Last week was the third week of my kids' fall break. They attend a public year-round school so the breaks during the year are longer. Usually a week of extra-curricular (aka fun) learning activities is offered by the school for an additional fee, which I think is great for learning. Anyway, off to Disney we went for the last week! I had not been since I was eight and my husband since he was fourteen. So basically everything was new to us. We began our trip from just outside of Nashville, TN.
As usual, getting out of the house with three kids was a nightmare. It doesn't matter how much I plan, it is like pulling teeth to leave at a decent hour. We left at 3:30 pm. Since, through experience I know this, I now plan to stop 3-4 hours out of town for the night. It is kind of like the introduction to vacation and a chance to catch our breath. We stopped in Atlanta, GA. Using points that we had accumulated, we got a lovely hotel room at the Weston Peachtree Plaza. This made my children unbelievably happy because I had emailed them earlier in the week asking for a really high floor since the kids loved the view. We were on the 43rd floor. The only thing we paid for was parking ($26 per night). Just a tip - if you are hungry, do not order room service. It takes too long and the food is usually awful and expensive. We ordered take out Chinese which was delivered to the hotel within fifteen minutes for far less cost.
I had seen bloggers previous in the week talk about the free breakfast promotion at IKEA. I had never been to IKEA and had always wanted to see the store (amazing). So the next morning we packed up the kids and made our way to the store. Breakfast was nearly free and really good. For five of us, we paid $6. It is also the PERFECT environment to eat at with small kids. I am pretty sure we will go there again for breakfast should we pass through Atlanta even if there is not a promotion. The store itself is worth the trip. However, be warned, it is easy to get lost in the store.
We continued south to Macon, GA where we stopped to visit the Macon Museum of Arts and Science. Let me first explain that I love to take my kids to museums. My doctorate is in the education field. One of the many studies I read was about the fact that one of the determinates of a child's success is how much has that child been exposed to (as in museums, travel, experiences, etc.). Usually that corresponds to socio-economic status. However, I believe that regardless of how much money you make, you can take advantage of the many free opportunities to give your children those experiences (see also How to Bridge the Cultural Experience Gap). In order to get the most bang for my limited bucks, a few weeks before we traveled, I purchased a family membership to Nashville's Adventure Science Museum ($90) which has reciprocal agreements with over 300 museums worldwide and Nashville's Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Art Museum ($75) which has reciprocal agreements with both art museums and botanical gardens worldwide. In the past, I usually wait for the free day to take my kids. Between these two memberships, we could go to just a zillion different places for free and still get to visit our local museum all year. The Macon museum has a reciprocal agreement with the Adventure Science Museum. While it was not as great as our museum here in Nashville, it was a wonderful stopping point and a great way to stretch your legs while traveling. The best part was the bear!
I would have loved to go to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens (reciprocal with Cheekwood) or the Fernbank Science Center (reciprocal with ASM), but we ran out of time. Next time...
We finally made it to Orlando and stayed at the Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort. We are vacation owners (aka "timeshare"). I know this is probably not a fantastic deal, but it really works for us. Until we decided to do this, we rarely if ever took a vacation. It was just too hard with three children (not enough room), and it was never a priority so we did not save for it. This way we pay a set amount each month which is not too much because we purchased at a cheap location and then we can vacation at any location they have all over the US. It's a little more complicated, but that is the gist of it. The thing I like about it is that you get a large luxery condo in a gated community. It is much safer for small children. There is a full kitchen with all necessary cookware (great for entertaining local family - love ya Sam,Tom & Cassie - when they stopped by) and this time we had two washers and dryers in our condo. Sweet. There is also a gorgeous pool and activities for kids if you want to participate. One night we cooked smores by the pool while watching The Hulk on big screen.
On a bad note, when we went shopping at the local Walmart to stock our kitchen with perishables, I remembered two things too late: I hate Walmart, and I should not shop with the entire family. Walmart would not accept more than one Internet Coupon per like item (?!?!). When the cashier went to confirm this with the manager, she started screaming at him loudly and refused to take ten steps over to me to explain this supposedly new rule. If we ever return, I will not shop at the Walmart in Orlando. Also, bringing the whole family totally blows a budget.
During the week, we visited the Orlando Museum of Art (reciprocal with Cheekwood) where we saw more than 180 works (mostly Aztec statues) made prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the Europeans during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, as well as some really great American Classic and Modern Art (weird statues the boys really liked). Just FYI, my kids complain when I tell them we are going to an art museum, but once there, they are fascinated and I have to drag them away. The museum shop also sells marbles really cheaply which made my kids very happy.
We also visited the Orlando Science Center (reciprocal with ASC) which was a TOTAL hit. We were there for about 4-5 hours and only made it through two of the four floors. It is great because there are a lot of hands-on activities. We got to pet live alligators and see so many snakes I lost count. The second floor had an invention type room with all kinds of electrical gadgets including a tornado wind machine which you stood in and it produced 80 mph winds. There were also several airplane cockpits that you could climb into and practice flying while watching a big screen (crashing was the best). There was also a car cockpit that you sat in and drove a race track on a big screen. I had to tear the boys (including my husband) out of the room to leave just as the museum was closing.
Next we took a day and drove to the coast for the beach and to visit the Dali Museum. This was unplanned, but since my husband had visited this museum when he was a kid, he thought it would be great to show the kids. We also needed something to do on this day because we were switching hotels to The Swan in preparation for spending our last vacation day at Disney and check-in wasn't until 3 pm. This is a great hotel as you can use points to pay for the room and it is on the Disney property. The Dali Museum was very interesting. They have a scavenger hunt for the kids to find as many melting clocks as they can with a reward in the gift shop at the end (super long pencil). It certainly kept our kids occupied! If you have AAA, you can order the tickets cheaper than at the door, but they will not give you an AAA discount at the door. Still the price for the five of us was not bad - just over $40.
Finally, Disney was awesome! However, I am glad that we chose to only go for one day. We went to the Magic Kingdom. Fortunately, our 4-yr-old (almost 5) daughter was over 40 inches and could ride some great rides. One day was totally enough for us having to escort three kids ages 4, 6, and 8 (exhausting). The cost for one day with five people was almost $400. Wow. I ordered the tickets from Disney and they arrived in the mail before we left. I checked eBay for cheaper tickets as suggested by someone online but could not find any. Someday, perhaps we'll save up and go for several days to multiple parks but this was plenty now.
There are some things that made our day easier. Be sure and hit your local dollar store for Disney toys, ponchos and glow sticks before you go. We had extra glow sticks (packs of 5 are $1) which we passed out to other kids in line while waiting for a ride. That was almost as much fun as the ride. Be sure and carry a backpack (no purse). That way, you and your husband can take turns carrying it (or if you are lucky, hand it to your husband and he carries it all day!). Bring water bottles and sun screen if it is sunny. Food is expensive in the park so bring little snacks for in between meals. Take advantage of the fast pass option. Your tickets will look like credit cards. At some of the rides there are these little machines that you put your ticket card into and it produces a paper ticket and gives you your ticket card back. This new ticket will have a time span on it (like 3-4). Come back between that time span and you can go in a different line that zips you up to the front of the line. So if you do this on a popular ride like Splash Mountain, you can then go to another less demanding ride or to lunch and then return for your ride. It makes it so much easier.
Things I wish I had known - Mickey Mouse Ear Hats cost $12 each. So not worth it but necessary when you have small kids. I'm sure I could have purchased them elsewhere for next to nothing. Oh well, they sure are cute. Also, if you stay until the park closes, be at the exit of the park by the time the fireworks start. It is a mad crush to exit if you wait. You will end up standing in your shuttle back to your hotel with kids falling asleep on the floor. Not so good.
Things I would have liked to do but did not get a chance - Leu Gardens (reciprocal with Cheekwood) and the Orange County Regional History Center (reciprocal with Cheekwood). Next year the OCRH will have film and television costumes on display (including Star Wars). There was also the world's largest McDonalds with an enormous playground which I want to take the kids to next time. As we were leaving I found a brochure at the hotel which had a kids eat free coupon in it for this McDonalds. "Free" and excited, happy kids go well together!
We drove home without stopping because when vacation is over, all you want to do is sleep in your own bed! It takes just under 11 hours to drive from Orlando to Nashville.
So if you are going to Orlando, check your local museums for reciprocal agreements. Even our zoo had reciprocal agreements with a nearby zoo. Museums can be a lot of fun and far less packed with people. They are great (air-conditioned too) for when you get tired of the pool! By the way, my oldest son keeps asking me to buy him a book that would teach him how to draw like Dali. Do you suppose there is such a one?