Category: travel log

it begins and ends with a mouse

Our kids have seen their share of this beautiful country. They were still in diapers when we started traveling on a “steel horse,” and KK was barely a month old for her first plane ride. They’ve done mountains and prairies and of course, the ocean. They have considered at least 5 cities home, or a home away from home.

And don’t even get them started on Disney World, thank you.

Because we have a share in the Disney Vacation Club, KK and Randa have been to WDW an obnoxious number of times in their short lives. Their Daddy and I have fed their addiction happily. After all, the time share allows us to stay in amazing places for relatively low prices, and once you buy an annual pass and stretch it across several trips, and it’s never the same twice and…

Yes. But even so, the trip we were to make last week just didn’t make sense right now. Tickets are expensive and so is eating with Princesses… so we decided to postpone and do something different.

We did something totally different.

After a very specific internet search, we found a place that was affordable, simple, scenic, and would allow us to give the girls a first time experience we’d all been craving: a real horseback ride.

Our 3 nights and 2.5 days at Sunburst Stables flew by quickly, but were filled with big breakfasts, many animals to play with, snuggly movie time on the couch, books to read, NO CELLS OR INTERNET, feeding peacocks on the front porch, a total of 12 fish caught, laughing as we explored LAKE BURTON, and one unforgettable trail ride.

On our last night there, after the girls were already asleep in their sweet loft bedroom and Rod and I were re-watching a favorite movie (Dan In Real Life), we discovered a little friend scurrying through the kitchen.

A mouse.

I never saw him save for a blur, but I’m going to call him Mickey. It was good for us to discover a different kind of magic together.

IMG_3758Time to feed the peacocks!

KK's first fishKK’s first fish

Randa's first fishRanda’s first fish

their first cowboyMichael… their first time meeting a real cowboy :)


IMG_3760Take multimedia away, and your children might just spend an entire evening pretending to be Avengers and seeing how big they could make their hair…

Beautiful Lake Burton!

IMG_3681Just a swingin’

I absolutely fell in love with Dixie the Wonderful Stable Dog

IMG_3714For those of you who know Rod’s song… yes, the whole time they were doing thing,
I was singing, “I’m going fishin’ with the Fisher of Men…”

IMG_3677These little piggies…

IMG_3725The trail ride took us right past our cabin, aptly named “Horse Whisper.”

IMG_3683They’re better at conversation than at checkers… #lifeskills

IMG_3707One of these goats peed on me…

I will never, ever forget riding with her for the first time. Our horse was named Bo. He was a little stubborn and a lot of fun, just like his riders!

Their horse was named Nemo… surefooted and gorgeous like his riders.

Loved everything about our time together!

IMG_3726 IMG_3743

IMG_3737IMG_3719There are a few views that rival that of the ocean…

Top 10 Disney World (& Universal Studios) Moments: Part 2

I have spent my “Disney” time the past few days working on our photo book. Miranda’s dear pal in class was at WDW the same week we were and has already brought her photo book for show and share time, so the pressure is on.

Here we continue with this visit’s great moments~

*Miranda Becomes a Pin Trader
We initially bought the girls “pin starter kits” just because… they are classically gaudy princess lanyards with 4 or 5 generic pins on them. We have added to them on each subsequent trip to the park, with nary a thought for what is rare or unique or whatever; mostly, the girls pick out characters they like.

During one of Miranda’s times of whining (I think we were waiting for a few people to come out of the bathroom), I suggested she could go and trade a pin with a Cast Member. Paige took her and…score! Turns out Randa knows how to trade up. She traded 2 of the generic pins and another slightly more special one for better ones, and of course, wanted to do more. And I had a realization: what a great way for your kids to get “new things” at WDW without you having to spend any additional money!

*Resort Mugs
We have used the Disney Dining Plan during our last several trips there, and loved it. Honestly, we might take a break after this trip. We’ve fallen in love with a few of the restaurants, but one can only do so many character meals before…meh. Also, it’s clear that like pretty much every other establishment in this econonmy, the quality is not what it used to be. And finally, the price has now risen to an extent that it’s easy to see getting the dining plan really is an act of convenience and the only thing you save much money on are free desserts that you might not eat anyhow. So…we’ll see.

One new perk of the dining plan that we greatly enjoyed, however, was the inclusion of the Resort Mugs. These little plastic puppies hold hot or cold beverages, have lids, and can be refilled limitless times at your resort during your stay. (If you play the system, you can fill them at other resorts, too, but we didn’t visit any others this time around). Since we were just a walk across the breezeway from the beverage stations, we filled ours nearly every night and morning, and now that we’re home, they are great on-the-go cups. Score! (see? Miranda loved hers.)

*You mean there’s another theme park?
Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure
I admit: though this was my 8th lifetime trip to Orlando, I have never been to Sea World, Busch Gardens, Gator Land…and I don’t care. I have been to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure on three other trips, but it had been awhile, and Paige, Rod, and I had to get to The World Of Harry Potter. Thanks to the sadly-now-defunct Chase Rewards program, we were able to get free tickets for all of us to go.

We’d heard the day before that there had been a one hour wait just to get into the Harry section of the park! So even though we were in vacation mode, we got ourselves together and were at Universal by its 9am open. Mom and Dad took the little girls to the Shrek show and the Woody Woodpecker Coaster, and we worked Hogesmeade like it was our job. We enjoyed a less than one hour wait through the cue line known as HOGWARTS, rode the indescribable Forbidden Journey of Harry Potter (followed by the rethemed and still fun Dragon Challenge), and gulped a delicious butterbeer. Well done, Universal. WELL done!

We returned later with the rest of the family for another round (Forbidden Journey in the single rider line, my new favorite thing), Dragon Challenge again, and more butterbeer. Ah…

It was fun for the kids, too. They rode the iconic E.T. ride, did everything in Seuss Land, and loved Spider-Man, which is still a wonderful attraction. The Hulk Coaster might very well still be my favorite, though I have to say… after 8 total thrill rides that day, I was feeling the 35 years I had celebrated the day before!

*Impromptu Character Moments
I eluded to this in my last post, but all the character meet and greets (we do a lot of them) can get pretty predictable. In fact, I have to really coach Miranda that it’s ok to talk to the characters and not just pose and smile for the camera. This time, along with our introductions to Tinkerbell and Rapunzel, two moments stuck out for me.

One was when Kaity saw Buzz and Woody. Mind you, she met them twice on our last trip, but she’s possibly become a more obsessed fan since then. She was bearing a Toy Story shirt, and Woody made a big deal of pointing to himself and Buzz and then their images on the shirt. After much hugging and posing, we started to walk away, but my little tough/shy-when-convenient girl turned around, inched closer to Buzz, look up, and finally moved in for once last hug. There’s no photo of it. This mama was way too busy feeling the magic of that moment.

At the Chef Mickey breakfast, I found myself feeling a little blah about the whole thing. We didn’t have a great table, the food wasn’t as jaw-droppingly wonderful as last time (first world problems, I know), and the character stuff was just perfunctory. It was the morning of our last day and I thought maybe the kids were just over it. And then, Mickey happened.

After his meet, greet, pose with the girls, during which he analyzed their fairly full breakfast plates, he returned to our table no less than 4 times to check on Miranda’s progress. It was hysterical, especially because we could tell she was getting aggravated but didn’t dare want to be mad at Mickey. Yay Cast Members,  for those little extra moments.

Though repeat theme park experiences run the risk of becoming same-old, there are a few pieces of our “Disney life” that we hold dear.
~ we begin and end at Magic Kingdom
~ Our first ride always seems to be Pirates of the Caribbean
~We have to have dinner at Liberty Tree Tavern. This was introduced to us by Doug and Amy, and is non-negotiable and wonderful.
~We have to do the pictures in front of the castle and “the big ball.” No use arguing with me, k?












~No matter how little we buy, we have to spend a little time shopping at the Emporium, which is about the most obnoxious Disney store in the world… and I love it!
~We have to eat hot dogs and/or nachos from Casey’s Corner (passed on from Aunt Jen), in front of the castle, before we leave the park.

Several of these hot dogs ended up coming all the way home to Myrtle Beach with us, but it’s the tradition that counts… the tiring days, the pseudo-panic over what we might miss if we don’t HURRY-GET-FAST-PASSES!, the jumping up and down, the feeling of kiddie magic, the overeating, the overplaying, the window shopping, the fireworks-wishing, the castle ooh-and-ahhing. I love it all… and when we are there together, it is ours.

the one where they go to Beverly Hills

Last week was a whirlwind.

I mean, we tend to live in one, but last week was more of one than usual.

Due to extenuating work circumstances, we’ve been scouting magicians. Yeah. Six months ago I was scouting homeschool curriculum, now magicians. Anyway, an act at the top of our list happened to have a show in Los Angeles, where Pat Boone also happens to live (in the Hills, that is), so it made perfect sense for Rod to go.

When he started looking at flights, the airline we typically use to fly out of the Myrtle Beach airport only had flights to L.A. that stopped over in Chicago.


Well, it then made perfect sense for both of us to go (we work better together, after all) (and we haven’t had a night alone that didn’t involve packing or unpacking boxes in m o n t h s) (and, Chicago!). We flew to Chicago on Wednesday evening, leaving the girls to suffer with my parents…

We flew to L.A. Thursday morning, by way of Vegas

(it was 45 degrees in Chicago, that morning, by the way).

(it hurt my heart a little not to stop there. I heart Las Vegas)

and spent our rental-carless evening ordering pizza and watching utter crap on the TV before passing out at 9:30 pm, Pacific Time.

(and I am sad to say, due to our lack of a car and forethought, we had to pass up the opportunity to go here):

The next morning I woke up at 5 – 5AM! – which was ok, because it was already 8 on that other coast, where we live now.

I checked on Sara, because checking on her has been a habit for over a year, and now that her journey has almost ended, I find myself manically checking on her. Thankfully, on Friday, there was a blog post update, and it’s been quiet since. She is resting peacefully, it seems, and though we the internet love Gitzen Girl, this time is really about her RL family and friends. And so I pray. And choose joy…

After it became a respectable hour on the Pacific coast, Rod and I foraged for food. Let me pause her to say that while there are many lovely things about L.A., the area surrounding the airport is not one of them. At least we got a good walk in, before finding a Denny’s.

…where we encountered a waiter who was almost assuredly a character actor at some point, kind of reminding me of a pivotal Buffy character, in fact:

(and might I add here that I kind of miss scouring the internet for Buffy screencaps and such…those were the days…anyway…)

Also, Rod tried his own hand at magic.

Any second now, he’ll be shoving me into a box with flaming spikes.

Awhile after that, our new friend Marc (aka Pat Boone’s manager) picked us up and took us to the place where many pivotal scenes of The Lost Boys were fillmed~

(Also known as the Santa Monica Pier).

And we ate at a lovely restaurant across the street, where I ordered not enough of this:

(butternut squash & walnut ravioli. Yeah, it was).

And for those who enjoy hearing such anecdotes, I did trip THREE times crossing the street from the restaurant to the pier. Kelly is Kelly no matter what city she’s in…

As we headed to meetings at the Pat Boone office, Marc was a super-gracious host. He pointed out every cheesy landmark he thought I would like (It might have something to do with my squeeing over the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He offered to stop there, but we were kinda running late, so my closest brush with the place that made Julia Roberts truly famous was this)~

It is absolutely true about L.A. traffic, by the way. There is no way Jack Bauer made it to all those places to save the world just in time. I mean, he’s amazing, but Chuck Norris he’s not…

The PBE offices~

were a ton of fun! There was Pat Boone (read: mainly 50s and 60s) memorabilia EVERYWHERE… from branded bobby socks to pictures with U.S. Presidents. And the cool part was, I got to ‘go shopping’ for the Pat Boone Family Theater by strolling around with a pad of Post-It notes (which is all this girl really needs to have a little fun) and marking things I want for display in the theater.

You’re really going to have to come see it

We did meet Pat Boone for a moment when we were there, in which he mistook me for my daughter due to this practically famous Facebook post:

And we watched some fantastic vintage footage with Charles and Andrea, the PBE office gurus. (Charles pictured here):

Then we had to leave for a magic show…20 miles/2 hours away. We pretty much made it just in time. We saw awesome stuff. Rod was an audience volunteer, teehee~

We met two completely wonderful people whom I hope to tell you about soon.

Then we crashed.

Then we woke up and graced the famous Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge with our decidedly Chicagolina selves…for breakfast with Marc and Pat Boone. For the record, the coffee was wonderful, I ordered the So Cal omelet, I did not spill anything on myself (or anyone else – score!), and… I did not take pictures.

But he was really there, as evidenced by this graceful entry he wrote for my nephew’s ‘journal around the world’ school project!~

He was full of fantastic stories. When I am, ahem, conducting business, I try not to put people into roles, but it wasn’t lost on me that Mr. Boone, just taking age into account, could be my grandfather, and my own grandparents would have gotten such a big kick out of my having breakfast with him. In Beverly-stinkin-Hills. He even sang a few little things, and prayed before breakfast. It was one of those wow moments, really.

Afterwards, I did the most subtly awestruck things I could do. I emailed my friends from the very posh bathroom, and made our good-humored Marc take this photo~

After the trip back to Illinois, we had one day to spend there. We went to our Chicago home church, we hung out with my parents, and I was visited by 3 of my besties, who came with food I can’t get in Myrtle Beach and babies i don’t get to see there~

…and then we headed to my bro and sis-in-law’s, who have one of the world’s cutest babies, which I don’t say only because she is my almost-namesake:
I was sad to see the time end, but grateful for a little bonus trip, one that included this

and this!

(having all four kids together for such a brief period of time that there are no pictures…)

and coming home to this:

We go rollin’ down this highway, chasing all our crazy dreams. You go your way and I go my way, and everywhere in between. One of these days we’ll find a piece of ground, just outside some sleepy little town, and set this circus down. { Tim McGraw }

Eating good and fast at Walt Disney World

Disney has become our thing. We blame our friends, the family Paris, as well as the utter coolness of Walt Disney World. We love it…we want to be there as much as possible…we can’t get enough. Apparently, I have been vocal enough about this that I’ve become a “Disney Mom.”  Other parents planning trips have started asking me for tips, which just delights me, because a few short years ago I was barraging my friend with questions (and still do).

One of our favorite aspects of the modern Disney vacation is the dining plan. If you don’t know it, WDW is a first-rate place to eat, with dozens of places grand and quaint, featuring just about any kind of cuisine a family would want while on vacation. The Dining plan is available to guests staying on Disney property and allows you to eat at most any of the on-site restaurants without spending a fortune. For a daily per-person price, you’re entitled to a certain number of meals and snacks/drinks.

The dining plan breaks most WDW restaurants into two categories: Full Service and Quick Service. Full- service is either a buffet (and I could write about WDW buffets alone…they’re not Ryan’s. They’re wonderful!) or a sit-down meal. Quick Service, however, should not be equated with ‘fast food,’ as the quick service options are vast and often include a full meal you might order at a sit-down restaurant; the only difference is that you order at a counter, you don’t have to tip, and it’s slightly cheaper.

Here is a list of our family’s favorite quick service restaurants at WDW~


Pecos Bill’s Tall Tale Inn and Cafe– Located in Frontierland near the Country Bear jamboree (but not very far from Pirates of the Caribbean), this restaurant has a rustic, Pirate-y feel. It features one of our favorite quick-service amenities: the toppings bar (grilled onions, cheese sauce, mushrooms, produce, condiments galore! It’s a Burton dream come true!), which can be used for their burgers, sandwiches, or my favorite item: the taco salad.

Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe: Located in Tomorrowland (near Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, and most of the stuff your kids will want to ride on over and over), this restaurant has three distinct dining choices that are basically categorized as BBQ, Rotisserie, & grill. There is also some “live” (animatronic) entertainment, and space for the kids to play.

Casey’s Corner: This is one of our Magic Kingdom staples. Go to Casey’s, pick up your hot dogs, cotton candy, Cracker Jacks, and nachos, and grab a bench near Cinderella’s castle to people-watch. On our last trip, we went to Casey’s late at night after the parades and fireworks. It’s become our traditional last meal at WDW. The nostalgia can’t be beat!


ABC Commissary – With a small but very diverse menu (great chicken curry, cheeseburgers, Asian salad), this place is a staple for us at Hollywood Studios. The ABC TV commercials and posters are also fun for the adults in your group (We dare you not to sing along with the Growing Pains theme!)

Pizza Planet – While I admit to never having eaten here, it’s sure to be a stop on our next trip (January 3, 2012, baby!), as our kids are now full-fledged Toy-Story-maniacs. The pizza menu is a little more diversified and the décor can’t be beat!

– It’s pizza…it’s decent enough. We haven’t explored much of the dining at Animal Kingdom, though Tusker House (a buffet) is one of my favorite places to eat in all of WDW!

I have not gone to all of the places at Epcot I would like to. Everyone knows that the real cuisine is on the World Showcase side of the park, but with the kids (and let’s face it, all the shiny, fun rides), we tend to spend most of our time on the Future World side of the park. ‘Tis ok, though, because one of our favorite, favorite, FAVORITE quick service places is there: Sunshine Seasons Food Court. Located inside The Land , also home to wonderful attractions like Soarin’, Living with the Land boat tour, and the Circle of Life movie, this “food court” boasts a great variety of meals – both robust and healthy. There is an Asian Wok Shop, a great deli/bakery (use your snacks to get wonderful pastries here), a soup and salad counter, and Rod’s favorite, a wood-fired grill, where he typically gets a huge pork chop and yummy mashed potatoes.

Dining Tips:
– We haven’t explored a lot of the hotel restaurants, but the ones we’ve used for quick-service are just fine. Also, we’ve only done a few quick-service breakfast meals, but none stick out as either special or disappointing. If we eat breakfast at the park, it’s usually for a character meal, and then we skip lunch and have an early dinner.

–  Off-hours are the best time to use quick-service because seating is often full during “peak” meal times.

– KIDS who have the dining plan can eat ADULT meals. This is not something Disney is going to tell you, but unless it’s changed since we were there in October 2010, all the meals are put on one tally. So if you the mom or dad place an order for your family, no one’s asking how many kids are on the dining plan, so you can realistically order adult meals for everyone. Now, we don’t suggest you use this to ‘rip off’ Disney (though this would be hard to do!), but sometimes the kids’ options just aren’t things our kids like, so we get them an adult meal. Or sometimes we get one adult meal (say, a pizza and fries somewhere) and all split it as a snack.

– Most places will allow you to get a LARGE drink instead of a regular sized one; you just have to ask.

– Dining Plan SNACKS can be used for a variety of things; if you’re not sure, ask. We almost always end up with too many, and our last few trips I’ve thrown out Mickey applesauce, carrots, or brownies several weeks after we’ve been home. In light of that, I recommend getting extra drinks…water, milk, juice, whatever. If you’re driving home, those will never go to waste. If you’re flying, eat up!

– Smile & relax. It’s Disney. They want you to have a great time and everything is kid-friendly!

Reference: DIS.

Pictured: Miranda at Cosmic Ray’s, June 2009; The girls waiting for their Casey’s hot dogs, December 2009; Disney gives us the crazy eyes! October 2010

My 4 year old could have taken those pictures

And she did: a photo essay from Miranda’s lens…

Her favorite new past time is taking pictures. Sometimes, she gets her little mitts on my camera without me even noticing and I find the pictures later. But at National Quartet Convention last month, I knew what she was doing, and I watched her having fun…

…with her self portraits.
…catching Rod and me with media friends (like Mary Fay Jackson)…and with living legends, like Lou Wills Hildreth

…getting friends to smile for her, like ‘Aunt B’ and ‘Wiz’

…capturing her true 2 favorite people, her sisters
…and my favorite, random passers-by, who deemed her the ‘paparazzi’ and took pictures back.

She grabbed a few at Disney World too… while we were eating at Prime Time Cafe in Hollywood Studios. But, um, they were all from under the table and kind of dark.

What these pictures do not show? A child prodigy.

What they do show? An almost-four-year old unafraid to try things, capturing memories of her adventurous life, and making other people smile with her zest.

Love you, sweet Rosebud.