Our Walt Disney World Vacation – The First Day

We did it. We spent 6 days at the self-proclaimed Most Magical Place on Earth, despite writing a post last year detailing the reasons why we hadn’t gone to Walt Disney World (WDW) yet. I do not plan on giving each day of our trip it’s own blog post by any means but because I felt so overwhelmed by the planning process when we first decided to jump into the WDW pool, I thought it’d be nice to break down our experience and lessons learned into more manageable nuggets of information.

We had a 7:00am flight from Reagan National to Orlando International Airport. Because we were staying on property, we were able to utilize the Magical Express service, which includes complimentary luggage delivery and transportation to WDW. About a month prior to our trip, we were mailed special tags for our luggage. We handed over our checked luggage in Washington DC and didn’t see it again until we walked into our cabin later than night – it felt great to bypass baggage claim and walk right to the Magical Express boarding area upon landing in Orlando. Because we were going straight to Hollywood Studios, we packed our carry-ons accordingly – Clay carried a backpack and I carried my favorite travel bag/purse (the NorthFace Elecrtra Daypack).  The process to check into Magical Express was super easy (we just scanned our Magic Bands) and before we knew it, our chartered bus was heading to WDW.

 When the Magical Express dropped us off at Fort Wilderness (I’ll write a blog post specifically detailing why we likely won’t choose to stay there again), we hopped on another bus to Hollywood Studios and before we knew it, we walking into our first WDW park together as a family. We purchased Disney Salutes 6-Day Park Hopper ticket vouchers from the Fort Belvoir MWR Office ($294.75/ticket). The ticket numbers were on the back of the vouchers, so we were able to book our FastPass+ at the 60-day mark (because we were staying on property) but because they weren’t true tickets, we had to visit Guest Services in order to exchange them and get the information synced with our Magic Bands. It was an easy 5-minute process and while there, we also purchased the Memory Maker at a discounted rate ($99).

I had only been to WDW once growing up on a family vacation and it was Clay’s and the kid’s first time. I was a freshman in high school, we didn’t stay on property, and we were only there for three days so I don’t remember a lot about the trip – only little snippets. Our six-day Disney World extravaganza was very different from what I experienced as a kid so in many ways, it felt like my first visit too. I remember my time at MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios) the most so I was happy to oblige our son’s request to make Hollywood Studios our first park because he had one thing on his mind ever since we announced our vacation plans: Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

We walked around Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, in awe of the craftsmanship. While I enjoy the Star Wars movie franchise, I had to ask Clay and our children a lot of clarifying questions about the little details peppered throughout the land. We were starving so we grabbed lunch at Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo. We opted to purchase the Disney Dining Plan (DDP) for this trip (I plan to write a post detailing our experience with DDP) so we used a Quick Service credit, which also included alcoholic beverages for myself and Clay.

That afternoon and evening, we saw the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, rode Star Tours, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, Toy Story Mania, and Muppet Vision 3D. We ate snacks, walked around the various ‘lands’ within the park, and popped into shops before finally deciding to head back to Fort Wilderness around 7pm so we could finally see our cabin. We had checked-in online using the My Disney Experience earlier that day so all we had to do was walk up to the cabin, click the ‘unlock door’ button on the app, and scan our Magic Bands.

After relaxing in our cabin for a bit, we took transportation from a bus stop near our cabin down to the beach to grab dinner at P&J’s Southern Takeout (another Quick Service meal) and watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks across Bay Lake. I’d like to say that it was the perfect end to a fantastic day but to be honest, we were exhausted. Next time, we won’t try and pack so much into the day we land in Orlando…lesson learned!

My Thoughts on 'The Good Place' Finale

How can it be Friday already? It feels like I just published my Monday post. For as slow as January was, the first week of February is flying faster than Maverick buzzing the Tower. Clay and I finally were able to watch The Good Place series finale last night. For those not familiar, The Good Place was created by Michael Schur, who is known for his work on The OfficeParks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, all of which we adore. Themes of ethics, philosophy, and what it means to be human were explored and woven throughout The Good Place and the series did a fantastic job developing characters – both primary and secondary. The writing was extremely smart and hilarious and while the episodes could be mind-bending complex and difficult to digest in one sitting, the overarching theme of the show was quite simple…what does it mean to be a good person?

There was one scene that will likely resonate with me for the rest of my (hopefully long) life. Eleanor and Chidi are cuddled up on a couch, watching the sun set over a body of water surrounded by mountains – spending their last moments together before Chidi walks through the arch, into the unknown. Chidi tells Eleanor, “Picture a wave. In the ocean. You can see it, measure it, its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through. And it’s there. And you can see it, you know what it is. It’s a wave. And then it crashes in the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be, for a little while.

The idea of a wave being only a temporary form for the water stems from an old Buddhist metaphor. Each wave has a beginning and an end. When the wave breaks on the shore, it will no longer exist. But the wave was only a different way for the water to be for that moment in time. The wave crashing into the shore is simply how the wave returns to its true self – water.  I was wiping away the tears falling from the outer corners of my eyes when Clay commented on how deep the episode was becoming, which is impressive because a few minutes earlier, there was a hilarious line about the most human thing a person can do is text, “I’m five minutes away” when you haven’t even left the house yet.

I like to think of myself as a seeker. It is difficult for me to accept some of the traditional answers that my Christian faith provides to certain questions. I am constantly asking questions and trying to soak up as much as I can about this world and beyond. I love to read about faiths other than my own and experiencing how other cultures approach the seemingly nuances of existence. I’ve written in the past about how I no longer feel invincible. Age has not only granted me maturity but also the realization of my mortality. Each year, I try to make sense of all the things I want to do and all the things I likely never will – my purpose, my meaning, my reason.

I walked away from The Good Place series finale comforted by my current wave form. I don’t know how much time I have left but I suppose it is the continued uncertainty that makes life terrifying and beautiful and everything in between. Ordinary life really is far from ordinary. The ability to build relationships and have a profound impact on those around us is the ultimate human experience. How lucky are we to take on this form for a little while?

Monday, Monday, Monday

It’s Monday! We’re back to every day life after spending a week at Walt Disney World. Those of you who followed along on Instagram and/or Facebook saw that we had a great week but we’re happy to be home. I look forward to writing about our Walt Disney World experience in more detail – we learned a lot on our trip. I’m sure we will visit again in the future but our trip did confirm our suspicions…we’re not ‘visit Walt Disney World every year’ people.

In other news, Punxsutawney Phil did not cast a shadow yesterday, which means an early spring, if we’re to believe the large rodent. Believe it or not, I am missing the colder weather this season – it has been quite the mild winter thus far in the Washington DC area. We purchased the Epic Pass this year (fantastic military discount) with the hopes of using it most weekends but the ridiculously warm temperatures are proving it difficult to ski due to less-than-desirable conditions (on a related note, I have an honest review of Liberty Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania in the works). And I don’t know about you but January and February should be cold – it is disconcerting to not need a winter coat this time of year. I’m sure when we’re living in Chicago this time next year, I’ll be dreaming of 55 degree weather but for now, I just want snow and cold cheeks.

Speaking of Chicago, it hasn’t really hit us that we’ll be leaving this summer. Perhaps it’s because this is our second time being stationed here so it feels the most like ‘home’ but maybe we’ve moved so much that it doesn’t take much to phase us. We’ve been in this Army game long enough to know that it will all work out in the end so it seems silly to stress about such things – especially when we’re still a handful of months out from deep-dish pizza, Italian beef, and Formento’s chocolate cake.

Mmmm food. Over the past couple of years, I’ve gained 15 pounds. Apparently what worked for me in my early-30s doesn’t really do the trick in my mid/late-30s…who would’ve thought? I’ve been making some small changes to my fitness regimen and experimenting with my food intake to see if I can find the right balance for me. I love to eat and I adore everything that well-prepared and vibrant food represents so I have no desire to deny myself such an experience. However, I do understand that moderation is key and there can be too much of good thing. And I miss my abs.

So here’s to Monday. And the Kansas City Chiefs. And Loretta. Let’s make it a good one!

My Answers to Commonly Asked Travel Questions

Even though I often write about our travels on And Then We Laughed, I don’t consider myself a travel blogger by any means. I am not near as well-traveled as I’d like to be – while my ‘list’ boasts 45 states, it only has a measly 9 countries. I’m working on it though! Clay and I have traveled quite a bit with our children (and a few big trips ourselves) over the years – both domestically and internationally, so I like to think that I am fairly well-versed in family travel and all of the wonderful, horrible, and extraordinary things that can happen on such adventures.

Whether it is exploring a nearby town for only the night or trekking throughout Europe for a couple of weeks, we’ve ventured quite a number of places together as a family and don’t plan to stop anytime soon. Occasionally I get asked travel-related questions – both in-person and online – so I thought it’d be a good idea to compile my answers in one blog post. So without further ado, here are my answers to the travel questions I am asked most…

What is your favorite way to travel? Honestly? Anyway we can! While jet-setting around the world may be a dream, it isn’t our reality. Our time and resources are limited so we sometimes have to get creative when planning travel. We don’t shy away from multi-day road-trips and we will gladly take a connecting flight if it means we can save hundreds of dollars. I’ll admit that I prefer to fly if a destination is 12+ hours away but that isn’t always in our budget. I am always amazed when people tell me they refuse to travel further than 6-8 hours by car. I get it – it may not be as luxurious as airline travel, but if we limited ourselves not driving more than 6-8 hours, we wouldn’t be able to experience half the things we do.

For example, we drove 16 hours roundtrip to Colorado Springs within a 72 hour block of time when we were stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas simply because we wanted to spend some time in the mountains. Was driving 8 hours across Kansas preferable? Not exactly…it sure is flat. But being able to hike in the Garden of the Gods and take the cog train up to Pikes Peak made it totally worth it!

What do you do to help make travel more affordable? We prioritize travel. I admit it helps that neither Clay nor I have expensive hobbies so a lot of our ‘fun’ money gets funneled into travel plans. To be honest, we have two financial goals that we shape our lives around: 1) paying for our children’s college and 2) being able to afford to take trips – both big and small – throughout the year. However, we do not have unlimited resources for travel once we take care of our day-to-day living expenses, retirement contributions, and real estate investments. So we take advantage of travel reward credit cards (American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve), airline miles, and we are strategic with our hotel choices to maximize points. For example, the points we earned from our trip to England and France in 2018 allowed us to fly to Germany and Austria for free in 2019 to Germany and Austria.

As discussed earlier, another affordable travel tip is don’t be afraid to drive! Road trips can be fantastic bonding experiences and a great way to get off the beaten path. We’ve discovered little towns throughout the United States that we otherwise would’ve ignored (Paducah, Kentucky; Iowa City, Iowa; Madison, Georgia; and Hannibal, Missouri come to mind). Another thing we do to make travel more affordable is we remain flexible. A lot of our travel destinations that require a flight are determined by what airport is cheaper to fly into at that point in time.

What is the best meal you’ve eaten anywhere? Our first meal in Paris was nothing short of magical. What’s funny is that the restaurant itself was nothing special. In fact, while decently rated, it is also in a somewhat touristy neighborhood near the Eiffel Tower. But I was finally in Paris – somewhere I’d been wanting to visit since was 10 years old. We took our time eating delicious food – soupe à l’oignon gratinée, bavette de flanchet aux échalotes, and creme brûlée. Clay and I savored the Bordeaux while the kids drake Coca-Cola from glass bottles. Our waiter was fabulous, the setting so perfectly Parisian, and I was with the people I love most in the world.

What type of mishaps have happened to you when traveling? Well – our family is sort of known for getting Norovirus each time we’ve visited New York City as a family of four. In full disclosure – we’re a bit scared to attempt the city that never sleeps again in the near future as a family of four.

We’ve run out of Euros in Salzburg, Austria and couldn’t find an ATM that would accept our card. Our plan to get a hotel room when we arrived in Phoenix backfired due to the NCAA tournament being hosted there so we ended up driving three hours south to Sierra Vista, arriving at 1am, just to have a safe place to sleep for the night. But we turned lemons into lemonade and incorporated a visit to Tombstone the following day! Again – being flexible is the key to having great travel experiences!

We’ve miscalculated a red-eye flight from the west coast to the east coast and ended up needing to catch up on sleep at a North Carolina rest area so we could drive back home safely. And when in Montreal, we went to a very authentic Chinese restaurant that was filled with mobsters (we think) and served us only deep-fried chicken feet. But I think my favorite ‘mishap’ is when Clay and I were seated next to a monk/priest in full garb who held a crucifix in his lap for the entire 6 hours flight, sweating profusely and chanting in a foreign language. It was quite the experience!

What’s something you pack that’s not absolutely essential but you like having? Baby wipes! Despite our children forgoing diapers years ago, we always throw a pack or two of baby wipes into our backpacks when we travel. We’ve used them to freshen up after long flights, wash our hands when there isn’t running water to be found, clean up puke, cool ourselves down, etc… The possibilities are truly endless!

What do you know now about traveling cheaply that you wish you’d known earlier? It can be done! When we were in our twenties, we put off a lot of ‘big’ trips because we assumed they were not in our budget. I think there was also a part of us that felt travel was a frivolous thing to spend money on and we needed to funnel our extra money into real estate and just settle for small low-key trips because that was more ‘adult’. Thankfully, we no longer have that attitude and we feel that travel offers us a fantastic return on our money. Being able to experience other cultures (both regional and International) with our children and showing them as much of the world as our resources allow is something for which I’ll be forever grateful.

The opportunity to explore is one of the many reasons why Clay chose to turn his 4-year commitment to the Army into a career. We take full advantage of being stationed someone new and pepper nearby weekend getaways throughout our tenure at any given location. We likely would’ve never visited Fort Worth, Texas for a long weekend if we weren’t stationed at Ft. Still, Oklahoma but then we wouldn’t have been able to experience the Stockyards or eat at the famed steakhouse. And while we haven’t been stationed overseas (yet!), we haven’t let us stop us from traveling overseas. Because one thing we’ve learned over the years, nothing is guarenteed!

Do you prefer to stay in hotels or an Airbnb? While we’ve stayed in both over the years, we find that we prefer hotels because we almost never take advantage of having a kitchen at our disposal. One of our favorite aspects of traveling is eating local food and discovering restaurants so we hardly ever eat anything beyond snacks in our room. Furthermore, we typically only use hotel rooms to sleep and shower so having a lot of space isn’t a priority for us. We’ve really enjoyed our stays in quaint inns (if you’re ever in Bourton-on-the-Water, you must stay at The Broadlands Guest House) and local hotels but we’re also pretty loyal to Marriott around the globe.

What one place would be your ultimate bucket list destination? Hmmm – this is a hard question. I do have a dream of the four of us hiking Kilimanjaro as a family when the kids are older. And Clay and I have the goal is to set foot on all 7 continents before we leave this world. In the near future, my bucket list destinations are probably Australia and New Zealand. We hope to make it a reality for our family within the next few years.

What has been the most magical place you’ve visited? Scotland. Clay and I took a kid-free vacation there a few years ago and I can’t wait to go back with the kids. A piece of my heart was left in the Highlands and along the coast. We barely scratched the surface during our 6 day trip and if ever given the opportunity to live there, we’d jump at the chance.

What is the best travel tip that you give people? Just do it. Take that trip. If you’re waiting for a perfectly planned trip to fall into your lap, you’ll never go. Don’t push off travel until retirement – after all, time is not guaranteed. Make it work now. It doesn’t have to be a big trip. Go explore a nearby town you’ve never been to before. Whatever you do – just go. As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain

The kids are starting to ask us when we can start planning our big summer adventure. Since the Army is moving us to Chicago at some point during the summer, we’re at the mercy of their timetable; only time will tell where our big adventure will be this year. But wherever we go, it will be a wonderful because we’ll be experiencing it together as a family.