Thursday, October 22, 2015

The next round of DCL FE gifts

As our next Disney cruise approaches, I'm in full planning and anticipation mode. As with our prior cruises, we have signed up to participate in the Fish Extender gift exchange (which is like a Secret Santa gift exchange with other families--see this post for a more detailed explanation).

I'm not crafty at all, so my gifts are never home-made. Kudos to the people with the patience and skills for crafts! I like to give out something practical that people can use either on the cruise or back at home that will remind them of our vacation. On past cruises, we have given out pens, post-it notes and magnetic clips imprinted with our cruise name and date. We've also given out Mickey head cookie cutters, Disney glow wands, and themed movie theater candy.

This time, my family will be handing out something new as a cabin gift: souvenir travel laundry bags.

The bags are almost 3 feet tall and have a shoulder strap, but they fold up small for easy packing. I'll include a small supply of Tide Pods and dryer sheets for each cabin.

Of course, I imagine that the kids in our group won't be as excited about the laundry bag, so we are also planning on putting some Star Wars treats in their Fish Extender pockets.

On our last cruise, we signed up for two FE groups for a total of over 40 cabins. For this cruise, we signed up for just one group with 15 cabins. I'm looking forward to the scale-back because it took so much time to find 40+ cabins, and my goal is to have more free time on this cruise.

Monday, October 19, 2015

NYC Trip Report Part 3: Statue of Liberty and Intrepid

NYC Trip Report:

Music Video
Hotel Review
Amex Centurion Lounge Review
Part 1: Intro and Getting There
Part 2: Times Square and Rockefeller Center

Part 3: Statue of Liberty and Intrepid

Sunday, October 11, 2015

This ended up being the longest day ever with some really great times and some really frustrating times.

I woke up tired and grumpy due to my son's blanket issue that I mentioned in the hotel review. We had to set our alarm for 6:10 a.m. and eat an early breakfast to be out the door by 7:15 a.m. We had reserved a 9:00 boat to the Statue of Liberty.

Our morning view of the city:

Ok, I need to mention our issues challenges with the subway. Based on information we read about the best way to get subway tickets for all of us, we purchased a reloadable Metro card and calculated how much we needed to load based on our estimate of number of subway trips. The card could be swiped four times at each station, and since my daughter was under 44 inches, she could ride for free. She is supposed to just duck under the turn style. Well, on this morning, she decided she did not want to be treated like a little kid and she refused to go under the turn style (even though she did it the day before). After much fuss (loud screaming and crying!), my husband decided he would just swipe our Metro card and pay for her to go through the turn style. What he didn't realize is that then the Metro card would not let him in because we had reached the maximum per station of four people. So he had to go back around and wait in line to buy another individual ticket. And then his credit card wouldn't work because the company had flagged our activity in NYC as fraudulent. Anyways, we all eventually made it on the subway, but we were a little grumpy from the morning's events.

To make it to Battery Park, we rode to Grand Central Station and then transferred to a subway line heading south. It took us about an hour to get to the boat launch.

We boarded soon after going through security and sat on the top of the boat. It was a little chilly.

We arrived on Liberty Island around 9 a.m. since our boat left a little early. We had pre-purchased three tickets to go to the crown and pedestal, and two tickets for just the pedestal (since my daughter did not meet the height requirement of 48 inches to go to the crown). Tickets to the crown sell out months in advance, so buy early if you are planning to go.

There is an indoor museum that is accessible with the pedestal ticket.

We all walked up the stairs to the pedestal together (215 stairs). The stairs took us to the top landing of the pedestal, but then we could walk down to a few different levels below.

The pedestal has a great view of the city.

Brian and the boys then climbed up 167 more steps to get to the crown. I nagged my husband many times to take photos, because I am usually always the one to take pics. Thankfully, he remembered!

They said it was very cramped up there!

And quite a view from the crown!

While the boys were climbing to the crown, Alyssa and I went back to the museum that is included with pedestal tickets.

There was a lot of good information in the museum and a few life-size replicas of parts of the statue.

Life-size replica of the ear:

We took photos before heading back to the base.

Note: You are not allowed to bring a backpack or any bags to climb to the crown and pedestal. We had to get a locker for our stuff. Only cameras allowed.

After we arrived back at the statue base, we met up with my brother and his family who also happened to be on vacation in New York City. We got a few photos of the cousins together.

The kids just played for a while in the trees while the adults chatted.

We went our separate ways, and my family visited the gift shop and ate lunch on Liberty Island. We debated on whether we should take time to do the National Park Service Junior Ranger badges with the kids, but we all voted to move to the next thing since time was passing quickly. We ended up being on the island about 3 1/2 hours.

It was 12:30 p.m. and we got in line for the ferry to Ellis Island. We were going to spend some time there before returning to the city, but the lines for the ferries were long and we realized we had to start making some choices as to how we would use the rest of our time for that day. Everything we wanted to visit closed at 5:00 p.m., so the clock was ticking.

We decided to skip Ellis Island and stay on the boat back to Battery Park. On our return trip, we sat on the lower level of the boat.

We got a photo with this statue dude after landing back at Battery Park:

We saw some artsy globes in the park:

And we were so close to the World Trade Center that we could walk there.

We almost went there, but then realized we would have no time to do anything else that day. So we decided take a taxi to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum. We wanted to take a taxi to save time and avoid the subway drama with my daughter. We figured we just had to find a minivan taxi that would fit all of us.

Well, we couldn't find any available minivan taxis at all. We were walking north trying to get out of a busy area, but it just didn't happen. We decided to call Uber to request a ride. And then it turned out that the Uber car wouldn't allow 5 passengers. So then we had to cancel that and call Uber XL (because apparently my family is Xtra Large). From the time we got in line to get off Liberty Island to the time we arrived at the Intrepid Museum, it was 2 HOURS. We didn't expect to take that long to get there. One of my kids was a little grumpy at this point. "Another science museum? I don't want to go to another science museum." He just wanted to go back to the hotel to swim and play with his new NYC toys.

While we were in the Uber XL car, we saw the Highline Park (elevated park on an old subway line). That was something we were going to visit if we had the time, but we never made it.

Ahhh, the Intrepid. We got in free due to our membership at the Perot Museum in Dallas.

We started our visit by watching a short film about the history of the Intrepid.

Then we made our way to the top deck to see some airplanes.

We saw a Lego model of the ship:

The Intrepid had a lot of areas to explore on the inside. We climbed ladders and ducked our heads through hallways to see the bridge areas.

We all had a fantastic time at the Intrepid, and I'm glad we prioritized it. We liked it more than I thought we would. Even my grumpy son was so happy we went there. We only left because it was 5:00 p.m. and the museum was closing.

At this point, we were all thoroughly exhausted. However, we were only a mile from the famous Ellen's Stardust Diner, so we decided to call an Uber XL to take us there.

This restaurant does not take reservations, and the line was already around the block, but we decided to wait. And we got seated in only 20 minutes.

This restaurant has a singing waitstaff, and they put on a show. They are always performing. They did a few songs that my kids appreciated (like "Let It Go") and some Broadway tunes. I'm glad we were able to make it here. It was a very entertaining dinner.

We still had to get back to our hotel in Queens. We had a phone app called Transit that instructed us to walk to a nearby subway station on a line we were not familiar with. I decided to carry my kicking-and-screaming daughter over the turn style. We walked in the tunnel maze and then when we got to the platform, there was a sign that the subway line was closed for the weekend. Ugh! And then my daughter started doing "the dance". You know the one. So we had to go back up all the steps and try to find a bathroom. I ran into a deli that didn't have one, we walked in circles for a while, and then I saw a Hampton Inn hotel. We were racing for the lobby and found the bathroom, only to be locked out of it because it required a guest room key to get in. We ran back to the lobby to see if any guests could let us into the bathroom, and we only found people who did not speak English. Fortunately, one of them recognized my daughter's dance and rushed us to the bathroom JUST IN TIME. It was so stressful!

So by that time, we had all had it. We called Uber XL to take us to Grand Central Station so that we could catch the 7 line back to our hotel.

That night was the only decent night's sleep I had.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and went to the rooftop terrace for one last look at the city before hopping on the hotel shuttle to the airport. You can read about our airport lounge experience here.

My daughter fell asleep on the plane before take-off.

One thing that had us laughing on the way home: We purchased this landmark playset at the Statue of Liberty gift shop that has little figurines of popular NYC attractions.

My daughter kept asking me, "Mom, is this a toilet?" Ha! It's the Guggenheim!

I asked my kids what was their favorite part of the trip.

Nathan (age 11): "The big buildings, the sights and sounds of the city."
Joshua (age 7): "The shops!" (Who could blame him? The stores were very cool).
Alyssa (age 5): "The statue of liberty." But she is insisting we go back in a few years when she is tall enough to climb to the crown.

Truth be told, the trip was exhausting and really trying at times. There was no down-time for Mom and Dad. But our adventures outweighed that, and I'm so grateful that we could give our kids this experience for (almost) free because of my miles and points hobby!

Based on our survival in New York City, I do believe that my kids could handle a trip to Europe right now. However, we don't have any plans to go across the pond in the near future. Because while I think we could handle it, I believe a trip to Europe will be a little more pleasant if we wait a few years.

When I plan our trips, I try to achieve a balance between relaxing/pampering trips where Mom and Dad get to reconnect (a cruise or an all-inclusive with a kids' club) and the more adventurous go-go-go trips (like this one). And right now I can't wait for our next vacation in a few months where I will get to relax more.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

NYC Trip Report Part 2: Times Square and Rockefeller Center

NYC Trip Report:

Music Video
Hotel Review
Amex Centurion Lounge Review
Part 1: Intro and Getting There

Part 2: Times Square and Rockefeller Center

Saturday, October 10, 2015

With our hotel room's great blackout curtains, I was looking forward to sleeping in just a little to make up for our late arrival the night before. Unfortunately, we were all woken up by a persistent knocking on our door at 6:30 a.m. At first I thought it was someone knocking on the door across the hall, but the more I ignored it the more it became clear the knock was on our door. And it was someone who had the wrong room. Ugh! Everyone except for me was able to fall back asleep for about an hour. I gave up and showered.

Tired kids, still happy for what was in store for the day:

We ate breakfast downstairs.

Before we walked to the subway station, we decided to check out the rooftop pool. It didn't open until 10 a.m. so we didn't get a good look at it, but we did go out on the rooftop terrace and saw a view of Manhattan.

At 9:15 a.m., we left our hotel. The walk to the subway station was easy. We studied the map.

As a mom to three active, playful kids, the subway platforms scare me. There is no barrier to the track. I was super-paranoid and wouldn't let my kids go anywhere near the yellow line.

We managed to get seats for the ride into Manhattan.

We got off at the Times Square station, which is the next-to-the-last stop on the 7 line. The Times Square subway station has connections to just about every other subway line. When we climbed to street level, we could see the Toys 'R Us store.

We decided to go to Toys 'R Us first to ride the Ferris wheel before the line got too long. (This Toys 'R Us store is closing/relocating after Christmas, see this article. I hope the Ferris wheel can fit in the new store).

It was so weird to see the Ferris wheel inside of a building.

Only 4 people are allowed in a car, so the boys went together on this taxi car:

And Alyssa and I got a Toy Story car:

The great thing about the Ferris wheel ride is that we could see all the levels of the store and figure out where we should head first. Check out Superman holding up a semi truck from the ceiling:

And this moving dinosaur in the Jurassic Park section:

Toward the back of the store was this life-size Barbie dream house:

I was hoping it would be fun to explore, but it was just filled with Barbies.

The Lego displays at Toys 'R Us are, in my opinion, better than the ones at the Lego Store at Rockefeller Center.

Of course Spiderman has to be in NYC!

The store has a lot of photo-op areas:

We easily spent a few hours in the Toys 'R Us store. So much to see!

Our next stop was the Disney Store. Of course!

The downstairs has New York-specific merchandise. I bought Alyssa a Minnie Mouse Statue of Liberty shirt.

Going upstairs, the ceiling is decorated like the lantern festival from Tangled:

The princess castle is towards the back:

It has a lovely chandelier inside:

And some magic mirrors against the wall (see our video):

Some cast members were telling Star Wars stories. My two kids were the only ones in that section on a busy Saturday afternoon!

After the Star Wars story, the kids got some medals for their participation:

This small Mickey Mouse clubhouse has lots of buttons and levers on the inside:

After the Disney Store, we grabbed a quick lunch at McDonalds. Gasp, I know, all that good New York City food and we chose McDonalds? Well, we had a lot to see during our two days in the city and we didn't want to spend a lot of time eating. This was our view of Times Square from the second level of McDonalds:

Next, we walked a few blocks to Rockefeller Center and visited the Nintendo World store, something my kids were anticipating for a long time!

The store had a scavenger hunt going on, but the kids just wanted to take photos and hunt for Mario game plush.

Our kids had been saving their allowance specifically for this store. A total of six Mario World plush were purchased along with a new video game, and we had some very happy kids.

Next, it was time to visit the observation tower at the top of Rockefeller Center (also known as Top of the Rock). We were surprised that the ice skating rink was already set up.

We had pre-purchased tickets online for a 2:00 p.m. arrival for the observation deck so that we would avoid standing in another line.

The Top of the Rock has three levels of observation decks, and we found the middle one to be the least crowded. Top of the Rock has a great view of Central Park on one side and the Empire State Building on the other side. The views are really impressive, and I think that this one or the Empire State observation deck is a must-do for any tourist.

At this point, we were all really tired from standing most of the day. The kids played with their new toys on this bench-with-a-view for a while.

My oldest son and I circled the observation deck again for some selfies and views:

Family photo:

We spent about an hour at the top, just taking in the views and relaxing. After that, we walked back to Times Square to soak up more of the crazy atmosphere:

We brought cash so that our kids could have photos with a few characters in Times Square. Some of the characters are downright creepy-looking. We saw an Olaf that didn't look too bad, and I asked for a photo with the kids. Right before I snapped the picture, three of his friends jumped in and demanded to be paid as well. This was our most expensive photo ever!

So we learned our lesson for the next one. I asked Batman if we could have a photo with just him, and he obliged. Several of his friends tried to rush into the picture, but he waived them off.

It was only about 4:30 p.m. at this time and we thought about having dinner in the city, but we were all so exhausted. We didn't really walk a lot, but we were standing so much. So we took the subway back to Queens, ate at Applebee's around the corner, and splashed in the rooftop pool.

We got the kids in bed by 9:00 p.m. and I was hoping for a better night's sleep.

Up next: The Statue of Liberty and the Intrepid Air and Space Museum.