Saturday, July 27, 2013

Time on the lake in Northern Michigan


Every summer we look forward to getting back to our roots, Michigan roots that is. Both of us were born and raised in this beautiful state and nothing screams “summer is here!” more than being by a lake surrounded by pine and birch trees, slapping mosquitos away as the sun starts to set, and making the customary s’mores over a roaring bonfire. We are lucky enough to spend a few weeks doing this every summer on a big lake in Northern Michigan. My sister and her husband own a beautiful lake home that is complete with a huge deck overlooking the lake, a tennis court, hammock for lazy reading, and a spacious dock where I spend my time catching up on my favorite magazine, Travel & Leisure, and devouring my current favorite read, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, while my kids splash in the cool, clear lake before me.

This year we arrived on the evening of July 3 and were looking forward to the next day--the 4th of July, one of our favorite holidays. We love the small town parade where you can show up 15 minutes before and easily get a great spot on the sidewalk. The kids remember to bring their own bags now for catching candy tossed from passing vehicles.

A glimpse into a small town 4th of July parade

After the parade we head back to the lake house where the kids happily trade pieces of candy with one another while the grown-ups prep the dinner to be grilled later in the day. This year I handled the dessert, which was a new twist on an old fave: lemon shortcake topped with berries and whipped cream. After our kitchen duties were over for the time being we spent the day swimming, sunning, and paddleboating. As the sun started to set we grabbed a light jacket and a drink of our choice and hopped on the boat for a ride across the lake. We had hoped to watch the fireworks from this prime location as we had done the year before but this year they weren’t going on for some reason. We did have a great view of many other fireworks going off in the distance while cruising back home. Once we disembarked from the pontoon, we all sleepily made our way inside. The 4th of July was done for another year but we still had many great days on the lake head of us!

This year we spent a total of two wonderful weeks at the lake. Besides our usual swimming, boating, paddleboating, and fishing, we also made a couple of stops at playgrounds and even more stops at the ice cream stand! We are always sad when our time on the lake comes to an end because it symbolizes the end of yet another summer with the school year looming ahead. Here are some photos of our great times on the lake:

Fishing, Boating, Paddleboating, Sunning, Swimming, Grilling...what better way to spend the dog days of summer?

Up Next: With our summer travels behind us for this year we are looking ahead to the fast approaching school year. We have two trips planned over our 10-day Fall Break in October that I can't wait to share. I also have some new blog projects I'm working on so stay tuned!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Laguna Beach, CA with kids

After a few busy days behind us we wanted to rest up and relax with a day at the beach. My husband cabbed back to the airport in the morning while the kids and I got ready so he could pick up our rental car. By the time he came back, we were all ready with our beach bag packed excited to explore a little bit beyond the Disneyland Resort.

We drove down to Laguna Beach and found Treasure Island beach near the south end of the city. It had a parking garage and nicely attended restrooms where we could change into our beach attire. The walkway was beautiful:

Treasure Island Beach in Laguna Beach, CA

We were really high up on the walkway, looking down at the beach. It was amazing to see how dramatic the cliffs were with the ocean pounding below:


We ended up spending a couple hours here. The kids couldn't swim as the waves were too strong but they enjoyed trying to out run the waves--they were usually unsuccessful!



This was our last day on our travels to Southern California and we flew home early the next day. Coming up: Two wonderful weeks on the lake in northern Michigan!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

California Adventure

After an exhausting yet fun day at Disneyland, we were ready to do it all over again. Today we were headed to California Adventure! When the alarm on my phone went off at 6:30 am, however, I was relishing the fact that my family was still peacefully asleep and allowed myself to reset it for one hour later. We all were thankful for that extra hour of sleep and were eager to get up and get ready and out the door. We ate a quick breakfast in the concierge lounge again and by this time of morning it was bustling.

There was virtually no line when we arrived at the front gate, so maybe the extra hour of sleep worked in our favor after all! Beyond the front gates lies Buena Vista Street, the “Main Street” of California Adventure. It was recreated in the typical Disney-esque way to the way Walt Disney would have experienced Los Angeles in the 1920s. Consulting our Touring Plan for California Adventure, our first course of action was to obtain our fastpasses for the Radiator Springs Racers. When we came across the fastpass line, we saw it winding through the turnstiles and opted to skip ahead a little in the Touring Plan and come back to it later. We headed to Carsland first and instantly felt as though we been transplanted directly into the Cars movie. It was so well done and fun to just look around and see all the details.

Carsland

We first rode Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, which was surprisingly more fun that it looked. On the other hand, none of us really enjoyed Luigi’s Flying Tires which were supposed to make you feel as if you were….well, flying on tires. There was a “lean” none of us could figure out during the duration of the ride.

Riding Mater's Junkyard Jamboree and Luigi's Flying Tires

Soon we were ready for a snack so we headed to the Cozy Cones. During my extensive research on food for this trip I became aware of Red’s Apple Freeze and was curious enough to add this to our list of food to try. I read the ingredients on each of the items that is used to create this concoction and am happy to report it is was safe for my kids (free of eggs, nuts, and dairy)! My kids hmmmed and hawed over it for a while. S, our 12-year-old daughter, decided she did like it while the younger two were not fans. I suppose you should have a hankering for frozen apple to thoroughly enjoy it, but in my opinion it was very good.

Carsland Cozy Cones

After our snack break, we headed to Paradise Pier which is made to look like an old-fashioned American boardwalk, complete with Midway Games. Once again, done very well in typical Disney fashion, it was so crisply clean which contrasted beautifully with the bright colors of the signage. My husband, S, and 9-year-old B rode the “epic coaster” California Screamin’. They gave it two (well three!) thumbs up as one of their favorite rides as they ended up riding it a couple more times throughout the day. My kids were enthralled with the Midway Games so we decided to indulge them for a bit. You do have to pay extra, which you do by adding money onto plastic cards and swiping the cards to play the games. It was great fun versing anyone who came up along side of you to vie for the prize. Our 6-year-old, Miss A, ended up winning the prize after the first game! If four or more players were playing together a bigger prize was given out. If it was just between two people, smaller prizes were it. By the end of it all each of the kids ended up with one big prize (a stuffed Dumbo, Goofy, and Woody accompanied us throughout our day) as well as many smaller stuffed animals. The smaller ones were of a much higher quality than typical carnival prizes so I didn’t mind the sudden implosion of stuffed creatures as much.

View of Paradise Pier

Miss A even convinced us to let her get her face painted. At $12 I thought it was a steal of a deal for Disney!


We continued on following a bit of the touring plan here and there and implementing our own stops as we liked. I suppose my overall opinion of the Touring Plans is that they work wonderfully if you have the energy and desire to get up early on your vacation. You will definitely hit all the top rides and can spend the rest of the day going back to your favorites or trying new ones you may not have added to the plan initially. It was also nice, however, to deviate from it here and there on this day and stop off at places that caught our eye along the way. Onward to Pacific Wharf which had the purposeful feel of San Francisco, where we had vacationed the year before. The smell of sourdough bread from Boudin Bakery wafted through the air and all of us marveled at how it felt like we had suddenly been transported back to the city by the Bay.

Grizzly Peak was done to feel like you were at one of the US National Parks. The kids enjoyed taking turns ziplining and all of us enjoyed doing the treasure hunt together, similar to the quest for getting a Junior Ranger badge from the real National Parks. We all had fun traipsing through the park area, going across rope bridges, and catching eagle eye views from the top. It was a nice detour from the rides in the afternoon.

Grizzly Peak

From Grizzly Peak we entered Condor Flats, which contained our favorite ride as a family, Soarin’ Over California. You sit in rows similar to airplane seats, complete with seatbelts and the overhead. You are soon lifted up and forward toward a bubble-shaped screen that begins with making you feel like you are soaring over the vast different areas of California. It’s one of those rides that can be enjoyed by young children and the elderly. We ended up going on this a total of three times!

Condor Flats

We did make our way back to the fastpass lane to get the coveted Radiator Springs Racers fastpasses. Our return time was in the early evening, which gave us plenty of time to get to our dinner. We had reservations at Wine Country Trattoria, which I had made for two reasons: One was to receive the fastpass for World of Color, which is a colorful light and water show set in the dark in front of Paradise Pier . The second reason was that it was one of the recommended restaurants by the chef I had contacted prior to our trip as allergy-friendly. The setting definitely had a Mediterranean feel to it. We were seated inside and received our prix-fixe menu shortly thereafter. The kids were happy with simple pasta and marinara sauce with grapes as part of their appetizer. My husband and I enjoyed our meal: the salad was fresh, the main course tasty, but most of all we had been looking forward to the array of desserts that we had been promised on the menu. However, after the chef had verified that the allergy dessert she had on hand for the kids had the dreaded label of “may contain…..” she asked our opinion and we opted to play it safe as we always do and avoid it. My husband and I didn’t want to consume our own delectable desserts in front of the kids so we all opted to skip it. They kindly knocked the bill down a little bit due to the dessert fiasco, which was greatly appreciated. They also were thoughtful enough to come back and chat with us and ask what ideas I may have on desserts they could carry in the future. My suggestions were cookies by Enjoy Life and Rice Dream or So Delicious ice cream. Hopefully future guests will get to enjoy one of those. I am thankful that our kids take it so well, though—we offered to get them another fruity lollipop adorned with various Disney characters which were located in nearly every store, to which they were thrilled.

Once dinner was over, it was our time to use the fastpasses for Radiator Springs. We still ended up in line for about 30 minutes, however we were still racing past those poor folks in the regular queue! I have to say this ride is worth any wait. It was definitely a favorite!

Afterwards, it was time to get to ready to watch the World of Color show. My husband and I grabbed a coffee and cookie for ourselves from a vendor across from where we entered the World of Color queue. I have to say the cost for the WOC Dining package was most worth it once we saw exactly where our specific viewing area was. My kids begged to sit in what was clearly labeled as “Wet Zone” which we figured would give us the best view anyway . We were literally right up against the guardrail which ended up being an amazing view for the show. The “wet” was truly just a continuous mist that, yes, made us quite wet by the end of the show. But it was definitely worth it!

Just before World of Color

Once the show was over we had time for one last ride and that is when we rode the Soarin’ Over California ride for the third and final time. After that we walked our mile back to the hotel and crashed for the night!
Two days of theme park fun were behind us. Up next: Laguna Beach!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Disneyland

In my first post on this blog I mentioned the book that I had read pre-trip. I had also signed up for the touring plans discussed in the book, of which the goal is to eliminate as much time standing in lines as possible. Now I know that when you go to a theme park standing in lines is to be expected. However, given that we were spending just one day at Disneyland itself and there were many rides we definitely wanted to go on, we figured why stand in line longer than we had to? So, I easily created my own customized touring plan, which the touring plan site "optimized" and today we were putting it to the test. Now the key to a successful touring plan is to get to the park when it opens, better yet you should get there at least a half hour before opening time. My husband looked at me like I was crazy when I mentioned this part because, after all, this was vacation, right? Well, yes it is, but it's a Disney Vacation, which means that getting up early to ride Dumbo is key to a successful plan!

We ate breakfast in the concierge lounge again, which is an easy meal for us with our kids' allergies. I packed along individual packets of oatmeal and cereal. S, our 12-year-old daughter, ate the cereal with a carton of milk, some fresh fruit, and water. Our other two, B and A, ate the oatmeal which I easily mixed up with hot water along with fresh fruit and OJ. We then walked the mile to the park and quickly went through "security", which is just where our bags were briefly peeked into. Off to the entrance where I presented our printed-out paper tickets and she handed us our official tickets, which were good for today and tomorrow when we'd be going to California Adventure.

We still had about 20 minutes until official opening time so we slowly meandered through a nearly deserted Main Street, which I especially loved. I knew that as the day wore on it would become increasingly crowded so I took this time to grab some photos.

Main Street, U.S.A.

After we made our way through Main Street towards the castle, we looked at our Touring Plan and saw that Peter Pan ride was first on the list so we positioned ourselves behind the rope that would get us into Fantasyland. We had never been to a Disney Park at opening time so it was pretty funny seeing everyone sprint off once it officially opened!

Rope Drop! And they're off...

We quickly got into the line at Peter Pan, which must have been first on the list for a lot of people because there was already a 10 minute wait. After Peter Pan we continued making our way through the touring plan. I have to say I was happily surprised because we knocked out about 5 rides within the first hour! Even my husband was impressed!

Throughout the morning, both the crowds and the intensity of the sun were increasing. We started to use the Fastpasses (best invention ever!) and also felt the need to relax a bit and take a few extra rest stops. We ate lunch at the Jolly Holiday Bakery outside on the terrace, which had ample seating in the shade with a nice atmosphere. My husband and I split a grilled cheese and salad while the kids ate a lunch I had packed for them and a cherry lemonade from the restaurant. They weren't fans of the lemonade as my son said it tasted like "lemonade with red dye"! After lunch, we headed to a candy store on Main Street, where my kids picked out a lollipop. My husband and I grabbed a sweet treat for ourselves as well, including my adorable Mickey cake pop!

Mickey Cake Pop

After a few more rides including both Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones (we loved both!), I wanted to surprise the kids with the famous Dole Whip. I had read up on it as well as contacted a chef at Disneyland and was assured that they are vegan (no eggs/no dairy). It was as close to a soft-serve ice cream as my kids would get anywhere outside of their own house. Unfortunately my girls were not big fans of the pineapple flavor, however my son devoured his and his sisters'! It was a cool treat in the hot sun.

For dinner we ate at Redd Rocket's Pizza Port. I had read that this is not a particular favorite of many people, but again the allergies dictate and the chef recommended this one so I figured we'd stick with it. My husband and I split an antipasto salad which was really good! The pizza and breadsticks left much to be desired. My kids again were happy to have a cheeseless pizza but declared it not as tasty as the one the night before at Rainforest Cafe. This quick service dinner was also a lot more money that I had expected: our total was over $80 for 2 cheeseless pizzas, 3 slices of pepperoni pizza, breadsticks, 1 antipasto salad, 1 garden salad, and 5 waters. I read somewhere that it's a good idea to add $50-100 onto your daily budget when budgeting for a vacation and after this experience I will definitely use that tip!

After dinner we headed to Toontown. My kids were a bit older than it seemed Toontown was marketed towards but it was still fun to check it out and of course visit Mickey Mouse!

Visiting Toontown

As for favorite rides at Disneyland, my husband, 12-year-old S, and 9-year-old B loved Star Tours and Space Mountain and they rode those a few times each. The entire family loved Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blaster's. A surprise favorite was the Indiana Jones ride. With the exception of our youngest daughter, Miss A, we all loved Pirates of the Carribean (she was understandably a little scared). It's a Small World and the Teacups are classics that you just have to ride! Unfortunately Dumbo was shut down for the day otherwise that would have made the list as well. My personal fave is the Peter Pan ride. As for rides/attractions that we wouldn't bother with again: The raft to Tom Sawyer Island was very unimpressive as it was maybe a minute long. The island itself was okay as it was slow paced and had many benches to catch a rest break in the shade, which may be a good mid-afternoon option for very young kids or elderly folks in a group. S, B, and I rode the Matterhorn Bobsleds and were disappointed in the ride itself as well as how quickly it was over. Overall, the best way to sum up the day is with a few of my favorite photos from the day:

My trio by the castle, riding the teacups, and the Partners Statue at dusk


We didn't stay for the fireworks as we had a special show in store for tomorrow. Plus, after 13 hours of walking, our feet were sore, we were exhausted, and we had to get up early to do this all over again! Next up: California Adventure!

Monday, July 8, 2013

And we're off! Or so we thought...

Now that we no longer live in a major U.S. city, we have a connection virtually anytime we fly. I figured this would affect us sooner or later. Apparently it was sooner rather than later. Our first flight ended up being delayed four hours, which caused us to misconnect in Houston and miss our flight continuing on to Orange County, CA. We ended up spending the night in Houston, which worked out alright because thankfully my husband had a free night certificate with Marriott that we were able to use. We were up bright and early in the morning with a very quick breakfast in the concierge lounge, luggage repacked, and off to the airport.

I love flying during the day because you see so much veried terrain, especially when traversing the U.S. I love coming into the western United States and seeing the mountains starting to rise up out of the flat earth, first as hills, then foothills, and finally over high mountain peaks. As we were coming over California, the peaks were covered in evergreens that looked like you could reach out and pluck them right out of the scene below.

We landed shortly thereafter in southern California. We chose the Orange County airport (code:SNA) due to the fact that it was closer to Disneyland and it's smaller. After years of dealing with Chicago's O'Hare airport we relish the smaller, quieter, easier to navigate airports and seek them out whenever we can.

We were staying at the Anaheim Marriott and took the Super Shuttle from the airport, which was very efficient. It cost $10/person, so a total of $50 for our family of 5. Not too bad considering we were also traveling with four suitcases and five carry-on bags. We would have had a harder time fitting all of us and our belongings into a regular ol' taxi!

We had a little bit of a wait once we checked in at the hotel, as we were upgraded to a junior suite. We ended up with a full size bed, a full-size pull out sofa bed, and a rollaway, with plenty of room to move about. We also had a mini fridge and bar area so I could organize the food I had packed along out of the way. My husband took the kids to the pool so I could get us all organized in the room. The pool area was great for the family: the deepest part was about 4' , located in the center of the pool, with the huge front portion about 2-3' deep. There were plenty of loungers, both in the sun and the shade and a hot tub in the very back. I joined my family for my first bit of Southern California sunshine once I got everything put away in the room.

After a few hours at the pool, we head out to spend our evening in Downtown Disney. Downtown Disney is situated right in between Disneyland and California Adventure, which makes it easy to figure out the lay of the land quickly. We ended up walking to and from Disneyland Resort as it just about a mile from our hotel.

Downtown Disney at night

While I was craving some Mexican food and a margarita as soon as I passed Tortilla Jo's, my kids weren't game for that once they spotted the Rainforest Cafe. We wanted to sit outside as the weather was pleasant, which we found out saved us an hour of waiting! We have eaten at the Rainforest Cafe a few times when the kids were younger so we didn't feel the need to sit amongst the jungle animals awaiting the impending thunderstorms anymore.

At this point I should probably point out that all three of our children have food allergies. Our 12-year-old daughter, S, is allergic to eggs and peanuts; our 6-year-old daughter, A, is allergic to dairy; and our 9-year-old son, B, is allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, and various raw fruits and vegetables. I have become an expert traveler on traveling with kids with food allergies, but will save that for a separate post. My point in mentioning this is that we were pleasantly surprised at how Rainforest Cafe handled it. When we put our names down, I asked the greeter if there would be a binder we could look through (as many restaurants do)to check ingredients of items on the menu. The lady cheerfully told us that once we were seated the chef would come out and discuss options with us. The chef made my kids super happy by offering a cheeseless/pepperoni-laden individual pizza! For my two dairy-allergic kiddos this was the first time that they ate pizza in a restaurant! I was thrilled for them! Our oldest can have dairy so she enjoyed a regular pizza. We all enjoyed the chips and salsa appetizer as well.

Yummy cheeseless pizza

Once our tummies were full, we ventured on to the shops in Downtown Disney. Miss A saw someone with the Build-a-Bear My Little Pony and knew that is what she wanted to spend her long saved money on. About 20 minutes later a very happy little girl emerged with her newly stuffed Rainbow Dash!



We walked back to the hotel around 9 pm as we knew we needed to get our rest for our big day tomorrow: Disneyland!