April 30, 2012

Disney's Monorail Resorts

Disney Deluxe Resorts...Monorail Edition
Earlier posts detailed Disney's Value Resorts and Disney's Moderate Resorts and I'll post more soon about the rest of Disney's Deluxe Resorts and DVC Resorts.

This week we're going to start covering the deluxe resorts. There are so many amenities and extras with these, I thought it best to split them up. First, we're going to go over the monorail resorts because often times first time guests planning a vacation will know only of the monorail resorts. So, which resorts are on the monorail? 

The Grand Floridian
(photo credit: infobarrel.com)

The Contemporary
(photo credit: wikipedia.org)

The Polynesian
(photo credit: disneypicture.net)

Firstly, it should be noted that the monorail resorts are the most expensive resorts at Disney World. For a family of four, it can range anywhere from $315 per night (weekday nightly rate in the value season at Contemporary in a standard room) to $3,210 per night (during the holiday season-December 21st-31st in a Grand Suite on the Club Level at the Grand Floridian). Although, across the board, a standard room will generally cost you around $500-650 per night. 

(photo credit: worl.nycsubway.org)

The Disney World monorail connects the three deluxe resorts, Magic Kingdom, Epcot and the transportation and ticket center (TTC). There are two routes: the express which only connects the Magic Kingdom to the TTC from which you can switch trains and go on to Epcot, and the resort line which not only services the Magic Kingdom and TTC (again, from which you can transfer to a train to Epcot) but also each of the three monorail resorts. The monorail itself is almost silent and has been in operation since 1971. Major changes were made in 1982 when Epcot was added, 1988 when the Grand Floridian was added, and 1989 when the "modern trains" began being used. The monorail runs almost completely silent so don't worry about train noise disrupting your stay at one of the monorail resorts. It should be noted that as convenient it is to be on the monorail, you only have direct access via monorail to two parks. You will still have to fold up the strollers and pack into either a Disney bus or your own vehicle to get to either Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom.

The Grand Floridian

(as seen from the ferry between Magic Kingdom and Wilderness Lodge)

The most recent addition to the monorail resorts, The Grand Floridian is beautiful. Inspired by San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado, the Grand Floridian has gorgeous verandas and dormers with it's stark white paint and red shingled roofs, it's a stunning image of Victorian architecture. It's also Disney World's most expensive and some might argue most luxurious resort. That being said, don't worry if you're a t-shirt and shorts kind of Disney vacationer. You won't be out of place. It's still a Disney resort and as such is very family friendly. Also, don't let the Victorian atmosphere fool you, it's not a stuffy or snooty resort-we're a t-shirt and shorts kind of family and although this is one resort we would probably not pick for a long vacation (more for budget considerations than anything else) but a long weekend would be great. 

If you are planning on visiting The Grand Floridian with your kids, be sure to pick up an activities guide when you check-in. Such activities include the Lady Bug Release, Adventure Time, Arts and Crafts as well as the popular (read: make a reservation 180 days in advance) Pirate Adventure and Wonderland Tea Party. The Pirate Adventure takes little pirates (ages 4-12) out on a search for treasure on the high seas (aka various marinas on the Seven Seas Lagoon). The adventure lasts two hours and is available Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturdays from 930-1130 and only costs $36.21. The kids must be fully potty trained (no pull-ups) and will be given a snack and beverage so if your little one has an allergy, be sure to mention it when you book your reservation. The Wonderland Tea Party is hosted by Alice and the Mad Hatter. The kids (aged 4-10) play games, decorate and eat cupcakes and drink "tea" (juice). They also do some arts and crafts-usually making a mug that they then get to take home. The party lasts an hour and I've been told that the photopass picture that is taken of the kids with Alice and the Mad Hatter can be added to your photopass card. The cost is approximately $42.50. Both the adventure and the party are available to all Disney guests and not just Grand Floridian Resort guests but it is a convenient perk if you're already planning on staying there. Additionally, the Grand Floridian offers a drop-off childcare program called the "Mousekeeter Club" only available to Grand Floridian resort guests and guests who have booked a dining reservation at one of The Grand Floridian's restaurants. There is a minimum of 2 hours and a max of 4 hours per visit and children must be potty trained and between 4 and 12 years old. The cost is $11 per hour and includes dinner for the child. Also, while there, kids are free to play board games, video games, watch movies or create an arts and crafts project. You can book the Pirate Adventure, the Wonderland Tea Party or the Mousekeeter Club 180 days in advance by calling 407-WDW-DINE.

The resort itself has 900 rooms separated in categories both by price, size and view. You can either have a garden, lagoon or even a Magic Kingdom view. They have a gorgeous Victorian style with meticulous detailing. Where The Magic Lives provides a much more detailed account of each of the many, many rooms available including lots of pictures.

One of the most popular aspects to the resort, the spa, is unfortunately not currently open. Disney is doing a fairly extensive refurbishment and the spa will remain closed throughout 2012. I will update this post when the spa has reopened. 

The Grand Floridian is home to some of the most popular restaurants at Disney. They are...

Victoria and Albert's-Disney's most expensive restaurant...dress code and age restrictions-10yrs and up strictly enforced. Expect to spend at least $125 per person (plus wine pairings, upgrades like kobe beef or caviar, tip and tax) in the main dining room for the 6 course fixed price menu-which will be personalized with your name and whatever occasion you are celebrating to take home
Citricos-famous for their seafood and often compared to the Contemporary Resort's California Grill (a signature meal on the Disney Dining Plan)
1900 Park Fare-Character Buffet...Mary Poppins for breakfast and Cinderella for dinner (table service meal on the dining plan)
Narcoosee's-a waterfront restaurant featuring seafood and steak dinners (a signature meal on the dining plan)

The Contemporary Resort

One of Disney's original two resorts, The Contemporary Resort is a stone's throw from Magic Kingdom. In fact, if you have to inclination, you can actually walk from the lobby of the the Contemporary to Magic Kingdom in just minutes. It's location is obviously the biggest draw for the Contemporary and although some would argue it lacks the thematic elements that other Disney resorts have, the Contemporary has recently be refurbished and is still bringing people in from around the world with it's futuristic styling. Even if you don't reserve a room with a Magic Kingdom view, you can watch Wishes (Magic Kingdom's nightly fireworks show) from the Contemporary either on the 4th floor observation deck (open to the public) or while dining at California Grill on the 15th floor observation deck. We've never caught the show from the 4th floor but twice we booked dinner at California Grill (around 8pm so we could eat dinner, watch the show and come back to our table for dessert). The music is broadcast through speakers on the deck and it's truly magical.

Recently the Contemporary joined the ranks of a select few resorts...the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) resorts with the addition of the Bay Lake Tower. The tower is attached to the main Contemporary building with a long walkway. The DVC is a great time-share type program that I'll go into in more depth in another post.

The Contemporary offers several recreational options including tennis courts, a fitness center, white sand beaches overlooking Bay Lake (no swimming in the lake), an arcade, two pools (which optional cabana rental), fishing excursions, movies under the stars by the pool or on the beach, parasailing and the Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage (once only available to Grand Gatherings).

The Pirates and Pals Voyage sails Friday through Monday nights (Tuesday nights have been added through June of 2012 with no word on if it will continue the traditional Fri-Mon schedule afterward) leaving just over an hour before the fireworks are scheduled to begin. Captain Hook and Mr Smee will be your guides on land (where there are snacks and beverages) and on sea. The boat can accommodate up to 60 people but doesn't always fill up. Prices currently listed are $53.99 (plus tax) for guests 10 years and up and $30.99 (plus tax) for guests 3-9 years. You can book 180 days in advance by calling 407-WDW-PLAY (sign language interpreters are available so long as you notify Disney of this necessity at least 14 days in advance and the boats are all wheel chair accessible-you just roll right on).

Other fun options at the Contemporary Resort include a couple of great restaurants. I already mentioned the California Grill and I really can't recommend it highly enough. There is a dress code (no where near as strict as at Victoria and Alberts...just no cut off jeans or tank tops) and it is closer to fine dining than most of the restaurants at Disney World but it's still very family friendly and most importantly the food is amazing. If you are a fan of sushi or steak, you'll love it! Just be sure to book your dinner at 180 days out so you can make your reservation fall in place with the fireworks. It's a must do at least once. California Grill is on the dining plan as a signature meal.

(who says 14 months is too young to meet the mouse?!)

Another fun restaurant is Chef Mickey's. It's a buffet restaurant where the characters come out and meet you. They stop at each table and give the kids a chance to have pictures taken or autographs signed which can be super helpful if you go at a busier time of year and don't want to wait in line for the kids to meet all the characters. Just keep in mind that you may want to get the kids to eat as much as possible BEFORE the characters start coming out or you may end up leaving with hungry kids. Breakfast prices: $17.03 ages 3-9 & $30.88 ages 10 and up (plus tip, tax is included). Dinner prices: $20.23-$22.36 ages 3-9 & $41.53-$45.79 ages 10 and up based on the time of year (plus tip, tax is included). Chef Mickey's is a table service meal on the dining plan.

The Polynesian

My personal favorite monorail deluxe is also one of the original two resorts, the Polynesian is engrossed in its tropical theme with over 75 varieties of tropical and subtropical plants and picture perfect waterfalls inside a 3-story atrium. Bamboo tiki torches light the walkways between the Great House (lobby, front desk, shops, restaurants) and the eleven different "longhouses" which house the 847 rooms available. Although the Polynesian is a gorgeous deluxe resort, it's clearly the most casual and family-oriented. 
(my boys)

The volcano-themed pool is a particular favorite with kids. It's 40 feet high and includes a waterfall and tubular water slide. It is a zero-entry pool and there is a water wheelchair available to help you enter the water. Additionally, you can enjoy fishing, boating, water-skiing, and parasailing on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon. Unique to the Polynesian, a torch-lighting ceremony welcoming the night includes traditional fire-knife dancing and authentic drumming and chanting.

The Polynesian has both one of the most popular family restaurants as well as one of the most popular dinner shows. The restaurant is called 'Ohana (which translated means family in an extended sense-meaning blood, adopted and "intentional" family) and offers traditional Hawaiian food served family style. Breakfast has more "Americanized" food in addition to some tradition breakfast items and is a character meal with characters from Lilo and Stitch. Dinner is full of fun with story tellers and coconut races (kids race around with brooms trying to get coconuts around the room fastest). Both breakfast and dinner are on the dining plan as a table service meal but out of pocket would cost:

Breakfast: $12.77-$14.90 (based on the season, including tax but not tip) for children ages 3-9 and $22.36-$26.62 (based on the season, including tax but not tip) for adults
Dinner: $17.03-$19.16 (based on the season, including tax but not tip) for children ages 3-9 and $35.14-$39.40 (based on the season, including tax but not tip) for adults

(he's a BIG fan of the Polynesian Resort)

The dinner show at the Polynesian is Spirit of Aloha Luau. It's a signature meal on the dining plan and is both entertaining and delicious. I wrote a much more extenssive post about it specifically and you can go HEREto read more about it. 

If you're plan is to spend much of your time relaxing at the resort but you still want easy quick access to Magic Kingdom and Epcot (read: you don't have to fold up those blasted strollers), the Polynesian might just be the resort for you.

April 27, 2012

Homeschooling...what do we do?

Several people have emailed and asked what exactly we're doing with homeschooling for the pre-K and Kindergarten years...like curriculum and schedules and all that. It's a question I've asked other homeschooling moms over the years and often got an ambiguous response and I'm starting to realize why. There's SO many things you can do that I think most people don't follow just one route. So, I thought I'd lay out what we're doing now and probably for the next couple years in the hopes that it might help someone else out there with a toddler who feels a little over their head but is considering homeschooling.

First of all, it's intimidating. You're not alone. I studied early childhood development in college, was a live-in nanny for triplets (often on duty 70-80 hours a week) and have worked with DHS kids who had been in and out of foster homes their whole life but the idea of educating my own children made me want to throw up...not because I didn't want to do it but because I didn't want to do it poorly. We're only a few weeks into the new schedule and I already feel so much more confident with it. I can see it working. I know better than anyone how much my son can handle...I know when he's had too much information or he's getting delirious with all the information or antsy sitting at the table and we stop. I send him outside to climb a tree or dig in the dirt and we do more later. If you're on the fence about homeschooling and specifically concerned about socialization or just want to know why we're NOT concerned about socialization, you NEED to read the blog post Weirdo which was admittedly written by one of my best real life friends. She does a great job in expanding on an article she read and gives her own personal experience.

The first book I read that has really laid out a clear route for us was "A Well-Trained Mind" which struck a cord with me because in my zeal to find a curriculum (something I was almost at the point of panic over when I first began looking into homeschooling), I started by looking into several homeschooling styles including unschooling, Montessori, and DVD/Video studies but in the end, the classical approach is the one that fits our family best. And that's really the best part about homeschooling, finding what fits you and your children best and running with it. With the classical approach, structured education is generally not pushed until the first grade and then education can be easily split into three stages each lasting four years. With that in mind, we expect to either start a classical curriculum with a co-op-type group such as Classical Conversations or perhaps send our son to a local blended classical school which has class two days a week where they introduce an excellant classical curriculum and the rest of the week is homeschooling and reinforcing what has been already introduced. The school claims 90% of the material is introduced there which as a first generation homeschooling mom, makes me feel so much better but it is a private school and comes with a private school price tag. It's something we could afford for the two children we have now but we hope to adopt many more children and even though the tuition isn't as pricey as most private schools because it's part time, it's not exactly cheap either. It's the big decision we have to make in the next two years.

In the meantime, we're preparing the boy at home. That's really the way we see the pre-K and Kindergarten years. The primary goal is to get him to read and read well. We're touching on the basics of other subjects but our focus is always reading. So here's our current schedule:

Monday, Wednesday and Friday: Reading, Writing, and Math

What we actually do: 
Until he's four, we're doing at least 10 mins a day for each (although for reading, it's usually something we're working on all day in one form or another). When he turns four, we'll bump it to at least 20 mins a day for each subject. And at four and a half, it will be 30 mins a day for each subject.

Reading: He doesn't read. Yet. That is our goal. So we spend our time going over letter recognition and sounds. We use flash cards without pictures because we want him to learn the letters themselves and not have to think of an apple first in order to think of the letter A. One of our favorite toys/tools is  his Leap Frog Letter Discoveries toy. It's great. It's not a leapster video game. It's a pad with all 26 letters as the buttons. Vowels are in red, consonants are in blue. There's four methods of "play" that (with the exception of the third) progressively get more difficult. The first is just the letter names. The second is the letter sounds but before it says the sound of the letter, it says the name of the letter. The third we don't use much for education...it's musical-each letter makes a different musical sound which is fun but not really helpful for learning to read. The last is a game where it tells the child to find a specific letter and then congratulates him when he does. We also bought the book, The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading which has been great but we're going pretty slowly through it. For example, the first five lessons are the vowels and they're great with going into short vowel sounds and why vowels are different than consonants (talking about how your teeth and tongue don't get used with vowels the way they do with consonants) but we're not doing a lesson in a day...it's more like a lesson a week because that's where our son is at and we're good with that.

Writing: He loves to draw. So we let him. I bought several of the large floor pads of drawing paper while Joshua was deployed (butcher paper would work just as well) so the boy could draw big pictures to send to Daddy. Now, we use it to draw shapes and letters. We also use the chalkboard side of his Step 2 Easel. We've started using proper handwriting paper but mostly we're getting the fundamentals of drawing straight lines, circles both clockwise and counter-clockwise (so he knows the difference) and all his shapes. Writing is just a lot of fun which is what all of homeschooling or schooling in general should be in my opinion.

Math: Counting. Lots and lots of counting. We count the number of smiley faces on his responsibility chart. We count his blocks. We count his sister's toes. We count everything. I also adjusted one of my favorite alphabet games (thank you pinterest!) that teaches matching upper and lower case alphabet letters by using Easter eggs to have a number written on top with a corresponding number of dots on the bottom half. It's been great! We're also starting to touch on monetary denominations and time...both of which Daddy has taken the lead on. Woo-hoo for Daddies that are involved.

Tuesday and Thursday: Art and Science

Art: We do a craft or art project like painting outside, making a tissue paper mosaic or going on a photo walk (I believe photography to be an art form and the boy loves it!). Basically, there's a million little art and craft ideas out there...all of which are on pinterest too so if you lack inspiration, you can always find something to do there.

Science: This one is totally Joshua and the boy. We bought the book Mudpies to Magnets which has well over 200 experiments-most of which using common, everyday materials we already have. We also have a membership to the OKC Science Museum and go as often as possible. Science is something both my husband and I love and we fully expect our kids will be just as enthralled if we introduce it early enough. For the record, right now, the science experiments are less about the boy learning about gravity and the laws of nature and more about instilling in him a love of learning science.

So, that's it. That's what we're doing...for now (we're always open to new ideas and improvements). Is it perfect? Probably not. Does it work perfectly for us? Absolutely. I'm by no means an expert but I just want to tell anyone else who is considering homeschooling that it's much more scary before you do it. It takes some work to get started and you have to find what works best for you but you can. There are so many tools out there now and so much support online and in community groups. 

April 26, 2012

Finding Balance...Again

I think life is circular. Lessons are learned and relearned in new ways...or maybe it's just me and I'm a stubborn fool who has to relearn the same lesson over and over...actually I know I'm a stubborn fool sometimes but I still think life is circular.

8 months ago, I was learning how to balance having a brand new one month old daughter, a newly 3 year old son and a deployed husband. Just when I felt like I was catching on, we went to Florida to visit family, get ready for Joshua's R&R and just get away from home for a little while. After Halloween, we returned to Oklahoma and got ready for the holidays and once they had come and gone, we got ready for Joshua to come home. I still don't think there's been enough time to accurately reflect on the deployment as a whole but it feels like I spent much of my time relearning how to find balance in our lives which, again, is where I find myself now.

Yesterday, we took our princess to the doctor for her 9 month check up...it was a simple check of her size and general development. I'm always curious about her height and weight because she is SO much smaller than her brother was (he was the definition of a Buddha-baby). She, on the other hand, is tiny-less than the 20th percentile for both height and weight but healthy. Considering that I wore 2T clothes in Kindergarten, we're not worried. The best part of the visit was that although Joshua has started working again, he was able to come with us. It's the first time he's met the new pediatrician (whom I LOVE!). Afterward, we signed the boy up for summer T-ball and I test drove a new car...Hyundai Santa Fe (kinda love it!). It was just a really nice day-one might even call it normal. 

I'm hopeful that we're well on our way to a balance with homeschooling, Joshua's work, our relationships with each other and our friends and family. I have been reading (although not posting) many of the blogs I love and I'm realizing that blogging is something that I need...something that helps me to know that I'm not alone. So, I'm going to make more of an effort to include writing, reading and commenting into my new routine for me. 

In the meantime, here's some pics I took a few days ago...kids are so much fun.

"It's ok Bubba, I've got your back"

We took the kids to a traveling dinosaur exhibit and they had a facepainting area so the boy got a dragon. This pic is crazy to me because he doesn't look like my little 3 yr old boy, he looks so much older!

"No baby girl, you can't eat the grass."

Playing catch with Daddy
The boy: "I got it! I got it!"
The girl: "I don't want to get hit. I don't want to get hit."

April 13, 2012

Real Life is Scary

We're starting to get back into the swing of real life. Everything is still a little surreal but I've been so impressed and amazed at how well Joshua has done with the transition. He's learned to balance being a parent of two quicker than I expected and if I was totally honest, I'd say he's done it quicker than I did. We've enjoyed just hanging out, going on dates and spending time with friends. In many ways everyday since he's been home has been like a weekend...Saturdays and Sundays over and over. It's been wonderful but it's also been expensive and not very productive-both of which are totally fine by me. The time has gone faster than I wanted...there were a dozen other things I wanted to do and places I wanted to go before real life crept up on us but I think it's been exactly what it's needed to be and now, it's time to get to real life again. Joshua is slowly starting back at work and as of Monday, I'll start doing what I normally do...kids, sports/lessons, blogging...you know, the stay at home gig. We're shipping the boy to his Grandma's for the weekend and having some time alone with the baby.

Last night, as we were starting to come out of this deployment honeymoon and back into reality, Joshua and I were talking about the boy and what we want to do academically with him. We have one month before the public pre-K enrollment begins. Where we live the public elementary system is great but we've never been big on the idea of a public education in general. I've gone from being totally anti-homeschooling to preferring it. But it's intimidating. Really intimidating. In our research into homeschooling and the MANY different ways to do it, we've come across that ever-important homeschooling guide...A Well-Trained Mind. We've read through the applicable areas and a few other homeschooling books that advocate other methods but have come to the conclusion that we are solidly on board with the classical curriculum route. With a classical curriculum most of the real instruction begins in 1st grade. Pre-K and Kindergarten are used to introduce reading and phonics. So the first step for us is to introduce reading...maybe introduce reading is the wrong terminology because we've been reading to the boy since before he was born but we haven't made a concerted effort to really explain phonetics and explain all the letters. We've just let him lead the way-which btw is another homeschooling educational philosophy...it's called unschooling and although we were content with it up until now (the boy's three and a half) it's not a method we want to use throughout his education. At the same time, we don't want to just jump into a rigid academic schedule. We want to introduce reading but reading, in my opinion, is a lot like potty training. If you push it too early, it's only going to end up in disaster for everyone if the kid isn't ready. Some kids are just ready sooner than others. So, I ended up with an amazon cart with a handful of helpful phonics workbooks but I didn't order them last night because I wasn't sure the boy was ready. And then, this morning the first thing he said to me was "Mommy will you help me read my Elmo book..." not, "will you read it to me." It may be a small difference but to me, it was huge. It was confirmation. He's ready...or at least, he's open to reading on his own so I'm going to order the phonics workbooks. Gulp.

My stomach is in my throat and I'm scared I might fail him but I guess that's real life and it's time to embrace it. Can't be worse than deployment...right?!

April 3, 2012

Boys and Girls

We have a fairly traditional family with a working Dad and stay at home Mom-my husband is a guy's guy and I love to cook and sew (not so fond of the whole cleaning part of being a stay at home parent but that's life) so our children have had very little experience outside of the traditional gender roles but even so, I'm always amazed (and often amused) at how boyish our boy is and how girly our girl is. Let me make clear that we are not opposed to the boy playing with dolls or the girl playing with trucks or anything like that. In fact, when I was pregnant with the girl, one of our boy's favorite toys was his baby doll and his favorite color was pink. The phase only lasted a couple months and now I can't convince him to have anything pink but he was very tender and sweet with his baby doll and I believe he is as sweet as he is and loving towards his sister because of the play experience he had with his doll before our real baby girl joined us.

Both of our children are fearless...frighteningly so. The boy will attack anything or anyone he deems to be a threat. Anything. Or. Anyone. To the point of literally jumping on our pediatrician's back the first time she took our baby girl from me to do an exam while I was filling out paperwork. The girl on the other hand is fearless in another way. She is the single most determined child I have ever met. I've seen her try to physically throw herself out of the bathtub at six months old...launching over the side just to get out of the water because she didn't want to take a bath. We have locked her in her high chair when she wanted to be on the floor and moments later turned around to find her precariously hanging with her hands holding the kitchen table cloth and feet on top of her high chair tray with three feet of nothing between her and the tile kitchen floor. 

As brave as they both are, they're totally different. The boy can go in the backyard, find a stick and spend forty five minutes having a pirate adventure. Meanwhile, our girl would be (and has been) equally as content to sit in front of a mirror for the same amount of time just laughing and smiling at herself. Sure, part of that is her age but when I do her hair and put her in a pretty dress, she sits just a little bit taller and smiles just a little bit bigger. I love the differences in our kids and although I was (and am still) a little terrified of being the mother of a little girl, it's been rewarding to watch both of them grow and express themselves in their own ways.