Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Fantastic Family Trip to Walt Disney World

As a solo traveler, I am not accustomed to planning trips for groups.  When I asked my family to join me in Florida for a trip to Disney World I was thrilled that they would be coming but then the logistics of how to arrange this type of event became somewhat daunting.  Even booking the flights, which for me, is usually seamless, took a lot of careful attention to detail. 
There are many books, blogs and websites that specialize in trips to Disney and can provide some great information to help with your planning, so we took what we needed and customized the trip to suit our specific needs.  There were 7 of us, ages 6 – 61 with all the different interests and preferences of a multi-generational family.  My daughter and her husband did a fantastic job researching and arranging all our activities and events and I think that is the real key to a great trip – good planning!

Day 1  Travel

Southwest Airlines - This is our domestic airline of choice.  They are consistently a pleasure to travel with and provide fantastic service at a low cost.

Alamo Rental Car – The agent at the rental counter was extremely friendly and helpful in providing the perfect vehicle for our trip.

Embassy Suites Tampa Airport Westshore – This was great space for our large family and with adjoining rooms we could still be together.  The hotel staff made us all feel right at home.  It was great location close to the airport, restaurants and shopping.

Besito’s Mexican Restaurant – The food and atmosphere at the restaurant was very good.  Our server gave us a lot of special attention and even brought the children good luck Mexican worry dolls.

Day 2 At the Beach

Clearwater Marine Aquarium – This was an additional excursion as we were in the area and loved the Dolphin Tale films and the wonderful story of Winter and Hope.  This is a very special place and to get to see and interact with so many of the rescue animals was fantastic.

Clearwater Beach – Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill – This was a perfect spot for lunch and an afternoon on the beach.  The kids loved playing in the water and collecting sea shells.

VRBO Rental Orlando– We were very pleased with the house and the location.  It was a beautiful 7-bedroom villa with a large covered patio and pool that the kids loved.

Day 3 Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

This was our first-time visiting WDW so it was the perfect place to begin our incredible journey.  Immediately, we were impressed with how friendly, clean and well organized everything was.  Young and old we were all amazed and filled with wonder in this magical place.

Dinner at Liberty Tree Tavern – We didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived but we loved the incredible food and service we received.  It was a Thanksgiving family style meal – Turkey, potatoes, stuffing, gravy, vegetables, bread, cranberry sauce and the best Pot Roast any of us have ever had, the macaroni and cheese and toffee dessert were especially popular.  My daughter has a gluten allergy and I have never seen anyone cater to her the way they did at WDW.  They made her feel very special and assured her she would have the same meal as the rest of the family only gluten-free.  We found this true at all of the parks and could not have been more pleased.  As a mother, it meant a lot to me that she was treated with such kindness and respect and not like a problem.

Day 4 Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom

This was by far the busiest day and took some serious endurance.  We wanted to get to the park early so we could go to Pandora and ride the Avatar Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey.  To say this is an out of this world experience is such an understatement.  The design and realism was unbelievable.  Even waiting in the queue felt like you were walking on Pandora, every detail was stunning.  It was literally breathtaking and the most intense ride I have ever experienced.  I would actually take a special trip back to Florida just to do that again and would love to see it at night.

Day 5 Walt Disney World EPCOT

After all of the intense, adrenaline-filled excitement from the day before, this was a calmer, more peaceful day.  It might have been a little anti-climactic for the kids but as tired as we all were I think it was perfect.  We had a wonderful time just meandering through all the different countries and enjoying the lower key more educational rides and activities. 

Here are some of the things that we discovered that helped make this a great experience for our entire family.

Air Travel – If you are booking for a group you should contact the airlines.  There are different requirements for groups traveling on the same or independent itineraries.  Also, you may qualify for some discounts that are not posted on their websites. 

We found less expensive airfare by flying into Tampa instead of Orlando.  It is always a good idea to check alternate airports for your flights, just confirm your location and check distances before you book. 

Extra Activities – Check out other things to do in the area.  We loved going to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the beach before heading to Disney World.

Where to Stay -  Choose accommodations close to where your main activities will be, it gives you more time to enjoy your vacation.  We loved coming home to relax in a private pool after a long day out.

What to take – We found it easier to purchase additional supplies when we arrived so we didn’t have to bring it all on the plane (sunscreen, beach towels, snacks, drinks, etc.).  Also, it was less expensive than buying them at the destination. 

Every person had one backpack with the following - Collapsible water bottle, frozen bottle of water, cooling neck-tie, disposable rain poncho, sunhat, sunglasses, sunscreen, flip-flops, assorted non-perishable snacks.  You can take food and water into all of the Disney parks and there are many places to refill water and get additional food.  It kept us fueled and hydrated while walking around and held us over until our main meals. 

Driving/Parking – One of the biggest issues we heard about before going to Disney was the parking and how difficult it could be.  After considering all our options, we decided to drive and park ourselves in the standard lots.  We went early, before the park opened, took the transportation provided at the park.  It was a very quick and easy and worked out perfectly for our group.

What we learned – We are very happy that we were so well prepared with our supplies.  It is easy to underestimate how much food and water you need for long days in the heat and humidity.  Having protection from the sun and rain was also essential, it helped keep us much more comfortable.  The walking and standing is intense - we wore tennis shoes but it was nice to have sandals and flip-flops to give our feet a rest later in the day.

Planning your day at the parks is critical (booking fast passes in advance, going to the busiest attractions first, when and where you’ll take breaks etc.).  Also, we wore matching shirts on the first day and it made it very easy to see each other and keep our group together.  We realized on day 2 how well that had worked and would do it every day for any future trips.  Planning is great but you also need to stay flexible and adapt to changes that inevitably come up when you travel.  The only thing we might do differently would be to build in a little more down time but on a short time frame we wanted to do and see as much as possible.

This was such an incredible journey for all of us and now we are looking forward to our next fantastic family adventure to Disneyland Paris!

Have you been to any of the Disney Parks?  What are your best tips and advice for families traveling together?  We’d love to hear your comments and stories about your family adventures!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Grandmother's View of the Magic Kingdom

When I began planning for our trip to Walt Disney World, it seemed like it would be a fun family vacation.  What I didn't expect was what a wonderful and magical experience it would be.

With 7 of us ranging in age from 6 to 61 I was a little unsure of how this was going to work out.  We had never spent that amount of time together, not to mention walking endlessly in the scorching Florida heat.  I am still impressed by how well we all did, no serious issues of any sort and considering the conditions, that is amazing.

To watch my grandchildren as they experienced this for the first time was incredible.  It took me back to my past and showed me a glimpse of the beautiful future I have with my precious family.

It was truly the trip of a lifetime!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ready - Set - Go

So, you’ve just booked your fantastic holiday or family vacation, now what?  Getting ready to leave is much more complicated than just packing.  There are so many arrangements that need to be made before leaving home.  It doesn’t matter if it is for a few days or a few weeks, there are some things you need to remember to do.

Years ago, I would wait until the last minute to begin planning for an upcoming trip.  It caused so much stress, I couldn’t really enjoy the experience and ended up exhausted before I ever left.  I already had a great packing list that helped me remember what I wanted to take on the trip so I began to add other things I needed to do before I left.  Now, I don’t worry if I’ve forgotten something because it’s all on the list so I can just relax and enjoy getting ready for my new adventure.

Personal:  I like to have my haircut and nails done before I leave on my trip so I book that and any other personal appointments a couple of weeks before my departure. 

Documentation and Communication:  I make a copy of my essential information (passport, itinerary, credit cards) and email to myself as well as to an emergency contact.  That way someone always knows where I am and can help me if my documents get lost or stolen.

I contact my phone service provider and check what coverage I will have at my destination.  I always switch my phone to manual updates while I’m traveling to save on data charges.  Also, if I am going to an expensive coverage area I will put my phone on airplane mode and just check when I’m in a free Wi-Fi area.  I also notify my bank and credit card company of my travel plans so my cards stay active while I’m away. 

Shopping:  I make a list of any special clothing items and travel supplies that I might need (bathing suit, sunscreen, toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, medications, clear plastic bags for airport screening, etc.), snacks and some type of frozen or non-perishable food to eat when I return home so I don’t have to shop right away.

Household:  Stop mail, newspaper or any other home deliveries and set light timers.  You can also have a friend come in to water plants, take any flyers off your door and open and close blinds occasionally. 

I always keep a few ice cubes in a plastic dish or baggie in my freezer, that way if the power should go out for any length of time you’ll know if the food you have frozen will be safe to eat after you return.

Just before I leave the house I turn off all the water, set my thermostat to an appropriate temperature (warm during winter, cool during summer), unplug all small appliances (coffee maker, toaster etc.), clean the refrigerator and take out the trash.

 International:  If my trip will be out of the country I add some additional items to my list.  I verify that my passport is valid for at least 6 months past the end of my trip, check any visa or immunization requirements and purchase an electrical adapter for the country I’ll be visiting.  I take paper copies of any maps/guide/translation information that I need as phones don’t always work in all areas.  I also double check that my credit/debit cards will be accepted and purchase a small amount of the local currency before I go. 

I used to arrange my lists by the type of trip I was taking but I realized that it is much simpler if I stick to one basic list and just modify it for whatever clothes or special items that I need.  I also purchase duplicate travel supplies and keep them separate from those that I use at home so I’m not stuck if I happen to forget my hairbrush or toothbrush after getting ready the morning that I leave.

It doesn’t matter if I’m traveling by car, train or plane for a weekend getaway or an extended trip, I use the same list and just modify it for whatever I need.  I love knowing that I can easily plan my trips and don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time I want to go away. 

What are some other things that you do before leaving on a trip?  Do you use a travel or packing list to help you prepare?  Do you enjoy planning for your time away?  Share your experiences and join the conversation!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Why a Solo Cruise Can Be a Wonderful Lifetime Experience

My first solo cruise was such a great experience, much easier and more fun than I ever expected. It was a small ship (700 passengers) and not entirely full so it was a good way for me to try cruising. Also, I met so many wonderful people – couples and singles – who were happy to talk about their experiences and give me good information on what to consider if I wanted to continue cruising.

Planning My Next Solo Cruise Adventure

I started checking cruises leaving from Florida in the next few weeks hoping to find one that would offer last minute discounts or waive the single supplement for someone traveling solo. I wanted to see more of the Caribbean so I focused on those trips.
There were lots of options but most were already sold out or not really areas I wanted to travel to – at least not yet. I did find one that sounded very interesting, 10 days, four islands and some great activities on and off the ship, but it was completely full and set to leave in a week.

On a whim, I contacted a travel agent to inquire about any last-minute cancellations. I didn’t really expect anything to come of it and thought that would be a good trip to take some time in the future.

Learning to Be Spontaneous

It was the last day the ship could make passenger changes and there was one cancellation. The agent asked if I was still interested and if so, we had to book it immediately and I would need to be at the port in three days.

I was thrilled and very nervous all at the same time. A million questions raced through my mind – do I really want to do this, what will I pack, how quickly can I take care of everything before I go? All I could say was yes, absolutely. I wanted to try this and now it was happening.

Usually, when you are planning a cruise you pick what cabin you want, what deck, if you want interior or ocean-view, what meal and or drink package, etc. Since I was purchasing the cancelled trip, there were no options: I would either take what was available or not go. I hadn’t done anything this spontaneous in a long time so I jumped at the chance.

Suddenly Reality Set In

After committing so quickly I began to have second thoughts. This was a massive ship with 3,000 passengers and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be comfortable with the size and being with that many people. Unlike my first cruise that was very casual, this was your standard shopping, casino, shows, specialty restaurants and dining dress codes type of cruise. Something I have never experienced before and I needed to be ready in a couple of days.

It took me a minute to calm my fears but once I realized that even if I didn’t do anything but walk around the ship, take some shore excursions and read in my cabin I would probably have a good time. I love seeing new places and really appreciate having food and entertainment available, so I quickly focused on the positive aspects of taking this very last minute adventure.

My Feeling of Panic When I Arrived at the Cruise Terminal

The cruise terminal looked chaotic, with people swarming everywhere and luggage as far as the eye could see. I took a deep breath and dove in. I worked my way close to the nearest baggage handler and quickly realized that this was going to be just fine. Everyone was so helpful. Even though I didn’t have any documentation because of booking so late, they directed me easily to where I needed to go.

Even check-in was a breeze. They had my name on the passenger list and directed me to the desk and then the waiting area. I was very surprised and relieved that they were so organized and took such good care of all of us. The process didn’t take much longer than it had on the small ship and that was amazing with that many people.

On Board I Got a Pleasant Surprise

My cabin was beautiful with a lovely private balcony and a gorgeous port-side view. Now, I was getting excited. I remembered other travelers telling me to pack a carry-on bag with a change of clothes and swimsuit so I would have what I needed with me until my bag was delivered to my stateroom. This was fantastic advice and allowed me to begin enjoying my trip immediately.

The ship was beautiful and so well laid out, I never felt crowded or claustrophobic. As I explored all the different areas I thought it was very interesting but I wasn’t sure how much of it I would take advantage of. Everyone seems to have their own plan for how to spend their time – some like to gamble, others shop or lay out at the pool. There are so many options you can do as much or as little as you want.

This Solo Cruise Was Just My Style

We weren’t even past the first day and I was already having a great time. Everyone was so friendly and happy to be there. It was fantastic. I enjoyed visiting the different ports but what I really love is just being on the water. It is so easy having everything right there; it was like a sailing resort with all the amenities and service you could possibly ask for.

As a solo traveler, I am careful about where I go and what I do when I’m away from home. That still applies on a cruise but what I discovered is that I felt more freedom to explore things I might not normally do alone. Like gambling or attending a nightclub. It was great knowing that I could go anywhere I wanted and at any point I could simply go back to my lovely room.
Now that I have had two very different but equally wonderful experiences, I can’t wait to try more!

Have you ever been on a cruise? Do you like to travel alone or with groups? Do you prefer large ships with lots of ports of call or smaller ships and more time on the water? Join the conversation and share your stories!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Ireland 2017

Have you always wanted to go to Ireland or perhaps you've already been and want to return?  If you are a woman, maybe you are not sure about traveling alone or have a companion that doesn't like to travel.  Either way, Ireland is a place you should explore!

You will be amazed by the exceptional beauty of the country but what will truly take your breath away is the warmth and sincerity of the Irish people.  To say they are friendly is a tremendous understatement.  On my very first visit there I was so surprised and delighted by what I found that I had to return over and over again.

As a woman traveling solo for over 30 years, I found it to be one of the safest and most enjoyable places I've ever been. 

Here are some of my favorites: Dublin, Glendalough, Killarney, Dingle, Co. Clare, Wild Atlantic Way, Cliffs of Moher, The Burren, Connemara, Galway, Music and Food Festivals, and visiting some fantastic film locations (Quiet Man, P.S. I Love You, Ryan's Daughter, Brooklyn)

It's the place that I tell everyone that they should see at least once in their lifetime.  I'm a regular visitor so maybe I'll see you there!

SlĂ inte

Friday, March 17, 2017

What I Didn't Know About Ireland

As an Irish American, I grew up thinking that I knew certain things to be true about Ireland.   Of course, I had always heard how beautiful it was and how friendly the people were but I was surprised to discover that there are so many things that as Americans we don't really know about Ireland.

Here are just some of the things that surprised and delighted me during my travels to the lovely green isle.

Top o' the Mornin - I've never heard an Irish person say this in over 12 years of traveling there.

Corned Beef and Cabbage is not the national dish.

The most common or traditional meal I found all through the country is boiled back bacon (pork), potatoes, cabbage and a lovely parsley cream sauce, it's just like the country boiled dinner my grandmother made when I was growing up.  I found out that the corned beef and cabbage tradition was developed in America due to the cost of food and immigrants living in the same communities with some who did not eat pork. 

Irish Bacon is not the same as Canadian Bacon - it a gorgeous slice of pork loin that I adore!

St. Patrick's Day began as a religious holiday to honor their patron Saint.
Until 1970 pubs were required by law to close for the day.  Irish immigrants in America began celebrating in remembrance of their homeland and it has evolved into the green madness we know today. 

The Republic of Ireland (South) and Northern Ireland (UK) are different countries. 

Pubs in Ireland are truly Public Houses - a place to meet, gather and conduct business.  You are as likely to find a hardware store or linen shop in the same establishment.  Yes, there are many that have become more of a bar but you'll still find many true pubs throughout the country.

To say that the Irish are heavy drinkers, is not a fair reflection of the culture.  Drinking is much more of a social activity and many prefer soft drinks over alcohol when they are out.  My favorite was black currant juice mixed with water, very refreshing.

Having said that, there is a very healthy respect for the black stuff.  Many times I saw Guinness mini vans driving through the country to inspect and service the tiny pubs in the towns and villages.  As a woman you are more likely to be offered a glass instead of a pint when you order a beer, just tell them you want a pint and you'll get a smile and a wink.

We've all heard of Irish Wakes but I was very moved to hear the story about families having American Wakes for their loved ones who were emigrating to the US - they knew they would probably never see them again. 

Christianity/Paganism/Spirituality - As I trekked up the Hill of Tara I was excited to see the shrine to St. Patrick.  I was very surprised that all of their history and traditions were honored there.  That is something I found so fascinating that wherever you go there is great respect and reverence for what was.  Just because they accepted Christianity doesn't mean that they disregard their pagan past.  You'll see monuments and sacred symbols all over the country.

That is something very unique in Ireland - they don't remove something just because it is old or seems out of date.  A lovely caretaker I met at the Kylemore Abbey gardens explained to me that anything that thrives there stays there. 

Taxi drivers are more like professional tour operators - they will give you great information about the local area.  It will also be the most interesting conversation you will ever have.  The Irish are very well informed about news and world events and love to chat with travelers about all of it.

How lovely and social they are is not a myth - if they ask you about yourself, this isn't simply being polite - they really want to know.  I was told early on, when you go out to allow extra time to chat with the people you meet and it was a true pleasure.

The Irish have an incredible, irrepressible, independent spirit that is perfectly displayed on the Painted Doors of Dublin and at the same time have deep love and loyalty to their country, like singing the national anthem at the end of a night of drinking and dancing.  Try that at an American bar on a Saturday night.

They are the warmest and kindest people I have ever met and the countryside is absolutely stunning.  If you've been there then you know what I'm talking about.  If you haven't, then you must see it for yourself to understand the true beauty of this very special place.

To say I was charmed by Ireland would be a tremendous understatement.  It's not only the home of my ancestors but has become the homeplace of my heart. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Sailing Solo: What I Learned from My First Cruise Alone

I had always wanted to take a cruise.

Everyone I know who’s ever gone has loved it and had wonderful stories to share. It seemed like an easy and fun way to go to many different destinations and travel with others closer to my own age. I received some great advice from people about how to pick the cruise that was right for me.

First, you need to decide where you want to go and what type of activities or events are important to you. The variety of ships and types of trips is endless. Everything from peaceful, meandering river cruises to the massive, floating cities – the options are plentiful.

Choosing the Right Cruise

For my first time, I knew I wanted something a little more low-key. Perhaps a smaller ship and more casual than the average cruise. I also like to have a little private outdoor space so I knew I would want a balcony. I didn’t need any of the popular entertainment like gambling or the big Las Vegas style shows so I started looking at other types of trips.

It’s like trying to decide between going camping or visiting New York City; choose what appeals to you.

A friend recommended a travel website so that I could start to compare all the different types of cruises available. She had just recently been on one that went to the Dominican Republic and did some volunteer work with the community there. It sounded like something I would really enjoy so I checked into it and booked the trip. It was also very affordable with a low single supplement so that helped keep the cost down.

Embracing a New Experience

As much as I travel it’s not often that I have a totally new experience. I always love visiting new places and meeting new people but the process of booking accommodation and transportation is something I am quite familiar with. Planning for a cruise was all so different for me and really took me outside of my comfort zone; it was long overdue.

I felt like a young novice traveling for the first time and it was so exciting!

I didn’t know what to pack, how to check-in, how to get on and off the boat, whether I would get seasick or if I would like cruising or hate it. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about so many aspects of cruising but I had no idea how it would be for me.

What I discovered is that the same basic travel principles apply no matter where you go. There will always be others who have never done this before and many experienced people there to help guide you. That was apparent as soon as I arrived at the cruise terminal and this immediately put me at ease.

Enjoying a Fantastic Adventure

There are some real benefits that most cruisers will tell you about – you don’t have to pack and unpack for each location, you have the advantage of seeing remote places but still eating and sleeping in your own cabin on the ship. There are so many options for food and activities I can’t imagine ever feeling bored. I liked the freedom and flexibility I had to do as much or as little as I wanted and it was a perfect balance for me.

My favorite experience was meeting the amazing people on the ship and on shore. They were so warm and friendly and happy to share information with me, especially when they found out it was my first cruise.

It may not seem like a big risk to go on a cruise, but for me this was a great opportunity to do something I had never done before. To feel so young and inexperienced was refreshing and rejuvenated my love of travel.

If you think you might like to try cruising, I recommend talking to someone who has a similar travel style to your own and asking them for their advice on what type of cruise you might like. Do your research and don’t worry, it’s one of the easiest trips I’ve ever taken and I will absolutely go again!

Wishing you safe and happy travels!

Have you ever been on a cruise? Do you prefer to travel alone or with others? What questions do you have about first-time cruising? Share your stories and join the conversation.