Sunday, December 20, 2015

Photos of Great Wolf Lodge (Grapevine, TX) at Christmas

I mentioned in a previous post that we used credit card reward points to book a stay at Great Wolf Lodge for Christmas, and my parents gifted my kids Paw Passes at the lodge for Christmas. We stayed there this weekend.

Somehow, we managed to keep this little outing a secret from our kids. On Friday morning, we surprised our kids with this photo collage in the advent calendar:

They were so excited! My boys had to go to school, but my daughter carried around this paper all day and insisted on bringing it with us to the hotel.

We headed there right after school, but it took us an hour to get there because of all the traffic. The front of the lodge was decked out for Christmas:

Christmas-themed activities
The lobby looked grand with all the Christmas touches:

We received special "Snowland" wolf ears at check-in.

The kids took a photo with Santa:

The clock tower audio-animatronic show was changed to a Christmas version:

The nightly story time was a Christmas book, followed by a meet and greet with Violet:

And then it started snowing in the lobby!

KidCabin Suite
We booked a KidCabin Suite that sleeps 7 people. It was perfect for our family because the cabin had room for 3 kids with a with a bunk-bed and a twin bed. The kids even had their own TV in there:

There was a queen bed and a sofa bed in the room as well.

Our room had a microwave and refrigerator. We brought food for dinner and breakfast and ate in the room.
Our room had a window with a view of the back of the hotel. We could see the outdoor water park (which was closed for the season) as well as Howlers Peak Ropes Course (the yellow/blue structure in the distance).

The Waterpark
The indoor waterpark included a large structure with faucets and kid slides:

The area for younger kids:

The wave pool was my daughter's favorite. It was just like we were back at the beach! She and I spent most of our time in the wave pool. (This photo doesn't include the waves, which appeared about every 10 minutes and lasted for about 5 minutes).

The lazy river:

Another activity pool with an obstacle course and basketball hoops:

My husband went on the 5 larger water slides with my boys. They had a blast!

We ate lunch inside the water park on our second day. We arrived right when it opened in the morning and had no trouble getting a table.

Paw Pass Activities
My kids each received a Paw Pass as a Christmas gift from their grandparents. This was very helpful to us (as parents) because in the hallway leading up to the water park there are a lot of extra activities that are not included with your hotel stay.

We completed all of the activities on the pass during our two days at Great Wolf Lodge.

The pass included swimming goggles from the gift shop (not pictured).

Each kid got a personalized leather bracelet:

And a glitter tattoo:

They played the MagiQuest game with their new wands:

The paw pass included a cup full of candy:

Each kid got a photo with a frame to take home. In addition to the picture with Santa, the kids got a 3-D photo with the wolf characters and one with the dragon:

They also chose and made stuffed animals (similar to Build-A-Bear workshop):

Their animals came with a Great Wolf Lodge backpack and could also be used to play a Clubhouse Crew adventure game on kiosks throughout the hotel:

The kids received $5 worth of arcade tokens with their Paw Passes, but I didn't take any pictures of them in the arcade.

The surprising favorite activity of the Paw Pass was Howlers Peak Rope Course. This wasn't there when we visited Great Wolf Lodge 7 years ago. It's located outside and you have to walk through the indoor water park to get there.

The first level is a miniature course for younger kids. My daughter was nervous on this at first, but she soon got the hang of the transitions and became very confident on the course.

The bigger ropes course spanned three levels above the ground level. My two boys were fearless on this! My husband decided to join them.

Each level had a zipline on each side for a total of six ziplines at different heights. Here is my younger son going across:

From the very top level, there was a spot where participants could jump to the ground. Both boys loved this!

We were lucky that the weather was sunny and in the 60s that afternoon because we spent a few hours at the ropes course.

We only stayed one night at Great Wolf Lodge, but we were allowed to experience all of the activities for two days (until closing on the second day, which was 9 p.m. for the water park and 11 p.m. for the other indoor activities).

We had a great mini-vacation at Great Wolf Lodge for Christmas! The kids are already asking when we can return. Thanks for the Paw Passes, Grandma and Grandpa!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Top Five Reasons Why I Love a Disney Cruise Line Vacation

I should be wrapping presents and cleaning my house right now, but my mind keeps drifting back to our upcoming Disney Cruise. This will be our 5th Disney Cruise, but my whole family is still so excited!

Sometimes people say to me, "A Disney Cruise, AGAIN?!?!?!" I realize that a Disney Cruise is not for everyone, but I will attempt to convey why my family likes Disney Cruises so much and why we keep choosing this vacation time after time.

Top 5 Reasons Why I Love a Disney Cruise Line Vacation

5.  It's like getting a Disney fix without the heat, crowds, lines and exhaustion. I've been to Disney World in August and it was tough! On a cruise, it's easy to escape the heat since there are many indoor spaces on the ship. If we get tired, our room is just a few steps away. Everyone is assigned a table in the dining rooms for dinner, so there is no waiting in line for food (maybe a small line at the lunch buffet, but we've never experienced long lines). Disney Cruise Line has streamlined the process for meeting the most popular characters. Everyone has the opportunity to get a (free) ticket with a designated day and time to meet the princesses and Anna and Elsa. It's a great way to meet the characters with no waiting!

My daughter with Cinderella on the Disney Magic.

4.  The service is outstanding. We have met the nicest, most friendliest Disney cast members on our cruises. Since we keep our same dinner servers for the duration of each cruise and rotate through the dining rooms with them, they get to know us pretty well. They know us by name and talk to us when we see them around the ship during the day. We've had assistant dining servers cut our kids' meat and show them magic tricks during dinner. We've always had great room attendants as well--I'm amazed at how they clean each cabin twice during the day and provide entertaining towel animals. When we walk down the hall, cast members stop to say hello and say "Hi, Princess!" to my daughter.

My sons with our dining room server.

3.  I feel pampered and get a chance to relax. A Disney Cruise is one of the only vacations I take with my kids where I get a chance to relax. The kids get to enjoy fun entertainment in a secure kids club, which gives me time to take a breather on my own. This is something I must force myself to do on each cruise, but it's well worth my time. On our last cruise on the Disney Fantasy, I purchased a day pass to the Rainforest Room in the spa area for just $16. I had access to some whirlpool tubs on a deck, several hydrotherapy showers and steam rooms as well as heated tile loungers. Ahhhh, relaxing. I also find that just going to the adults-only cafe and sipping tea while reading a book is a great way to relax.

Heated tile loungers in the Rainforest Room on the Disney Fantasy.

2.  We get guilt-free "Mom and Dad time". This is a big one for me and my husband. Huge! We don't have family that will watch our kids for us, and a babysitter is expensive for 3 kids. My husband works from home and I'm a stay-at-home mom, so we are around our kids ALL THE TIME. So we completely enjoy our date nights on a Disney Cruise. Our kids ask to go to the kids' clubs multiple times a day, and they don't view it as daycare on the ship. We prefer to spend time with our kids during the day and have meals by ourselves. We eat at the adults-only restaurant, Palo, at least once during each cruise. But even a meal alone at any of the restaurants is a treat for us. Woohoo!

A romantic dinner at Palo on the Disney Dream.

1.  There is something for everyone in my family. Unlike a vacation where we rent a car and we all have to go to the same place, a Disney Cruise provides us with different choices on the same ship so that everyone can do what they want. My daughter loves to see all of the characters, so I spend time with her doing that. My oldest loves to see the magic shows, while my middle child loves to spend time at the pool. By utilizing the kids' clubs, we can spend one-on-one time with each of our kids and meet up as a family for the next activity. There are adult-only activities (mixology classes, cooking demonstrations), family activities (game shows, dance parties) and kids-only activities in the clubs. My oldest son is very excited that he is old enough to try the Tween club (The Edge) on our next cruise for ages 11-13. My daughter is now old enough to ride the Aqua Duck water coaster! And with the new Star Wars movie playing multiple times on our next cruise, I'm sure a few of us will catch that once or twice. Something for everyone.

I can't wait!

P.S.--I don't work for Disney or a travel agent. These are my own opinions.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Plans for My (Hotel) Diamonds

I have never been into airline or hotel elite status. I read the miles and points blogs, strategically use credit cards to get the most bonus points and try to maximize our vacations with free or almost free travel. We're not loyal to one hotel chain or airline--we go wherever our points will take us for little or no cost.

However, recent events have turned into a big game-changer for our travel in 2016. A few weeks ago, Hyatt was giving out Hyatt Diamond status to a few people on Twitter. Hyatt was matching people who had gold or diamond status in other hotel chains to Hyatt's most elite status to win their business. This happened shortly after the Marriott-SPG merger was announced.

I happened to have Hilton Gold status due to a credit card I signed up for in early 2014. My gold status was about to expire in early 2016, but I had used the status for free breakfast and slight room upgrades in New York City, Honolulu and Denver. I sent my Hilton info to Hyatt and waited for a response.

Meanwhile, I started reading conversations online about the Hyatt elite status match, and the discussion was heated. Some people were getting matched to Diamond status, others were not. Some current Diamond members were mad that others were getting the same status for nothing! (Normally, to achieve Hyatt Diamond status you have to have 25 paid stays or 50 paid nights per year--no way I could achieve that unless I was a business traveler).

After several days of waiting, I received an email that Hyatt matched my Hilton Gold status to Hyatt Diamond status. I was elated! Shocked! Beyond grateful! And why?

Because Hyatt Diamond status gives access to club lounges (free breakfast, snacks and drinks during the day, evening appetizers) and four suite upgrade certificates per year (bookable in advance so you know you're getting a suite, available to use on points+cash reservations). For my large family, those benefits are huge!

Based on my new status, I made a few changes/additions for our upcoming accommodations:

*  Switched from a stay at the Hyatt Place Orlando Airport (outside the airport) to the Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport (inside the airport) in a one-bedroom suite.
*  Switched from a regular room to a one-bedroom suite for our short summer getaway.
*  Reserved a one-bedroom suite in downtown Denver for a visit home.
*  Picked a Hyatt hotel for a short trip this spring (I was mulling over different hotel options for our destination, but my new status sealed the deal).

Two of the above hotels have club lounges, so you can bet we will enjoy using those during our stay.

Edited to add: this benefit was eliminated for future year bookings.
But wait, it gets better....I will get another 4 suite upgrade certificates to use between March 2016 and Feb 2017. And I only have to book the suites during the time frame--the stays can be later in 2017 or even in early 2018 if available. Even though I won't still have Diamond status past February 2017, I can still book the suite upgrades and use them without the club lounge and breakfast benefits. I'm hoping to book a suite in Vancouver, Canada for our planned Alaska trip in the summer of 2017, and maybe something for a future Spring Break.

Hilton also announced that it would match Hyatt elite statuses, so as of now I am also a Hilton Diamond until March 2017. I'm not as excited about Hilton Diamond status since it doesn't have guaranteed suite certificates and I don't have any Hilton stays coming up, but maybe it will come in handy, who knows?

Have you had Hilton Diamond status? Where would you use your suite upgrade certificates?