Category Archives: Travel outside MN and Mexico

Though most of our travels lead us to Mexico, we occasionally are fortunate enough to take other journeys as well.

Disney World with toddlers, Day 1

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Not to toot my own horn, but I have one a-DOR-able pirate on my hands.

Well, we did it. We survived a trip to Disney World with a 1.5 and 3.5 year-old. Why Disney, you ask? Well, add together a Captain Hook obsessed little boy and a Minnie/Mickey/Donald, Little Mermaid-obsessed little girl, and two parents who wanted to warm up after a brutal Minnesota January, Disney World was our vacation spot of choice. I wanted to jot down some tips and opinions of things we did in case any one out there is thinking of taking their young toddlers, or in case we want to go again soon and I need to jog my memory.

This was my 9th (or maybe 10th?) time to WDW (Walt Disney World) and I was amazed at the changes since my last visit in 2007. Most remarkably the New Fantasyland area in Magic Kingdom which was great for entertainment of multiple toddlers. Another change is all the pirate-centric activities, which are probably put in place so parent’s have an alternative to spend money on their kids beyond the typical princess fare.

First off, I am a big fan of staying on Disney property, especially since WDW started the new Magical Express bus service that picks travelers up at the airport and delivers them and their luggage right to the hotel. They even pick up your checked baggage from baggage claim and deliver it to the room. However, there is a 3-hour wait on that so make sure must-have items are in your carry on. Yes, it can be cheaper to stay off property, rent a car, drive in to the park every day, etc. BUT, if you believe time is money and don’t particularly enjoy hauling car seats with you when you travel, the convenience of Disney property is well worth the extra money (I’m not even convinced it would be extra money if you stayed at a value resort).

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The 8-story lobby of the Wilderness Lodge complete with totem pole, real (and cement) lodge pole pine beams, enormous fireplace, and miniature bubbling geyser with a stream running outside. (sorry for the bad picture)

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View of the Wilderness Lodge pool area and the lake.

We chose the Wilderness Lodge which is on the high end of the price spectrum but I have found that January is a great time to stay there. Our Woods view (one upgrade above the most basic standard view room) was only $204.10 a night (plus about $25 in taxes) which felt like a steal since the same room carries a $350+ per night price tag in high season. Yes, truth be told, we could have stayed at a value resort for about $100 a night. We discussed hotel choice numerous times because that is one of the places to cut down vacation costs, especially in WDW. In the end, we decided to stay at Wilderness Lodge because 1) We LOVE it there! But beyond that, we tried to justify it by telling ourselves, 2) it is close in proximity to Magic Kingdom, where we planned to spend most of our time. 3) connected by bus and boat (bonus for a pirate-loving boy who thinks every boat in water is a pirate ship) to Magic Kingdom to give is variable transport options. 4) It was close enough we could go back to the hotel for nap time if we wanted without wasting most of the day. 5) We planned to do two events at the Contemporary Hotel which is just a quick boat ride away adding to the convenience, without the even more hefty price tag of being on the monorail like the Contemporary, Polynesian, and Grand Floridian. 6) As a guest staying on Disney property you get Extra Magic Hours. Each day one of the parks either opens early or stays open late and only people staying at a Disney hotel can enter so you have a little bit of crowd control.

Grandma with her little Hook.

Grandma with her little Hook.

My parents drove all the way from Minnesota to meet us down there and it was great to see them when we arrived. One side note tip, if you have anyone traveling with you who has trouble walking long distances, Disney hotels themselves are huge and very tiring to navigate. Each park rents electronic scooters for around $40 a day but they are available only on a first come, first serve basis. Disney has a handful of approved vendors for electronic scooters which deliver them straight to the hotel. Each Disney bus can hold two scooters, and the large boat which transports from Wilderness to Magic Kingdom can hold three. It is a WAY better deal to get the scooter delivered to the hotel by one of the vendors, saving the hassle of waiting in line and saves feet from the stress of large hotel walks. They are dropped off at the hotel, come with a charger, can be parked in the hallway overnight to charge so they don’t take up hotel room space, and the company picks them up. If you run out of battery at a Disney park and forgot the charger, the company comes to the park and gives you a new battery. Awesome service!

Searching for Treasure before meeting Captain Hook.

Searching for Treasure before meeting Captain Hook.

Since we didn’t get to the hotel until about 4, we had not planned to go to a park. In hindsight, it probably would have been cheaper to go to a park than do the event we did, since once you get over a 4-day single park ticket pass it is only about $10 a day to add on additional days. However, our little guy is OBSESSED with Captain Hook and the absolute only guarantee to meet him is on the Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage which takes place at the Contemporary Resort. DSC_0067

At $59 per adult and $34 per child (under 3 is free) it was actually more pricey than breakfast in Cinderella’s Castle. For our family, it was worth every penny but certainly wouldn’t be for everyone. It starts at 6:45 p.m., but if you show up around 6:15 to sign in there are a few little activities to do like a scavenger hunt, coloring pages, and simply letting your kids play with other pirate-wanna-be’s. Everyone in the group gets a bandana with the logo and a picture of Captain Hook and Mr. Smee, the stars of the night.

All of us Minnesota pirates.

All of us Minnesota pirates.

At 6:45, you are allowed in to one of the ballrooms at the Contemporary and there are lots of snacks available; cheesecake, dessert bars, bags of chips and popcorn, cotton candy (which our little guy had his first ever bag of and was SO excited), ice cream bars, frozen fruit bars, lemonade, tea. It would be a good idea to grab a simple sandwich or share a pizza ahead of time and plan on eating “side dishes” and desserts there. Up until about 7:15, guests can snack on as much as they want and take pictures with Hook and Smee.

Not the greatest picture but I'm still working on night photography skills.

Not the greatest picture but I’m still working on night photography skills.

About 7:20 everyone lines up at the door and is assigned either a Captain Hook or Mr. Smee boat group. Hook and Smee lead their group down to the boat dock and then wave good bye and “helper” pirates take over the entertainment. It is a small boat (not electronic cart friendly but they can be left on the dock right outside the boat) and heavy blankets are provided if it is chilly outside. The boat parks in the lagoon with a great view of Cinderella’s castle and a gorgeous view of the fireworks display, including the music which accompanies the show inside the Magic Kingdom so the complete choreography can be appreciated.

DSC_0111Upon returning to the dock, there is a photo opportunity with Peter Pan and then the night is over. We were last in line for Peter and finished the evening a little before 9 p.m.

Overall, it was a great event for our family due to the Captain Hook obsession, and a great way to start the trip with a little Disney magic without jumping right in to a theme park excursion. If you do not have any pirate lovers in your family, it may be a good thing to skip since the snacks themselves are not worth the price and you can see the water view of the fireworks by timing a boat ride back to the Magic Kingdom parking lot or back to the Wilderness Lodge for right when they start. It is not possible to hear the music which compliments the fireworks but the changing color castle and fireworks are a show on their own.

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Filed under Family, Kids, Travel, Travel outside MN and Mexico, Travel Tips

The land of "plenty"

Or, more fittingly, the land of too much of everything. Here in the middle of the desert are dozens of mega-hotels with 2000+ rooms each, enormous buffets on every corner, neon lights and spot lights and glowing slot machines… The pure amount of consumption that happens in Las Vegas is absolutely insane. On our trip to the Grand Canyon we met a couple from New Zealand who said they just can’t believe “America.” They commented that they were not able to find any place that wasn’t stuffed with people and that Americans seem to consume so much. The said there is nothing in New Zealand like Vegas and there, for entertainment, most people do outdoor activities like kayaking and hiking. Mex and I tried to explain that Vegas was not the city to judge America by. However, we started talking about it over dinner yesterday and decided maybe the Zealanders weren’t so far off. 

Bellagio flower display

In Mexico, where water is scarce (which is in almost the entire country) the use is strictly limited on a daily basis. You have one hour to pump as much as possible into your water holding tank. In the US, we see desert and decide to build one of the most energy-sucking, water-consuming cities in the country there. Why? Maybe gambling and girls were the only thing that could get people to visit this dry, wickedly hot area. Now there are dance clubs, “gentlemen’s and ladies clubs”, and free drinks while you gamble. I must admit that Mex and I did take advantage of the last one but penny machine hopping and pretending to gamble until the drink lady came our way. Of course, by the third margarita I really did put my $5 in the machine but luckily 500 pennies last a long time…

It will be a long time before we come to Vegas again (don’t tell my husband I said that!). He does love it with all the lights and things to do and I like to come here because it makes him happy. We usually go to shows like Cirque de Soleil or comedy shows but we decided to spend our “fun” money on the Grand Canyon excursion instead this time. It was a good choice since we both had wanted to see it for years. The business trip was worth it and I wish I was attending the classes the rest of this week but unfortunately I didn’t have time in my schedule. We just are not dance or clubbing or drinking people so Vegas does have a limited appeal. It is amazing to see the large size of the casinos and the fact that construction keeps going on. And the shopping would be great if I knew (or cared) anything about fashion. Everything from Jimmy Choo shoes, Armani suits, and $4000 prada purses! You can walk around for hours just looking at everything there is to see and being amazed, overwhelmed and slightly disgusted. Oh well… We just ran in to our friend Karla at the airport here in Vegas. Small world!

A few follow up notes: There were a ton of people selling time shares to condos in Vegas. We were attacked at the entrance to every hotel and casino with the question “Are you two married?” finally, after the 4th day I said to one of them, “Yes, but not to each other.” He didn’t really have a response to that and Mex and I walked away without being bothered. Totally annoying!
One last thing… Our hotel Excalibur is home to the “Thunder from Down Under” show featuring Australia’s hottest male exports. I couldn’t quite convince my husband to go though =)

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Filed under Mexico, Minnesota vs. Mexico, Minnesotan/American culture, Travel outside MN and Mexico

Live from Las Vegas

Yes, we are in Vegas. I surprised Mex with the trip and luckily I’ll get to write it off as a business expense! I was at an investment real estate class two weeks ago and the instructor kept referencing this additional class and when I looked it up I saw it is only offered three times this year… Vegas, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania. Needless to say I jumped on the chance to take it and surprise Mex since that was something he was really excited to do (go to Vegas) at the end of Mexico trip that got cut out. I was intending to upload some pictures but the internet kiosk I’m using does not accept USB ports. We got a steal on a tickets/hotel package because we are staying at Excalibur which is a cheesy, medieval theme and very kid friendly. It is also a very good business opportunity for me as well or I wouldn’t have done it. After this class I will be able to become a CRS (Certified Residential Specialist). Of the 1.4 million members of the National Association of Realtors only about 37,000 have a CRS designation. It requires 75 career transactions or $10 million in sales volume (I have both) and 120 hours of specialized real estate classes. And of course, as with any sort of “club”, a hefty annual fee.

Anyway, we flew in Saturday evening and got to our hotel about 7. We then took a taxi over to the Rio and waited in line for an hour to go to the seafood buffet. Both of us ate about 4 pounds of crab legs, not to mention shrimp and mini lobster tails. It was pricey but awesome! This picture is of Mex with only HALF the legs we ate. Delicious on one level, disgusting on another! Surprisingly, neither of us got sick. Today (Sunday) we took a bus tour to the Grand Canyon since my deal with Mex was we would not gamble more than $30 each the whole four days. It shouldn’t be too hard since we are going to be in class all day Monday and Tuesday and attending networking events in the evening. We fly back Wednesday.The Grand Canyon was absolutely beautiful! We were excited to go since we had been to the Copper Canyon in Mexico which is longer and deeper. They are completely different experiences though. Copper Canyon is full of pines all the way to the bottom while Grand Canyon is all red striped rock. The time on the bus was a little long but we got the tickets at half price by buying them online instead of on the phone. I can’t remember the website.

This picture just makes me think of the Shrek movie when Donkey says “I’m a donkey on the edge.” There aren’t many bigger edges than the Grand Canyon!

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Literally, from the road

Well, I am literally typing this as I am driving (or riding, actually) across Nebraska. Nothing much to report today. My throat is still sore beyond belief. We are all still giddy as can be about Mex being in the car. Looks like we won’t be in Minnesota until Wednesday though since it is almost 7 pm and we are only 2/3 of the way across the great, flat state of Nebraska. We did try to break up the monotony be stopping at a museum in Kearney but it closed at 4 and we got there at 4:30. oh well!

So Wed, the 23rd will be our home arrival date. Just one day shy of the two month mark! Hope you all sleep well tonight and we’ll be home soon!

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Route 66 to the Rockies

So I did forget one little story about the night we left El Paso. About 20 miles from El Paso we passed through a border control station and they stopped us. Mom rolled down her window and the guy asked us where we were headed to. Then he was looking in the windows and saw Mex and made mom roll down the back window (he was sitting behind her). Next he asked if we were all citizens. Mom said yes right away out of habit and then I said, “actually, he is a permanent resident.” The agent then asked to see his papers. Mex handed him his passport and the agent squinted at his visa for a minute and then let us go… The ink was hardly dry yet and he got to test it out!

Rocky Mountain National Park

Anyway, back to the trip home. We drove on Route 66 through Albuquerque but it didn’t seem to have a lot of historic buildings. Mostly hotels and a few filling stations. Then we headed north and drove through Sante Fe which was a really pretty city. All the buildings were the “adobe” style and very southwestern. We then drove all the way north and ended up in Loveland, Colorado, at about 8pm. My throat is miserably sore but I refused to go to the emergency room and pay another wad of money so I held out until this morning and went to urgent care. They gave me some heavier pain pills and antibiotics (even though they say it’s a virus and they probably won’t help). At least these pain killers dull the pain for 40 to 60 minutes. I feel terrible because we should be so happy (which we still are) but I’m a big wet blanket with my throat. Oh well…. I guess we’ve now got FOREVER to be happy =)

So happy to see snow!

So about 12 we set off for Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park (another “LIST” item). We spent about 3 hours driving around the park which is completely beautiful and we saw lots of snow which Mex and I were thrilled about after our weeks of hot weather. It was cloudy so my pictures didn’t turn out that well. Now we are back in the hotel and are preparing for a long drive home tomorrow. We were maybe going to stop another day but I feel terrible and Mex and I are ready to get home and sleep in our own bed. Yesterday marked the 8th week that we have been gone! Crazy to even imagine that it has been so long because the time really flew by!

Can’t wait to see everyone!

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Carlsbad Caverns

Mom and dad a 1/2 mile under ground in Carlsbad Caverns

Well unfortunately I’ve come down with one heck of a sore throat. I can hardly swallow or talk but somehow it doesn’t dampen my happiness one bit.

Cactus by Carlsbad Caverns

Saturday, after a night in Carlsbad, New Mexico, we got up and backtracked about 20 miles to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park (just keep checking things off the “1000 places” list). There we went 750 feet underground to walk around the biggest caves I could ever imagine. They were so amazing and gigantic. Mom and dad wanted to do the tour where you crawl on your stomach through the little openings but I didn’t feel up to it =)

There is a nice paved path through there and it actually wasn’t cold at all. I was sorry I had brought my jacket. Mom and dad were champs

Carlsbad Caverns

and walked almost a whole mile even though they took the “short cut.” Mex and I went the whole way around but actually most of the good stuff was on the shortcut route. In some places the ceiling was 90 feet high and you could see a 1/2 mile of open space. Pretty amazing.

We went back through Carlsbad and my throat was terrible so we ended up going to the hospital emergency room since it was Saturday and no clinics were open. That took a three hour chunk out of the day but they gave me some throat numbing stuff, although it doesn’t seem to be working this morning. We ended up in Albuquerque, NM and are going to take a quick jaunt on Old Route 66 (to check that off the “list” too!) before heading up through Sante Fe and into Colorado.

Sunset near Albuquerque

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Around El Paso

Mom and Dad with Mex in the Franklin mountains outside of El Paso

On top of Scenic Drive in El Paso, Texas, overlooking Juarez, Mexico.

Here are a few tips for El Paso before I forget. The Scenic Drive is really nice. It curves around the south of the El Paso mountains and these pictures are all taken from there. Do NOT change money into pesos at the bank. Go to Melek’s service on the corner of Mesa & Paisano near downtown. We got 10.65 pesos per $1 there which was a peso better per dollar than the bank.
In between Mom and Mex’s heads you can sort of see the Mexican flag. The flag is 162 feet by 93 feet and it is called the “Megabandera” or “Giant Flag.” The flag pole sits in Chamizal Park, which is right across from the Bridge of the Americas, (the free driving bridge), and is 339 feet high and weighs 110 tons. That is 22,000 pounds! (Probably necessary to handle the hurricane force winds around here!) That is Juárez in the background after the little park on the right of Mex. We spent some time shopping and went to a few cowboy boot stores (we are in Texas, after all) but, really, I just don’t find them comfortable. Mostly, we just drove around the city completing errands. The information in our hotel said it was possible to get a driving pass from the Mexican Embassy but that is NOT true. We waited in line only to be told they stopped doing that the first of the year and you can only get passes in Mexico.

You can faintly see the cement canal that is the Rio Grande thru the middle of this picture.

There are multiple ways to cross into Juárez from El Paso… you can take a walking bridge or a round trip trolley or drive on four different roads. The tourist propaganda in our hotel makes Juárez sound a lot
better than all the stories I’ve heard.

I did try to fix the lens on my camera to get rid of these spots
after I downloaded the pictures and saw them. However, every time I zoom in to something I get these stupid spots. Bad timing to have a broken camera!

The view from Scenic Drive looks very pretty at night. As we pulled off to take in the view we clearly interrupted a couple who was sitting in the back seat of their car, “enjoying the view.” Oops!  You can kind of see the snake of lights through the city which marks the border. We did drive along the border highway and saw the fences… All three of them with barbed wire on top and paths in between them for the border patrol vehicles to go. Did I mention the millions of watts of floodlights pointing towards Mexico? Very, very interesting. There is a Border Patrol Museum here but we decided not to go. I can’t imagine what would be inside! I just imagine some kind of grotesque trophies of people caught or something. Ugh. (In hindsight and looking at their website it probably would have been interesting. I’d say “maybe next time” but I don’t think we will ever be visiting this area again).

For dinner we took a break from the steakhouse scene and went to Olive Garden for our “last supper.” We both figured we should load up on salad before crossing the border when fresh produce is one of the things which we are supposed to stay away from if we want to avoid stomach problems in Mexico.

View from Scenic Drive at night. All those lights are Ciudad Juarez

Well… on another note…  tomorrow we cross. We are both trying not to think of it. We’ve had a really good time with my parents and it has helped us relax which has been a blessing. They did talk us into staying in Juárez over the weekend instead of making the five hour drive to Chihuahua City and back before his interview. Even if we have to stay in the hotel all weekend it would be better than risking something happening to us so he couldn’t get to the interview that we’ve waited two years for. We will miss mom and dad and it will be very emotional to cross over the bridge tomorrow. However, we are confident that on the afternoon of April 17th (the day of his 2nd interview) we will be back again on this side of the river.

My next entry will be from Juárez, Mexico and I suppose in honor of the occasion it will be in Spanish (as long as my husband tells me what to type).

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Filed under Travel outside MN and Mexico, Travel Tips