Friday, December 27, 2013

Fish Extender Gifts for our next Disney Cruise

Now that Christmas is over, I have time to organize the gifts we are giving away on our next Disney Cruise. The Fish Extender Gift Exchange is a fun activity we have participated in on our past two Disney Cruises. It's sort of like a Secret Santa gift exchange between a small group of families/cabins. You can read more about it here.
Fish Extender next to cabin door

Our upcoming group has 19 cabins. We are giving out an adult gift of a Mickey cookie cutter with recipe and personalized M&Ms with our cruise name and date.

The boys will be getting Avengers inflatable swords, to go along with the new Avenger's Academy in the Oceaneer Club on the Disney Magic. The girls will get Princess and Minnie light-up wands. These toys are from Dollar Tree. The kids will also get some candy to take to the evening musicals and movies, since theater concessions are one of the few things that Disney charges extra for on the cruise.

Other types of gifts we have received in the past include pirate tattoos/necklaces for Pirate Night, glow sticks, trinkets from cruisers' home states, door magnets and of course Disney character items.

Our kids have enjoyed these friendly gift exchanges, and coming back to our cabin throughout the day to find little trinkets on our door is like finding a full stocking on Christmas morning.

Need ideas for a Fish Extender gift? Check out Pinterest or Facebook groups that specialize in Fish Extender idea exchanges. Also, wedding favor websites and corporate swag websites offer items that you can personalize for your cruise date.

Have you participated in a Fish Extender Exchange on a Disney Cruise or on another cruise line?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science has been open in Dallas for just over a year, and we finally made it there today! We have been meaning to check out this popular new museum for many months now, but just never made the leap. We received some unexpected free member guest passes (thanks Toni!) so today was the day.

Photo from

Since opening, the museum has exceeded attendance forecasts, and therefore the website urges visitors to book tickets online to secure an entrance. We had an 11:30 a.m. reservation, and when we arrived there was a sign saying that walk-up tickets were already sold out until 4:00 p.m. that day. Parking was a little hard to find, as the lots closest to the museum were already full. But we found a city public parking lot not too far away and got one of the last remaining spaces.

Outside of the museum is a musical playground and a bunch of green frogs. Both were a hit with my kids and many other kids.

Musical playground

Outside the entrance

When we got inside the entrance, there was a big group of 11:30 ticket holders in a queue. It did not take long to get us all scanned and inside. We decided to head downstairs first, to the children's museum section.

It had a Dallas skyline playground:

Blocks and levers:

An arts and crafts station:

A supermarket:

A flower pattern activity:

Some creepy crawly snakes and spiders:

A camping section:

The kids probably could have played in this section for a lot longer, but the museum had 10 more exhibits open to general admission, and we wanted to see more things.

On the way to the next exhibit, we played at an interactive LED light wall:

The Sports room was also downstairs. The kids loved this activity where you could pick a person or animal and race against it. The boys first raced against a T-Rex, then a cheetah. They lost.

The room also had an interesting exhibit that showed the human body under x-ray/ct scan/mri/pet scan.

After the Sports room, we went back up and took the scenic escalator to the top floor.

The other floors contained exhibits about dinosaurs, the universe, gems and minerals, energy, engineering and life. I wish I could say that I got to fully enjoy each one, but my youngest started to get really fussy from being hungry and thirsty. She has not mastered getting water from a drinking fountain, so I decided to break off from the boys and allow them to enjoy the museum while I found my daughter some food and drink. Here are some photos of some of the other exhibits:

Since we visited the day after Christmas, I appreciated the fact that we did not have to walk through the gift shop to exit the museum. No more toys!

Unfortunately, we did have to exit the museum to get to the restaurant.

Overall, the Perot Museum is an entertaining place for adults and kids. The museum has lots of technology and variety in its exhibits, with hands-on activities for the kids (and adults) scattered throughout most of the rooms. We'd like to go back there again, but either with just our older kids or when my daughter is a little older.

Have you been to the Perot Museum in Dallas? How does it compare to other science museums you have visited?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Traditions

When I reflect back on my childhood Christmases, I definitely remember more about the things we did as a family than the things I received.

My family celebrated Christmas with a Norwegian influence. We ate a smorgasbord of appetizers on Christmas Eve, sang Happy Birthday to Jesus and ate a birthday cake, and opened our presents on Christmas Eve. My dad always took us kids out on a walk around the neighborhood to see if we could see Rudolph and Santa's sleigh in the sky, and by the time we returned home, Santa had miraculously dropped our presents off by the fireplace. We ended every Christmas Eve by attending a candlelight service at church. Christmas Day was a day for sleeping in and playing with our gifts.

My parents and siblings still celebrate with these traditions, but since I moved out-of-state and closer to my husband's family, we have developed our own traditions, including tamales on Christmas Eve and presents on Christmas morning.

My kids enjoy the treasures of an Advent Calendar every year. We have a large hanging quilt advent calendar with pockets, but this year we went with a Lego calendar. (No Elf on a Shelf for us!)

Our kids get their photo with Santa every year. Always a different Santa, but so far they haven't commented.

We love Christmas lights! Every year, we drive to Christmas in Cuero. Just a short drive from my in-laws' house, it is a spectacular drive-thru Christmas light display in the city park. There are lights on both sides of the roads, as well as lights across the lake. It takes about 30 minutes to see all the lights by car.

Images from

When we are at home, we drive by a house in our neighborhood with Christmas lights synchronized to music, and we drive through a few other neighborhoods close by that are known for their fabulous Christmas lights.

I would LOVE to do matching Christmas PJs, but my husband refuses to participate. And even if I did buy them, he would not consent to a photo in them. Bah humbug.

I'm sure our traditions will change as our kids get older.  This year will be the first year we will actually be at our own house for Christmas, so we are incorporating some of my family's old Norwegian traditions mixed with our new Texas ones.

What are your family Christmas traditions?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Spilling the Beans

We just surprised our kids today with news of a family vacation we are taking next month. As with every big family trip, we debated about how and when to spill the beans about our vacation plans. Some of our vacation revelations have been more elaborate than others, but we usually at least gather some photos of our destination and find it on the map. Then, in the months leading up to the vacation, we read about the places we will visit and watch YouTube videos to get a taste of where we are going.

I always hear about families who wait until the moment they leave to surprise the kids by going to the airport. I don't think I could ever hold out that long. I love learning about things ahead of time with the kids and sharing the excitement and anticipation. Also, I read in this study that the largest happiness boost from a vacation comes from the anticipation.

So this time, the kids came home from school to find some big balloons and a photo explaining our upcoming trip.

We've never had any over-the-top reactions to our big vacation revelations, but as the news starts to sink in, the kids get more excited.

Have you ever surprised anyone with a vacation? How and when did you do it?

I will post a trip report next month and reveal all the ways we were able to save money on this trip.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving trip

Yesterday we returned from our Thanksgiving trip. I will stress the word "trip", not "vacation" for sure (see this). (Just keeping it real!) We discovered last year that the days leading up to Thanksgiving are generally not crowded at tourist attractions, and since the kids have the entire week off school and we have hotel points and can stay for free, why not try seeing more of Texas?

We left on Tuesday morning and headed to the Houston area. We secured a reservation at a Marriott Springhill Suites with Brian's loyalty points. We like this chain of hotels because the regular rooms have enough bed space for 6 people (2 Queen beds and a sofa bed).

Here is my son showcasing the beds and the sofa/sitting areas:

It took us 6 hours to drive to our hotel (instead of 4) due to snow, heavy rain and traffic. So by the time we arrived, the kids were ready to swim! We got in our swimsuits. We went downstairs looking for the pool, only to find that this particular hotel was one of the few with an outdoor pool instead of an indoor pool, and it wasn't heated. And it was 30-something degrees outside. So...after some crying and whining (the kids, not me...) we returned upstairs.

That evening, we headed over to a friend's house for dinner. The adults got to chat while the kids played, and it was a nice evening.

At the hotel that night, we were all up half the night. The kids have trouble sharing beds. All of us except one switched beds during the night. When we woke up the next morning, we were all still exhausted and a little grumpy.

But we had plans on Wednesday to go to Galveston. We had another reservation at a Springhill Suites on points in Galveston, and this was the view from our balcony. (And yes, our drive to Galveston was way longer than it should have been due to traffic and multiple bathroom stops).

First we went to Moody Gardens.   Moody Gardens offers free admission to 1 of its attractions for students with A/B report cards (within 30 days of issuance). Moody Gardens has 3 pyramids (aquarium, rainforest and discovery museum) as well as 3-D and 4-D movies and a paddle wheel boat ride. After reading reviews online of all of the attractions, we decided to go to the aquarium pyramid. Since the boys got in free with their report cards, and kids under 4 are also free, we just had to pay for Brian and me.

The aquarium pyramid

The aquarium had a passport book for all of the sharks, and the kids stamped their books at various stations.

There was a nice seal exhibit, and the seals were very active and came right up to the window.

These stingrays weren't shy.

The aquarium also had a penguin exhibit that was visible on multiple levels.

There were many smaller tanks full of other fish, sea turtles and sea horses.

There was one tank where you could touch starfish and other creatures.

And of course, lots of sharks!

The aquarium only took around 90 minutes or less to get through. It probably wasn't the best aquarium we've visited since it was less interactive than others, but it was fun nonetheless.

After Moody Gardens, we went to Jimmy's on the Pier. This is a restaurant on the Galveston fishing pier that gets good reviews.

There is no heating or air conditioning inside, so they had heat lamps in the corners. Although it looks sunny, the temperature was only in the high 40s.

The fried pickles are delicious.

After lunch, we climbed down the stairs of the seawall. There were large rocks, and I was afraid one of the kids would fall in. Actually, just walking along the seawall made me very nervous with the kids. The cement sea wall is 17 feet high and a steep drop to the hard rocks below.

Next, we drove to the Galveston Ferry. I learned about this ferry by reading attraction reviews on It is ranked #3 out of 49 attractions in Galveston, and it is totally free. It's a car ferry that goes from Galveston to Port Bolivar. It doesn't look very big, but it holds a lot of cars (4 lanes).

We decided to park the car in the lot and walk on to the ferry since I read you never have to wait for a ferry that way. As we walked on the ferry, the horn sounded, which scared the heck out of all of us. Hence this picture of the kids covering their ears, for fear of another horn.

There was an indoor area on the top floor, with outdoor lookouts as well.

On the trip back, we decided to join other families in feeding the seagulls off the back of the ferry.

The family next to us had Cheetos, which the birds would eat out of their hands. They let us borrow some of their Cheetos.

Joshua and I were the only ones brave enough to try holding out the Cheetos for the birds.

We also saw many dolphins following the ferry. Round-trip took less than an hour. It was a great way to see the water for free. If it would have been warmer, we might have gone on multiple ferry rides.

At this point, the kids were ready to go back to our hotel to swim. This hotel did indeed have an indoor pool and hot tub. Except when we got there, it was closed due to painting. So we went to our room before dinner.

And that's when Alyssa ran into a dresser drawer and got a deep, gushing cut on her face near her eye. So we loaded everyone up for a trip to the nearest urgent care center for stitches. I will not go into details, but this was definitely a low point of our trip.

Joshua was entertained by the fish tank in the waiting room.

After we got out of there, we were all hungry for dinner. We had researched a place for dinner with good reviews, but when we arrived, it was closed for the holidays. So onto Plan B, which was dinner at Fisherman's Wharf restaurant. We had eaten lunch there before our Disney cruise last February. We just wanted to make it through dinner at this point, because we were all tired and Alyssa was not happy.

We drove to Victoria the next morning (Thanksgiving with family). Lots of whining and stopping.

Our drive back to Dallas on Saturday took almost 7 hours with 7 stops. Yes, 7. We were all so happy to get out of that car.

I think that once the pain of this trip subsides, we will remember the good times we had. Since our lodging was free, and we only had to pay for 2 admissions into Moody Gardens, the trip was fairly economical. While the highways were busy, the tourist attractions were not crowded. I think we enjoyed San Antonio (last year's Thanksgiving trip) better than Houston/Galveston. But we are all glad to be back home for now.