Stuff Families (with kids) On Vacation Say

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There’s something about traveling – especially to a place that caters to families – that tends to bring us all together… in a fashion, anyway. Last week, after returning Fenwick for Advanced Training, we headed down to Florida for a Disney Cruise followed by a day at Universal Studios.  Both adventures were generally excellent — and both reinforced something that we’ve been telling our girls for years:

Families are families. We say the same stuff.

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Don’t all Caribbean pirates drink smoothies in light-up cups?

This realization/reinforcement started a good number of years ago, while visiting Disney World, when we heard another family utter one of the parental phrases that Nick and I use in our own house (I honestly can’t remember which phrase it was, but imagine something along the lines of “Leave your sister alone” or “I don’t like your tone” or “We don’t put glitter on the dog” [wait – is that just our family?]).

The moment our girls heard these words, their heads whipped toward us with incredulity. “Wait. You mean other families say that too?” Which led to our asserting that Families are families. We say the same stuff.

This was especially true at theme parks (big and small) and family-friendly destinations – from the Rainforest Cafe to the Mall of America to baseball stadiums. These phrases seem to coalesce and crystalize in places like Florida, where half of the state is dedicated to families riding roller coasters and taking photos with adults in animal costumes.

The more we paid attention, the more we noticed the same basic admonishments and sentences being uttered over and over again. Race didn’t matter; we saw people of every skin tone saying these things. There was no religious divide; we heard families wearing crucifixes, hijabs, and yarmulkes making these statements. Different cultures meant different accents (or languages), but the basic gist remained the same. Socio-economic status, age, sexual orientation, family size, political bent, and milk-or-dark-chocolate preference similarly played no role.

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We got to Diagon Alley early enough to see it nearly empty in the morning…

IMG_6861… and then found ourselves amongst the final visitors that night, too, so we saw it nearly empty again. Quite magical, indeed!

After listening long enough, we decided to start keeping track of what we heard. Eventually, the items on the list began to repeat… So we figured we’d conducted enough of a social experiment to share our findings with y’all.

If you and your family take a vacation – whether it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or a staycation – one of the adults in your group is all but certain to speak (or yell. Or hiss. Or growl) at least one of these phrases during your sojourn.

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And so, without further ado (and in no particular order), we bring you:
Stuff Families (with kids) On Vacation Say

  1. “You’ve got to watch where you’re going.”
  2. “If you don’t knock it off, we’ll leave and you’ll have to walk home.”
  3. “You really don’t have your sunglasses? REALLY? Okay, fine. No. We’ll wait.
  4. “You’re not allowed to touch him and he’s not allowed to touch you.”
  5. “That is not a toy.”
  6. “If you don’t stop, we’ll go right back to the hotel.”
  7. “We didn’t come all this way just to sit in our hotel room.”
  8. “What do you say?”
  9. “Don’t touch that.”
  10. “Do you see any other little girls behaving this way?”
  11. “Hands to selves.”
  12. “This is your last warning.”
  13. “We are just looking. We aren’t buying anything.”
  14. “We already bought you three things yesterday.”
  15. “Do you have any idea how much that costs?”
  16. “When it’s your own money, then you can buy one.”
  17. Excuse. Me.”
  18. “Do they sell alcohol in here?”
  19. “Don’t hang on that.”

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    I’m just now noticing Nick’s left hand on Ella’s arm… probably to separate her and Annie and prevent them from destroying the statue.
    Why, yes, I did come in first in the Disney music trivia contest – and, yes, I did choose to wear my Winner medallion to dinner. Thank you for noticing.

  20. “Sit down.”
  21. “Get up!”
  22. “Just keep walking.”
  23. “Please be still!”
  24. “You need to move!”
  25. “One… Two…” (Alternately: “Un… deux…”, “Uno… dos…” and “Eins… zwei…”)
  26. “Don’t eat that.”
  27. “You need to take at least three more bites.”
  28. “There’s a trash can right over there.
  29. “Can you hold it?”
  30. “You just went.”
  31. “Why didn’t you think of that before we got in line?”
  32. NOW.
  33. “Where’s the bar?”
  34. “Leave. Him. Alone.”
  35. “Be quiet.”
  36. “How many times do I have to tell you?”
  37. “I’m not going to say it again.”
  38. “I know. Everyone is hot.
  39. “This is the Happiest Place On Earth! WE SHOULD BE HAPPY!”

 

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Ahhh, vacations with kids. SO RELAXING.

By the time we all get home, though, and the luggage is put away and the clothes are in the wash and we’ve bathed ourselves in Purell and we’re finally kicking back with a glass or a cup, you can bet at least one adult can be found saying…

40. Can’t wait to do it again.

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The Big Four-Oh

If you’re a 39 year-old heterosexual American male considering how to ring in your 40th birthday, doing so aboard a Disney Cruise probably isn’t at the top of your list. But that’s exactly where Nick found himself after we booked our cruise and then realized that his big day fell smack dab in the middle of the trip.

Given that our choices were to embrace it or ignore it, we chose to go with the former – and by “embrace it” I mean that Nick worked on not being bummed that he would turn forty while trapped with surrounded by gazillions of screaming, hyped-up children and adults either taking advantage of the poolside bar by 10 a.m. or dressed in life-size princess and pirate costumes. Meanwhile, the girls and I worked on coming up with as many ways as possible to draw attention to Nick and let everyone within a five mile radius know that it was his birthday.

We’re sweet like that.
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Nick had refused to open any birthday-related paraphernalia prior to his actual birth date, citing bad luck (umm, okay?), so we knew we’d either have to wait until we returned to give him his “real” birthday presents or we’d have to bring them with us. Given that we were already lugging several suitcases, that we planned to purchase more than a few souvenirs and gifts for family and friends, and that our stateroom – while lovely – wasn’t exactly palatial, we decided to give him the bulk of his presents back home… but that just meant we could go overboard* with the “fun” (read: embarrassing) stuff on the cruise.

* see what I did there?

The preparations began weeks before our sail date. I thought it might be neat to surprise Nick with some snacks, beverages, etc., in our stateroom, but I didn’t want to haul all of that stuff with me. I’d read about an awesome company that crafts custom-made gift baskets for folks in the Port Canaveral area; it seemed perfect, but unfortunately, Disney no longer allows off-site companies to deliver directly to their ships. Long story short (you’re welcome), after several weeks of phone calls and emails between that company, our taxi company, and myself — all without Nick’s knowledge — the gift basket lady met us at the entrance to the cruise terminal parking lot, our driver slyly pulled over and took the “delivery” into the front seat, and the porters quietly loaded the basket in with all of our other luggage, to be hidden away until the next morning. THAT’S what I’m talking about!

Nick’s sister, Emi, and her husband, Matt, had also sent a surprise wine and cheese platter to our room – but because of the whole “bad luck” thing, I knew I’d need to keep the goods out of sight until the following day. It was easy enough for me to enter our stateroom before anyone else (Nick was busy waiting in the interminable line to get a ticket so that Annie could meet Anna and Elsa), and it was easy enough to stash the wine and wine glasses in a cupboard… But the cheese plate a) would not fit in our tiny fridge and b) was super fresh and would have been, um, poisonous inedible if I’d tucked it away in a drawer or something… So, after conferring with Annie and Ella, we all dug right into lovely cheese plate that had been given to us by Disney as a way of thanking us for being repeat cruisers. (This was slightly less far-fetched than it sounds because there actually was a thank-you-for-going-on-your-second-cruise tote bag from Disney awaiting us on the bed.) Nick was skeptical (“They do this for everyone? Fresh cheese? Isn’t that kind of expensive?”), but with no one to say any differently, he had no choice but to buy into it.

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Not a bad way to start the trip!

When Nick awoke the next morning (aka HIS BIRTHDAY), we presented him with our contraband gift basket, Emi and Matt’s bottle of wine, and the real story behind why “Disney” had given us a lovely cheese platter. The basket was a huge hit – Nick and the girls had Milano cookies right there at 7:30 a.m. – but we were just getting started.
disney51 Also inside: the beach toys Ella used during our “adventure” on Castaway Cay.

First, I presented Nick with… the shirts (found here; Etsy is a mystical place, you guys). There were four matching ones for Annie, Ella, GranMary, and me, but Nick had his own… special… version.
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In case you can’t see them, our shirts say “This Girl Loves The Disney Dream” and Nick’s says “This Guy Turns 40 Today!”. VERY CLASSY.
Also, I’m just noticing now that Annie’s blue ears look like… my boobs. Very, VERY classy.

After putting them on, we headed up to breakfast — but not before stopping to admire our stateroom door, which looked slightly different than it had when I’d snuck out the night before to decorate it. (The doors are metal, meaning you can stick magnets on them. Many cruisers go all out with door decorations; it’s like an informal competition or a strange, impromptu art show.) The custom magnet (found here) was awesome, but even more fun was the white board – because as the day went on, fellow passengers left Nick birthday messages.
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This is the “after” shot, taken upon returning to our room at bedtime…

As we arrived at breakfast, I pulled out our next birthday treat… our Mickey ears. Nick had known that I’d purchased ears while we were in Epcot — it had been his suggestion, actually, to get some embroidered so that GranMary could have her own, personalized pair — but he didn’t know that I’d snuck in a different order for his ears.
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GranMary… Emily… Annie… Ella… 40 and Awesome!

Our big plans for the day began shortly after breakfast: while researching things to do in Nassau, we had decided upon a “dolphin excursion,” something that’s been on Nick’s bucket list for as long as he could remember. We were excited, but didn’t really know what to expect; the thirty minute boat ride over to Blue Lagoon was beautiful, but the girls were growing restless and Nick and I shot one another This Had Better Be Worth It looks.
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Upon our arrival, we sat through a brief – and interesting – information session about dolphins, dolphin conservation, etc. Following the session, we were split into groups and sent out onto the docks to meet with our instructor/trainer and the dolphins. Our small group consisted of us and another family; they went first, allowing us to see just what we were getting into.

There was no doubt about it: this was going to be incredible.

When it was our turn, we could hardly wait to scramble down the ladder and onto the submerged platform where we’d hang out with the dolphins. The first group had warned us that the water was cold; still, we were unprepared for just how chilly it would be. There was no time to ease in, however, because “our” dolphin – Missy – was being instructed to pose for a photo with us… so we gathered our courage, bent our knees, held our breaths, and smiled.
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Notice how the girls’ shoulders are up to their ears because there was no way they were ready to get that wet yet…

Missy – short for Miss Merlin – was fifteen years old, a nursing mama, blind in one eye, and just the absolute coolest, most fascinating animal I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. The trainer working with her was sarcastic and bold and more than willing to embarrass us in order to get a laugh; we liked her immediately.

I don’t quite know how to describe the excursion. I could tell you what it entailed: we – each of us, one at a time – got to hug Missy, dance with her (holding onto her front flippers and bobbing around together), run our hands along her back and head and belly (dolphins are unbelievably soft – there is little to compare her to that would make any sense because it’s a wholly unique feeling), kiss her (which may sound weird but which was SO VERY COOL), feed her (Nick was cajoled into feeding her by dangling a dead fish from his teeth – for real, yo), and sing with her (“Happy Birthday,” of course). We watched as she leapt into the air, doused us with water (at the trainer’s mischievous instruction), disappeared for a moment or two to check on her baby (who was hanging out in a separate, protected area so Missy could visit), scooted backward along the top of the water using only her flukes, blew bubbles under the surface, and made myriad crazy and amusing (to us humans) noises.
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What I can’t put into words is the sheer joy, awe, and delight that coursed through all of us during the 15 minutes we spent with Missy. It was something that transcended happy and blissful and slid into a kind of euphoria – but contained, special, magic. We felt it; it was almost an out of body experience, except we were so incredibly present.

Near the end of our visit, the trainer told us to wait a moment – and, at her hidden command, the dolphin swam out of sight. The trainer explained to Nick that Missy would be bringing him something to commemorate his big day, and when she returned he had to take it – but if it was alive (!!), he’d need to put it back. A moment later, Missy resurfaced and swam to Nick holding something in her teeth. Stunned, Nick giddily took it from her; it was a rock (which, thank God, is not alive), collected from the bottom of the lagoon.

To put it another way, a dolphin specifically selected a gift for Nick and then gave it to him. NICK GOT A 40th BIRTHDAY PRESENT FROM A DOLPHIN.
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When we returned home, he ordered a plastic box from Amazon in which to store/display his gift. I am not even kidding.

There was lots of other stuff to do at Blue Lagoon – sea lion greeting, dolphin watching, a gorgeous Bahamian beach with inflatables on the water – but, agreeing that our experience with Missy couldn’t possibly be topped, we chose to simply head back to the ship.

It felt as though we didn’t touch the ground for hours. We ate lunch and got ice cream; the girls swam and rode the water slide; Ella got her hair braided all fancy-like; Nick and I relaxed and enjoyed the Drink of the Day. He was on such a high, he even proudly posed with the girls’ and my last gift of the day: a towel that my aunt had embroidered for him, loudly declaring his age. (The rest of his presents awaited him at home.)
disney94This is maybe the softest towel in existence. I’ve totally stolen it for myself even though I AM NOWHERE NEAR 40, ahem.

I’d been informed that, at dinner, our waitstaff would present Nick with some kind of birthday treat; since he doesn’t really like dessert (or any sweets, for that matter; I KNOW), I decided not to order him a cake (see also: fridge too small to store leftover cake). It turned out perfectly.

Disney is nothing if not enthusiastic, especially when it comes to celebrations, and birthdays are certainly something to be celebrated. As such, when I stopped by the front desk the night before, the concierge eagerly forked over “I’m Celebrating” buttons for GranMary, the girls, and me as well as an “It’s My Birthday!” button for Nick. Those drew us some attention, but it was really the shirt that turned people’s heads. Nick insisted on wearing it all day (until dinner), explaining that it was the only day he could get away with it. I’d chuckled when I found it online, giggled when it arrived in the mail, laughed out loud when he actually put it on… but seeing other guests and cast members take notice of it, do a double take, and then stop to say, “Happy Birthday, man!” all day long was pretty much the most amusing best thing ever.

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Speaking of cool things…

After dinner, GranMary presented Nick with his final gift: a clever and funny reworking of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” (complete with mouse ears and dancing grandchildren); it was a delightful capper on a pretty damned terrific day. When we got back to the room, we discovered that our attendant had folded our bath towels in the shape of a birthday cake.
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Do you think they keep the ribbon on hand, just in case?

If you’d asked Nick what he envisioned doing on the day he turned 40, I doubt that he’d have described the day that he wound up having. Still, he was a tremendously good sport about everything – and, by the end, even he had to admit that as far as birthdays go, it wasn’t really so bad… In fact, it was pretty freakin’ great. We were in the Bahamas. It was a perfect, sunny day. He got some dorky fun swag, including a present from a dolphin.

He even got to check an item off his bucket list.
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This photo makes me ridiculously happy.

At the very least, I hope there’s no doubt in his mind that he is pretty freakin’ adored by the rest of us. (Adored… and seen as fodder for embarrassment.)

But hey – you only turn 40 once. Might as well kick back with a Yellow Bird, soak in the sun, kiss a dolphin, and look out onto the incredible horizon stretching before you – in every possible way.
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Awesome, indeed.

 

 

 

 

Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?

After our stopover in Epcot, we were totally stoked to depart on the cruise. GranMary met us at the hotel and we traveled from Orlando to Port Canaveral together, all set for the adventure to begin.

Annie had decided that she wanted to meet (and get autographs from ) as many characters as possible – and so, knowing that we’d have a slight wait at at the terminal, we took full advantage of the opportunity to get a little personal time with Goofy.

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GranMary defined the term “good sport” for the entirety of the trip.

We’d elected to get a room with a balcony (actually, by the time we booked this cruise, all rooms except those with balconies were sold out, so it wasn’t much of an “election” but still…). While it’s hardly an essential, we did enjoy being able to hear the ocean and feel the temperature (something that came in quite handy by the end of our trip).

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Not quire sure why, but I love this photo.

Nick turned 40 on the second day of the cruise and, as part of the celebration, he requested that we do the meet-the dolphin excursion at the Blue Lagoon while in Nassau, Bahamas. It was, hands down, one of the most incredible experiences any of us has ever had (more on that soon…).

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It looks as though we’re shrugging in response to a question, but really, the water was just freakin’ cold. 

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Thumb war battles on the ferry back from Blue Lagoon.
Why was GranMary the one who got roped into declaring thumb wars? See: GOOD SPORT.

For the remainder of the trip, we simply enjoyed what Disney had to offer – and it was a lot. (I won’t go into everything [you’re welcome], although you can feel free to read a bit more about it here and here.)

We shuffleboarded (is that a verb? If not, it is now)…
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GranMary and I lost, but we put up a good fight, I assure you.

We took in numerous ship-board activities…
disney164Cheering babies on during the fastest crawler race.
I’m not kidding.
It was an absolute hoot.

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Watching movies while swimming? Yes, please.

We – um, Annie – met characters. And characters. And more characters.
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Captain Jack Sparrow took his role very seriously.

It was pretty damn great.

When we returned from last year’s cruise, we said that it was the best vacation ever. And it was. Hence, as excitement mounted for our cruise this year, Nick and I were careful to remind Ella and Annie (and ourselves) that this would be different. Not bad, not at all – but different. It was basically going to be impossible to top, or even match, last year’s experience.

Turns out? We were right.
And you know that? That’s okay.

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Something that was way better on this ship: the AquaDuck water slide, which encircles the entire upper decks of the ship. Seriously awesome.disney120 disney128
Doing their best princess waves as they passed by…

See, last year, we neeeeeeded that vacation. We’d lost Bill the previous summer and were still emotionally exhausted; I’d started a new job; the girls both took on additional activities which made it hard to find our legs beneath us as our schedules became absolutely nutty; and our winter had started off with ridiculously cold temperatures, meaning that even I – who adore snow and chilly days – was desperate to get warm.

This year, it’s different. We still miss Bill very much, of course – and talk about him often, with tears coming at unexpected times – but the pain is not quite so raw, the roller coaster a little more rounded and not quite so exhausting. My job has remained steady and Nick’s has changed for the better. We’ve grown accustomed to swimming and soccer and after-school craziness – which doesn’t make it less crazy, but makes it unsurprising, so we’re steadier on our feet (although our white boards are used just as often, thank you very much).

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The mixology class did not necessarily make us steadier on our feet, but it was absolutely delicious.

And the weather… well. January started off just fine, even nicely. We Rochesterians commented to one another that this was a good winter — not frigid like last year, no huge snowstorms, just a good, even, steady, sunnier-than-usual winter. At least we’re not Boston, hahaha, amIright??

AND THEN CAME FEBRUARY. February, with piles and piles and FREAKING PILES of snow. February, which is already the second-coldest on record (and which, with single-digit temperatures forecasted this week, might become the coldest on record). February, which may be the shortest month of the year but OMG IT SEEMS LIKE IT WILL NEVER END.

If February had come before January, I would have been dragging my frozen butt on that airplane just as maniacally as I’d done last year. But because it hadn’t – because our winter had started off nicely and evenly – none of us was absolutely out of our minds to get someplace warm. (After being home with historically low temperatures, however, we might just storm the airport and try to stow away.)

Which, as luck would have it, was a good thing because this delightful cold front slid right down the eastern coast of the USA, meaning Florida and The Bahamas? Not so warm. Record setting cold in Orlando, as a matter of fact! I even got mild hypothermia while at Castaway Cay!! (There are two exclamation points there which makes it seem like I’m jesting or laughing, but in all seriousness… hypothermia. But that’s another story…)

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In addition to being chilly, it was also more than a little overcast and stormy on the day we landed at Castaway Cay…

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… which basically meant that we had the snorkeling area to ourselves.

So, the weather was a definite bummer. While we were tremendously grateful to be, you know, on vacation – I won’t go whining about it or anything – it was still a bit of a letdown to miss out on the activities we’d planned (plus, being cold in the Bahamas just feels wrong, yo!). Additionally, high seas and choppy conditions caused most of us, but Ella and me in particular, to become quite seasick – something we hadn’t experienced at all on our previous cruise.

And you know those storied kids clubs that I raved about last year and that the girls couldn’t wait to visit again?? The ones where Ella spent nearly all of her time using the computer bays to write elaborate stories and create digital cartoon thingies? Well, it seems that not all Disney kids clubs are created equal; the ones on this ship didn’t offer the same computer programs (apparently, because our other ship – the Disney Magic – had recently been retrofitted and revamped, they updated their kids club technology). Which meant that Ella didn’t really want to spend time in the clubs. Which… was not awesome.

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Also not awesome? The line to meet Elsa and Anna.
I do love how Anna has her hands on her hips, though. Very method.

As such – with the weather, the seasickness, and the change in the clubs – this trip had some hiccups, whereas last year’s had none. (We didn’t help ourselves by going to Epcot for a day this year and not Universal; when you’ve walked a mile in Harry Potter‘s shoes, almost nothing else can live up to that hype.) It’s difficult – impossible, really – to compete with perfection.

Thankfully, we didn’t need to enter that competition because we didn’t need this vacation in the same way we did a year ago. It could just be exactly what it was – fantastic.

If anything, the bumps in the road (the waves on the sea? How far can I stretch this metaphor?) showed us that last year wasn’t just a fluke: we really do love Disney cruises, even when things don’t always go as planned. It was particularly neat to be able to share this year’s experience with GranMary – to laugh with her while we watched the girls zoom in and out of the pools, to stifle groans as we waited in line to meet the princesses (GranMary helps the time pass by much more quickly!), to see her come waaaay out of her comfort zone time and time again (let’s just say that dressing as a pirate and kissing a dolphin on the lips are not usually part of GranMary’s routine), to watch as she and Ella and Annie sang and hugged and took in every moment of vacation and joy and fun.IMG_2305
Although she is very convincing here, I can assure you that Mary does not typically “arrr!” like a pirate.

As I sit here listening to the dripping of the icicles inside our front door (no, for real, inside the door; when all of this begins its meltdown [because, for the love of all things holy, IT MUST MELT AT SOME POINT, right??] it’s not going to be pretty), squinting as the sunlight reflects off the feet of snow in the backyard (but at least it’s sunny!!), the memories of our trip seem that much sweeter.

Even without this doozy of a winter, however, the trip would stand on its own. How fantastically lucky we were to have taken it!

 

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Pirate night, me hearties!

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Baby, Why Don’t We Go (Aka: Cruisin’ Part Deux)

And now, the thrilling conclusion to our Disney Cruise chronicles. I know you’re pumped!!

The first night, we sailed (is that the right term? Boated? Cruised? Went?) to Nassau in the Bahamas, where the ship docked for the day. Instead of disembarking (do you like my cool cruise lingo?), we opted to stay on board and take advantage of the ship’s offerings while everything was a little less crowded.dcl3
Nassau lighthouse that was just begging to have its picture taken. Hellllllllloooo, lighthouse!

We swam. We watched movies by the pool and got ice cream from the self-serve machine just for the hell of it. Twice. The girls went to the kids’ club. We tried the drinks of the day and went down this absolutely crazy water slide that sucked you through a tube and then swung out over the side of the ship. We ate more food. The girls went to the kids’ club. (Yes, I know I said that twice.) We explored the ship and got to know one of the bartenders and then ate more food. We saw shows and waved to the myriad Disney characters who were greeting ecstatic lines of kids. We donned bandanas and eye patches for pirate night. We ate more food. And we collapsed into our beds that night so fully exhausted, we could no longer keep our eyes open.

The following day, we arrived at Disney’s teeny private island, Castaway Cay (which is pronounced KEY; I know, it’s weird, but it’s a fact).dcl6
It really was small – that’s it in its entirety.

This time, we had no intention of remaining on the ship. As soon as we deposited our bags and towels on the gorgeous, pristine beach, we were off to our first adventure: petting, feeding, and snorkeling with stingrays. (I’d like to pretend we were stupid brave enough to do this with potentially dangerous stingrays, but these guys had had their stingers gently filed down so that they couldn’t harm us.)dcl11
Hungry, dude?

I’m not gonna lie… it was a little weird having these floppy, slippery beings suck the food out of your hand like an rabid vacuum (they don’t really have teeth, but their mouths are… knobby?). They were quite majestic, though, undulating and gliding through the water, so we soon got over our fears. Or, at least, Nick and I did; we couldn’t quite convince the girls to participate in the feeding. And, actually, Ella never quite worked up her courage to associate with the stingrays, period, but Annie was game to snorkel with them once the Hoover portion had concluded.

After our sixty minute sojourn was over, we donned our snorkel gear once more to explore the reef. Proving that her earlier trepidation was due to an extreme dislike of stingrays (who knew?), and not of snorkeling, Ella joined Nick in swimming as far out in the bay as was possible, ooohing and ahhing at the sunken ship (“Mom, I think Disney probably put that there… but it was still cool!”) and the many tropical fish.

Hunger soon got the best of us, so we eagerly piled our plates high at the BBQ buffet (more food!), listening to the sounds of the crab races that were being held only a few feet away. (I mean actual racing of crabs; Annie watched as the winning crab was crowned. It was pretty damn funny.) The rest of the afternoon was filled with highs (more snorkeling) and lows (a bicycle ride to “lookout point” that proved too arduous for Annie, who got partway before collapsing into a heap and declaring she needed to walk back. In the 85 degree Bahamian sun. Which I’d sworn not to complain about, given how freakin’ freezing it’s been at home, but which I might have cursed while hissing at Annie that she needed to get back on the bike and just pedal a little harder, for God’s sake. Absolutely my finest moment of the trip).

We splashed and swam. We ate and shopped. We snorkeled and played in the sand. We laughed and relaxed. And we promised, as soon as possible, that we’d take another cruise.
castaway cayA play area in the middle of the water? Why not! Yes, those are the girls, waving to us from the bouncy bridge on the right.

Everyone who’s gone on a Disney cruise can’t say enough about the ship’s staff – how welcoming they are, how friendly, how helpful, how gregarious. Although we’re terribly unoriginal here, we absolutely echo those statements: our cast members KICKED. ASS. We did not encounter a single employee – from the crews quite literally swabbing the decks to the performers to the waitstaff to the front desk people – who was anything shy of tremendous. Every single one – all of them! EVERY SINGLE ONE! – greeted us with a smile, whether it was at 7 a.m. or 1 a.m., whether there were screaming children all around or it was silent, whether it was the beginning or the end of their sixteen hour work day (I’m not kidding; these people work their butts off). In fact, not only did they greet us smiling, they seemed honestly happy to see us.

Our housekeeper even found the time to fold and twist our towels into adorable animal shapes every night when he turned down our covers, turned the sofa into a bunk bed, and laid out the chocolates and the following day’s itinerary. I know this is standard practice, but doing this for every room in his block has got to be tedious, man.

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Even “Bolt” got the sunglass treatment!

We had the same waitstaff for all of our sit-down meals (hi, Emilia from Italy and Ilham from Indonesia!), and every time they saw us, they made us feel like we made their nights. Ordering more than one appetizer? No problem. You’d like to trade this for that so your menu can be gluten-free tomorrow? We’ve got it. They used steak knives cut the girls’ meat so we could enjoy our own meals. They refilled our drinks without us asking. They chatted with us and answered our never-ending questions. “No” was never an option; “I’ll see what I can do!” was.

In fact, that seemed to be the mantra for the entire staff: we’ll see what we can do to make this trip incredible for you. Case in point… The very first afternoon, while I ordered myself the spiffy (alcoholic) drink of the day, I spied a super-cute Disney Cruise Line cup behind the bar that was emblazoned with Olaf the snowman and the Frozen logo. My BFF had requested Frozen paraphernalia for her daughter, and I’d struck out so far (apparently, the Frozen merchandise disappears as soon as it arrives ; the cast member at the Disney Store in Downtown Disney – the world’s largest Disney Store – told customers they were all sold out and their best bet would be to check online…!), so this was a find! But, seeing as the only way to procure the cup was to purchase the non-alcoholic drink of the day and my daughters were currently occupied (see above: kids’ club), I figured I’d just pick up the Frozen cup at a later time.

Naturally, I completely forgot about buying the cup until the very end of our very last night on the cruise. At 11:50 p.m., I asked our server – at an adults-only club on the third deck – if he knew whether or not they had any Frozen cups at the bar. His response: “Let me see what I can do!” After bringing us our drinks, he informed me that, no, they didn’t have those cups, but that the bar up at the pool might – and that he would check for me. And so he trekked up to the ninth deck at midnight (which was after the poolside bar had closed) to look for a damn kids’ Frozen cup… and returned five minutes later carrying this:

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Yes, this is the actual cup, which means – no, I haven’t mailed it to my BFF yet.
Surprise, Evie!!

I don’t even know if he charged us for it.

The reason I do not know this is because we did not buy our drinks that night (not that round, anyway). Which brings me to to the very best part of our trip: free drinks!

No, no. I jest.
The drinks are most definitely not free.
But I am in the dark about whether or not we were charged for the cup.

See, we didn’t pay for those drinks because the best thing happened: we made friends. (Slow claps all around. I’ll wait.) But hold on – hear me out, because this is really spectacular.

Nick, Ella, Annie, and I went on this trip as a little foursome, and were very happy to do so. We didn’t plan on “meeting” people beyond folks to say hi to near the pool, and we certainly didn’t expect to make actual, for real friends. We did know that we’d be seated with the same people each night for our sit-down dinner (each table “rotates” through the full-service restaurants, retaining both the same diners and the same wait staff each night) and, secretly, we hoped that we wouldn’t hate these people. No, truly – Nick and I discovered after the fact that we each had our fingers very, very crossed that we didn’t despise the thought of sitting next to these people night after night; anything short of outright loathing would be a bonus.

Imagine our delight, then, when we arrived that first evening to discover that we’d be dining with four other folks — a mom and a dad (I’m going to call them Miss L and Mr. D), their daughter, J, and Miss L’s cousin’s daughter, S. Both L and S – who are best friends – are in third grade, just like Ella, and they hit it off immediately. Although we’d arranged the seating so Annie and Ella would be next to Nick and me, by the end of the meal, we’d switched places so that the four girls could be next to one another and yuk it up.

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Mom! Look who we found by the pool! Can we get more ice cream??

Disney is not stupid, y’all. It is exceedingly unlikely that we were coincidentally seated beside a family with two girls our own daughters’ ages. While that kind of engineering is great, there was no guarantee that it would manufacture actually liking one another; that was just wonderful serendipity. Nick and I were happy for the girls, but were even more surprised and tickled to learn how much we liked Miss L and Mr. D.

It started out gradually, as so many relationships do. As Nick and I fell into bed that first night, we remarked to one another how nice Miss L and Mr. D seemed. They were funny. They were smart. They were our age. They used correct grammar. They knew how to eat (and eat… and eat…). It seemed a good match; we assumed that dinner the following night wouldn’t suck.

When we found them by the pool the next day (see photo above), we were pleased to chat with them again as the girls ran off and terrorized the kiddie pools and slides. We further cemented our bond when Nick, Ella, Mr. D, his daughter J, and I went down the plunge-to-your-death-and-go-over-the-side-of-the-boat slide, leaving Miss L to watch Annie and her cousin’s daughter, S. I mean, when you’ve stared death in the face and left your child in someone else’s care, it’s hard to go back to casual again.

By that night, we were lingering just a little longer over dinner, and then splitting forces so that half of us saw the live “Villains Tonight” show (that would be Ella, satisfying her Maleficent fascination) while the other half attended a Frozen sing-along. By the next day at Castaway Cay, we found ourselves actively looking for Miss L, Mr. D, and the girls. By that night, we four adults had ditched the kids and were shouting out answers at a Music of the 80s Trivia contest and forming human pyramids on the floor to earn our team extra points. (I kid you not; Miss L and I got down on our hands and knees as Nick climbed on our backs and Mr. D – who is approximately 385 feet tall and might have a had a difficult time safely hopping aboard – gesticulated and called from behind.)

So, yeah. From strangers to human pyramids in just over 48 hours, because, hot damn, we really, really enjoyed these people’s company. (And also: alcohol. It amuses me that Miss L and Mr. D may think I always drink like this. Ah, well... Who am I to burst that bubble…) In only a few short days, they had become our dear, wonderful, true friends in that intense, we-shared-this-experience-together kind of way that’s typically reserved for retreats or summer camp. Or maybe prison.

As we docked again at Port Canaveral bright and early that third morning, we were not ready to leave – not the ship, not the weather, and especially not our newfound friends who were kind enough to buy the last round, which included the aforementioned Frozen cup (hence, why I don’t know whether or not we were ever charged for it).
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Ella and Annie felt the same…

Alas, Disney frowns upon stowaways, so we had to disembark and make our journeys back home – us to New York and our new cruising family to Georgia. Not to worry, though; we were Facebook friends before we’d even left the port, and now regularly gripe to one another about how much we wish we were still on vacation. It’s good to have people who understand you.

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I’m the king of the world!

So, there you have it. To say that it was just the very most fantabulous vacation ever really doesn’t do it justice, so rather than continuing to search for super grown-up adjectives, I’ll simply say that it was perfect. Not just Mary Poppins’s practically perfect in every way; no, actually perfect. I can’t recommend a Disney cruise highly enough – and not just because I’m a Disney fanatic. It is joy and laughter and fun and memories and magic, pure and simple.

We will absolutely be going on another Disney cruise.
Along with these crazy people, of course.

Next time, I call the top of the pyramid.

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Come On, Pretty Mama! (Aka: All Aboard!)

* This began as a much longer post (if you can believe it), but I realized it’s so damn long, it’s probably best to split it into two parts. I know. The suspense is killing you. Check back tomorrow for the rest.*

I’ve been wanting to write about the cruise portion of our trip since – well, basically since we first set foot on the ship – but I simply haven’t had the time. To be honest, I don’t really have time now, but I’m going to write about it anyway because a) I promised I would, and I do hate to break a promise, b) I don’t want to forget any of the details, and c) if I write about it, I can finally stop being annoyed with myself for not doing so.

In any case, without further ado, let me tell you about our cruise:
It was incredible!!

The end.

Okay, okay. I’ll say a bit more. Nick and I had been toying with the idea of a cruise – specifically, a Disney cruise – for a couple of years now. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go because I didn’t know if our time and money should be spent getting the “Disney experience” outside of Disney World; I adore the parks so much, I thought perhaps I’d regret not going there instead. Nick was worried that we, as a family, might not enjoy going on a cruise – that it would be too confining, that there wouldn’t be enough to do, that (despite everyone’s assurance to the contrary) our girls wouldn’t like the kids’ club. When we found a truly unbeatable deal on a three-day cruise that aligned with the girls’ break, we felt the time was right to bite the bullet and go for it. Turns out, it’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made (vacation-wise, anyway. I mean, it’s not quite the same as choosing a college or giving french vanilla lattes a try, but still – a great decision).
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The Disney Magic, as seen from Castaway Cay.

When we arrived at the Port Canaveral docks, we were absolutely astonished – and wildly impressed – by how streamlined and simple Disney had made the boarding process. Within minutes, we’d dropped off our luggage (which would appear outside of our stateroom a couple of hours later), checked in, had our photo taken, received our keys, and signed the girls up for the kids club. Within another half hour (during which there were loads of things to keep our attention), we were strolling onto the ship.
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Just prior to boarding, I asked the girls if they were excited to get on. This is how they responded.

Our first stop was a buffet, which was piled high with goodies (and the chef even made me a side of veggies to ensure they were gluten-free; holla!). Next up was a trip to the pool deck, where the girls frolicked to their hearts’ content and Nick and I discovered the wonder of the daily drink specials.
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At times, this pool, especially, was so crowded, you couldn’t really call it “swimming,” but the water was clean and warm and fun and NOT WINTERY.

Before the required safety demonstration (which was a lot like the ones on airlines but much more silent, in part because we weren’t all desensitized to them yet, and also because we’ve all seen Titanic. If I have to cling to a piece of wood for survival, I will, but I’d much rather use the life vest provided, thanks), we checked out the fabled kids clubs – in our case, the Oceaneer’s Club and Oceaneer’s Lab, which were set up for 3-12 year-olds.

Friends who’d gone on Disney cruises waxed rhapsodic about these mystical places; about how incredible they were; about how much there was to do; about how their children never wanted to leave. It’s not that we wanted to pawn the girls off – I mean, we hadn’t come all this way to dump them, and we’d chosen the very family-friendly Disney experience because we wanted to do things together as a family – but if there was really an awesomely exciting, safe place where the girls wanted to be and Nick and I could have some kid-free time… um, yeah. I WILL HAVE TWO FILLINGS. The moment we entered, the girls were in heaven. Ella gravitated immediately to the computer kiosk area which was set up with several programs for typing, writing, and creating little scenes with character speech bubbles.

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No joke – she turned left and found these bays and was DONE.

I am not exaggerating when I say that she must have typed up – and printed off – at least a dozen of these over the course of our short trip. Sure, they wasted trees, but they gave her a creative outlet that she was very obviously craving (she doesn’t often type stories at home, but I’m thinking we’ll have to find a cool program that allows her to do so). Even more than that, though, they allowed us a fascinating peek inside her. It’s often like pulling teeth to garner a response that goes beyond “fine” or “good” or “not much” or (my favorite) “nothing” when asked how her day was or what she learned in school – so to be able to have this little window into her thoughts was a pretty fantastic thing.

Click larger to read her delightful verbal explosion.
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Think she was enjoying herself??

Annie, on the other hand, was interested in just about everything else that the clubs had to offer. Jumping from beanbag chair to beanbag chair? She’s on it. Joining in on a group game? Count her in. Participating in a dance-a-thon? She’s your girl. Watching old-school Disney movies and cartoons in front of the many ginormous screens? Absolutely.
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Hula-hooping while watching ‘The Princess and the Frog’.

Annie also – unsurprisingly – was captivated by the craft and drawing spaces. We came home with numerous pipe cleaner creations and more than one (read: enough to fill a coloring book) illustration that she absolutely couldn’t bear to leave behind.
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Is that… Elsa? From ‘Frozen’? Gee, such a shocker!

As predicted by our experienced friends (that sounds wrong, but I’m going with it), it was, indeed, hard to pull the girls away from the clubs. They certainly weren’t the only ones, either; on more than one occasion, I heard a parent explain to a child (who was being physically dragged away from the club entrance), “Because this is a big ship, and it’s silly to spend all of your time in one place!” And, really, who could blame them? Every single thing was geared toward their age group; it was brightly lit and colorful and engaging; there were loads of ever-changing activities, and the counselors were warm, charming, and seemed genuinely interested in being locked inside a small space in the middle of the Atlantic with dozens of overeager children.

Nick and I hadn’t given too much thought about what we’d do while the girls were in the club… But there was no shortage of options. Some times, we just lounged by the pool. Others, we participated in some of the ship’s many entertainment offerings (including attending a magic show that taught us how to do some magic tricks; we’re basically like Mrs. and Mrs. Copperfield now). The best part of the girls being in the kids club, though, was having the opportunity to just be together, the two of us. More to the point, we were together, the two of us, knowing that our children were not only safe and well-cared for but having a blast… while we got to imbibe the drinks of the day poolside or show-side (or, hell, in our stateroom) and have conversations about anything we wanted but nothing having to do with who fed the dogs or who was going to pick up someone from some class, or what was for dinner, or whether the repairs on the tiles in the shower really required a second opinion. See also: sunny and warm in the middle of the Atlantic.

In other words, it was the biggest win/win imaginable, and we were all having the time of our lives. DOESN’T GET MUCH BETTER THAN THAT, people.

* To be continued… soon… Which is good, because I haven’t even talked about the best part yet. No, really.

Let’s get away from it all

If we took a holiday…
Took some time to celebrate…
Just one day out of life
It would be (it would be), it would be so nice.
– “Holiday”

Thanks, Madonna, for so eloquently summing up our recent vacation experience.

In my last post, I’d told you that we were heading out of town and I’d fill you in soon – today seems to be a good place to start.

We needed this holiday. No; I mean, we neeeeeeded this holiday. The months (years?) leading up to Bill’s death were not exactly easy. As anyone who’s lost someone important to them – especially to a disease like cancer – knows, it’s emotional whiplash. You can’t figure out which end is up, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, you’re constantly on edge, every phone call is tinged with anticipation, you literally make yourself sick with worry, and then there’s the damn sadness that’s hovering around. It. Is. Exhausting.

Couple that with our completely insane autumn and winter, with work changes and school changes and after-school activities and work travel and birthdays and holidays and and and OMG MOST OF THIS IS GOOD STUFF BUT IT DOESN’T MAKE IT LESS TIRING. We needed a break. We needed to well and truly get away, just the four of us, to do something fantastical and new and inspiring and really freakin’ fun.

Nick and I had been toying with the idea of a Disney cruise for a couple of years. When we found an unbeatable deal on a three-day cruise to the Bahamas that perfectly aligned with the girls’ February break, we jumped on it – and then added a day at Universal to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, plus a trip to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in Downtown Disney just to really gild the lily.

We don’t take family vacations very often – we travel a helluva lot, but the vast majority of that is to visit family (which, while great, isn’t always a “vacation” in the truest sense of the word) – and on the rare occasions when we’ve done so, “escaping the cold” hasn’t really been among our priorities. As a foursome, we live for winter, and the snow in Rochester is right up our alley, so I’ve never had a longing to go somewhere warm before spring finally blooms. Even this year with our endlessly, unusually cold days, I was excited to get away, but I didn’t think I was excited to be someplace warm… until we were surrounded by the Orlando heat and humidity, deliciously blanketing us with tropical bliss, and suddenly there was nowhere else I wanted to be. WARM WARM WARM. Amen.

Our trip is now complete, and… well… I can’t quite find the words (nor the time) to adequately describe how utterly incredible it was, nor how much it meant to all of us, at least not today. And so I’ll show you a few photos instead, to give you a glimpse into pure, unadulterated joy.

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There’s lots more to say – and I will, in the coming days – but for now, these will suffice.

While we were on the trip, it was as though time stood still; every minute was both magically extended and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quick, as though we’d been transported to another dimension. We are now firmly back to reality. When we landed last night, it was 18 degrees, and we had to shovel fresh snow off the driveway this morning. Today, it feels almost as though our six-day sojourn never happened, a very bizarre space/time continuum.

But it did happen. And it was so totes amazeballs.

Just six days out of life… and they were so so SO SO SO SO ridiculously nice.