March 23, 2017

My Favorite Disney Off-Day Ideas

If you’re spending more than one day at a park at Walt Disney World, you’re going to need an off-day.

For me, a Disney off-day needs to be not-at-all related to Disney, so I wasn’t interested in the nearby putt-putt offerings, the Disney water parks, or Disney Springs. When I need a Disney break, I need to completely get out of the Magic Zone.

Read on for my favorite Disney World off-day ideas.

These are easy day trips from Orlando, some require more driving than others. You’ll need a car to get to them (and bring money for tolls).

Disney World Off-Day Ideas

Disney Off-Day Beaches

Get an early start to your day and drive to the coast from Orlando to hit a beach. On the Tampa Bay side, we visited Fort Desoto, Treasure Island, and Clearwater Beach. My favorite, by far, was Fort Desoto. The waves were gentle, the sand was powder sugar soft. It was less touristy with no hotels on the waterfront, but that also meant less dining options. Shell hunting was a lot of fun here. We rented two chairs and an umbrella for $16. Well worth it.

Distance: 100 miles

 

Treasure Island and Clearwater Beach are in more populated areas, which is good and bad depending on whether or not you like touristy beach areas. Clearwater Beach is a great choice, and it’s home to a restaurant we really liked, Frenchy’s.

Distance: 90 miles

 

Treasure Island had bigger waves, which is a plus for some, but the sand consisted of crushed shells and it hurt to walk on.

Distance: 95 miles

 

On the east coast of Florida, you can visit Cocoa Beach. This was a family favorite. The waves were big, but not too big, for small children, making boogie boarding a fun activity.

Distance: About 65 miles

 

Disney Off-Day Adenture

Head to North Orlando for two very memorable activities with the kids.

Kids as young as 4 can do the ZOOmAir Treetrop Adventure Park low-to-the-ground zip line course at Central Florida Zoo in Sanford. Adults can do a more challenging one. Plan on at least an hour.

While you’re there, you might as well visit the zoo! There is a fun splash garden there, so pack a swimsuit. For more details, read my posts about the Central Florida Zoo and ZoomAir Adventure Park ziplining.

Distance: 40 miles

 

A word of advice before you set out on an adventure in Florida: Bring a swimsuit. Marisa from Adventures of Tampa Mama told me that useful tip before our first Florida visit. She wasn’t kidding. It seems you can’t go to any attraction in the state without encountering a splash garden.

 

Wekiva Island is a exotic gem in the middle of a city. We canoed with the kids, stopping at Wekiva Springs State Park, which has a water hole where a lot of people were swimming.

We were short on time, and so we skipped the swim and hiked a little. Keep in mind, this is Florida and you’ll spot native wildlife there. Keep a respectable distance from animals and you’ll be fine.

I recommend packing snacks and water. It gets hot and if you’re not used to paddling, you’ll get tired. You also have the option of kayaking or trying standup paddleboards. For more details, read my post about about Wekiva Island.

Distance: 35 miles

 

There are so many airboat opportunities within about an hour or so from Walt Disney World. We visited Black Hammock Adventure, where we got to ride an airboat at dusk.

It was also a place where the kids got to hold a baby alligator and, rather morbidly if you think about it, taste fried alligator. (It was delicious)

Distance: 35 miles

 

Disney Off-Day Animals & More

Some of our favorite places to visit in central Florida had mostly indoor activities. Head to MOSI, the Museum of Science & Industry, for hands-on learning for all ages. There’s even an outdoor ropes course. Read about our visit to MOSI here.

Distance: 65 miles

 

Florida Aquarium in Tampa is popular with kids for good reason. The sting ray touch tank was memorable. Bring a bring swimsuit for the kids because the splash garden is amazing there. Read my post about the aquarium for more details.

Distance: 70 miles

 

In Clearwater, young Winter the dolphin fans will want to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It’s a different kind of aquarium than the Florida Aquarium – think: marine hospital.

Distance: 90 miles

 

Get even more ideas by reading My Adventure In Central Florida and Two Days in Tampa Bay With Kids.

 

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March 15, 2017

My Wichita Bucket List

I’m taking the family to Wichita this spring, and as usual, I have a big ol’ list of things to do, places to see, and food to eat. Here’s my Wichita bucket list, if time and money were not an issue:

 

See the Keeper of the Plains

The Keeper of the Plains lit up at night in Wichita, Kansas. Photo by Merrill Thomas

There’s a giant statue along the Big and Little Arkansas rivers called Keeper of the Plains. Each night, you can watch flames spring up from fire drums around the statue, illuminating the surroundings. It sounds pretty cool, especially for my kids. Catch it at 7 p.m. in the winter and 9 p.m. in the summer.

Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper

I still haven’t the chuckwagon dinner I’ve been dreaming about ever since planning our South Dakota road trip two years ago. Maybe Wichita is the place? Just 20 minutes outside of town, there’s Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper, a dinner show with classic cowboy tunes and a chance to ride a wagon.

Tanganyika Wildlife Park

You can feed animals like lemurs or giraffe at Tanganyika Wildlife Park near Wichita. Photo courtesy Visit Wichita

Several friends familiar with Wichita have recommended we take the kids to Tanganyika Wildlife Park. It’s about 10 minutes from downtown. At the park, visitors can get up-close to the 300+ residents, even feeding some like giraffes and lemurs.

Botanica, the Wichita Gardens

The Fossil Wall at Botanica, The Wichita Gardens. Photo courtesy Visit Wichita

There are 26 themed gardens here. We’d definitely have to check out Downing Children’s Garden and the butterfly house, as well as the Fossil Wall.

Dart Warz

You’ve heard of laser tag and paintball? Now there’s Nerf battlefields and I just know my kids are going to love this place.

Eat all the food

I heard breakfast at Doo-Dah Diner is the stuff of legends. Photo courtesy Visit Wichita

I have so many restaurants I want to try – how will I decide? Do we get breakfast at Doo Dah Diner (I heard they had some habit-forming french toast there)? Or do we get donuts at Donut Whole or Hurts Donuts for a crazy creations? I’m thinking of getting malts with lunch at the old-fashioned soda fountain in downtown Wichita, Old Mill Tasty Shop.

My foodie friends in Wichita sent me a whole list of places to go to, including burgers at The Anchor, Dempsey’s or Ty’s; pizza at Ziggy’s; Mediterranean food at N&J; Songbird Juice Co.; and Two Olives. The Oh My! Omaha Facebook group also had some good recommendations, and I’m pretty sure The Kitchen will be on our itinerary for the spring trip.

You can watch planes take off and land while dining at Stearman Field Bar & Grill. Photo courtesy Visit Wichita

There’s also Stearman Field Bar & Grill, a restaurant located right on a landing strip where you can watch aircraft take off and land 20 yards from you.

Wichita Art Museum

Wichita Art Museum has free admission on Saturdays, plus they have a kid-friendly space called The Living Room. Photo courtesy Wichita Art Museum

The Wichita Art Museum has a space called The Living Room, which is an interactive gallery for art investigation and make-it/take-it art activities. My kids would totally love it. Plus, if we visit on a Saturday, admission is free.

The Exploration Place

We could likely spend an entire day here, exploring flight, nanoscience, and what will likely be my castle-obsessed son’s favorite space, Where Kids Rule with its three-story castle.

Old Cowtown Museum

Old Cowntown has costumed interpreters that portray life in Kansas back in the 1860s, including what a shootout would’ve been like. Photo courtesy Visit Wichita

I think my kids would love seeing the cowboys and other costumed interpreters walking around this open-air museum – they tell visitors about Wichita life in the 1860s. Hope we time the visit right to catch a shootout on Main Street.

Museum of World Treasures

This three-floor museum sounds like a hodgepodge collection dreamed up by my children. It has everything from dinosaur skeletons, a segment of the Berlin Wall, and a mummy.

Old Town Wichita

Old Town Wichita is a charming part of Wichita with converted warehouses and brick roads. Photo courtesy Visit Wichita

Saturday mornings sound like a good time to visit, during the lively farmers market. It sounds very much like Omaha’s Old Market with its brick roads and converted warehouses, so I’ll be right at home.

Wichita Toy Train Club and Museum

In my kids’ younger days, this would be the place for us to spend our entire vacation. It still sounds like a family-friendly stop we’d enjoy. They even have a trains for kids to operate.

Sedgwick County Zoo

Sedgwick County Zoo is known for recreating authentic habitats. Photo courtesy Visit Wichita

I heard the animals live in authentic habitats, like Downing Gorilla Forest, which emulates a Congo village. The Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit opened in 2016 and has the world’s largest elephant pool (550,000 gallons of water)!

More Wichita Vacation Ideas

Want to see more ideas for family travel to Wichita? Check out Visit Wichita and my Pinterest board:

Share your ideas: What are other not-to-miss things to do in Wichita that my family should check out? Leave a comment!

 

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February 16, 2017

My Isla Mujeres Bucket List

I’ve been told some stories about Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

That’s it’s so small, visitors and locals use golf carts to get around.

That if you time your visit right, you can swim with whale sharks.

That you mostly spend your vacation days sitting on a beach.

Isla Mujeres sounds pretty idyllic. I’m headed there soon, so I made a big wish list of what I’d like to do if time and money weren’t an issue. Truthfully, I will just be sitting, reading, and sleeping most of my vacation. But, if I do get up and find myself a golf cart, here are some other things I’d go do:

Swim With Whale Sharks

Statue of a whale shark on Isla Mujeres (which is probably how close I’ll get to seeing a real one since I’m not going during the season you’d find them in Mexico). Photo by Kirt Edblom on Flickr.

This is on the bucket list, but I know full well I won’t be doing it. Wrong time of the year. If you want to swim with these gentle giants, you need to visit between June and September.

Chill at Playa Norte

Isla Mujeres is about 5 miles long, so it’s entirely possible that I will be at Playa Norte daily without much of a hassle. It’s the most popular beach on the island.

Explore By Golf Cart

You’ve got to love a vacation destination that’s small enough to explore that all you need is a golf cart. Photo by Shinya Suzuki on Flickr.

While we plan on getting around the island by bikes most of the time, it sounds so fun to rent a golf cart and zoom around the island.

Eat. A lot.

It’s a small island but it is loaded with good restaurants. A lot specialize in fresh seafood because, come on, it’s an island. Among the ones that rank high on travel lists and get featured on blogs a lot are Ballyhoo Restaurant & Margaritas, Mango Cafe and Lolo Lorena. Lolo Lorena sounds like an especially unique dining experience. I also have Bastos Grill, Greenverde, Ruben’s and La Lomita on my list.

Try Mexican Specialties

While on the topic of eating…Yucantan has some noted foods that I want to try, including a citrus roasted pulled pork specialty that originated there called Cochinita pibil. I read about it here, a post about Mexican food I’ve never heard of before, including fruits like nance fruit and guaya fruit (which sounds trick to eat), and cheese-stuffed street food called marquesitas.

Underwater Museum

The surreal-looking sculptures that create a reef in an underwater museum in Mexico called Museo Subacuatico de Arte. Photo by Andy Blackledge on Flickr.

There’s a surreal-looking sculpture garden off the island is not only beautiful to see while snorkeling or diving, it’s also functional by contributing to the reef structure and growth of coral. I’d love to see the Museo Subacuatico de Arte, plus learn how it helps keep the environment healthy for marine life. More information here.

Shop The Women’s Beading Cooperative

This place looks like a nice place to purchase homemade gifts to bring home.

Visit A Turtle Farm

The island has a sanctuary for sea turtles called NAME. Here, they have a hatchery and regularly release the hatchlings to sea.

Zip Line Over Water

You can zip line over the ocean on Isla Mujeres. Photo by Grisha Levit on Flickr.

How often do you get to zipline over an ocean? Garrafon Natural Reef Park offers that experience on Isla Mujeres.

Find The Recycled Bottle Island

There is a man-made island found on Isla Mujeres that’s kept afloat by recycled plastic bottles (it’s called Joyxee Island or Joyxee Island II). A quick tour can be arranged. Sounds like the sort of oddity I need to see while on vacation. Here’s the Trip Advisor page on it.

See Mayan Ruins

You can find incredible ruins in Mexico, and for the best preserved, I know we need to go to the mainland. Isla Mujeres does have some remains of ruins, though. Being on the east side of the island, they’re said to be important in that they’re the first to have the sun hit them each day.

Sea Kayak

Our little hotel has some kayaks available for guests to use, so why not try sea kayaking? Since this is a bucket list post, I’d like to imagine we’d have a guide who’d take us to gorgeous locals. The likely scenario, though, will be that Mr. Wonderful and I will strike out on our own and we’ll get tired 5 minutes into it.

Find A Cenote

Mexico is known for cenotes, underground, water-filled caves. There aren’t any on the island, so if I were to swim in one, I’d have to go inland. There are a few on the Yucatan, so who knows? Someday I’ll find one.

What should I add to my Isla Mujeres bucket list?

 

February 6, 2017

4 Tips For Large Group Dining At Disney World

Traveling to Walt Disney World with a large group can be a wonderful thing, and wonderfully frustrating thing.

When it comes to a large group dining at Disney, it pays to plan ahead (especially if you go over the holidays).

Large group dining at Disney World is possible, but not always easy.

Here are some tips to make sure your large group can enjoy a meal together:

1. Plan ahead

If at least one member of your party is staying on Disney property, he or she can make a reservation at 180 days in advance. Read blog post by WDW Prep School has a great list of restaurants at the Disney World that can accommodate large groups (and includes max size of groups). It helped me plan our trip!

2. Speak with a person to book it

My Disney Experience app does allow booking a fairly good-sized group – I’ve been able to book for 10 people. If you don’t have the app, get that on your phone pronto.

I’ll wait.

Got it? 

When we tried to get a table for 36, we had to speak with a person.We used the app to book three separate, staggered reservations at Maya Grill at the Coronado Springs Resort. When we arrived early, we asked the restaurant staff to seat all of us together. They could accommodate us since we were the first reservations at the restaurant.

If you’re planning ahead of time, though, it’s even better to call to set it up (407-939-5277). Keep in mind that our reservation was right when the restaurant open – any later and it wouldn’t have helped.

Note: I would not recommend Maya Grill for large groups.

3. Be ready to reserve a meal at an odd time

Even when planning 180 days in advance, some of our reservations had to be made for atypical dining times. For a party of 16, we got a reservation at Be Our Guest at the Magic Kingdom, we had a reservation time for 11:30 a.m., but for the Akerhus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot at Epcot, our lunch for 11 people was at 2:30 p.m.

4. Group size could change the experience

We had a large party reservation for 16 people at 50s Primetime Café at Hollywood Studios. I’d heard great things about the experience there. There’s a lot of humorous interaction with the waiters. But, it was lost when our waitress tried to get the orders of 16 people.

Granted, part of the problem was that two of the families in our group didn’t speak English as a first language, and maybe the sass was lost of them.

Recommended restaurants

Disney Restaurants for Groups

Here are three restaurants where I had a good experience dining with a large group. Keep in mind, we were traveling with younger children, which may or may not be a detail that you are also taking into account.

– The Quick Service restaurant Be Our Guest at lunchtime was efficient and spacious enough for us to find tables next to each other, even for a group of 16. On the Disney dining plan, it is one Quick Service Credit per person. Reservations are a must.

– The Storybook Dining lunch at Akerhaus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot was wonderful for meeting princesses. If you’re on the dining plan, it is one Table Service dining credit. Our group of 11 was seated together. The food was great.

Chef Mickey’s at the Disney’s Contemporary Resort accommodated a group of seven together. It is a buffet and rather hectic, but it’s another great character meal. We were there for breakfast. If you’re on the dining plan, it is one Table Service dining credit.

– I would not recommend Maya Grill at Coronado Springs Resort for a large group. Our entire party, 36 of us, had a dinner there and it was a three-hour comedy of errors. On the positive side, we were able to make a reservation there just the day before and we were seated all together.

What are your favorite Disney restaurants? Would you recommend them for groups?

February 1, 2017

5 Star Wars Experiences At Disney World

I braved Disney World during the holidays in 2016, and survived to tell you all about it. What I didn’t mention in that post was that I was traveling with two young Star Wars fans, so our first day in Orlando, we went to Hollywood Studios to take in all Star Wars Disney experiences we could handle excitement.

Here are the five Star Wars Disney experiences that were the biggest hits with my young kids.

Jedi Training

My 5-year-old daughter got to take on Darth Vader at Hollywood Studios during Jedi Training.

A rare freebie at Disney World, your kids have the chance to take the stage and battle the likes of Darth Vader. Training is held several times each day. However, this is extremely popular. You must arrive to the park before it opens and then zip over to the Indiana Jones area to get in line to sign up. Bonus: Since we missed prime ride time, a cast member kindly gave us some Fast Pass+ tickets good for up to five people for one ride.

Jedi Training involves a march to the stage, where costumed cast members teach them some basic moves with light sabers. Then, the kids take turns battling Darth Vader or another baddie. There’s a bit of theatrics to watch, and it’s all pretty entertaining. Disney has photographers there to capture the entire experience.

My son was really into learning the moves of a Jedi.

This is kinda intense for some youngsters, so know your kid’s comfort level. They are on stage without you and Darth is an imposing figure. If your kid is uncomfortable spending a lot of time away from you, this might not be a pleasant experience. Also, take into account your kid’s natural energy level. I signed mine up for training right in the middle of their usual nap time. We were on the verge of a meltdown the entire experience.

 

Character Interactions

Meeting Chewbacca was a highlight of character meet and greets.

Head to Star Wars Launch Bay to meet Chewbacca, Kylo Ren and a Jawa.

Tip: Plan ahead and have something to trade with a Jawa.

Heads up, though, Kylo Ren is an intense character. My usually afraid-of-nothing daughter was totally scared of him. It didn’t help that he zeroed in on her and said he’d been waiting for her. Chewie, on the other hand, was fun and huggable.

You will likely see Storm Troopers throughout the park. Occasionally they interact with you. They interrogated my teen niece.

Side notes about the Launch Bay: When you arrive, you have the option of going straight to the characters or watching a short documentary first. Skip it if you’re with small children. There are displays of movie memorabilia at the Launch Bay, and fans are going to want to take the time to check it all out. There are also some video games to play there.

My friend Cat and her boys looking at light sabers at Star Wars Launch Bay.

 

 

Star Wars: The Adventure Continues

There is a lot to look at if you wait in line for the Star Wars: The Adventure Continues Ride. That line is going to be long, though, without a Fast Pass+ time.

One of the kids’ favorite rides of all the parks was Star Wars: The Adventure Continues. You’ll want to get Fast Pass+ times because this will be a long wait otherwise.

The “ride” is actually a 3-D simulation of flying or being chased through space. There are dozens of variations so each ride will be different. There is a height restriction as the simulation can be intense for itty bitty ones.

 

Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away

The ending of Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away is memorable.

This short, live theatrical show is held several times a day. It involves some favorite characters re-enacting scenes from the franchise. Stick around for the end. They light off a couple fireworks.

There’s also a nighttime show called Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. We didn’t catch it on our trip, but no doubt it has show-stopper moments.

 

Star Wars Penny Press

All the Disney World theme parks have penny presses. My kids had sorted their coins before the trip (I was inspired by this post).

Star Wars penny presses can be found at the Star Wars Launch Bay. Penny presses, costing two quarters and the penny you press, are a lot cheaper than most souvenirs, don’t you think?

But just try getting your kid out of the stores at Hollywood Studios without a new stuffed Ewok or light saber (they can even build their own). The Force was strong with my kids and they got their bonus souvenirs.

 

What are some of your favorite Star Wars experiences at Disney?

January 19, 2017

10 Places You Must See In Nebraska

Celebrate Nebraska’s 150th birthday in 2017 by exploring the state. I’ve been lucky to explore our state with my kids, though there are still some Nebraska attractions on my bucket list left like Chimney Rock and Lake McConaughy.

Want to get out there and explore Nebraska? Here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):

Nebraska attractions

10 Nebraska attractions you must see

1. Fort Robinson State Park (Harrison, Neb.)

Checking out the view from the stagecoach at Fort Robinson.

Western Nebraska’s biggest attraction is one of my favorites, Fort Robinson. A few family favorite adventures were the off-road jeep ride, the carriage ride, and since both kids were so little, the guided horse rides.

2. Holland Performing Arts Center (Omaha)

The concert hall inside the Holland Performing Arts Center. Photo courtesy Nick Allen on Flikr

The best venue, hands down, in all of Nebraska to hear a concert is the main concert hall inside the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. It’s a beautiful building and the sound is incredible. If your favorite performer ever plays there, you must go.

3. Fort Atkinson (Fort Calhoun, Neb.)

Don’t miss the blacksmith during the re-enactment weekends at Fort Atkinson, located in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.

Located in Fort Calhoun (so pretty close to Omaha), you should time a visit to coincide with an historical re-enactment. I brought the kids to one and it was a lot of fun.

4. Smith Falls State Park (Wood Lake, Neb.)

A view of Smith Falls on a sunny day.

We used to canoe the Niobrara River with friends and family every year, and Smith Falls was always a must-stop destination. It’s the highest waterfall in Nebraska. I dare you to stick your head into the water there.

To get to the Niobrara River, if you’re coming from Omaha at least, will mean passing through the Sandhills, which is another pretty sight to see.

5. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (Omaha)

On hot days, the aquarium at Omaha’s zoo is a great place to escape the heat.

The most popular Nebraska attraction, by far, is Omaha’s zoo. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, and it keeps getting better. Some of the newest additions include African Grasslands and Alaskan Adventure sprayground. Here are some experts’ tips on visiting the zoo.

6. Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure (Nebraska City, Neb.)

Happy and mud-covered children at Arbor Day Tree Adventure.

This Nebraska City attraction is so cool, we try to visit every season each year. The forest trail, the treehouse, the inviting natural play areas…I love it. I might also love the fact that it’s next door to a place that serves fabulous apple pie and has a wine tasting room.

7. Toadstool Geological Park (Oglala National Grasslands)

Let’s play “Spot the trail” in this picture at Toadstool.

This is off the beaten path, but definitely worth a visit to see this place and hike around. They’re pretty much Nebraska’s own Badlands. Careful hiking around there with little ones, though.

8. Brownville, Neb.

In the center of Brownville on Main Street, you’ll find this old cabin.

So much art and culture packed into a little Nebraska town. Browse bookstores, art galleries, or check out a winery.

The town is also near Indian Cave State Park. I recommend combining a visit to both for a complete day.

9. Memorial Stadium (Lincoln, Neb.)

A sea of red at Memorial Stadium. Photo courtesy Asten on Flikr

It’s something to experience at least once: The football stadium becomes the third most populated “city” in Nebraska on Husker game day. Wear red or else.

10. Nebraska Wildlife Safari (Ashland, Neb.)

You have to beware of animals crossing the road at the Nebraska Wildlife Safari.

I’m a sucker for driving among bison, I guess. This is a great attraction that showcases Nebraska’s wildlife. Get out of the car to see the bears, wolves, bald eagles and other critters out there.

Honorable mentions Nebraska attractions

A few more favorite places in Nebraska that didn’t make the Top 10 cut: Omaha’s Old Market, Plattsmouth’s Sisters Thai and German Cafe, and Chadron State Park.

* * * * *

There are a lot of exhibits and events planned to celebrate the 150th. Check out the calendar of events here.

 

Your turn: What is on your must-see list for Nebraska?