Category Archives: Travel Tips

We are by no means travel experts. However, I believe it is valuable to share experiences with others and learn about places you may someday want to travel to.

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

Lead, lead, lead…

Oh yes… I’m talking about the metal here, not the verb. I have a warning for all traveler’s to Mexico who want to bring back some beautiful pottery as a souvenier… Don’t plan on using it to cook! I’ll blame ignorance for this expensive mistake. The thought never crossed either Mex or my mind when we were buying our 80-piece dish set. We were so in love with the pattern and after an hour of walking around and discussing it we decided to purchase the dishes as our big present to ourselves. It wasn’t until I got back to the US and showed them to my mom and a friend that they asked about lead. I had no idea! So after many months of the dishes sitting in boxes I finally found the business card from where we purchased them. Mex called and asked the lady if they used lead in their glaze because I had read online that in the last three years a lot of places had stopped due to health awareness. The lady told Mex they absolutely do not use lead in the glaze and you can even microwave the dishes and cook in them. WRONG!

Just to be sure, I found a place in St. Louis Park that would test a plate for $30. I did it as a formality since I didn’t think the woman in Puebla would lie. I mean it’s not like we would be able to return them anyway! The tester guy called and told me there is indeed lead in our plates and we should NOT heat them in the microwave or cook anything in them and should also not store food in them. Wow. Talk about a sad kick in the gut.

The guy said it would be safe to eat off of them occassionally because food doesn’t sit long enough on the plate between when you serve and when you consume it for any lead to leach out. The problem is if you heat it or chip it or if you let things sit on them overnight in the fridge. Serving dry things like crackers or bruschetta toast will not absorb any lead so I can at least use them at parties and for holiday meals. As long as we don’t use them daily or cook on them there is no real danger. We never planned on using them for actually cooking anyway, just serving, but it is still disappointing.

Lesson learned… thinking of buying pottery to eat off of? DON’T! Even if you ask the people at the store in Mexico they may either lie or not know the truth themselves (I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt). Just buy pottery with decoration in mind! At least we have a beautiful set of special occassion dishes and apparently a really, really expensive kitchen/dining room decoration. Now we need to find a hutch cupboard to display them in I guess!

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Cake never tasted so good

Well, we just received the warmest welcome I can imagine from our friends at church this morning. We were fashionably late (5 minutes) or so and tried to sneak in the back door when our pastor burst into an announcement welcoming us back in front of the whole congregation who then proceeded to clap for us. There was an awesome welcome back cake for Mex with a American and Mexican flag on it. It tasted fabulous, made better by the fact we were eating it in our church with friends. Somehow the last four days have flown by. We have finished the laundry (all seven loads), shoved our souvenirs in a corner of the living room, tried to sort through the mail (quite unsuccessfully) and visited our family. Though it seems we were never gone there are the echoes of Tetelilla and our tour across Mexico ringing through our minds. We very much miss the evening “dinner,” sitting around with his sisters listening to stories and hearing them laugh. It is wonderful to have a big family surround you and to eat together. The family time was the most special part of our trip. I loved the fact that I didn’t need to be fluent in Spanish for them to love me or me to love them, for us to share laughs or hugs.

We of course learned a few things about travelling as well… number one (as I have said multiple times) is BYO-TP! Another thing would be a high recommendation for the Lonely Planet brand of guidebooks. We also had Fodor’s and Insight guides. Fodor’s is poorly organized, hard to follow and has mainly beach destinations. Insight guides have great cultural information and pictures but very little hotel and restaurant info. The Lonely Planet guide had tons of destinations, even smaller towns, great city maps, and lots of hotels and restaurants listed. The prices are a little off sometimes (once as much as double) on the hotels so it is good to double-check on the internet first. The only thing I would LOVE to see them add is a perforation for ripping out the map and taking it with you and a spot for notes on the back of the map page. I did tear out my maps and then brought just that with us but there was always something important on the back pages or no real room to write.

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Filed under Family, Minnesota, Travel Tips

Ah Chihuahua!

Pancho Villa's home in Chihuahua City

Yes, they really do say that here. In fact it is on all their tourism posters! Today we had the tour of town on our own since the trolley was broken. We saw the Pancho Villa museum which luckily had translations in English. There was lots of memorabilia including the bullet-ridden car where he was murdered while in Parral by assassins (although apparently there are a number of places that claim to have the car Villa was assassinated in so authenticity is a little in question). It was interesting because the museum was in his old house that was given to the woman the government declared his legal wife (he had many others too) after his murder. I keep getting the heroes of the 1810 revolution confused with those of the 1910 revolution but Villa is from the latter.

We also saw the small Hidalgo museum which is where he was assassinated by the government in 1817 (I think). He is the one who gave the cry for freedom that is celebrated on Mexican Independence day on September 15 and 16th. The Government buildings all have beautiful murals covering their walls that depict Mexican history.

There is a gorgeous mansion here called Quinta Gameros that was built in the early 1900´s by a rich silver miner for his fiance but during the four years of construction she fell in love with the architect according to one story and died according to another… maybe both, who knows. After sitting on the plaza for an hour and people watching we grabbed some Domino´s and headed back to the hotel. Juarez is only about five hours away with a stop to turn in our car permit but we want to get an early start tomorrow just to make sure there are no car problems or anything else. The computer here is some odd brand so I´m not even going to try and upload any more pictures.

Another random note about Mexico… Don`t travel here expecting US style customer service. Most of the hotels and restaurants and bus stations and banks and where ever else really don`t care if you are unhappy. That has been a difficult adjustment for both of us. Twice when his brother has sent us money the place where you pick it up didn`t have enough money to give us (only $300). This is even though the place in the US guarantees that the person in Mexico will have it in two hours or less. Very frustrating. Also, when you use your credit card the receipt shows your entire number plus the expiration date. We noticed two charges on my credit card from Juarez that we don`t remember making. It`s easy to remember since I`ve only used it about five times. Our advice… bring enough cash to pay for everything in interior Mexico! It probably isn`t such a big deal in a resort place like Cancun but you never know.

Ok. Buenas noches everyone. I might not type tomorrow (or maybe just a short one to let you know we are at our hotel) but I will type some sort of update on Thursday afternoon or evening.

Hope and pray and all that good stuff! We BOTH hope to see all of you very, very soon!

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Filed under Chihuahua State, Mexico, Travel Tips

Road trip

For some odd reason our trip north took two hours less than our way south, covering the same distance. We went from Zacatecas to Chihuahua city in about eight hours with four gas stops, many bathroom stops and a quick, greasy lunch. I can´t wait to eat a salad again! I never thought I´d say that since lettuce is one of my least favorite foods! This morning when we left the car thermometer said 47 degrees. Of course I was still in my tank top but I did unroll my pants from capri´s to full length. It felt fabulous!

Nothing much to report. We did get stopped twice at military checkpoints but only had to get out of the car for a search once. There are at least two more points before the border that we remember and I´m sure we´ll get stopped. I just hope they don´t have to unpack all our stuff. The suitcases I don´t mind but the dishes would stink because I don´t think we could get them back in the two boxes.

Overall our driving experience has been pretty good.

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Filed under Mexico, Travel Tips

And down comes the rain

Too bad it wasn´t in Mex’s town since the rain would have been a relief from the intense heat. We are in Zacatecas City and there is a major thunderstorm going on outside. Luckily we´ve gotten to enjoy some of the city already although not the silver mine (which Mex didn´t want to see anyway so he lucked out). At some points in the 18th Century, Zacatecas mined 20% of New Spain’s silver.

Last night we went tried to go to dinner at a place listed in my Lonely Planet guidebook (which I would totally recommend over Fodor´s because I have one of those also and we never, ever use it) but it wasn´t the same place anymore. Our taxi driver had advised us of this place called Dorado de la Villa which is a tiny restaurant where you have to knock on the door to get in. The inside is dimly lit, crowded with tables and an overabundance of decorations on the wall. It had really awesome food. We tried sopes with chicken in red mole and the sauce was fabulous. Neither of us like the chocolatey mole poblano at all so we weren´t expecting to like this but we did. Mex had pozole and I had poblano enchiladas. Both dishes were excellent. We were going to walk around the town but we were so stuffed we went back to the hotel instead since we had been driving all day and were exhausted.

Teleforico

This morning I must say we were very lazy and just dozed on and off until about 9:30ish. Tomorrow we have to get up early to start our 11 hour drive to Chihuahua city and then his interview is so close we won´t really be getting much sleep. It´s like there is a giant clock going ¨tick tock, tick tock¨all around us. Hard to imagine that more than two years of waiting is almost over for us.

Anyway, we did finally get out of the hotel about 11 and went to a cafe by the cathedral for lunch. We couldn´t really go inside the cathedral since there was a service going on but I did peek. It is a beautiful pink cathedral and the inside has enormous pink stone columns. We´re going to try to see more later. After a leisurely lunch we took the cable car to the top of the hill (that’s on “the list”) and enjoyed the view. As we were up there we saw rain clouds start to roll in so we hurried and got in line to go back down. We managed to get into the last car that was going down before the rain, wind, thunder and

roof top view from the teleforico

lightning started. Thank goodness because it´s been over an hour and it´s still raining so I don´t know how those people got down. We were going to try to walk around in the rain and find a cafe but everywhere is closed for the afternoon or for the rain… I don´t know which… so we came back to our hotel to enjoy a nice siesta and some TV in English and watch the lightning.

Zacatecas cathedral

Our hotel has a very nice internet lounge so I was optimistic I could put my pictures online from here but for some reason they have the picasa web album site blocked which stinks. oh well… I did put some of them on a CD so if i find an internet cafe that will let me post them I will… Otherwise you´ll all see them when I get back and have my dumb computer fixed. ugh!

Our free rock-hard chips, pickled veges and salsa

Enchiladas poblanos

NEWLY UPDATED AT 8:30 PM
Once the rain stopped this evening Mex and I hopped back in a taxi to go out to dinner. The place we wanted to go to was closed however, so we went to the same place as last night. We had to huff uphill to get there this time though since we got dropped off at the cathedral to go to the other restaurant. I say huff because at 8200 feet it doesn´t take much for us to huff. It is quite chilly here (although no snow) but we refused to wear jackets and decided to revel in our chance at being chilled since my parents informed me that the temperature in the El Paso area has been in the 90´s.
 A quick sidenote about food… don´t get sucked into ordering chips (totopos) and guacamole as an appetizer here. The chips are NOT the same as the US. They are usually oil soaked, rock hard or even slightly burnt. Sometimes you´ll get them free anyway… more so in the north than in the south in our experience. Also, malteados are NOT malts! They are slightly cool milk (I stress the slightly) with malt powder mixed in. Get corn when you see it (if you like corn that is) on the street and DO get the mayo even though your instincts may say not too (or I prefer crema- which is a thin sour cream- if available). I recommend the not-so-spicy chile or squeeze of lime, however, over the light-your-pants-on-fire chile. 

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Filed under Food, Mexico, Restaurant reviews, Travel Tips, Zacatecas State

Must-see Mexico

Great views from the overlook - first stop on the tour.

Mex and I both agree that if you are going to central Mexico, Guanajuato city (in Guanajuato state) is a must-see. We took a bus there yesterday from San Miguel de Allende and are so glad we did. It has a totally different feel than San Miguel. One thing that is unique is the tunnel system. Starting in the 60’s, they actually built roads under the city to relieve traffic and are still building more. They are great but I think they would make navigating the city a little tricky by car so taking the bus probably saved us from a day of marital issues.

We took a city tour like we have made a habit of and it really was the best one we’ve done so far. It was 4 hours long and we got to get off in a bunch of spots and went in to museums although those prices weren’t included in our ticket. Problem – the tour is only in Spanish. I’m sure it is possible to find an English tour somewhere. We just worked with one of the tour companies who was at the bus station.

This picture doesn't do the city justice! Wish I could capture those beautiful colors better!

Guanajuato was the richest city in Mexico in the 1500’s and 1600’s so there are lots of old mansions throughout town and the architecture of the downtown buildings is beautiful. We went up to this panoramic overlook of the city and the houses are painted  brilliant colors… bright blues and yellows and oranges and reds. It is so pretty!

Callejon de beso - or Alley of Kiss - the Romeo and Juliet scene in Guanajuato. Star-crossed lovers kissed from their balconies across the alley.

Some Guanajuato candy skeletons in the candy store our tour stopped at

One piece of advice we would give is to not buy round trip bus tickets ahead of time. There is no discount to do it and some bus companies are not flexible if you want to change the time. We ran into a little problem with that on our way back to San Miguel. We got back about 9:30 and went to the plaza to get some corn and it was full of people. I guess that’s what happens on Friday night. Totally packed and lots of fun, food vendors and many mariachi bands. I definitely recommend just going and people watching in the plaza if you are there on the weekend.

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Filed under Guanajuato State, Mexico, Travel Tips