Category Archives: Travel

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

TGIF

Can I have this view every day?

Well we decided to take advantage of our beachside location and just lounge around all day Friday. That was more Maren and my idea than Mex since he gets bored “just doing nothing” and the boredom made him a little sour by the end of the day. A quick round of Phase 10 cheered him up before bed. But that’s getting ahead of myself… For the first time since getting to Mexico (actually since being notified of his interview) Mex and I stayed in bed until after 10. It must have been Maren’s influence and our exhaustion from the sun or maybe just our complete enjoyment of the air-conditioned room. Whatever the reason it felt fabulous even though we were probably actually awake by 8ish. I guess it’s ok to lounge once every two months or so, right mom and dad? =)

Enjoying himself? Not really…

Anyway, not much to report from the day except swimming in the pool and walking on the beach. We didn’t sit in hammocks because we got up too late and all the good ones were full. If you sit too far down on the beach than the vendors come and try to sell you swim suit wraps, hats, necklaces and horseback rides. Sadly, it doesn’t even work to pretend you are sleeping. For lunch we strolled to the place next door which was always busy and had lunch. It is called the Tres Marias and is a hotel that seems nice and restaurant that is always busy. The food was alright and the view good. In the afternoon we treated ourselves to a strawberry margarita at the swim up bar, sweet and refreshing in the heat. Somehow I managed to avoid any very bad sunburns although my freckles have definitely multiplied and are soon going to turn into one giant mass covering my body. Mex’s forearms are darker than I’ve ever seen them and Maren managed to get some nice color that will hopefully last her until summer.

Did we mention the gorgeous sunsets?

After watching another incredible sunset, Maren and I once again enjoyed pizza but it had a different flavor than the first night and I didn’t really like it. I suppose it serves me right for not ordering seafood or Mexican food. Mex did get some fresh fish and he said it was good. The atmosphere of our hotel restaurant was definitely the most “ideal” of the beach places we saw with the palm frond roofed huts and tiki lights and even hammocks in the dining area. The food wasn’t cheap of course but we are finding that none of the restaurants we are willing to eat at are cheap as we planned. The only “street” food we dare eat is corn or mango on a stick and only if we see how it is prepared ourselves. So we wrapped up the evening with a half card game of Phase 10 and went to sleep hearing the waves crash like thunder on the shore.

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Filed under Guerrero State, Mexico, Travel

Getting to Acapulco

Ok… I say we went to Acapulco but our hotel was actually in Pie de la Cuesta which is about 12 km or so west of Old Acapulco. I can’t do the math to tell you what that is in miles because even my brain cells are sweating in this heat. All I know is there are 1.6 km in a mile… I think…

Sunset in front of our hotel in Pie de la Cuesta

So after Taxco we hopped in the car for the 3 ½ hour journey to Acapulco. Since Mex and I have learned that avoiding big city driving is essential to how well we get along, Maren and I searched the map for a way to avoid the city of Acapulco. We navigated Mex to a “free” road, which means no guarantees on the road’s condition, about 45 minutes north of the city. We have been on some toll roads that made us want to turn around and ask for a refund so I was apprehensive about a free one. The road was in surprisingly good condition, winding through the mountains and many little villages which thankfully didn’t have a ridiculous number of topes (speed bumps for those of you that don’t remember the dozen other times I’ve complained about them). As we got closer we started to see lots of palm trees everywhere. Initially, we thought they were natural and then we noticed they were growing in suspiciously straight lines like at an apple orchard or Christmas tree farm. It made sense when we started to see dozens of roadside stands selling fresh coconuts. If only those coconuts were filled with a nice, cold piña colada.

Moonlit view from our oceanside room. The sound of waves crashing (and the AC) made the upgrade worth it.

Pie de la Cuesta is basically the name of a beach community that is one tar road lined with little hotels and restaurants. The ocean is on one side and Lake Coyuca is on the other. Once we got to Hacienda Vayma we were offered an upgrade to an Oceanside suite. After comparing both rooms we all decided the extra $80 US was worth the splurge to have  an ocean view, AC and hot water. Pie de la Cuesta is famous for huge rolling waves and sunsets, both of which were worth the visit. Apparently, you can’t view the sunset from most of Acapulco Bay because of the horseshoe shape, so Pie de la Cuesta is the best spot to see the sun hit the ocean. However, the guide books don’t tell you about the strong fishy odor or the brown foam washing up on the beach. That was an unpleasant surprise. The smell wasn’t overpowering most of the time and we were able to enjoy some outdoor meals with the tiki light atmosphere. Because the waves are so huge all the time, it isn’t really safe to swim which is why every hotel has a pool (and a swim up bar). Since we didn’t get there until fairly late on Wednesday we just enjoyed the air-conditioning, watched the sunset, sat at the tiki bar and had some drinks, a delicious pizza and onion rings while watching the waves roll on to the beach… I know… Every time I mention pizza I feel guilty but I’ve decided that as long as we are eating it in Mexico it should be considered Mexican food!

Constant big waves make for a great soundtrack but bad swimming.

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Filed under Guerrero State, Mexico, Travel

Taxco – Mexico’s silver mecca

Cathedral in Taxco

How could I forget to mention Taxco? (Especially when it is on the “list”) I have wanted to go there since I saw a picture of the rose-colored baroque cathedral perched dramatically on a hillside. In person it wasn’t sitting as dramatically as I remember, but it was still beautiful. Taxco was a slight detour from our Cuernavaca to Acapulco route and, unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to enjoy much of the city. Luckily, as we approached the city there was a nice pull off with gorgeous views where we snapped a few pictures. Most of the buildings are white with red tile roofs, a style I once thought of as Mexican but now realize it really a Spanish influence. The cathedral, Templo de Santa Prisca, was completed in 1758. The Churrigueresque facade towers above the stores along Plaza Borda and homes and has elaborate paintings and gold leaf sculptures inside. It is difficult to capture it all without the use of a flash or tripod. Very dramatic and intricate compared to what we have seen so far and very European. Most of the gold leaf has thick layers of dust. They are in the middle of a multi-million dollar restoration process for the entire cathedral but, from my interpretation of the signs, they have run out of money so efforts are currently on hold.

Set on a hillside with white-washed buildings and red tiled roofs, Taxco is beautiful from first glance.

The city is famous for silver production and you can’t walk more than a dozen steps without stumbling upon a silver shop. More accurately, you can’t walk more than a dozen steps without somebody coming up to you and trying to “guide” you into certain shops. I don’t know if it was the combination of two gringas walking around with Mex (whom they assumed spoke some Spanish) that drew the guides to him like bears to honey, but they relentlessly followed us everywhere. We would walk out of one store and they would immediately try to guide us to another. It got to be so oppressive that we started looking out the door first and then darting to the next store when the “guide” wasn’t looking.

Looking out over the rooftops of Taxco

The city seems to be entirely uphill with cobblestone streets that are so narrow in some places I felt like the three of us couldn’t even walk side by side. Somehow, little green and white slug bug taxis relentlessly zip up and down like mice in a maze. However, if you drive, I definitely recommend stopping at the very first parking lot you see and taking a taxi in to town. There are many one way streets and it is a very old city with very old roads and limited parking! If you are in Acapulco, Cuernavaca or Mexico City, you could easily do Taxco as a day trip on the bus. Just make sure to take the air-conditioned first class bus if you’re here during the hot months!

We gave up after about 20 silver shops which either had nothing we liked or what we liked was too out of our price range. At one store there was an intricate silver bracelet with small sapphires and matching earrings. The woman let me put it on and I had Mex talked in to it, assuming the set would be about $200. Nope! $6000! That bracelet flew off my wrist so fast I’m lucky that it didn’t break!

We ascended five flights of stairs to eat on a rooftop café with a view of the cathedral and plaza. Even

Dust-covered inside of the cathedral

though we were walking towards the staircase on our own, a guide still managed to come up to Mex and had us follow him up the stairs to the restaurant. I’m not sure what the point is in all that but I’m guessing there is some kind of commission involved. The stunning view of the cathedral and surrounding hills from the restaurant was almost worth the price for the not-so-tasty food. People had laundry hanging on rooftop clothes lines just like I remember in Jerusalem. I guess when you have no yard and no dryers you find the only space available. On the taxi ride to the car we saw a street a block from the zócalo that had some very nice non-silver crafts. We’ll save those for next time… and maybe some silver, too.

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Filed under Guerrero State, Mexico, Travel, Travel Tips

Natural water park – Las Estacas

On Thursday (20th?) we went to Las Estacas which is a water park about an hour from Mex’s town.

River swimming area at Las Estacas

The water park was beautiful and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was tropical with 120 foot or higher palms and green grass.

Giant palms at Las Estacas

There weren’t really pools but instead a river with crystal clear spring fed water that was slightly on the cool side but definitely tolerable and refreshing. There were places to dive off, places to swing like Tarzan into the water, a walking area, mini golf, an outdoor pool table… tons of stuff. We got there around noon and swam for a while then went to the head spring. It is really deep and you can dive from this 15 foot high rock. It was incredible. The path was covered in palms and banana trees and I felt like I was walking through a jungle. We floated down the river in parts because there was a very slight current. Similar to a park in Minnesota, it has open spaces for picnicking and grills set up. We brought salads and cecina which is one of my favorite Mexican meats. It’s very thinly sliced, cured beef.

Deysi preparing cecina (thinly cut steak) to grill for lunch

Right as we were leaving they were starting this contest and Mex, his nephews Jaime and Ernesto, his brother-in-law Leonardo and Leonardo’s nephew Candido made a team. They competed against two other teams and had to do a bunch of activities like tying all there legs together and running, diving for rock things in the river, swinging into the river, and finally a jump from the diving rock. They did end up winning the contest even though their average age was about 40 and the other teams were teenagers or early 20’s. They won thanks to Jaime’s backwards somersault dive into the water where he got the most applause from the audience. It was a very fun but exhausting day.

Mex getting his “Tarzan” on

Absolutely beautiful and amazing to know such natural places exist. Even the kiddie pool was fed by natural spring water only. There is a small hotel on the grounds and lots of people camping. We totally recommend going here if you are ever in the Cuernavaca area. It is about $24 US for a day pass so go early and bring enough pesos because they don’t take credit cards! Great fun!

(I did read a blog post from Midwesterner in Mexico who went there and the water was dirty so maybe it depends on the time of year. March was great.)

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Filed under Mexico, Minnesota vs. Mexico, Morelos State, Travel

Week in Tetelilla

So my battery is about to die but I thought I needed to publish something so everyone knew we were alive and kicking (and sweating buckets!). The place we are in has wireless internet so hopefully I’ll be able to totally update everything from this past week including pictures by the end of the day tomorrow.

Here is a summary of our activities which I will expand on tomorrow when I have a fully charged battery.

Friday the 14th
– Miserable day of driving in big cities and topes (speed bumps bigger than elephants laying in the road). We arrived in Tetelilla after dark, much to our dismay, and Mex was a little lost because the buildings had changed, but his dad was sitting outside the house waiting for him. It was very emotional for Mex after 13 years to see his town and dad and sisters. He was struck by how much everyone had aged, especially his dad.

Charred Poblano chiles on the grill

Saturday the 15th– We spent the day at his sister Sofia’s house learning how to make chiles rellenos (and they were delicious!) and visited his brother Alejandro’s wife, Rosa.

Sunday the 16th– Tried to get money again which didn’t work. Went to a market in a nearby town – Jonacatepec

Market in Jonacatepec

Monday the 17th– trip to Tlaxcala – a city about 2 hours away, to visit Sofia’s in-laws.

Tuesday the 18th – Feria (big street market) in a town about 20 minutes away. We bought some cute things and my purse got slashed (nothing stolen except a tampon and pen… that’ll teach ’em). We visited his sister Andrea in the afternoon.

Wednesday the 19th – Lunch with his sister-in-law Rosa, did laundry for the first time

Thursday the 20th – We went to Las Estacas which is a totally awesome natural water park. All spring fed with huge palm trees.

Friday the 21st – Participated in a Good Friday procession.

Saturday the 22nd – Mex had a nasty stomach bug so we rested the whole day. Very odd since we ate exactly the same

Doing laundry the Mexican way

thing and I wasn’t sick at all.

Sunday the 23rd – We took a long sequence of buses from his town to Mexico City airport to pick up our friend, Maren.

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Filed under Mexico, Tetelilla, Morelos, Travel