Tales From The Walt Disney World Planning Trenches

We’re finally doing it – we’re going to Walt Disney World. In a couple of months, we will fly down to interior Florida and spend six days within the 40 square miles hailed as the Most Magical Place on Earth. Earlier this year, I wrote about all the reasons why we’ve chosen other destinations over Walt Disney World for vacations so I do have to chuckle that we’ll end up visiting Mickey less than a year after I published that post. Why the change of heart? Well – there are a handful of reasons why we decided to bite the bullet sooner rather than later…

  • Our kids really want to go. People certainly don’t accuse us of taking kid-centric vacations (pictures from our visit to Stonehenge exemplify this fact). When we visited Disneyland almost three years ago, Clay and I planned the trip with the idea of “We’re doing this for the kids…“. Well wouldn’t you know – I think Clay and I ended up enjoying our three days at Disneyland more than the kids. While our kids really do love our families adventures, they’ve mentioned a few times how they’d like to visit WDW. And truth be told, Clay and I do too.
  • Armed Forces Salute tickets aren’t getting any cheaper. Look – Disney World is not an inexpensive vacation. Disney has offered the Armed Forces Salute off-and-on since 2002 at varying discount levels. Since 2009, the Armed Forces Salute ticket prices have increased each year. We’ve always known we’d visit WDW eventually so early 2020 seems as good of a time as any to finally take the plunge. According to the WDW website, a 4-day non-park hopper ticket that allows guests to visit one park per day is $335/ticket. For comparison, we purchased 6-day Park Hopper ticket vouchers at Fort Belvoir for $301/each.
  • We want a winter escape. Washington DC is the winter is beautiful. There is nothing quite like seeing all of the monuments covered in snow. But by the end of the January/beginning of February timeframe, we’re always itching to escape somewhere warm for a little while. Only caveat? It is not cheap. When pricing tropical destinations to visit this winter, we mentioned, “Geez, visiting these places will cost more than Disney World!” We originally started to plan to visit over Spring Break (apparently we felt like being gluttons for punishment) but last week, we decided that we wanted to go as a mid-winter break from the gloomy DC weather instead.
  • We don’t know where we’re going next. We’re anxiously waiting to find out where the Army will send us this upcoming summer. We’re hopeful that we will be able to go on another big adventure this summer (Italy? Road trip up into the Canadian Rockies? Alaska? Ireland?) but with so much uncertainty tied to report dates and unknown locations, we’re bracing ourselves for the possibility of needing to scale back our big summer trip this year. We’re going to try our hardest to squeeze something in though!

The Not So Overwhelming But Still Intimidating Planning Process. This picture of Violet at Disneyland is exactly how I felt going into the Disney World planning process. Before kids, Clay and I would fly across the country without hotel reservations – instead choosing to Priceline a hotel upon landing. We loved the adventure of the unknown. And we love a good last minute trip. For example, a couple of years ago, we received our household goods and booked a vacation package to Deerfield Beach, Florida that had the four of us flying the next day. That’s how we like to roll, which is pretty much the opposite when it comes to a WDW vacation. It didn’t help that people would say things like, “Wow – you really are booking your trip last minute!” Since when is booking a trip 70-days out considered last minute?!?

So last weekend, I put out an SOS message on Facebook and within minutes, I had a bunch of people holding my hand telling me that it would be okay. By Sunday night, we had reservations to stay on-property and reservations for one sit-down meal each day. By Tuesday night, we had ticket vouchers in hand and plane tickets reserved. And now here we are – just waiting for the 60-day FastPast window to open up. We chose not to use a Disney Planner because we actually found ourselves enjoying the planning process and sitting side-by-side on our laptops researching various aspects of the trip. If that isn’t romance, I don’t know what is. In the past five days, we’ve completely planned a WDW trip, we’ve watched the first two episodes of The Imagineering Story on Disney+, and we’ve binged on related YouTube videos so we’ve pretty much jumped into the WDW pool cannonball style.

The excitement is building and we’re fully embracing the dorky Disney family vibe. Will mouse ears be involved? Yes. Will we wear coordinating Mickey shirts? You bet. Will this trip launch a yearly pilgrimage to WDW for our family? Nope. But I have no doubt that our visit to the most Magical Place on Earth will be a fantastic week for our family.

What are you MUST-DO’s at Walt Disney World? Those of you who are well-versed in Disney culture or have visiting WDW before, I’d love to hear your favorite things to do while in the parks. Is there a certain restaurant that you love? A ride that’s worth waiting in line for if a FastPast+ doesn’t work out? A certain snack that no trip to WDW would be complete without having? What is your favorite life-hack related to WDW? I’d love to hear it!

We Fell in Love with Salzburg, Austria

When I wrote my post about how we chose our summer vacation this year, Salzburg wasn’t on our radar. Our original plan involved squeezing in a trip to Berlin but we eventually decided that we’d rather spend our time in Bavaria this time around. To be honest, I can’t quite remember how we decided on Salzburg, Austria but I’m so incredibly happy we did!

Salzburg is amazing. It’s the fourth-largest city in Austria and known for it’s Baroque architecture, being the birthplace of Mozart, home of the Salzburg Festival, and the setting for The Sound of Music. We stayed in a family suite at Das Grune zur Post, which was a quick bus ride into Old Town (a bus stop is literally outside the hotel). Our room was spacious, clean, and comfortable. Our time in Salzburg coincided with a record-breaking heat wave so while our room had no air-conditioning, the hotel had set up couple of free-standing fans that helped. And how can you not appreciate the …interesting…artwork above the bed?

Public transportation system in Salzburg consists of a network of buses that are clean, reliable, and extremely easy to navigate. We purchased a family pass each day we were in town and had no trouble hopping on and off to get to wherever we wanted to go.

So what did we do in Salzburg?

We walked. And we walked. And we walked. Salzburg’s Old Town (Altstadt) has stunning mountain views, gorgeous baroque architecture, narrow alleys, and winding roads lined with green moss. And it even has a castle!

Known for having one of the most-preserved city centers in the Bavarian region, Salzburg’s Old Town has cobblestone streets and buildings dating back to the Middle Ages that emerged from World War II relatively unscathed – at least compared to other towns of the era. The town’s bridges and the dome of the cathedral were destroyed by Allied bombing but a majority of the baroque architecture remained intact.

The Salzburg Cathedral (still contains the baptismal font in which Mozart was baptized!) dates back to the 700s, eventually being rebuilt in the 17th century, which is as we see it today.

The kids absolutely loved the “Gurken” art installation in Furtwänglerpark by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm. We’ve had a handful of people criticize our decision to travel to Europe two summers in a row with our kids (“Why don’t wait until they’re older?”) – wondering if our itineraries are ‘too boring’ or ‘too adult’ for our elementary-aged children. Perhaps we’re lucky but both our kids enjoy exploring cities, hiking, and learning about history (Stonehenge being the exception – ha!). Our goal as parents is to have them leave the nest with a sense of adventure and an appreciation for the stories of our past and present. Fingers-crossed that we can make it three summers in a row.

Seriously – how can you not love Salzburg?

Residenzplatz is the square in the heart of Old Town Salzburg. Surrounded by the archiepiscopal residences, Residenzplatz is bordered by the New Residence, the Cathedral, the Old Residence and lots of townhomes. In the center of the square is Residenzbrunnen, a 17th century fountain that is considered the largest Baroque fountain in Central Europe. You’ve probably seen it before – Julie Andrews splashes the fountain while singing ‘I Have Confidence’ in The Sound of Music.

Speaking of The Sound of Music, easily one of the highlights of our almost two-week trip was our Fraulein Maria Bicycle Tour throughout Old Town and the countryside. The tour had us biking to famous sights of the film and locations relevant to the real Maria and Captain von Trapp, who were from Salzburg, Austria.

All of the external scenes for the movie were filmed in Salzburg and the surrounding region, and interior scenes were filmed at the 20th Century Fox studios in California.

If you find yourselves in Salzburg with time to only do one thing, I recommend The Sound of Music bike tour. It was schmalzy, incredibly fun, and absolutely beautiful.

Our time in Salzburg also included a visit to Hohensalzburg Fortress, one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. Refurbished in the 19th century, it has been a tourist attraction ever since – complete with a funicular railway up to the top. Visitors can either walk up to the castle or take the funicular railway for a small fee. The kids enjoyed seeing the exhibits scattered throughout the castle and the views are incredible!

Our time in Salzburg happened to be the week before the start of the famed Salzburg Festival so we were able to witness bustle in preparation. While we did a lot of things in Salzburg, we were not able to visit a salt mine – we ran out of time! Salzburg literally means Salt Fortress – there are artistic references to salt scattered throughout the city and almost everyone we met recommended at salt mine tour. Next time, for sure. Because we will the magnificently beautiful Salzburg again.

Three Days in The Cotswolds Isn’t Enough

When people would ask us about our travel plans for the summer, we were often met with quizzical expressions when we mentioned that we were flying into Manchester Airport as opposed to Heathrow Airport outside of London. But then when we described our plans to rent a car and drive down to the Cotswolds for a few days before heading over to London, our plan made a bit more sense to most. And in full disclosure, saving over $200 a ticket certainly played a role into our decision to not fly into London.

We arrived in Manchester around 8:30am. By the time we cleared immigration and received our rental car, it was late morning. We were able to check into our inn in the Cotswolds at 2pm that day and we were quite exhausted from our red-eye flight so we forewent any exploring around Manchester and chose to get right on the road. In hindsight, I wish we would have heeded the advice of my friend and squeezed in a visit to The John Rylands Library at University of Manchester but such is the perils of traveling – there is never enough time to see everything.

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After a few hours and a few stops at various motorway service areas (a huge shoutout to Clay for driving on the other side of the car on the the other side of the road on three hours of sleep), we arrived at the little English village we’d be staying at for our three nights in The Cotswolds.

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Bourton-on-the-Water is consistently voted one of the prettiest villages in England and filled with charming little inns, restaurants, and shops. The River Windrush winds through the village and during the warmer months, you can find children wading in the water. Beautiful bridges are sprinkled throughout the town and you can always find an outdoor table to sit at as you enjoy the view while sipping a drink.

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Our lodging choice couldn’t have been more perfect – we stayed in a family suite at The Broadlands Guest House. The innkeeper, Marco, was brilliant and really helped make our stay wonderful. He came outside and greeted us upon our arrival and excitedly informed us that Clay was the first Clay he had ever met in person. Quite the honor for my husband.

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We relaxed for a little while in our room but didn’t allow ourselves to fall asleep. By late afternoon, we walked down to a pub for an early dinner and we were in bed by 7:30pm. And by 1:30am, we were all wide awake watching British TV in the same bed and eating the shortbread I randomly picked up at a service station earlier that day. It was one of those silly little family vacation moments that I don’t think any of us will soon forget.

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We were served breakfast (cooked by Marco!) each morning of our stay and we were able to walk everywhere we wanted to go in Bourton-on-the-Water from The Broadlands Guest House. We throughly enjoyed exploring the quintessential countryside village – we really lucked out with our choice and it served as a great jumping off point for taking little day trips.

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We knew that we wanted to see a castle during our time in The Cotswolds and we weren’t let down by Berkeley Castle outside of Gloucestershire. It was only about a 45 minute drive from Bourton-on-the-Water and was the perfect way to spend our first full day in the English countryside.

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We spent hours touring Berkeley Castle and wandering the grounds. We were able to look down into a dungeon, walk around the underground tap room, and see the prison cell where Edward II was held and eventually murdered.

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The little guy even became a man for all seasons.

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We ate a late lunch on the property in a yurt and by the time we left the castle at 3:00pm, we were ready to head back to Bourton-on-the-Water and relax with a leisurely dinner and stroll through town.

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The next day, we tackled Stonehenge. We ate breakfast at our inn and then drove two hours south to the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire. The drive wasn’t fun – it required a lot of concentration on Clay’s part (tons of super windy streets wide enough for only one car) and since I was on GPS and hedge-duty, we were unable to entertain the kids with our dazzling personalities and jokes. We drove through some spectacularly quaint villages but we didn’t really get to enjoy the scenery because it felt like we were sternly telling our little adventure-mates to be quiet and stop fighting the entire drive down. When we arrived, we chose to walk about a mile to the infamous sight, rather than take the shuttle, in effort to burn some of their energy. It was just one of the many mistakes made during our trip to Stonehenge. As evident by the picture above, the kids weren’t terribly impressed and we could hear them muttering “We spent two hours in the car to see rocks?

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We were determined to maximize our time and get our money’s worth – we spent about three hours exploring the English Heritage site. If it were just Clay and I, we would have hiked all over the ancient landscape and wandered about the ancient burial mounds. But because we were traveling with kids, we adjusted our goals. The kids endured our time there and enjoyed touring the ancient dwelling replicas on display near the museum – we even caught them smiling a handful of times.

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And we got our token family shot so as far as anyone knows, we had a fabulous time at Stonehenge. Clay and I often diffuse situations with humor so when we realized that our trip to the infamous stone circle was a bit of a bust, we used it as an opportunity to make the kids laugh and salvage what we could of the day. And as a silver-lining, we now have a excellent bargaining chip when it comes to getting the kids to turn their behavior around – we threaten to take them back to Stonehenge if they don’t shape up. It totally works!

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Upon our return to Bourton-on-the-Water, we ate fish and chips at a pub, had post-dinner drinks along the river as the kids splashed in the water, and walked the quiet streets back to the inn. And we marveled at how everything was a little bit smaller, quite a bit older, and slower-paced than we’re used to back home.

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The next morning, we returned our room key to Marco and gave him a big hug. He made our stay in The Cotswolds just that much better and we couldn’t have asked for a better host. After breakfast, we walked around Bourton-on-the-Water for the last time and stopped in a bakery for a post-breakfast snack and Americano before heading to London.

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Then we hopped into our rental car one last time and turned onto a little village road. Next stop – London!

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As a closing note – I am so glad that we incorporated the English countryside into our vacation before heading to London and Paris. If you should find yourself wanting to visit England, don’t bypass The Cotswolds. And you can’t go wrong with a stay in Bourton-on-the-Water at The Broadlands Guest House. Just be sure to tell Marco that Clay and Karen sent you his way.

We’re Back.

After four flights, one ride through the English Channel on the Eurostar, one rental car in the English countryside, countless rides on the Tube and the Metro, a couple of Ubers, and taxi rides in London and Paris, we’re back from what just may be our favorite family vacation yet. A huge thank you to Allyson and Sheena – I consider them among my most witty friends so I am thrilled they agreed share some of their words on this little space of mine.

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I plan to go into detail about our trip and share highlights and lowlights in a handful of separate posts. But I feel compelled to share the general feeling of uneasiness I felt when I woke up the morning of our trip. In fact, when we began our journey with an Uber to Raegan National airport, Clay and I admitted to each other that we were a little nervous about the adventure ahead – after all, it was our first international trip with our children. Don’t get me wrong – we were also ridiculously excited. But like most worthwhile experiences in life, we reasoned that it’s always best to have at least a little bit of fear involved.

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However, our fears were soon alleviated once we boarded our first flight to Chicago. And other than being on top of the Eiffel Tower with a little blonde-haired girl who isn’t bothered by heights in the slightest, the fear was non-existent during our seven days aboard. Due to the success of traveling with our little ones, we’re already planning our next grand adventure outside of the States. Was it always easy? No. Was there whining? Sometimes. Did we bond over shared experiences and inside jokes? Yes. Did they prove themselves worthy international travel companions? 100% yes.

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We gave ourselves grace and didn’t try and pack our days too full. We didn’t view our vacation as a once-in-a-lifetime trip, we have no doubt that we will return to England and France many times before we bid adieu to this world. That being said, we still accomplished quite a bit. We went to bed exhausted and woke up the following morning excited to take on the day. And we also learned a few things too…

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Baby girl found airplane food to be absolutely amazing.

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The little guy discovered that he isn’t a fan of a traditional English breakfast.

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This one couldn’t have been less impressed by Stonehenge.

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Our little architecture expert loved The Shard in person.

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This one was super excited to turn five in Paris.

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And in Paris, this one insisted on using gel in his hair.

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But most of all, Clay and I were reminded just how much fun we have together – as a twosome and with our children. Ernest Hemingway famously told us to never go on trips with anyone you do not love. The man isn’t wrong. There is no one else I’d rather be on this crazy ride with and this trip just exemplified this fact. So while it wasn’t easy, it was 100% worth it.