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.

Four Days in Munich – Prost!

Munich (München in German) is literally “Home of the Monks”. Founded in 1158 and known as the capital of Bavaria since 1506, Munich’s history is filled with stories of counter-reformation, renaissance arts, the plague, and war. Despite the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, Munich eventually became known as Hauptstadt der Bewegung (Capitol of the Movement) when Hitler and the Nazi Party took control of Germany in 1933. Dachau, the first concentration camp, is located only 10 miles outside of the city. For these reasons and more, it’s a shame to only associate Munich with Oktoberfest and beer.

That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy ourselves when it came to drinking our calories in Munich. I was right at home because it doesn’t get much better than hefeweizen in my world. Clay is an IPA man himself, so while he thoroughly enjoyed drinking his way around Bavaria, he was missing hops greatly by the time our trip was ending. And you have to love Germany – Clay and I drank cheaper than our kids during our four days in Munich, which should be known as Land of the 5€ Cokes.

We arrived in Munich around 11am on a Sunday and thankfully didn’t have too long of a wait for immigration – waiting to get my passport stamped after sleeping on a plane for 9+ hours is easily my least favorite aspect of traveling. We grabbed our luggage and attempted to figure out how to purchase passes for the Munich U-Bahn and S-Bahn. We used a kiosk and crossed our fingers that we bought the correct tickets. On our way to find the U-Bahn entrance, we passed an information desk and decided to double-check our instincts – which ended up being wrong. The incredibly nice lady gave us a refund, explained the various zones, and told us that a daily family pass is our best (and cheapest!) option for using Munich public transportation.

We were able to get to our hotel, Sheraton Munich Westpark, without any trouble and we very much appreciated it being directly above the
München Heimeranplatz train station. We were in a family suite that was spacious and found paying the extra $10/night for access to the Sheraton Club on the top floor was will worth the money. With the Club, we had 24/7 access to bottled water, bottled soda, bottled beer, and coffee/espresso/cappuccino, as well food during certain times of the day. I highly recommend the hotel, which is part of Marriott Bonvoy collection, if you find yourself in Munich with kids – it is just a few train stops away from the city center and within walking distance of some fantastic independent neighborhood restaurants that don’t charge city center prices.

Our first meal in Munich was at the infamous Hofbräuhaus am Platzl. Yes, it was a touristy thing to do but hey – we were tourists. Clay and I did learn that we were a bit overzealous with our drinking a liter of beer on only a few hours sleep.

We spent the rest of the evening strolling through the streets of Munich and just experiencing the sights and sounds of the city. By the end of World War II, Munich was a shell of it’s former self due to the heavy bombings it endured. As a result, the city was painstakingly rebuilt using photographs that the Nazi’s meticulously captured when they realized that the Allied Forces were closing in.

We spent the next day exploring to our hearts content. I found the dichotomy between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ throughout the city particularly somber and beautiful.

We were able to witness the famed Rathaus-Glockenspiel in Marienplatz, which is in the heart of Munich. Every day at 11am and 12pm (year-round) and 5pm (summer only), it chimes and re-enacts two stories from the 16th century. Marienplatz is the central square of Munich and has been it’s main square since 1158. Pictured is New Town Hall, which was completed in 1909 and a brilliant example of neo-gothic architecture.

We visited Viktualienmarkt at least once a day for drinks and food. Viktualienmarkt is a popular outdoor market next to Marienplatz that is filled with over 140 stalls offering food, drinks, flowers, produce, etc…

The Englischer Garten is a large public park in Munich that is one of the largest in the world (it’s even bigger than Central Park). We waded in the water, saw a few nude sunbathers, and marveled at the seemingly endless green space in the middle of the city.

The beer garden that surrounds Chinese Tower in Englischer Garten seats over 7000 people so of course, we had to eat (and drink) there.

The stream that runs through Englischer Garten is artificial so as a result of the water pumping mechanism there is a standing wave at one end. On any given day, you can see people attempting to serve on the wave for as long as they can. We watched quite a few people with serious surfing skills – in Munich nonetheless!

Like many people traveling to new places, we love to visit churches that have withstood history and tell a story of their own. I couldn’t stop staring at the ceiling of Heilig-Geist-Kirche (Holy Ghost Church).

Another one I loved was Michaelskirche (St. Michael’s Church), which is the largest Renaissance church north of the Alps. “Mad” King Ludwig II also happens to be entombed in the crypt.

Our time in Munich was broken up into two chunks – two days at the beginning of our trip and two days at the end. We stayed at the same hotel and really enjoyed bookending our vacation in Home of the Monks. Munich is Germany’s third largest city and home to almost 1.5 million people. But it many ways, it’s the perfect blend of city and country – there are so many public parks that you never feel too far away from nature. And we were hard-pressed to find a window that didn’t have fresh flowers or plants growing in a windowsill.

And how can you not love the sight of Monks strolling the streets?

We loved just walking around the city and seeing where each day took us. One evening, we climbed almost 300 rickety steps to the top of the Church of St. Peter for a fantastic view of Munich (totally worth the few Euros).

We all agreed that our favorite food in Munich were the meals that had a strong Hungarian influence. The goulash we had at Hofbrauhaus was one of the best dishes we ate the entire trip.

We did make it a point to visit Olympiapark, home to the 1972 Summer Olympics and the site of the Munich Massacre. We visited the memorial – erected near where 11 Israeli Olympic team members were held hostage and killed by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. A West Germany police officer was also killed in the attack. Olympiapark continues to serve as a venue for cultural, social, and religious events. It also has a playground that the kids absolutely adored (Germany has fantastic playgrounds in general).

We also popped into BMW Welt, where we were able to get up close and personal with various Bayerische Motoren Werke products. Entrance is free and you are encouraged to ask questions and fall in love with the cars. We opted not to pay to go to the museum because we got our fix from the free and massive showroom.

Did you know that there is a Michael Jackson memorial in Munich? Neither did we until we accidentally stumbled upon it one morning.

Feldherrnhalle, a 19th-century Italianate monument to the Bavarian Army and the site of Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.

We found Munich incredibly easy to navigate and an absolute joy to explore. If you ever have any questions about visiting Munich with kids, please do not hesitate to ask!

130 Miles West – A Overnight Trip to the Shenandoah Valley

Last week wasn’t the best. The kids were sick, Clay was TDY, and I’m pretty sure we were experiencing some post-vacation blues. Earlier in the week we talked about going way for Saturday night but then a stomach virus knocked me off my feet, Clay came home sick, and we waved the white flag on Friday night.

However, the four of us woke up Saturday morning refreshed and feeling *almost* normal. We were drinking coffee, watching TV, and brainstorming ideas of how to spend the day. We talked about going downtown or hiking Great Falls or visiting Roosevelt Island but nothing was really exciting us. But the coffee was kicking in and we were feeling the best we’d felt all week so when the idea of going out of town for the night was tossed around, all four of us we’re on board. We quickly decided to head to Charlottesville, Virginia for the night, which was our original plan earlier in the week. Despite being stationed here for almost five years between two tours, we had never been to Monticello or Shenandoah National Park, which was as good of a reason as any to drive a couple of hours toward the mountains.

We were on the road by 10am. We stopped for brunch along the way and made to Monticello by early afternoon. We purchased tickets and then wandered the grounds until our scheduled tour time. We participated in outdoor ‘Slavery at Monticello’ tour, which focused on the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and labored on the Monticello plantation.

Even though Thomas Jefferson publicly condemned slavery, he owned over 600 slaves himself. He split up enslaved families, impregnated a teenage Sally Hemings when he was in his 40s, and only freed five enslaved men during his lifetime. I appreciated that our tour guide didn’t try and gloss over these facts and was very outspoken about how Thomas Jefferson was not a good man when it came to his treatment of the enslaved people at Monticello – ensuring his reputation as a complex and controversial historical figure.

The house tour was informative but it was a bit squished due to the size of our tour group. No pictures are allowed inside the house (pictured above is small building in the gardens) and it was difficult to hear the guide at times. While we’re glad that we finally visited Monticello, we all agree that it is a ‘one and done‘ place for us.

After Monticello, we drove into Charlottesville and checked into our hotel. We were a very short walk from Charlottesville Historic Downtown Mall, so we spent the evening strolling along the brick-paved roads. It was a gorgeous evening and it was easy to see why Charlottesville is consistently voted as one of the best places to live in the United States.

We opted to eat dinner at The Bebedero, which is located at one end of the mall. We loved the vibe and the drinks were amazing – my spicy margarita was one of the best I’ve ever had. But we may have been a bit to cavalier going to a Mexican restaurant after a week of not feeling great. For that reason, I don’t feel like I was a good judge of the food. We chalked up our meal as a learning experience for the weekend.

Yesterday morning, we checked out of our hotel and drove into Shenandoah National Park from the Swift Run Gap entrance. We briefly considered hiking Old Rag with the kids but due to them just getting over being sick, we decided that the strenuous hike might’ve been a bit much for them. Instead, we hiked a 5-mile loop and saw Dark Hallow Falls and Rose River Falls.

We did a bit of rock scrambling and the trails had enough obstacles that it didn’t feel like we were taking a leisurely hike in the woods. And most exciting – we had our first black bear in the wild! It was through the woods on the other side of the creek so we felt no danger but it was still a bit unnerving – especially since the kids were with us.

We checked off another national park and look forward to spending more time at Shenandoah National Park until the Army decides to send us somewhere else. We’re so glad we decided to get away for the night. -summer is quickly coming to an end (I start my new job next week – eek!) and the kids’ sports schedules will soon dictate our weekends. Time seems to be moving at lightening speed during this phase of our lives so it was nice to spend uninterrupted time together as a family. But we’re hopeful that this fall will allow us at least a few spontaneous last-minute overnight trips…where should we go next?