Thursday, May 31, 2012

Texas Weekend Trips

I read this post on Amy's blog this morning and was really inspired to see more in Texas with our kids!

Brian and I have been to Houston to see some stuff before we had kids.  We've also spent time in San Antonio and Austin, all before kids.   San Antonio has been on our list to visit again with our kids, but I never thought about returning to Houston just for the kids' stuff.  But now I think it would be fun!  Our kids would probably love the Space Center.

In the big scheme of vacation planning, we can only afford to go somewhere far once a year.  But I'd also like to squeeze in a small, local Texas trip once a year, too.  Our school district has a couple of 3-day weekends surrounding teacher work days, and we also have the entire week of Thanksgiving off, so in addition to the summer that gives us a few "off-season" times to accomplish these weekend trips.  (I'm not a fan of doing anything during Spring Break in Texas since the entire state has the same Spring Break and everything is super crowded!)

So I've started a Texas Weekend Trip wish list:

*  Houston--Aquarium, kids museum, Space Center

*  San Antonio--Sea World, Riverwalk, Schlitterbahn

*  Glen Rose--Dinosaur Valley State Park, Dino World, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

*  Galveston--Moody Gardens, the beach

*  Port Aransas--ocean stuff

*  Great Wolf Lodge--we went here once when we just had our oldest son.  It was a blast!
Our son in our room at Great Wolf Lodge, Dec 2008

*  Dude Ranch--we are thinking about staying at a ranch near Wichita Falls next year during one of Brian's bike rides

*  Amarillo--we will probably stay here every time we drive to Colorado to see my family.  The Big Texan is not to be missed!

*  Austin?

Have you been to any of these places?  Would you recommend?  What other places have you been to in Texas that you'd recommend for families?  Or do you have any places you'd recommend for a couples romantic getaway (if we can ever find someone to watch all 3 of our kids?)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I am the bug man

We have a lot of bugs in Texas.  When I lived in an apartment, the management company would provide pest control services every few months. I was never home when they came by, but I never had a bug problem. So all was well.

Then when we got married and moved into a house, we had to figure that stuff out on our own. So we hired a pest control service. And then we moved into our new home in a slightly more rural area, and we immediately noticed the bugs were worse. So we continued the pest control service.

I was home most of the time for our pest control services at our home, and for a while we had the same person coming to our house. My younger son called him "the bug man". "Is the bug man coming today? Is the bug man killing our bugs?"

But somewhere along the way, as our pest control company was bought out and a new company came, we began to think that we could really just do this ourselves. We were paying $90 a visit for them to just put granules in our yard and sweep away spider webs and wasp nests.  The last company we had didn't even spray inside our house.

So we decided this was something we could learn to do ourselves.  How hard can it be?

We bought the supplies. And earlier this week, I became "the bug man."  Granules on the grass, spraying on the inside, knocking down webs on the outside.  It didn't take me long.  I hope it works just as well.

I wrote a reminder on my calendar to repeat the process in 3 months.

We also cancelled our lawn weed control/fertilizer service, and I will be doing that.  Which I think will be a little more complicated.  But we are saving over $700 a year by doing these ourselves.

Are you your own bug man?  Do you do your lawn treatment yourself?  I'd love any tips/websites/advice you can give me on the topic.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Changes to Lowe's Build & Grow Workshops

We went to the Lowe's Build & Grow workshop this morning to build an ice cream truck.

The employees informed us of a few changes for the summer:

*  The Build & Grow workshops will now be offered on Saturdays (same time, 10 a.m.) AND Sundays at 2 p.m. (Sundays are new).

*  You must pre-register.  They will no longer accommodate walk-ups.

*  All of the projects this summer are Dreamworks themed---Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, Shrek, etc.

Sounds like fun!

My son built his ice cream truck all on his own this morning.
They also had free snow cones there (I guess for the holiday weekend).

We will definitely be signing up for more of these this summer!  See the schedule here.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


We are 18 days away from our vacation departure, and it's time to really start thinking about preventing sickness in our household. Normally I'm not one to NOT take my kids somewhere due to fear of germs, but for the next few weeks I will be that mom. Why? Because if you are sick they will not allow you to board the cruise ship. Sickness spreads very easily on a cruise ship due to close quarters and they take every precaution not to have a boat full of sick people.

And how much would that suck to have this vacation planned for 2 years and not be able to board the ship???

So I've stocked up on vitamins, echinacea, soap, hand sanitizers...

On a Disney Cruise, the crew gives everyone an antibacterial wipe upon entering the dining rooms.  There are also automatic hand-washing machines for the kids before and after the kids' clubs (see this video).  I'm not as worried about getting sick on the ship, because I figure with all that preventative stuff, if we still end up getting sick then there is nothing we can do about it.  (We do have trip insurance which will reimburse for any days "lost" in quarantine due to sickness, and it also pays for any medical expenses on board the ship since most U.S. health insurance does not cover medical expenses incurred overseas).

But I do feel like I have *some* control on how many germs my kids are exposed to pre-vacation.  While my oldest son is in school until 4 days prior to our trip, my middle son's last week of school is this Wednesday.  I plan on avoiding the gym daycare and fast-food playgrounds from now until our trip. 

Last year, on our vacation to San Diego, my youngest son got sick.  We were at the San Diego Wild Animal Safari Park, he was having a blast, but we noticed that he had a big bulge in his neck.  Hmmm...what's that?  We asked him if he felt alright, he said he did.  But, um, he had a BIG BULGE IN HIS NECK!  We left the park early (kind of a bummer because it was a really cool park, but I was kind of freaking out!)  We found a CVS with a Minute Clinic and took him to be checked out.  He had a severe case of strep and his lymph nodes were very swollen!  So it turned out not to be a big deal, he got on antibiotics and was not contagious after 24 hours.  But we were in the U.S., where our insurance was accepted, and we had a spacious rental condo where our son could recuperate.  That trip was in January, which in my mind is a month more prone to sickness than June (not sure if that's actually true, though).

Have you ever gotten sick on a vacation?  Have you ever missed a vacation due to illness?  Have you ever taken precautions before your vacation?  Do you think I'm nuts???

Friday, May 18, 2012

What are you doing this summer?

What are you doing this summer to keep cool and stay entertained???

My 3 kids, last summer, at a local splash park

Our summer vacation lasts just one week, and our summer break is a little longer this year, so I need to have a plan for the rest of our summer. My husband works from home most days, and he's on the phone with customers all day, so if I don't have a plan my kids will be noisy in the house and it just doesn't work out. I like to get the kids out of the house at least once per day, preferably in the morning.

So aside from our big trip, here are some of the other things we have going on this summer:

Camps/Registered activities: 

 *  Swimming lessons--my youngest son is signed up for private swimming lessons for 2 weeks this summer.  Our oldest son took lessons from this same teacher last year and had fabulous results! 

Vacation Bible School--both of my boys are signed up for a week of VBS at a local church

Lego Camp--my oldest son is signed up for a Lego camp at Bricks for Kidz (we got a coupon for 50% off--yay!)

There are so many cool camps around here--but I have to limit those because the cost could get out of hand.  I may add one or two more camps if the price is right.

Summer Reading programs:

Last year we participated in several of these formal reading programs, since reading is a part of our daily routine anyway.  The boys loved checking off their lists and getting prizes.  The ones we do are:

*  Half Price Books--read for 15 minutes a day for a month and get a $5 gift card.  See this link.

*  Pottery Barn Kids--read from their reading list and get a free book.  See this link.

*  Barnes & Nobles--read 8 books and get a free book.  They have not posted their 2012 reading log yet, but rumor is that it will be posted soon.

*  McKinney Public Library--summer reading program kicks off on Friday June 1 at 10:30 a.m.  Last year, the kids got prizes after reading a certain number of books and they got a free book at the end.

*  Plano Public Library--we didn't do this one last year, we might do it this year.  Has anyone done this?

Free Community Activities:

We are so lucky that in this area there are so many free kids' activities that are offered in the summer!  The libraries have programs with magicians, circus clowns, musicians, etc.  Some of the local malls also have free entertainment.  I'm putting these activities on my calendar for when we feel like being indoors.

Here are a few links:

Plano Public Library summer activities

The Shops at Willow Bend summer activities

Not totally free, but the Frisco Heritage Museum has some inexpensive kids activities including a $10 camp for kids:
Frisco Heritage Museum

Water Activities:

We fully take advantage of our neighborhood pools.  And local splash parks.  Like daily.  Since last summer we have discovered a few splash parks we didn't know about last year.   There are 7 parks in the city of McKinney with splash pads (see this link).  We will definitely return to Horizon, Ash Woods, and Whisenant parks this summer.

I'm also a big fan of the Jack Carter Pool in Plano, and we will definitely go there this summer as it is geared toward the younger kids and this may be one of the last years my oldest son will enjoy it!

What are your favorite pools/splash parks around here?

In addition to the above activities, I will be taking one of my kids to speech therapy twice a week.  My kids will also have some "learning time" and quiet time each day while my youngest is napping.  They will read, practice handwriting, or get on online math sites.  Neighborhood play dates.  And we will be hosting our nieces for a week when we plan to splurge on a few local tourist activities (we are thinking about going to Medieval Times!  Have you been there?)

I actually really love the summer with my kids.  I love having a more laid back schedule and getting more of a choice in our daily activities than when they are in school. 

So back to my question....what are you doing this summer?  If you have any ideas for free, cheap, or fun activities, please share!

Thursday, May 17, 2012


I got the kids these autograph books from Etsy.

They each came with their own pen and a personalized carrying case.

The boys still have their autograph books from their last Disney trips. It's a good souvenir and it gives the kids something to do when they meet a character. And it gives us more time to snap a picture of them with the character before they head off to the next group.

A great way to meet characters and get autographs is to go to a character meal. They have them at all 4 of the Disney World parks and at several of the hotel resorts. The characters come around to your table while you are eating, so you don't have to stand in line like you do out in the parks.

The cruise we are going on does not have a character meal, but supposedly the ship is crawling with characters, so we will see what the kids feel like doing.

Before the cruise, we have a breakfast reservation at the Crystal Palace inside the Magic Kingdom to see all of the Pooh family characters (which are not on the cruise ships due to licensing restrictions). We have an 8 a.m. reservation, the park doesn't open until 9 a.m., so I am looking forward to walking down a deserted Main Street U.S.A. in the morning. (What, 8 a.m. is crazy early, you say? Not if your kids are up at the crack of dawn every day like ours are!)

Do you take an autograph book with you to Disney World? Do your kids like to get autographs and meet the characters, or not so much?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

ARRRRRRRRRR! There be pirates in these waters!

I think we now have sufficient pirate clothing for the kids for our cruise. I just got the boys these new pirate PJs from Target. They are usually not excited about new clothes, but the one exception is new PJs. They LOVE getting new PJs. So I'll pack these and surprise them on our trip.

I also found a pirate shirt for the boys at Target for $7.  They can wear these on Pirate Night (a themed pirate dinner followed by a pirate show and fireworks on the ship).

And my youngest still has this pirate costume I mentioned earlier that I got at a post-Halloween sale:


The hubby and I still haven't decided if we're going to dress up for Pirate Night. We are open to suggestions, though.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The countdown chain!

Our vacation countdown chain is up and running! I had intended on having a countdown chain at 30 days out...but didn't make it and now we are in the 20s! So I figured I better throw something together.

My younger son was pretty excited when he saw it go up!  Jumping up and down!

Here is the countdown chain:

I wrote the days left and the date, so we wouldn't get confused once we started ripping the chains off.  Each day also has a Disney sticker on it.

It won't be long now!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Trying on the ears

My son made me a Mother's Day card. It says "Thank you for making us nice dinners and thank you for taking us on good vacations." And that brings a tear to my eye, because I know how fondly I look back on my family vacations as a kid and I'm thankful that my parents took us on many adventures when I was growing up. I hope my kids have fond memories of our family vacations when they are adults and that no matter where we go we make lasting memories.

My youngest found some old Mickey Mouse ears and tried them out this afternoon.
What is this?

Hmmmm....looks familiar.

It's a Mickey Mouse hat!

How does this thing go on?


Not quite...

Like this!

See ya real soon, Mickey!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Too much planning?

I love reading travel blogs, travel message boards, trip reviews and trip reports on the internet. By reading them, I've found out some great information for every vacation we've been on. Helpful information, such as:

* How to get the cheapest price on a Disney Cruise (see this post)

* When is the best time to ride the Aqua Duck (as soon as you board on the first day, or at night but definitely not during the sea day)

* What are the best rides to hit first at the Magic Kingdom?

* What are some of the best/most unique restaurants at Disney World?

* What are the differences between the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park? etc.

But, while I've gotten some great tips from scouring the internet, I've also read accounts of people whose trips, despite careful planning, did not go well. And when I say did not go well, I mean that things did not go exactly as planned. According to their highly researched, meticulously planned vacation. And it seemed to sour their entire trip.

 And I'm talking about things like this:

* They requested a certain building/certain room at the hotel and did not get it

* Their favorite food item was no longer on the menu

* A ride broke down and messed up their touring plans etc.

* The cruise line was out of Mickey head ice cream bars and instead substituted Mickey head ice cream sandwiches (this was a major deal for some people!  This discussion thread was long and passionate!)

It seems like I read these types of complaints often about Disney trips because some people go there every year or multiple times a year, and they get used to things being a certain way.  As an interesting side note...I've been to Disney World around 14 times (starting when I was a toddler) and so far I've never stayed at the same hotel twice.  On our upcoming trip, we will be staying at a Disney resort (Caribbean Beach) for 3 nights before our cruise and this will be the first repeat resort stay for me in all these years!

Reading about these trip disappointments reminds me of a very important part of going on vacation:  letting go.  No matter how helpful the research and reading and planning is, and how it can make our vacation easier since we know the shortcuts or shorter lines and better restaurants, from the moment we step on the plane we have to just let it go and go with the flow.  Especially since we are traveling with kids.

Our on first trip to Disney World in 2008 with our oldest son, we had a great time at some character meals.  Our son loved getting his picture with the characters and collecting their autographs.  So for our next trip in 2010, when we also had our younger son along at age 2, we had booked several character meals throughout our stay.  We figured it's an easy way to see the characters without standing in line.  Needless to say, this is how our younger son reacted upon seeing the characters:
You might not be able to tell from this picture, but he was TERRIFIED.  Screaming.  Sobbing.  Hysterical.

So we went with the flow and cancelled our remaining characters meals (except for the last one of our trip, which was a big extended family get together, so we had to make it through that one).

On this same trip, our oldest son wasn't quite tall enough for Space Mountain.  We actually thought he was tall enough, his head came up to the line, but a cast member could barely squeeze a piece of paper between his head and the bar so he was denied entrance.  Good thing we had prepared our son that he might not be able to ride, and good thing none of us had a meltdown when we was denied entrance to Space Mountain!

We are less than a month before our departure date.  And at this point, I've read and researched and planned all that I'm going to do.  All that's left to do is wait, count down, and LET GO!  Our vacation might not go exactly as planned, but hopefully by having the right attitude we can make the best of any situation and not let anything ruin our fun.

Have you ever had anything go wrong on your vacation?  What happened, and how did you handle it?  I'd love to hear your stories (hopefully we can laugh about them now?)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

More Savings Ideas for Vacations

Have you ever paid for a vacation in advance, and then came back from a vacation broke or in debt after having paid for those extra or unexpected expenses? I have! It's easy to budget for the expected expenses of a vacation--hotel, airline tickets, rental car, entertainment tickets, etc. It's the extras that are more difficult--pet/house sitting, parking at the airport, luggage fees, souvenirs, meals, etc.

Back in December I wrote about how to get the cheapest price for a Disney Cruise; now I'll share some of my tips on saving on other miscellaneous parts of a vacation.  

1. Use credit card rewards smartly. If you have good credit and are disciplined enough to pay your credit card balance in full every month to avoid fees and interest charges, using a credit card with rewards attached can be an easy way to save money on your vacation. We had been using a generic rewards card up until last year, and we'd cash out the rewards every now and then and not ever remember what we spent it on. Then last year we received an offer in the mail for a Disney Visa rewards card, and since we figured we'd probably go to Disney World or on a Disney Cruise a few more times while the kids are young, we decided to switch. At the time we signed up for the card, they were offering a $200 Disney gift card as an incentive. My husband and I each got a card, so we got $400 in Disney gift cards. Then we paid for our cruise with the credit card, which got us more reward dollars (and an additional $50 onboard credit). We switched some of our utilities to the credit card so that we earn more reward points while still paying off our card every month. Bottom line, our Disney Visa rewards enabled us to get 3 nights at a Disney hotel before our cruise and our kids' tickets to Disney World for free!  

2. If flying, pack less. Most airlines charges $25 per checked bag, so packing less cuts down on luggage fees. Last year when we flew to San Diego, we fit all of our clothes and stuff for 5 people (including a baby) in 2 large suitcases. I'd like to only bring 2 suitcases on our upcoming trip, but realistically we might have to stretch that to 3 suitcases since we will need to bring some dress-up clothes. We will see.

3. Pre-pay for airport parking and look for an online discount code. If you're not familiar with, visit the site before you pay for anything online. It's a database of online coupon codes. Currently there is a code for Park n Fly.

4. Save on photographs. Take your own camera and ask someone to take your picture at an attraction or with a character. I've always done this at Disney World. Also, consider pre-purchasing a Disneyworld photopass CD and/or splitting the cost with another family traveling at the same time.  

5. Plan far in advance for souvenir money, especially for kids. If your kids are old enough to earn an allowance, teach them to save some for souvenirs on your vacation. As soon as my oldest son turned 5, he started earning an allowance and has saved money for all of his souvenirs on our last 2 vacations (Disney World and San Diego). Ask family members for gift cards or vacation money for birthdays and holidays. Last Christmas, my kids each received a $50 Disney gift card from my parents. Brian and I also received a $75 gift card from my brother and sister-in-law.

6. Save money on food. Bring your own food for snacks on the airplane. Bring Nutri-Grain bars for a quick, easy breakfast. Eat sit-down meals for lunch instead of dinner (prices are usually cheaper at lunch). Share a meal instead of ordering one for each person. Bring your own water bottle and fill it up at water fountains along the way.

I'd love to hear your money-saving tips for all those vacation *extras*!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The FE gifts have arrived!

If you are on my cruise and in my Fish Extender group, don't read this! (If you are scratching your head wondering what the heck is a Fish Extender, read here). I put a lot of thought into what to give to our group. We have 16 families in our group, a total of 67 people (31 adults and 36 kids). I've read of people shipping a box to the port full of their gifts to give out. Or bringing an entire suitcase filled with their loot. Because we are traveling as a family of 5, I needed to be really practical with the size of the gifts we bring. I wanted my FE gifts to be small, light, and portable (and possibly consumable). I've seen what other people give out---and some of it is quite creative and crafty. I am neither of those things, really. So I decided on two practical things: pens and gum/candy. I ordered these personalized pens that say "It's a Dream come true!" and our cruise dates below it. With those pens, the adults will get gum and mints and the kids will get candy for the theater shows.

I know our kids will have fun delivering these to the other families. And I'm looking forward to seeing what surprises we get!