000 a night and go up from there.  If that is a bit out of your budget try to stop for dinner or a drink so you can still take in the sites.
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    Beautiful gardens of Villa D’Este.

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    Luxurious interior of Villa D’Este

     

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    Floating Pool at Villa D’Este

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    View of the main building at Villa D’Este from the water.

  2. GRAND HOTEL TREMEZZO: With a price tag a bit less shocking than Villa D’ Este, Grand Hotel Tremezzo  hotel boasts a floating swimming pool from which you can see the shores of Bellagio almost directly across the lake.  The hotel is next to Villa Carlotta, and is an easy ferry stop away from several towns.thumb_Munich and Lake Como 509_1024
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    Hotel pool at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo

  3. RELAIS VILLA VITTORIA: I love to pretend that I have my very own villa on the lake, and this small hotel makes that very easy.  I hesitate to share Relais Villa Vittoria  as it has very few rooms, but it is simply perfection.  You can eat onsite, or a few nearby restaurants in the town of Laglio, but if you are staying here I suggest that you rent a car to make it easier to get around.  It’s only minutes to Cernobbio and Como to the south, and I head north a few miles to the charming town of Argegno to catch the ferry to Bellagio.  This has been included as one of Travel and Leasure’s best new small hotels in Italy and its a great deal for the money.
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    View of Villa Vittoria from the water

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    Get one of the rooms with a balcony, it is worth it.


  4. GRAND HOTEL IMPERIALELocated in the town of Moltrasio, Grand Hotel Imperiale is in a great location on the southwestern shore just north of Cernobbio.   The hotel grounds are pretty big, so be sure so specify when making your reservation if you will be in a lakeside building or across the street with garden views.  With onsite restaurants, pool and it’s own diving board into the lake, the onsite amenities are pretty great but be prepared that while clean, the interiors could be updated a bit.  The prices here are really reasonable though, especially in summer months, and you can rent your own boat right across the street.
  5. OTHERS: While still pretty pricey, the eastern shore of the southwest leg of the lake gets a bit more shade, so you will get a bit more bang for your buck at the upscale Casta Diva and Villa Lario.  In addition to the hotels above, if you are traveling with a large group, want a villa of your own, or have little ones and just need a kitchen and some separate bedrooms, there are also a fair number of vacation homes, villas and apartment rentals available online.

WHEN TO VISIT

I think the best time of year to visit is in the summer when you can drink in the sunshine and zip around the lake all day in on a boat, but the crowds and prices understandably increase during that peak season. June can still be a little chilly and tends to be a bit more rainy than July or August. If you are more interested in drinking in your favorite Italian red and exploring the towns, restaurants and shops, the spring and fall seasons are also delightful and much less expense. May and September are great months to visit. While this area is at the foothills of the Alps, it is not a ski area so many hotels, restaurants and bars close down from November through February.

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Sitting lakeside at the dock at Villa Regina Teodolinda in Laglio

Just spotted your run of the mill funicular for a residence in Laglio while on my morning run (wow!)


 

BOATS AND FERRY TRAVEL

Spending a day or days on the lake is a must-do here, and its the best way to see the sites in a short period of time and the only way to truly appreciate the majestic mountains, gardens and villas the decorate the landscape.  Your three options are (1) travel by ferry, (2) hire a boat with a driver, or (3) rent your own boat by the hour.

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Ferry pulling up to the port in Cernobbio

Navigating the lake via ferry is pretty easy, and each ferry stop will have an up to date brochure with daily schedules.  Schedules and the number and location of stops will vary from season to season, so be sure to check before you go.  More popular ferry stops are in the towns of Como, Cernobbio, Menaggio, Argegno, Tremezzo and Bellagio, but there are many other smaller stops that operate with less frequency.  In some larger locations like Bellagio you can also find car ferries, but those are more limited.    If you are trying to catch the last ferry of the day from any stop, get to the port a little early to ensure you have a good seat.  When choosing a ferry, keep in mind that there are both slow steamer type ferries (which are more common) and hydrofoil type boats between key ports like Como and Bellagio that are much faster – depending on how far you travel there can be hours difference up and down the lake.  Look at the departure times as well as the arrival times at your intended destination to make sure you chose the right boat for you.

The following links will direct you the ferry schedule for each company:

Most ferries include interior and exterior seating, and I almost always opt for sitting outside so I don’t miss a thing.  Many ferries have small cafe’s where you can purchase snacks and coffee, and feel free to bring along a bottle of wine to enjoy along the way (its allowed here).

Ferries are by far the most economical way around the lake – you can buy tickets from one stop to the next, round trip tickets, or buy a daily pass for unlimited stops.

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View from Villa Regina Teodolinda, which is used today widely as a destination wedding location, but is available for rent on occasion

Your second option is to hire a boat taxi around the lake.  Although this can get pretty costly if you aren’t traveling with a larger group that can split the cost, it is something that you should do at least once if you can.  Your driver can usually pick you up directly at your lakefront hotel for maximum convenience, and you can tailor the length of your tour and what you’d like to see.   The guides will teach you about the history of the lake, who owns which villa, and will take you to see sites like a hidden waterfall in an obscure little nook of the lake.  This also allows everyone in your party to enjoy the trip, and have a few cocktails along the way.  Check with your hotel and they will likely be happy to help you make arrangements, but I’ve also included a link to one of the companies HERE. This will likely cost you a few hundred dollars for a couple of hours, but once you learn more about the lake you will be ready to hit the lake on your own.

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Views from Laglio on my morning run

The third option for lake travel is renting your own boat.   I wouldn’t make Lake Como your first attempt to captain your own boat, especially with the large wake that’s common from the ferry traffic, but if you are used to navigating around lakes on your own at home this is completely doable.  This is a cheaper alternative to having a boat taxi, and you have the ability to go to the sites you want to visit.   In Italy, a person must be 18 years or older to rent a boat, and you must have an Italian boating license to rent any craft over 40.8 HP.  Translation – unless you happen to have an Italian boating license in your back pocket your boat is going significantly slower than some of the other traffic our there.  My favorite place to rent a boat on the lake is Nettuno Boat Rental in Moltrasio because it is smack dab in the middle of the southwestern shore. (And even with the big ferries, lots of folks are out on the lake in kayaks and paddle boards too, and many hotels have them on site for use during your stay.)

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BIG TIP HERE:  Remember to lather on sunscreen during your day on the lake- its easy to forget with the lake breeze cooling you off and the water reflects lots of sunlight!

GEORGE CLOONEY

It’s not unheard of to catch a glimpse of George Clooney, Rande Gerber and Cindy Crawford cruising the winding roads surrounding the lake on their Harley’s, although I have yet to be so lucky. With a mild obsession with George Clooney tucked under my belt during my first visit to Lake Como back in 2008, I determined that I would figure out which villa was his.  Turns out, Villa Oleander is difficult to locate and every boat captain, car hire or local will happily point it out to anyone who is interested. You can pretty easily snap photos of the stately cream colored villa from your ferry, boat hire or walking past in town, but please be respectful that this is someone’s actual home.

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Villa Oleander from the lake, most every captain will proudly point it out as if it is their home

Be careful not to hang around too long thinking you may get a shot of the world famous star because (1) I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be walking out his back door if a random person he doesn’t know is lurking awkwardly around outside with a camera in tow (would you?), and (2) there are actually local ordinances enacted that make loitering in the area surrounding his villa illegal following some pretty terrible paparazzi constantly swarming the area in the summer months. See it, snap a photo if you so choose, and move on by. And don’t worry, you still have a shot bumping into George when you go out to dinner at night, he’s often out and about.

RESTAURANTS

There are countless restaurants on and around the lake, but below are a few personal favorites that I’m sure to visit every trip:

  1. HARRY’S BARHarry’s Bar is located along the promenade near the ferry stop in the town of Cernobbio.  This is a fantastic place to sit and enjoy a nice afternoon drink as you watch kids running down to the nearby park with a melting cone of gelato in their hands.
  2. EL GATTO NEROEl Gatto Nero is a do not miss.  This restaurant is also located about half way up the mountain from the main traffic circle in the town of Cernobbio and it offers the most spectacular views of the lake from high above. The food is as spectacular as the view, and features many fish, fowl and other meat dishes which can be much welcomed after lots of pasta (but their pasta is great too!).  Be sure to call ahead for a reservation.thumb_Italy 2009 450_1024
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    Views from El Gatto Nero are as good as the food

     

    BIG TIP HERE: El Gatto Nero is one place where I’d recommend hiring a driver or taxi for dinner.  You will be driving up some crazy switchbacks until you reach the restaurant, at which time a guy in a car will greet you and zoom up the mountain instructing you to follow him.  You will chase him up the mountain in the car until he instructs you where to parallel park in a teeny space along cliff with low stone walls on the one way road, and then wait to drive you back down the mountain to the restaurant.  Basically think valet parking but you park your own car.  In any event, you will spend most of dinner thinking about how you will squeeze out of the impossible space on the cliff, find a place to do a 3 point turn on the one way switch back road, and make it back down the mountain… HIRE A DRIVER! Your hotel will be more than happy to call for the reservation and driver, and you won’t be sorry. 

  3. GIARDINO CERNOBBIO: If you want something more low key with fantastic pizza right on the main drag in Cernobbio, try Giardino Cernobbio.

    Giardino’s happily accommodating our son Max when he was 8 months old for dinner.  Italians love babies and will happily host even the crankiest of little ones graciously!

  4. LA LOCANDA DEL CANTIERE:  Finally, La Locanda del Cantiere is located in the town of Laglio a short walk south on Via Regina from the Relais Villa Vittoria, where you can enjoy the most amazing pasta with mushrooms when in season

 

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I have dreams about this pasta.  I was told it was out of season when we visited last year in June and was so bummed!  I have had it in August in September, but other than that I have no idea when “in-season” is.  Best pasta I will likely ever have.

 

SOME OTHER FAVORITE PHOTOS

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Reading a book and enjoying a bottle of wine on a dock in Laglio

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Pretty town of Argegno, slightly less touristy than many.  One of my favorites on the lake.

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View from my balcony at the Villa Vittoria in Laglio.

Looking out onto the lake from the Villa Regina Teodolinda in Laglio.

This Floridian’s Top 20 Walt Disney World Tips

While on Facebook, I often notice that family and friends from up north are looking  for recommendations for their trip to Disney World…

Maxwell after “surviving” a very harrowing encounter with the Mouse, who he noted is much bigger in person than he is on TV.  Not a fan, as you will see later…

I grew up vacationing at Walt Disney World theme parks with my parents and sister. My love of Disney and a summer job at the parks as a “close personal friend of Pluto” as part of the Disney College Program are what ultimately lead me to move to Florida. Now a local resident of the Orlando area for nearly 15 years, I consider myself a Florida native and I’m pretty well versed in navigating the Disney theme parks.


First, to clarify a few basic elements for those new to Disney parks:

A.  Disneyland = Anaheim, California

B.  Walt Disney World = Orlando, Florida

The Walt Disney World family of parks in southwest Orlando consists of the Magic Kingdom (the one with Cinderella’s Castle), Disney Hollywood Studios (the one with the big theater and Tower of Terror), Animal Kingdom (you guessed it, the one with all the animals) and Epcot Center (the one with all the countries and the big sphere).     


1. Check the Weather Report.  Before you leave check out the average highs, lows, and general weather patterns for that time. I have run a marathon in January at Disney where it was 28 degrees and water stations were literally freezing over into solid ice patches, but in the summer is unforgivingly hot and humid and will certainly reach the high 90s every day.  Most of the time in the winter you will find great weather here with lows in the 60s and highs in the 70s, but it we can have hot days or dip near freezing, so for a winter trip pack some shorts and a bathing suit for that heated pool or hot tub, but also bring a pair of jeans, a few sweaters and a jacket.  (In my teenage years I was admittedly the northerner determined to wear shorts and an t-shirt in the 40 degree weather over a Christmas visit – yes, eventually I bought a slightly overpriced sweatshirt in the park.)  Likewise in the summer, pack whatever will make you most comfortable in the sweltering Florida sun (for me usually just shorts and a tank).  It rains for about an hour each day from June through August in mid-afternoon, so I would opt for flip flops over sneakers to avoid wet socks sloshing around in your shoes(ew!).  Click here to go to the Weather Channel link and check it out.

Max and mommy near Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

2. Ponchos. Since we are already discussing rain, let’s talk ponchos.  Don’t wait until you are being held captive by an August afternoon monsoon to buy your ponchos.  Buy a poncho at Target or Amazon ahead of time and it will be infinitely cheaper, you won’t get caught in the rain without one, and you won’t match every other person in the park wearing the mouse issued rainwear.  I also like to throw a large ziplock bag in my purse or diaper bag so we can throw our phones in there if the rain gets terrible.

3. Sunscreen.  Bring multiple bottles, spray cans and sticks along from home.  You will inevitably lose some of these along the way, and paying for replacements at the parks will be pricey.  And yes, you need sunscreen down here, even in the winter people! 

Max and daddy patiently waiting to board Dumbo the Flying Elephant.

4. Timing.  When you live in Orlando its easy to pop over to the parks for a few hours and then be back home for dinner. For those who are coming in from out of town, it can cost a substantial amount of money, so make sure you consider when is the best time to visit for what you want to experience.  Typically Presidents Day Weekend, Spring Break, Summer Break (June through mid September), Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are super busy times to visit, and often times the weekends are also busier with locals heading to the parks after the work week. During these times the parks will be crowded and the lines longer.  Some folks can only go when the kiddos are off school which I totally get, but just be aware that things will be a bit backed up.

5. Download Apps.  There are lots of apps available out there that provide information about the parks, including maps, lists of attractions, and the best of them will include up to date projected wait times for the attractions.  These are a great tool to help plan your day and take advantage of shorter lines when they occur.  Disney’s official “My Disney Experience” app includes park maps (so you don’t need those loose brochures cluttering up your bags), wait times for attractions and characters, locates restaurants, entertainment, restrooms among lots of other information.  You can enter your park pass information in this app and link your family and friends so you can reserve Fast Passes for your entire group with the swipe of a finger. 

Sample of the map with attractions and wait times on the My Disney Experience app.

6. What the heck is a Fast Pass?  Disney allows guests to reserve an exact time to reserve up to 3 attractions (including character experiences) in advance of your visit, subject to availability.  Arrive at the attraction within one hour after the designated time and you will essentially walk onto the ride with little to no wait.  As soon as you use your passes you may visit kiosks designated in the parks to get 3 new fast passes.  This is a great tool to use your time efficiently and bypass lines.  Use your apps to scout out the attractions that you don’t want to miss that have the longest wait times.  I also like to get Fast Passes for peak times during the day when the most visitors are in the parks.  Beware that new and popular attractions fill up fast, so try to get on-line as quickly as possible.  (And if you happen to miss your time slot, you just may be able to go to a guest services kiosk and nicely ask them if you could pretty please have another time, and many times they will give you a new one.) 

How to select Fast Passes from the My Disney Experience App.

7. Parade.  Disney parades can be pretty spectacular, especially the holiday ones, but once you have seen one parade I wouldn’t wait around for another.  People will line up well in advance to scope out a clutch parade watching spot, and the parade can end up being a time vampire in the middle of the day.  The parades usually pull people away from the attractions, so consider taking advantage of these times to hit those busy rides that you couldn’t get Fast Passes for. 

Splash Mountain is one of the more popular attractions at the Magic Kingdom which can have some of the longest lines in the park.

 

8. On-site Hotels. Staying at hotels on Disney property (approximately 43 square miles of it to be more exact) affords you lots of extra perks, including bus service to and from the airport, and around Disney property to the various parks. Staying at an official Disney hotel also provides guests with the opportunity to enter one park early each day, called “Extra Magic Hours” which can allow you to get a jump on other park guests not staying on-site.  Another perk of staying on-site is the availability of one of the Disney dining plans that allow the members of your party to eat several meals a day for a fixed fee. Each member of your party will be given a Magic Band, which is a bracelet you will wear throughout your stay that will all you to open the door to your hotel, gain entrance to the parks, and at your option charge items at your hotel or in the parks back to your room.

My nephew checking out the Toy Story area of the Disney All Star Movie Resort.

 

9. Where the #%$! Did I Park?  If driving, be sure to either take a photo of the section and row you parked, or text the information to someone else in your party.  Nothing is worse than looking through ten thousand cars at the end of a long day, or during a rain storm when you are fleeing the park with crying kids (or adults for that matter)!

These photos may help save marriages and relationships.  Just take it.  Thank me later… (This photo courtesy of my good friend Lisa F.) 

 

 

10. runDisney.  I have run 4 marathons, three half marathons and a 10K as part of the runDisney series of races on resort property, right in my own back yard.  Walt Disney World started its endurance series in 1994 with the first marathon on property, and the events have grown in number and size ever since.  Each January more than 20,000 people run the annual Walt Disney World Marathon, in addition to the Half Marathon, 5K and other family events.  Now the world of Walt Disney World’s runDisney series includes the Princess Half Marathon, Star Wars Half Marathon, Wine and Dine Half Marathon, as well as a number of other 5K, 10K and 13K (Twilight Zone Tower of Terror run) races.  These events are top notch in planning, water stops and cheerleaders along the way, and its an amazing adrenaline rush to buzz through Cinderella’s castle during a marathon or have thousands of people cheer for you when you cross the finish line.   Because of these perks and the great location, lots of first time marathoners pick this as their first race, so unless you have a good qualifying time to be placed into a top coral you may be starting an hour behind the gun in a delayed coral release behind 15,000 of your closest friends (translation, it can get a bit congested for runners in the back to get around the walkers).  There are lots of family events throughout these weekends, and Disney transportation helps spectators get all around Disney property.  For non-racers, these events can clog up the roads and parks for the entire weekend so plan your vacation accordingly and try to avoid these times or go off site these days and visit other attractions.  A list of the races and dates can be found at the runDisney link in the beginning of this section.

11. Babies.  Each theme park has a designated Baby Care Center that includes full bathrooms, areas to prepare food, nurse and change babies, feed little ones, and buy any food, supplies or medicine you may have forgotten.  The one at Epcot Center is the biggest and best, including a little kid TV room, and its located in the corner of Future World near the Mexico pavilion.  It’s also a great way to escape the heat and crowds and relax for a little while with your little one.  While talking about babies, and other smaller children in your party, please don’t be too crestfallen if your little one cries, hits, screams, runs away or otherwise comes unglued during the big character meet and greet that you have magically dreaming of in your head since you booked your vacation.  As a new mommy and as a “close personal friend of Pluto” I can tell you that the reactions are varied, and some babies love the Mouse, but you may want to save standing in line or spending one of your fast passes for a character meet and greet until your little one is a bit older.

Literally running away from Mickey Mouse.

Maxwell is giving Mickey his death stare.  Hopefully we will have better luck next year!

12. Strollers.  Disney rents strollers so you don’t need to bring your own, but they are hard plastic and look a tad bit uncomfortable to me so we bring our own.   I pack a small diaper bag with essentials, and for my little dude’s lunch we pack a separate mini cooler and put in the bottom of the stroller.   I also make sure my stroller has at least one cup holder and a caddy to easily put pacifiers, toys, snack cups, etc. in a pinch.  You will have to park your stroller outside some restaurants and most attractions.  If you come out and your stroller isn’t there, don’t be alarmed, it probably hasn’t been stolen but just moved.  Disney posts one or more people to help consolidate the strollers and maximize the room for available stroller parking outside of the busier attractions.  If this totally freaks you out, consider adding a little flag or bright tape to the top of your stroller to help it stand out.  

Little dude is tuckered out in his Uppababy G-luxe stroller.  This stroller is a great hybrid has the ease of an umbrella stroller with the comfort of the bigger bulkier models out there.  Its super lightweight, easy to push, reclines (he’s fully upright here), has lots of storage underneath, sunshade and adjustable footrest that folds down.  Worth every penny.

 

13. Dine Wisely.  If you aren’t doing a Disney Dining meal plan during your stay, plan your meals wisely.  The price tag for a sit down breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks throughout the day for a family of four could completely zap a huge chunk of your overall vacation budget.  To help keep that $ under control, here are some tips to help.  Start your vacation with a quick trip to the grocery store to buy breakfast items, drinks and snacks for the week.  Eat breakfast before leaving your room, and bring snacks and a water bottle with you for the day.  Refill your water bottle at fountains throughout the park.  When you order lunch or dinner, get ice waters and ask for refills, or if you need to you can simply order water at a fast service restaurant kiosk.  (It is usually so hot that hydrating with water all day instead of soda is good idea regardless of your motivation.  Consider brining some Gatorade or lemonade powder packets if you can’t stomach water all day long alone.)  If you want to purchase snacks, buy a refillable souvenir popcorn bucket in the parks and pay a nominal fee to get popcorn throughout your stay.  You can also buy a refillable souvenir mug back at the hotel that you can refill for a small fee.  And finally, Coca Cola sponsors a pavilion at Epcot Center (on the right side right at the end of Future World if you are leaving Spaceship Earth and headed toward World Showcase) where you can sample soda flavors from around the world.  Don’t anticipate filling up your water bottle here, but good for a sugary pick me up for sure. 

14. Pace Yourself.  Hitting the parks for an entire vacation is a marathon, not a sprint.  You don’t have to do it all in one day.  Pace yourself and use your time wisely.  For every one or two days at the parks, plan a rest day at the pool or a nearby beach.  Arrive early before the parks open to take advantage of short lines early in the day before everyone arrives, use parade times to your advantage to hit more rides, take a break back at your hotel during the hottest time of the day and take a nap (adults and kids!), and stay later when everyone leaves to take advantage of the shorter lines again.

Enjoying the fishys and the AC following the Finding Nemo ride (a/k/a The Living Seas) at Epcot Center.

 

15. Ride Swap.  If some of the little ones in your party can’t go on the big kid rides, Disney offers ride swap.  Whether you have a Fast Pass or simply stand in line, one adult can ride the big kid rides while the other adult waits in a designated area with the little ones, and when the first adult is done the adults can swap for the second one to ride while the first adult waits.  This way you don’t have to miss out on a rides like Expedition Everest and Space Mountain!

16. Kid Souvenirs.  Even though our little dude is still pretty young, I’ve learned these things visiting the parks with friends with older kids.   If you have a child that just has to dress up as their favorite character or princess, buy these costumes or princess dresses ahead of time on Amazon or elsewhere and bring them on vacation with you and you will save a pretty penny (maybe even surprise them in the room with a present your first night there, and they will think you are even more awesome!).  Also, beware that half of the attractions will exit directly into a character themed gift shop, so move swiftly though the exit to the next attraction and tell the kids that you have to “hurry” to get to before it closes.  Another trick is to buy a preloaded Disney gift card for each child before you leave so that they have a set amount they can spend, and once the card is empty, no more souvenirs.

17. Outside the Parks.  In addition to the four main theme parks on Disney Property, there are lots of other great attractions including the Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks, golf courses, resort spas, Disney’s Boardwalk, Disney’s Wide World of Sports (hosting a variety of sporting events, including spring training and football training camps) and the newest addition, Disney Springs.  What once included the Downtown Disney shopping area and the nightclubs of Pleasure Island has been converted to a new themed entertainment area with both Disney themed and other high end stores for shopping, exciting new restaurants (including Morimotos and STK), movie theaters and other entertainment areas, which architecture inspired by Florida’s waterfront towns.

Disney Springs shopping area.

 

18. EPCOT Festivals.  Each year from March through May, Epcot pretties up its amazing landscaping even more than usual and hosts the annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, including beautiful topiaries, butterfly gardens, art and garden pop up shops, and some additional food and beverage stations.  It’s a wonderful time of year for the weather too.  Then from the end of  from the end of  September through mid-November you can attend the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, which includes 30 themed food and beverage kiosks in addition to the ones already found in World Showcase.  These kiosks include small food, beer and wine samplings for a small price.  In addition, there are cooking demonstrations, food and wine seminars and other events you can attend, and a daily concert series called “Eat with the Beat” where groups like Wilson Phillips, Hanson, or Big Bad Voo Doo Daddy just might show up.  You can attend both festivals you admission to the parks, but additional fees apply for certain events, and food and beverage selections.  These are two of my favorite Disney events and I usually will go to Food and Wine every year in honor of my fall birthday.  If you aren’t interested in attending but still want to go to the park, just keep in mind that these events will make Epcot a little more crowded than usual. 

The crowds can be a bit much during Food and Wine, so try to avoid weekends, especially the first and last weekend of the festival.  I have heard that it will start as of August 31 in 2017.

 

19. Leave During Fireworks.  As of 2017, each of the parks will have either fireworks or some other type of night time light display show.  The music, visuals, and presentation of it all will leave you in awe and they are worth seeing if you are up for it. That being said, if you stay for the nighttime fireworks or other show be prepared to slowly sift out of the park an hour later.  Lines for the monorail, boats, shuttles and to leave the parking lots can be quite long at the end of the day, so just make sure you are in it for the long haul.  Or… watch the first 10 minutes and then start leaving before the event wraps up – get the best of both worlds!

20. Drinking Around the World. I plan to dedicate a future post just to this topic, but it is worth a footnote here as well.  If you have not heard of this before, people will go to the park and have one drink in every country of Epcot’s World Showcase, including Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, US, Japan, Morocco, France, United Kingdom and Canada, thus the catchy name “Drinking Around the World.”   It’s all in good fun, and while I’m sure it has happened from time to time, I’ve not seen anyone get completely out of control (or if they have, I assure you they would be promptly removed from the park).   I have tried this myself but have never made it through more than the first few countries.  If you chose to do this, please make sure you take several hours to accomplish this, or you will most certainly be sick.  Drink lots of water, take lots of embarrassing photos of your friends, and either pick a responsible designated driver, take the Disney transportation system back to your hotel, or catch a taxi or Uber back to your final destination.  It is really a good time if you are somewhat responsible, but I would do this sometime that grandma and grandpa are with you to watch the kiddos elsewhere.  That being said, the beer in Germany and the Grand Marnier frozen drinks in France are AMAZING!

Also be sure to try the La Cava tequila bar inside the pyramid at the Mexico pavilion.

I hope that that these tips above are helpful.  I would love to hear from you if you have more questions or any tips to pass along yourself, so please click on the Contact page to get in touch.  Good luck on your pilgrimage to see the Mouse! And for more details right directly from the Walt Disney World website,  CLICK HERE.

Girls Weekend : St. Pete Beach

Although we graduated (an undisclosed) number of years ago, my law school girlfriends and I just got back from our very first reunion trip.  Some of us have children, all of us work, and each year seems to get busier than the next, but about half a year ago we all put aside time for a long girls weekend.  Three of us live in Florida so it made sense to stay in state, and St. Pete Beach was a good middle ground to meet up.


This was also a monumental trip for me because it was my first trip away from Max for more than a portion of a day.  Although I have spent a night away once or twice, I’ve at least been able to give him a kiss good morning or goodnight.  I knew it was going to be difficult leaving my dude, but as difficult as it was, I knew it was very healthy for me to have some time away, and I had an amazing time catching up with old friends and mentally recharging for the first time in well over a year.  I know that daddy had an awesome bonding weekend hanging out with Max (more than likely eating wings and watching football). Daddy has had several bachelor parties and some other guys trips over the last several years, so it was finally mommy’s turn for a mini vacay.

There are several beautiful hotels in area, but we chose the historic  Don CeSar hotel.


Developed by Thomas Rowe, this iconic pink resort cost over $1.25 million to construct and finally opened in 1928.  In its heyday during the height of the jazz age, the resort welcomed guests such as Al Capone, President Franklin Roosevelt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Lou Gerig.  After staying at the resort once again, I can just imagine the ballrooms filled with women smoking long cigarettes wearing flapper dresses, and men wearing tails playing poker in the back rooms.  In the 1940s the hotel fell into disrepair and was converted to a military hospital and Veterans Administration Regional Office.  In the late 1960s the military vacated the building and the property reopened as a hotel once again in 1972.  Today the Don CeSar is a member of the National Trust of Historic Hotels has been named to the US National Register of Historic Places.


Our trip wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the grand parties of the jazz age, but it was perfect all the same.  We arrived on a Friday morning and spent the afternoon sipping cocktails by the pool.  That night we caught up over a late sunset dinner and night out on the town.

For the rest of Saturday and Sunday, we spent the most of our time lounging under umbrellas on the amazing white sand beaches and enjoying the crystal clear water.  I’m telling you, the sand was like warm soft sugar.


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When we weren’t on the beach, I checked out the cute nearby bungalow houses during my morning runs, some were likely nearly as old as the pretty Don Cesar.  Also noteworthy was Shrimpy’s Blue Bistro, a great southern brunch spot with the perfect combination of bloody mary’s and cheesy grits.


I think the sign of a true friendship is evidenced by the ability to feel like you just saw each other yesterday despite the fact that you may not have been together for years.  Being with good friends is easy, peaceful, makes your heart full all at the same time.  It’s amazing being able to pick up right where you left off without missing a beat.  I love all of these girls and I really hope we keep our promise of trying to do an annual trip from now on.


The weekend was a perfect combination of relaxing, laughing, talking, and taking in the beautiful scenery.  When I arrived home, I was so very happy to scoop my little nugget in my arms and give him the biggest hugs.  (And now I can’t wait to plan my next trip with my boys!)

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