Disney – The Debrief

Hey y’all! Its been approximately a month since we’ve traveled to Disney and I figured I owed you a Disney debrief.  A what, you ask? A debrief – a series of questions about a completed mission or undertaking.  The completed mission being – our vacation!  And of course I am anticipating the questions I think you all have, but you get the picture, right?

I’m calling it that in homage to my mom.  After every major event, we would debrief afterwards! LOL. So in the spirit of Rita, here it is:

Vacation was a blast! We rode every single ride imaginable and our kids were in pure heaven. As I stated in my last Disney post, we kept our schedule.  We did 2 days in Magic Kingdom and 1 day in Animal kingdom.  Each day we spend over 12 hours in the parks. We got there at around 9/930am and stayed until the park closed at either 930pm or 10pm.  I have the fitbit steps to prove it! Each day, I easily had over 23,000 steps before I left the parks!

Outfits/Fashion. So I warned you guys that I was going to be the corny mom with the matching outfits right? Well, I absolutely was.  I even brought my sister and brother-in-law in on the matching fun.

Monday – it was just the core Gibsons and we wore Star Wars shirts, since they are Disney-related and my son is such a fan.  We got SOO many compliments from families in these shirts, on site. They were definitely hits. Even other families in their matching shirts came up to us and told us how much they liked our matching t-shirt swag.  Many of them talked in Star Wars references….and that was kinda weird, but it came with the territory, so we rolled with it!

Wednesday – it was the Gibsons in the morning and then the Sykes (my sister and brother-in-law) by lunch time. That days’ theme was anything Mickey (and Pals) + Shorts.  Taryn had a Minnie dress, so we let her slide.  As long as everyone was coordinated 😉

Thursday – it was the Sykes + Gibsons all day and we wore our Mommy, Daddy, Uncle, Auntie, Evan and Taryn Disney shirts. I was initially excited about these until Monday rolled around and I saw EVERYONE HAD THEM! I thought to myself, when we wear these on Thursday once we come back to Magic Kingdom, we’ll just blend in. Boy was I wrong…idk if it was the addition of the “Auntie” and “Uncle” or what, but people loved these shirts too! Of course we took a photo where we looked normal and appropriate…then we took a slightly ratchet photo.  You know…for the culture.


Here is a list of random things that left an impression on me during the trip. I share these nuggets, in hopes that it will help you with an upcoming trip to the Happiest Place On Earth and give you some perspective in how we experienced our trip.

1. Traveling with kids is a pain in the butt. Umm, so why didn’t y’all warn me that flying with kids is NOT a game?! My children have never flown before, so I had zero experience with them in an airport. I mean, for their first time, I think they did okay. But when the TSA was asking my daughter questions, like, how old are you and she was like, “MOANA!” and what’s your name and she said, “ONE YEAR OLD!” I almost strangled her (kidding….kinda).  And why do they have so much stuff?! Booster seats, electronics to keep them occupied, backpacks, carry-on luggage – I felt like I was carrying EVERYTHING!! And those little jokers have no concept of “inside” voices.  I mean my daughter was literally screaming at the top of her lungs on the airplane, “What y’all eating back there?!” to my husband and son.  I would blame it all on Taryn (mostly because she was sitting by me) but my husband said Evan was just as terrible, LOL. He was mostly asking 21 questions and talking my husband’s head off.  Still, it was so rewarding to see the amazement in their eyes on their first flight. They were utterly speechless as we took off and flew high above the clouds. I managed to get this awesome photo of my daughter.flight

2. Clearwater Beach. I didn’t expect this beach to be SO family oriented. We took two trips there and it was amazing. For a quick 1+ hour ride from our resort, we enjoyed calm waters, white sand beaches and good eats.  I definitely recommend you work in a trip or two if you are staying in the area. I like to think of our beach days as recovery days! We needed them after spending so much time in the parks.

3. Animal Kingdom. So I had heard Disney’s newest park was a good one, but this was by far my favorite Disney park! I’ve been to them all, but this was my first time here and boy, did live up to the expectations. Actually, it exceeded my expectations. The rides, the animals, the food and the night show were all amazing. Do NOT skip this park. Especially if you have young children who are into animals. You will not regret it. Definitely do the safari!AK_AK_20170807_8082433517.jpegI especially loved Avatar/Pandora and Africa. The characters were so accessible in this park and I felt like we could walk right up to them vs. the long lines of Magic Kingdom. Here we actually got to meet Mickey and Minnie! My daughter was so upset our first day in MK. She remarked, “We didn’t even SEE Mickey or Minnie! They don’t live here!” and it was true. We never saw Mickey or Minnie our first day at MK.  The look of pure delight on their faces as we rounded the corner in AK to see the Mouse was worth the 15 minute wait in line.

4.  Characters. Day one at MK we were completely overwhelmed and only saw a few characters. When we got to AK and MK (Day 2) we totally rectified that situation and made it our mission to see every.single.solitary.character we could. This made ALL of the difference between the two days at MK. If you have younger kids, I recommend making or purchasing autographs books, as well as prioritizing characters. It completely added to the excitement of the park and it wasn’t something I remembered doing as a child. It totally made my kids’ days! Although my son is still angry that he didn’t get to see his “girlfriend,” Princess Jasmine.  At least he has good taste in women 😉 Here are a few of the characters we waited in line to see below:

5. Character Dining Experiences. I think this is the best way to kill two birds with one stone. You don’t have the issue of waiting in line to see the characters, plus you get to ‘do something’ while seeing the characters. We did the steamboat cruise with Princess Tiana and this was one of my favorite activities. I think for this one, we actually killed THREE birds with one stone. First, the kids got unlimited desserts/snacks.  I’m talking all of you can eat and drink. For the price (roughly $60 for the whole family), it was a great deal considering how much those Disney treats cost. Secondly, we got a great viewing spot to watch the afternoon parade. We didn’t have to fight the crowds and got to see everything from the steamboat.  Lastly, we got to play hide and seek with Princess Tiana and Prince Navid. They did a great job of grabbing each kid, dancing and making them all feel special!

We also had an early dinner buffet with Winnie the Pooh and friends. Such a fun experience and Tigger was a family favorite!

6. Magic Bands. These things were LIFE CHANGERS!! I loved going completely “paperless” at Disney world. We linked our photo pass, credit card, Fast Passes and admission tickets up through our magic bands. So anytime we wanted to do anything, we simply scanned our bands and viola! It made the entire experience seamless. I would recommend purchasing them to anyone who is going to the parks and staying at an off Disney property. My favorite part was the photo pass. We walked up to all of the Disney Photopass photographers and they took our pics at the prime photo locations. It was great for when we all wanted to be in shots together and didn’t want to ask a stranger to take our photos. Another thing that was my absolute favorite was the fact that we could get all of the pics from the rides. Some of these shots were HILARIOUS! The faces that we made were priceless and it was an added bonus because I never purchase “ride photos.” Here are a few fun PhotoPass shots below.

7. Our resort was also really nice. Since I am a Hilton employee, I won’t go on and on promoting a rival brand. However, if you do have to stay at the dreaded M-word, I would recommend the resort we stayed at.  Money well spent! (See previous blog for link).

8. Minivan.  That’s right, we rented a minivan at the airport. The cool thing I wanted to   point out is that if you are an Emerald Club member at National Car Rental and you get to bypass he counter, please do so in Disney. They have TONS of minivans and you only pay the price for mid-size rental.  Just a little Disney hack I learned by accident. I imagine it is the same at other airport car rentals in the Orlando airport, so make sure you tap into that to save some $$.

I’m not sure what else to say without getting extremely detailed and I don’t think this is the forum for that. If you’d like to learn more about how to “do Disney” and for relatively cheap, please contact me. Most blogs I’ve read said that you spend close to $8,000 – $10,000 per trip (for a family of four) to do what we did at Disney. I did it for less than 1/2 of that amount, so I am happy to share a few tricks. Keep in mind, vacationing in domestically is EXPENSIVE! I’d much rather hop on a plane and go to an all-inclusive resort on an island or Mexico, lock my wallet up for the week and have a blast. In the States, you have to pay for each and every meal, drinks and all of the experiences you have, a la carte. Often times the final bill, once you add up all of the a la carte items, is much more expensive.

Our next major family trip will be to Generations Resort in Rivera Maya, Mexico. Kids eat free and we only have to pay for the adult all-inclusive fee. No car rentals, no paying for kids and no paying for character dining! I guarantee the final bill will be much cheaper than our Disney tab.

We cut corners on this trip by buying our airplane tickets at a steep discount and flying a little earlier/later than normal; buying our souvenirs ahead of time – including our mickey ears, personalized water bottles and t-shirts; using a timeshare;  using the car rental hack I told you about earlier; using old VISA/MasterCard/Restaurant/Store Specific gifts cards (I never use them, so they just sit in a pile collecting dust because I often forget I have them); buying groceries (breakfast and snacks) instead of eating out for all meals; and using Disney Credit Card Reward Points/Dollars inside the park.

That said, you still have to be ready to pay for parking each and every day, especially if you stay off site.  Certain things just can’t be avoided when you go to Disney and you have to budget accordingly.  It is best to plan a trip of this nature for at least a year to ensure you can have a great time and not go broke trying to do so. Set expectations for your kids BEFORE you go into the parks and make sure they don’t go crazy every time you go into a store (or just avoid them, like we did).

Traveling the last week before school started was the best thing we ever did. The weather was great (I mean it was still hot, but it wasn’t miserable) and the lines weren’t too long b/c most of the east coasters, including Floridians, were back in school. If you’re worried about pulling the kids out of school and want to avoid that, I recommend traveling to Orlando during this time period.  I hope this helps and make sure you hit me up if you want a more in-depth analysis, including budgeting examples! To everyone who has reached out, I’m so glad  could help you plan your trip!

Until next time 🙂



Our First Trip to Disney – The Plan

Mickey And Minnie Mouse Welcome Everyone To Hong Kong Disneyland ResortThis will be the first in couple of posts about our first family trip to Disney World. I’m writing this, in part, to help other mothers (or fathers) as they prepare to take their first vacation to the Happiest Place on Earth. I’m also writing this because I want to see how I “planned” (notice, this is a common theme in my life, ha) for this trip to go vs. what will actually happen when we get there.

So here goes…our (sike….MY) master plan to conquer Disney World in just seven days.

Over the past month, I’ve been scouring Pinterest, blogs, articles and the world-wide web in order to plan the perfect Disney World trip to Orlando. A bit about me, I’d like to consider myself a vacation aficionado.  I work at the best hospitality company in the world, Hilton, in their corporate headquarters in the Tyson’s Corner area of Northern Virginia.  I may be a tad bit biased, but this job only deepened my love for travel. I get great discounts at some of the best properties in the world. Plus even before joining Hilton, I was a member of a vacation club and also often used my parents’ timeshare for vacationing. Travel has always been a priority in my life and I pride myself in planning some pretty decent vacations on a budget.

Growing up, Orlando Florida was a frequent destination for my nuclear family.  I remember going to Disney World at the ripe age of 12 . I was a tad bit “too cool” for Mickey Mouse and my 9-year-old sister, who was trying to be just like me at the time, was feigning being unimpressed by all of the “magical-ness.”  My mother, however, was excited enough for us all! She gleefully squealed once we entered the park, her first time there and exclaimed, “Can you believe we are here!!” My dad shook his head but deep down, we all enjoyed Disney as much as my mother outwardly expressed.

Given my history with Disney, I am eager to plan a trip for my 4 and 5-year-old.  I feel like this is the perfect age for them to enjoy the true meaning of Disney, plus….Orlando is timeless! We can go back to Florida year after year and as they grow, so can the attractions we visit, i.e. Universal Studios vs. Disney in their older ages.

So back to my research.  I’ve found you need quite a few things in order to make your trip to Disney a success (things I never had growing up, but that’s neither here nor there).  Here are some the tips and Disney hacks I’ve learned over the past month.  I’ll also share our itinerary with you as well, just so you can see how I planned our week.  Once we come back after our trip, I’ll post pics and tell you how much of this worked and how much was a disaster.  I mean, misstep… misstep is a better word, right?

So first, let’s start with our flights. I was debating whether to fly or drive to Florida.  From where we live in Maryland, the trip is a solid 12 hours.  I know some of you are thinking, 12 hours, with two small kids?! No way! This actually didn’t scare me because growing up, my family unit were road trip warriors. I will say though, we were a lot older than my kids are now, so I guess I should take that into consideration.  Nevertheless, I wasn’t daunted by the idea of renting a car and driving. I figured, I’d research plane ticket prices and if I saw a great offer, I’d get them. Otherwise, we were driving.  Well, ladies and gentleman, Jet Blue had an amazing deal I couldn’t say no to. I scored tickets in February from DCA to MCO airport for a family for 4 for the low price of $505, total including fees and taxes! I put those babies on my Costco Visa, which automatically includes trip protection and never looked back.  So far the scoreboard reads Erika – 1; Disney – 0.

Accommodations. As I mentioned earlier, I had planned on staying at one of our amazing Hilton properties. In fact, I had secured reservations at the Hilton team member rate at the Waldorf Astoria, Bonnet Creek, a coveted resort that boasts of a lazy river, water slides and good restaurants.  I was ecstatic to get this for the reasonable team member rate of $55/night.  Then I ended talking a friend of mine who had just gone to Disney for Christmas. She told me, with two children, a hotel room for the week would be extremely tight and the close quarters would probably get on my nerves.  She advised, get a suite with a kitchen unit or you’ll regret it.  So I reached back in my bag of tricks and decided to see what our timeshare, Diamond Resorts had to offer through our exchange network, Interval World.  I searched and searched for a Hilton Grand Vacations Timeshare property because: Brand Loyalty. However, my search was fruitless. I did find a Premier rated timeshare at the dreaded “M word.”  You know the one…Marriott. We could exchange our vacation points to the Marriott Lakeshore Reserve Resort for the low price of $159 for the entire week! SCORE! Plus the unit came with the kitchen, a full dining table and area to wash dishes and warm up food. So we could save a little cash in the parks and keep drinks, snacks and other perishable items in our rooms, as well as quick breakfasts for the kids in the AM before starting our days.  Needless to say, I booked there and got a suite for a family of four.  Honestly, I think either location would have been amazing! Both Hilton and Marriott properties were family friendly, with water slides and attractions.  Perfect for those lazy resort days when you want to lounge and enjoy the amenities that come with the hotel room you paid for.  While I am fiercely loyal to Hilton, I believe we’ll have a great time at the resort whose name we don’t mention, lol.  The scoreboard is up in my favor….Erika – 2; Disney – 0.

Planned vacation itinerary.  So we arrive on a Saturday and leave on a Saturday. The more I thought about it when I was planning everything out, the more I realized both travels days will be a wash, due to logistics, obtaining and returning our rental car and our arrival and departure times.  Essentially, we only have Sunday through Friday to work with. As I mentioned above, we like to have a day or two of being lazy…I like to call those “resort days.” I have also heard great things about Clearwater beach which is only a short drive away, so I figured we have to get in a beach day as well.  And of course, the main attraction, the Disney parks.  I heard trying to do more than 2 days in a week with two young children was a challenge for my friends who had recently gone in early July of this year. I figure my kids were a bit older than theirs, so my husband and I settled on 3 days of “parking it up.” Then I thought out the pros and cons of each of the parks to decide which ones we’d attend. I heard great things about Animal Kingdom, one of the new parks that wasn’t there when I growing up.  My kids are very into animals and love learning about the jungle, African safaris, etc. And Magic Kingdom wasn’t even an option to not consider.  That was THE place to go.  I also researched some touring plans (free ones in Pinterest!! I didn’t pay for any) and discovered most recommend 2 days in Magic Kingdom if you are there for a week, so you can see everything, especially with children my age.  So – here is the final itinerary outcome, all things considered:

Saturday – Travel Day

Sunday – Clearwater beach day

Monday – Magic Kingdom Day One

Tuesday – Resort/Lazy Day

Wednesday – Animal Kingdom

Thursday – Magic Kingdom Day Two

Friday – Resort/Lazy Day

Saturday – Travel Day

I think this will allow for us to enjoy the parks without being burnt out.  I’ll let you know how this “plan” goes. I did get the “any park tickets” so if we decide that we don’t want to do a day two of Magic Kingdom, we may switch it up for Disney Studios instead. Epcot wasn’t really a major consideration for our family for this trip.

Travel time. We decided to go in August after peak time dies down in Disney, so hopefully we will enjoy shorter wait times on rides and slighter cooler temperatures.  And by “slightly cooler” I mean the average temperature is only 2-3 degrees cooler during the day in August vs. July. Most people gasp when we say we are going to Disney in August, but if you actually research weather trends, July is the hottest month in Florida, not August. July also one of the busiest times to visit Disney World.  We are going the last full week in August, right before school starts up again. Based on the Disney ticket website itself, we will even save a couple of bucks (literally, only $2 per ticket, lol) as this is ‘Value’ season.  I’m hoping that will make our experience a little bit more pleasant, as I’ve heard the heat and crowds are serious business during the summer months.

Lastly, other “Disney things” that I was told were “must-haves.”

  1. Matching Family Shirts – Yes, we will be that lame family with matching shirts on…I cannot WAIT! I went on Etsy and ordered Star Wars and Mickey/Minnie themed family shirts.  I got my kids names customized and my husband and I are donning the “Mommy/Daddy” shirts.
  2. Refillable Personalized Water Bottles – I got “My first Disney trip” water bottles customized for my kids with their names to save money and also have a cool souvenir.  I don’t know about your kids, but mine are obsessed with water bottles, so this was a no-brainer!  I read there are free water fill ups at each restaurant in Disney ($$ saver). It also keeps the kids hydrated and they’re super cute ways to let everyone know this is the kids first time there.
  3. Magic Bands – I went ahead and ordered Magic Bands. These cool “bracelets” are electronic bands that hold your park tickets, FastPass+, reservations and your Memory Maker Photo Pass.  If we were staying on a Disney property, it would also be the key to our rooms! It seemed like an easy way to go paperless as well as enjoy a cute Disney keepsake.  My daughter got a Princess Tiana magic band and my son got a Star Wars one.  My husband and I got generic pink and blue ones.
  4. Character Dining Experiences – We also booked an ice cream social on Princess Tiana’s Riverboat (where we can also watch the parade in a special viewing area), as well as a an early dinner with Disney characters for our dining experiences.  I think I am most excited about this way for my kiddies to connect with the Disney characters as well as enjoy some of Disney’s legendary hospitality and food and beverage options.
  5. Mickey/Minnie Ears – Another Disney Hack I learned from the wise mothers of Pinterest. Buy all of your merchandise BEFORE you head to the parks. That means using Etsy, Amazon and even the Disney Store (sales items only) to buy items for your kids. Then “surprise” them either the nights before you head to the park or that morning with all of the cool Disney items you’ve (already) purchased. You’ll end up saving tons and the kids won’t know the difference, especially when they’re young. I’ve already purchased Mickey/Minnie ears for the kids for the low, low price of $5. That’s right, we only paid $5/set of ears. Based on my research, those could run you upwards of $30/pair once inside the park.  SCORE!

WHEW! I think this is it. I hope my Disney hacks will help you in your planning, if you have an upcoming trip to Disney World.  Also, if you have anything to share with me, please leave a comment or shoot me a quick message. We are open to all suggestions, tips and hacks.  We are a little less than 30 days out from our trip.  I’ll keep you all posted on how everything goes in a follow-up ‘Disney World – The Trip” post.  If it went anything like our adoption went, the plan will be blown out of the water, but everything will turn out amazing, in spite of them going awry 😉

Stay tuned!