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Mini Getaway – 4 days in Williamsburg, VA

This past weekend, we got to cash in a wonderful gift from my sister-in-law.  Earlier this year, she found a great deal on Groupon for 7 consecutive days and unlimited admission to Water Country USA and Busch Gardens both located in Williamsburg, VA. Because we missed out on our yearly family camping trip, she gifted us these Groupons for my whole family, so that we all could spend some time together.

For us, this was about a 2.5 hour drive from our home in Southern Maryland. I was super excited to go on this trip because it afforded us some extra time with family and friends, it was $FREE.99 (the best price ever!!) and I took 2 days of PTO so that was some time I got to decompress from a hectic work week.  I was also excited to do this trip again because our family had gotten the same deal last year from Groupon and we took the kids for a full week.  I figured with this trip being approximately 2 weeks before we headed to Disney, it would be a great “test” trip.

Of course, I looked at our Hilton employee travel website and I secured the Team Member Rate for $35/night at a Hilton Garden Inn Hampton, approximately 20 miles away from the theme parks.  While it was a little cumbersome each day to drive the 20 miles to and from Williamsburg, especially with construction on Interstate 64, it was worth it to save the money on the nightly stay. No other Hilton branded hotels in Williamsburg was offering our generous discount, so we happily made the drive.

Our agenda was aggressive for the weekend, as we tried to get the most bang for our buck. While my sister-in-law, her husband and my mother-in-law headed down to Williamsburg that Wednesday night, we didn’t go down there until Thursday night. Our kids had swim lessons that ended at 7:35pm, so we waited until that was over and then we headed down the road with my good friend from college, her husband and their son (who is also my godson). We gassed up and hit the road around 8pm and eventually got to our hotel before 11pm that night. We changed into PJs and got a good night’s sleep.

Friday, we headed to Water Country USA around 11am.  One money saving tip we employed for our family of four was eating free breakfast at the Hilton Garden Inn (HGI). Mommy Tip: Many hotel reward programs allow you to trade in points for breakfast vouchers for the length of your stay.  I almost always opt to get the breakfast vouchers so the family can fill up on some eats and have one less expense to worry about.

Once we arrived at the park, we headed straight to the Surfer’s Bay Wave Pool.  This is my favorite place to start off at the park because you can come in for a dip and relax before hitting the pavement.  The best part about this pool? Every 10 minutes, the surf starts crashing! Cycles of four-foot waves last 8 minutes and when you put the kiddies in their life vests, they have a blast on the waves. We actually stayed here for a good 2 hours! After that, breakfast was long gone and everyone was starving.  We ended up eating immediately after the wave pool at a nearby food option.  Unfortunately, food was crazy expensive and we ended up spending almost $50 on some mediocre pizza, chicken tenders, hot dogs, fries and fruit.  We even got courtesy cups of water…I cannot imagine if we had gotten drinks how much it would have all cost.

Next, we went to Cow-a-bunga -a children’s play area and pool that features three short slides and a variety of interactive water features. Our kids hopped in quickly to explore this scaled-down water slide.

After that, we hit the Kritter Koral, a children’s play area, which features fun fountains, splash zones, and scaled-down water slides in the shape of their favorite sea creatures. My 5-year-old son, 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old godson didn’t want to leave.  This was, hands down, their favorite area of the park.

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The highlight of the day was the attraction, Big Daddy Falls. Why the shock? It was a ride that I was surprised everyone in the family could ride with no height restrictions! Big Daddy Falls is a whitewater rafting adventure where you brave the rapids together—tackling crazy curves, tunnels, drops, and super-soaking cannon blasters. I think everyone in our family literally screamed in ‘terror’ the entire time. It was the best ride of the day and it was so exciting we could all ride it together.

Lastly, we finished up at H20 UFO – Water Country’s largest children’s water playground. It boasts of an out-of-this-world adventure filled with slides, spray jets, and a cool waterfall.

It was a full day of fun and the kiddies were exhausted afterwards.

Saturday we spent the entire day at Busch Gardens.  We ate breakfast at Hardee’s that morning because my husband was feeling nostalgic (don’t ask), LOL. We arrived at the park around 12 noon and stayed until around 9pm. It was a full day but we had the best time.  The highlight of Saturday was us meeting up with our good friends, The Jones family, from my hometown of Richmond, VA.  Their brought their teenaged foster son, two younger sons (ages 3 and almost 2) and they were season’s pass holders.  Having someone who knew the park inside and out worked to our advantage! They showed us where to go and helped us to successfully navigate the large park and we found almost every single attractions for the kiddies.  For the children, we ended up riding literally almost ALL of the “KIDsiderate Attractions.” What I loved about BG was  the kids could choose from almost 20 attractions/rides made just for them. The kids wore themselves out and we had such a good time taking them around to each attraction.

For the adults, the best part was having enough of us there that we could ‘trade off’ watching the kids while some of us rode the adult rides and have some enjoyment ourselves.  We ended up riding the Turkish Delight, Verbolten, Battering Ram, Mach Tower, Der Wirelwined, and Grover’s Alpine Express (with the kids).

We took in two shows in order to cool down and get out of the heat – BritMania, which was surprisingly good, and OktoberZest. Luckily, the temperature wasn’t unbearable and hovered around 79-82 degrees most of the day.

Overall, BG was a lot of fun and the kids were completely delirious when the day was over.  We did a great job wearing them out.

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Sunday, we headed back to Water Country USA and the kids were quickly ran out to of steam. First, we did brunch in Hampton at Park Tavern.  I believe this was our first mistake because brunch was delicious, hefty, heavy…and there may have been mimosas involved. Once we got to Water Country, we literally went to Hubba Hubba Highway aka the Lazy River and back to H20 UFO.  After about 2-3 hours we were all like, “yall ready to go?!” Everyone, with the exception of my 5 year old, was tired and ready to leave. We left and grabbed ice cream at Cold Stone, then headed back to the hotel for naps.  That night we got Mexican at a local place close to the hotel and stayed up until watching Game of Thrones and Insecure once the kids fell asleep on the hotel TV.

Monday was completely rained out, so we opted for breakfast at the hotel, packed our bags and headed back home.

Overall, the trip was amazing and it showed us exactly what it felt like to be completely UNPREPARED for vacation.  We had a great time but didn’t utilize any of my typical pre-planning methods. There were no personalized water bottles or the equivalents to the Disney Fast Passes.  If one of us forgot something, the other one had it. One would have wet wipes if the other parent left them in the hotel room by mistake.  One parent had a stroller if the other parent’s kid wasn’t trying to walk.  One parent had extra sunscreen if the other’s ran out.  And yes, one parent had Pedialyte when the other parent’s kid got dehydrated and may (or may not) have thrown up at the end of a long day at Busch Gardens, LOL. I say all of this to say, it showed me that going on vacation and winging it wasn’t such a bad thing. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we ended up in Busch Gardens with Season’s pass holders.  And it didn’t hurt that we went with other families that had young children.  But overall – I enjoyed this laidback, vacation practice run.

Disney – we are ready for you!  Williamsburg, you were a blast 🙂

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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!