Thursday, February 18, 2016

Does an All-inclusive Resort in Mexico Make Sense for Non-drinkers?

If you've read my blog over the last few years, you know it's no secret that we love cruising. Specifically, cruising on a Disney ship. We love that we don't have to think about where to go for our next meal, and I love that I'm not shopping for it or cooking it! We love that our kids can have an ice cream cone (or two or three) from the ice cream machine every night. We love the kids' clubs that enable me and my husband to have some dates on vacation, and we love the entertainment. We love the pools and the beach time as well as the touch of adventure we get from exploring a new port.

However....Disney cruises are not cheap, and my husband and I have both wondered if we can replicate part of what we like from our cruise vacations on land. Surely there must be resorts or hotels with great pools near a great beach with great kids clubs that are cheaper than a Disney cruise?

Well, if you find any in this country, please let me know because I've searched and googled and asked but have come up empty handed. I've found a few Hyatt hotels with kids' clubs near the beach, but for a family of five they can get pricey.

However, I found that in Mexico and the Caribbean, these type of resorts do exist! But they are all-inclusive. The rooms, food, alcohol, kids' clubs, entertainment and even tips are included in the price. Woohoo!!!

After much research, I chose Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for our next major family vacation. We could fly there using Southwest, American or British Airways miles (it's good to have multiple choices when trying to use airline miles for travel). It's only about a 2 1/2 hour plane trip, and it's in our same time zone. It is usually not as affected by hurricane season as Cancun, and it doesn't have the seaweed problem that Cancun has been having over the past year. The waves in Puerto Vallarta are a bit stronger than in Cancun, which my kids prefer.

We like big waves and I cannot lie....

I found several all-inclusive resorts in Puerto Vallarta that met our basic criteria: within our budget for a family of five, a kids' club that is open during dinner (I was surprised at how many resorts have kids' clubs that close by 4 or 5 p.m.), multiple pools (bonus if there is a water slide), and 4 to 4 1/2 star average reviews on Trip Advisor. 

During my research, I noticed a lot of the guest comments were about the alcohol. I get that alcohol is an important part of vacation for most adults. It's just not for us. My husband doesn't drink at all, and I only drink a little (Note to my college friends--my college drinking days are over!)

So I started wondering...does it make financial sense for us to book an all-inclusive resort if we don't "get our money's worth" by drinking a lot of alcohol? Would it be better to find a non-inclusive hotel in Puerto Vallarta that still had a kids' club but didn't include the food and alcohol in the price?

Since I'm a numbers gal, I was happy to crunch the numbers. I found some hotels in Puerto Vallarta that were not all-inclusive but still had kids' clubs. But a few were WAYYYYYY over our budget. And I couldn't find any that had kids' clubs open during dinner. But I found one that almost fit our requirements: the CasaMagna Marriott resort (not an all-inclusive resort).

The rooms, food options and pools look similar to our top choice all-inclusive resort. The reviews are similar. It would cost us $138 less per night than our all-inclusive resort.

But the kids' club (which closes at 5:00 p.m.)  costs $10 per hour per kid, or $35 for the whole day (9:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.) for each kid. So even if we used it for 2 hours a day, it would cost us an additional $60 (we have three kids). And then we would have to buy food for all five of us. If we conveniently ate at the hotel, I'm sure it would cost more than $78 per day for all of our meals (the cost of breaking even with the all-inclusive). And if we're paying for every ice cream, we probably would not encourage our kids to have multiple ice cream cones each day. So we didn't choose the Marriott.

Of course, there are less expensive hotels in Puerto Vallarta, or we could rent a condo. But then we start losing all the reasons we chose this destination in the first place--we'd have to cook for ourselves, or find restaurants, and hire a babysitter when we want to have a date night. I'm more comfortable with a staffed kids' club than I am with the thought of a babysitter in our hotel room.

So we went with an all-inclusive resort. And while we may not "get our money's worth" in the alcohol department, I'm sure we will still utilize the heck out of the kids' club, pools and entertainment options.

Are there any other non-drinkers out there who have gone with an all-inclusive resort? What has been your experience?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 7: Castaway Cay

Disney Fantasy Trip Report So Far:
*  Vacation Video
*  Hotel Review: Disney's Polynesian Village Resort 
*  My Tween's Review of the Edge on the Disney Fantasy
*  DCL Port Adventure Review: Tour to Virgin Gorda (TT23)
*  DCL Port Adventure Review: The Legendary Kon Tiki Sightseeing and Beach Cruise (ST45) in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
*  Hotel Review: Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport--Diamond Benefits and Day Use Room 
*  Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 1: Getting There, and Pre-Cruise at Disney World
*  Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 2: Saturday on the Disney Fantasy
*  Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 3: Sunday at Sea
Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 4: Monday at Sea
Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 5: Two Days in the Virgin Islands
Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 6: Thursday at Sea

Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 7: Castaway Cay

Before I start writing about our last day on our Disney Fantasy vacation, I feel compelled to mention something. If you go on a Disney Cruise, don't forget to book your next cruise on board. Or a placeholder for a future cruise. You may think at the time that your cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but I guarantee that once you come home you will kick yourself for not booking another cruise on board. If you book another cruise on board, you get 10% off the cruise fare (which can be a big chunk of money). You also get an on-board credit from DCL ($100 for 6 nights or less, $200 for 7 nights or more). If you book a 7-night or longer cruise, the deposit is only 10% (instead of 20%). The best thing to do is to book a future cruise placeholder, which you can use up to 24 months in the future, for $250 a cabin. Then, once your future cruise is announced from DCL, transfer your placeholder to an actual cruise on opening day for the lowest price plus all the benefits mentioned above. Every single Facebook cruise group I've been a part of has had people who regretted not re-booking on board.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Today was the day the Disney Fantasy docked at DCL's private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay. The cruise director warned us the day before that rain was in the forecast, but we were hoping that somehow the rain would skip over the island.

We woke up around 9:00 a.m., got into our swimsuits and went up to Cabanas for breakfast. We could see it was cloudy and sprinkling outside.  Since this would be our 5th time at Castaway Cay, we really just wanted to spend a few hours at the beach and eat lunch on the island. We had done a lot of activities on the island on previous cruises and weren't too bummed out about not getting to do more on this visit.

As we left the ship, crew members were handing out Disney rain ponchos. At this point, the rain was light. We were able to get a photo with Daisy Duck under the cover of the post office:

There were supposed to be characters at a few other spots, but I guess they were unavailable due to the rain.

The rain was on and off, but in the morning it wasn't raining too hard. We did what we came here to do--play at the beach!

I went all the way in the water and was surprised that it wasn't too cold! Much warmer than it was in January 2014.

Somewhere after 11 a.m., the heavens opened up and it was raining HARD. Everyone ran from the beach to take cover. We debated going back on the ship, but Brian and I really wanted to have lunch at Serenity Bay, the adults-only beach. So we dropped the two younger kids off at Scuttles Cove, the kids' club on the island. They ate lunch there under cover. We dropped our tween off at one of the family restaurants on the island to meet up with other kids from the Edge. Brian and I took the tram to Serenity Bay to have a mostly dry lunch there. Serenity Bay has a few lunch items (like steak) that the family restaurants on Castaway Cay do not have.

After lunch, we picked up the kids from Scuttles Cove (the rain had stopped and they were having fun in the sand there). Our oldest had already returned to the ship on his own. The boys all wanted to see Star Wars in the theater one more time (their 3rd time). Alyssa wanted to watch Beauty and the Beast in our stateroom.

At 4:30, Alyssa and I went to the atrium for the final character farewell event. This happens twice on the last night, and it's crazy. All of the characters come out for 20 minutes and people rush around trying to get a photo with as many as possible. We managed to get three:

Of course she had to see Ariel one last time!

We took a few more photos around the atrium:

Then we met up with the guys on Deck 4 to watch us pull out of Castaway Cay.

At 5:15, we decided to return to La Piazza to hear Clara Oman play one more time. We had the kids with us, since they would be going to the final dinner at Animator's Palate with us. Unfortunately, the kids were a little too loud for the atmosphere at this bar, so we left early.

At 5:45, we had our final dinner for the week in Animator's Palate. Tonight was the animation magic show, which only happens on cruises 7 nights or longer. Each person gets to draw a character:

Then, towards the end of dinner, we watch our characters become animated on the screens. It really is fun to watch!

At the end, we saw all of our signatures:

On our last 7-night cruise, one of our kids fell asleep for this, and the other two were tired and grumpy. This time, our kids did great during the last dinner and we all could enjoy the animation show. Woohoo!

The kids with our server:

The last night is always a bummer. We dropped the kids off at the clubs (Alyssa did an activity with Stitch that night). Brian and I went back to our room to pack up our suitcases, since we have to leave them outside the room by 10:30 p.m. The Edge was having an open house, so Nathan requested we show up. We also toured The Vibe (teen club for ages 14-17) on the last night. We picked up the kids around 9:30 p.m. for their final ice cream on the pool deck. Nathan stayed at the Edge until midnight.

Our final towel animal and nightly chocolate:

The next morning, we had to be off the ship before 9:00. Since we had the early dinner seating, we were supposed to eat breakfast at 6:45 a.m. in Animator's Palate. We got smart on our last cruise and discovered that the Cabanas buffet is still open in the morning, which allowed us to sleep in until 7:30. It gave us just one extra hour of sleep, but I'll take it!

This is how Joshua felt about getting off the ship:
We debarked the ship around 8:30 a.m., breezed through customs and took a private shuttle to the Hyatt Regency at the airport for the day use room. Our flight left at 4:30 p.m., and we were home in Dallas around 8:00 p.m.

So that's a wrap! Unfortunately, as I mentioned in a previous post, that was the last time we can pull our kids out of school for an entire week because our oldest is starting middle school. I'm glad we got to take advantage of DCL's off-season prices one more time! A Disney Alaska cruise and a Disney Christmas cruise are on my bucket list!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 6: Thursday at Sea

Disney Fantasy Trip Report So Far:
*  Vacation Video
*  Hotel Review: Disney's Polynesian Village Resort 
*  My Tween's Review of the Edge on the Disney Fantasy
*  DCL Port Adventure Review: Tour to Virgin Gorda (TT23)
*  DCL Port Adventure Review: The Legendary Kon Tiki Sightseeing and Beach Cruise (ST45) in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
*  Hotel Review: Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport--Diamond Benefits and Day Use Room 
*  Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 1: Getting There, and Pre-Cruise at Disney World
*  Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 2: Saturday on the Disney Fantasy
*  Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 3: Sunday at Sea
Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 4: Monday at Sea
Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 5: Two Days in the Virgin Islands

Disney Fantasy Trip Report Part 6: Thursday at Sea

Thursday, January 21, 2016

It was nice to wake up to a sea day after two days at ports. Don't get me wrong--exploring the ports is fun, but it can also be exhausting being out in the sun and surf for several hours.

We slept until 8:30 a.m. again. Woohoo! We were debating what to do that morning, and Brian decided to go see the Bridge of Spies movie since it was playing in the theater early. (He thought it was excellent, by the way). I stayed back in the cabin with the kids, and we had a more leisurely morning.

Random photo--two of our kids were born in Russia, and one of the magical artworks occasionally showed Russia (the photo was always changing). It's located on Deck 8, starboard, forward near the elevator.

So I took the kids up to Cabanas for breakfast. On the way there, I made a hair braiding appointment for Alyssa for later in the day. After breakfast, we saw Donald:

I dropped the kids off at their clubs, where they would stay through lunch (and eat at the clubs). I went back to the room to shower to get ready for brunch at Palo (adults-only restaurant).

Brian returned from the movie, changed, and we headed off to Palo for our noon reservation. I didn't take many photos of the food, but this was hands-down the best meal of our entire week. We had brunch at Palo on one of our previous cruises (a 4-night cruise on the Magic), but on most cruises we stick with just dinner at Palo. On our last 7-night cruise, we regretted not making a Palo brunch reservation because there are three sea days and we got tired of the regular buffet.

Anyways...brunch was great! There are dishes sitting out (a small buffet) and also dishes that are made to order. I had a bowl of strawberry soup, mozzarella rings (made with fresh mozzarella--so soft!) and Brian and I split a goat cheese pizza. Brian also had chicken parmesean.

I was so full, but still managed to try these three desserts:

The chandelier in Palo is exquisite!

We rolled ourselves out of Palo and looked at the navigator to figure out what to do next. There were so many choices! Alyssa's hair appointment was at 2:00, so Brian decided to do that with her while I spent some time with our younger son. This was the first time Alyssa got her hair braided on our cruises since this was the longest her hair has been (we had an unfortunate hair cutting incident before our last cruise).

I loved the way it turned out! She kept it in for almost a week.

Meanwhile, also at around 2:00 p.m., there was a comedian in the theater, an animal towel folding class, a family cooking class and a kids' cooking class in the Oceaneer Lab. So many choices! I had always wanted to go to one of the "Anyone Can Cook" classes, but had never made it on any of our previous cruises. I stopped by the kids' club to see if Joshua wanted to join me. It was a tough decision for him, since the kids' cooking class was making chocolate chip cookies! But he decided to join me for "Anyone Can Cook". Sometimes this class is for adults only, but today's class was open to everyone.

The cooking demonstration was for apple strudel. The crew passed out the recipe and instructions--single spaced on the back side as well.

A pastry chef had the apple strudel done in various stages, but he demonstrated rolling the dough on a table cloth and explained reasons for some of the ingredients. I came to the conclusion that there was no way I could make this dish successfully.

Of course, the best part was that we got to sample the apple strudel!

Joshua was pretty tired during the demonstration, but loved the strudel.

After the class, Joshua and I decided to play some shuffleboard on Deck 4. It was nice to get to spend some one-on-one time with him!

We ordered the kids room service for dinner so that Brian and I could have our last date dinner (we knew the next night was the animation show during dinner and we didn't want the kids to miss that). We dropped the kids off at the clubs around 5:15 p.m. and decided to head to La Piazza bar to hear some pre-dinner music. La Piazza is only on the Fantasy, and it looks like a carousel.

On our last cruise, many of our cruise-mates raved about the piano player Clara Oman. We never made time to see her on the last cruise, so when we saw she was on this cruise we wanted to listen to her at least one night. She was fabulous and so talented! I don't know how she does it--she knows so many songs by heart and takes requests.

Chilling at La Piazza before dinner:

We had dinner alone in Royal Court that night. The best part was the chocolate lava cake!!

We decided to attend the Disney Broadway show "Believe" that night. We stopped by the clubs to see which kids wanted to join us. The Pluto PJ Party was happening at the same time, and Joshua had pre-arranged with a friend to meet up for that, so only Alyssa joined us for the show.

I recommend getting to the show 20-30 minutes prior. I arrived maybe 15 minutes prior and there was only seats up higher left. We still had a good view, but there were some special effects during the show (snow, confetti) that we were not under since we were sitting up too high.

We had never seen "Believe" before, but it's quite a performance, with high-quality singing, dancing and effects. And maybe a few tears.

Afterwards, we went to the top deck for ice cream before putting Alyssa to bed. Brian went back to the club to pick up Joshua, then he got ice cream before going to bed. As you can see, ice cream was a nightly ritual on the cruise.

Our nightly towel animal:

Tonight was the night that my oldest was with the Edge crew playing dodgeball until 1:00 a.m.!

Up next: Castaway Cay