Overnight Train to the Arctic

Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my overnight train tonight….

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Getting to the Arctic Circle is surprisingly not that easy (that may be written in sarcasm font). On our trip to visit Santa up north, we had to decide between spending our entire day in an airport with a minimum of a 5 hour layover in Helsinki or taking the overnight train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi (12 hour train ride). Neither option is the greatest when you are hauling around 2 kids and all their gear but we opted for the overnight train.

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(O not impressed with waiting)

We booked a room with an en suite bathroom. That may sound fancy but it was a little tight. O didn’t mind. He was super excited to be sleeping on a train.

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Gavin may not have shared the same excitement as O. In the picture, Gavin’s knee is touching the bathroom door. Not a lot of room for dancing….or turning while getting dressed. There was also a small seat with a table. Based on how well E fit into it, I am guessing it is not for all sizes.

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There were some pros to taking the train. The room itself was really clean. They also put up these nice net things so that the kiddos wouldn’t roll out of bed or in my case E wouldn’t shove me out of the bed.

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The beds were comfortable. The room was set up strategically to allow the most efficient use. The kids could actually stand and move about the room without disturbing other passengers. Also there was amazing Wi-Fi, like really high speed internet for a train speeding through frozen Finland in the middle of the night.

The train left later in the evening so we basically boarded the train, did our nighttime routine and then slept for the majority of the trip. The kiddos and I found the rocking of the train soothing and it put us to sleep quickly. Gavin felt like each movement of the train was like someone shaking him to wake him up. Not the greatest way to start a vacation.

In the end, we made it to see Ol’ St. Nick and O in particular was very pleased to have gotten there by train.

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Would we do the night train again? Yeah…..NO. However, I do think it was a unique experience and we will be sharing that story for years to come.

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Budapest

Budapest is one of those cities where you can just wander around and find beauty at every corner. The river, the buildings, and even the food make you stop and admire for a moment. We spent a weekend there this October and tried to experience as much as possible.

Hungarian Parliament Building

After settling into our Airbnb, we took our first walk around the neighborhood and found ourselves standing in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building at dusk.

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We arrived in time to see the lowering of the flag. O loved to see the marching soldiers.

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Not far from the Parliament building is a park where we ran into this gentleman.

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Apparently Hungarians credit Ronald Reagan with helping bring down Communism in their country.

Budapest Zoo

We did pop into the zoo because….children.

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The Budapest Zoo is like most other zoos but it is known for its amazing architecture. The elephant house is the most famous building.

Castle Hill and the Funicular train

Of course, we had to visit Castle Hill with Buda Castle sitting on top. O remains a big train fan so we opted to take the short funicular train up.

The views from the top were pretty spectacular.

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Chain Bridge

We decided to walk across the Chain Bridge for the full experience.

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There were beautiful views along the way, including this view of Buda Castle from the bridge.

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Shoes on the Danube 

Located on the Danube riverbank, not far from the Parliament Building, is the Memorial called the “Shoes on the Danube” . It is 60 pair of iron cast shoes from the World War II era placed here in honor of the Jewish people who were murdered during the war. The people were brought to the riverbank and told to take off their shoes and valuables. They were then shot with their bodies falling into the water.

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Yummy Food

Budapest has so many fun and yummy food stops. We were able to swing by Mr. Funk’s Donuts.

Gelarto Rosa can’t be missed either. Can you believe this is gelato?

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Children approved.

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Langos are also a local favorite. It is fried bread with sour cream and cheese as the typical toppings.

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We also enjoyed Kürtőskalács, which are also known as chimney cakes. They are sort of similar to a donut. I have no pictures of them because they are served to you warm and we devoured them so quickly that there was no photographic evidence. Ha!

Beer Spa

We also had a fun time at the Thermal Beer Spa that is tucked into the famous Szechenyi Thermal Bath. You can read about that here: Budapest Beer Spa

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We were so happy to have Nana traveling with us on this trip. It is always nice when the adults outnumber the children.

And the sun sets on another great trip.

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Budapest Beer Spa

What’s better than celebrating your birthday in beautiful Budapest? How about celebrating your birthday at a beer spa in Budapest! That’s exactly what we did on our last adventure.

We had heard rumors about some amazing beer spas around Europe. This inspired me to look at what was available in Budapest and we found the Thermal Beer Spa. This spa is located in the famous Szechenyi thermal baths complex, which is one of the top attractions in Budapest.IMG_4146

We weren’t sure what to expect. We booked a tub for 2 and off we went. When we arrived the friendly staff led us to our room.

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The tub was filled with warm mineral water and the staff added malt, beer yeast, hops, and beer salt while explaining the benefits of each. I heard something about helping with relaxation and better skin. To be honest though, I was distracted by the beer tap that was located right next to the tub.

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We spent 45 minutes enjoying the warm water, the cold beer and the peace and quiet. Special thank you to my mother-in-law for watching the kiddos while we had our little outing.

I mentioned that it was hubby’s birthday and the staff added this sign to our appetizer (read: white bread with paprika spread) and played a Hungarian pop version of Happy Birthday over the speakers.

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It was a quirky way to spend a birthday but we enjoyed the experience. Cheers to another year!

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Our Royal Knight

If you are a Disney fan or have ever visited the Parks, you may have heard of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (BBB). It is a little boutique where little girls can get all dressed up like princesses, with their hair and makeup done by Fairy Godmothers-in-training. It is extremely popular. However, did you know that: 1) BBB is on the Disney Cruise Line Ships too and 2) BBB is also for boys!

I noticed the BBB was available on our cruise as I was signing us up for onboard activities. They had a package called the Royal Knight package and I couldn’t resist signing O up. He was very excited but wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

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They started off with the usual adding of hair gel with some flare.

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O seemed to be enjoying it. The Fairy Godmother-in-training then asked O for his favorite colors and added some Mickey bling to his hair using “Dragon Snot”.

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It finished off with a sprinkle of fairy dust of course!

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O was spun around for the big reveal.

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That face says it all. I love how excited he is but also how happy the Fairy Godmother appears. The final results were amazing.

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Before we left, O was given a sword and shield and deemed a Royal Knight.

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O was over the moon.

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We then marched around the ship looking for dragons for about an hour. O let his little sister help on the hunt.

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If you have ever had the chance to meet our spunky little girl, you will know that the above picture embodies her personality.

Overall, we had a fantastic experience at the BBB. It was very reasonably priced and the thick foam sword and shield not only lasted through our trip, but they are still in one piece at our house almost 3 months later. That is our sneak peek into the Royal Knight Package.

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Our Disney Cruise- Italy

Our final stops on our Disney Cruise were all in the beautiful country of Italy. We LOVE Italy. We love the people, the food, the wine, the scenery, the history, basically everything. If we could pick anywhere in Europe to live it would be…… Switzerland, because it is basically Colorado with better chocolate, but Italy would be a close 2nd.

Genoa

We stopped in the port city of Genoa. The views in the morning were very welcoming.

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We decided to head down to the harbor and spend the day at the aquarium. The aquarium is only a 20 min walk from the cruise port. When we got off the ship it was a bit warm (cue toddler meltdown). The friendly ladies from Treecycle Genoa were waiting for riders at the exit. They typically do a full Genoa tour but they were more than happy to give us a short ride over to the aquarium in their rickshaws.

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O loved it.

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During the ride over, they pointed out important landmarks in Genoa and gave some history. This was a nice bonus for us, as we didn’t know too much about this northern city of Italy.

We spent the morning at the Aquarium, which was rather large and well maintained.

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The Biosphere is also a popular attraction. It sits right next to the Aquarium.

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Genoa was a bit of a gritty city. There were some pick-pockets and swindlers along the harbor. However, I think it is a city with a lot of potential and I know several people who pick Genoa as one of their favorite cities in Italy. Though I think knowing it is the home of pesto may sway people a bit.

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Livorno 

Livorno is typically the big cruise stop where people can access Florence and the Tuscany region. We spent a week in the Tuscany area last year and absolutely loved it. You can see the posts about those trips here:  Tuscany Part 1 , Tuscany Part 2

We spent the day shopping in Livorno. We picked up some favorite Italian treats and had a lovely leisurely day.

Naples

Naples is probably best known for pizza and the ruins of Pompeii that sit outside the city. Seeing Pompeii has been a big bucket list item for me. Gavin volunteered to stay on the boat with the kiddos so I could truly see Pompeii and not just chase children around Pompeii while dishing out snacks. I did an adults only excursion through Disney.

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We had a fantastic tour guide. She was able to get our group around the site with ease and gave us excellent details about each area. Pompeii is actually a rather large site so I was grateful to have the tour guide to help navigate the city.

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Of course I took a picture in the brothel. It is like a required picture for all tourists.

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Overall I really enjoyed my visit to Pompeii. Thank you Gavin for letting me have my own little adventure for the day.

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Rome

The final stop on our cruise and where we disembarked the ship was Civitavecchia, Italy. Cruise lines like to call this stop Civitavecchia (Rome) but the port itself is about 90 minutes from the big tourist sights of Rome.

We used a lovely tour company called Tours around Tuscany during our week in the Tuscany area last year. The owner Gianni is just a fantastic person and he helped set up a private transfer from Civitavecchia with a half-day tour of Rome for us to finish our cruise. This was icing on the cake. Our guide was absolutely fantastic and he got us around to all the major sights.

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These pictures are Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, Palatine Hill, and the Orange Garden

Somehow our guide was able to maneuver an 8-passenger van around the streets of Rome and find parking within feet of most of these sights. He knew the city extremely well and negotiated through the notoriously crazy traffic with such ease. It was amazing to watch. He also drove us by the Forum, the Spanish Steps, the Parliament building and (just as we were leaving town) the Pyramid of Cestius.

The tour gave us a great overview of all of the iconic sights and it helped us get a better understanding of the city. This is exactly what we were looking for as we plan to (hopefully) travel to Rome again for a more in-depth visit.

Until we meet again Italy! Ciao!

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Our Disney Cruise- Spain & France

Traveling with children is always an adventure. This trip was no exception. We booked our Disney cruise 18 months in advance. I know that sounds crazy but the cheapest price is on the first day the itinerary is available. Everything was going smoothly. We had all our excursions, transportation, hotels, etc. booked and we were ready to go. Our cruise was to leave on a Saturday out of Barcelona. We were going to fly in early Friday morning, explore Barcelona, stay overnight and then board the cruise ship on Saturday. Notice how I said “we WERE going”. Thursday rolls around and as E is taking a morning nap I check us in for our flights. Then E wakes up from her nap with a fever! We are able to see the doctor that afternoon and they find an ear infection. Her first ear infection ever. EVER! The doctor recommends that we postpone our flight as much as possible due to the fever and the swelling and to give the antibiotics some time to work. We spend Thursday evening making phones calls and trying to rearrange everything. When changing our flights we were not able to get on the early flight to Barcelona because it was already full. Instead, we had to book a flight that got into Barcelona at 11:30am. I call up Disney and they reschedule our transportation for us. They say it will be fine as long as we land before 1pm.

E was fever free by Friday and, after a follow up visit with the doctor, we got official approval to fly Saturday morning. On Saturday, we headed to the airport with our fingers crossed that everything was going to go smoothly. When we got to our gate, our flight was on time but it had been overbooked (probably from that family of four who got tickets late Thursday). Long story short, our flight was delayed by 30 minutes as they tried to convince people to take a later flight. I was getting crazy nervous.

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We finally take off and arrive in Barcelona about 12 (1 hour to spare so far). E did great on the flight. No problems with her ears. We get our luggage, add our cruise tags, and head out to find our transportation. There was a lovely group from Disney holding Mickey hands right where you exit with your luggage. I breathed a sigh of relief as I felt like this is it. We made it. I walk up to them and they ask if we are the “So and so” family. Umm… no. They look at their list and we are not on it. I start to get nervous. There is only one family left on the list whose names haven’t been marked off. We explained our crazy situation and in true Disney fashion (I personally feel Disney has AMAZING customer service) they just said “That’s fine. Wait here for a few minutes and we will take you to the ship.” After maybe 10-15 minutes, that last family on the list arrived and we were able to get on the bus to the cruise ship.

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After chatting with the family, we found out that their flight had actually been delayed repeatedly on their journey from the US to Barcelona. I would like to take a moment to send a shout out to this lovely family of 3 from Oklahoma. If their flight had not been delayed, the Disney shuttle would not have been at the airport waiting for us. Thanks guys! You were a lifesaver and you didn’t even know it!

When we arrived at the cruise terminal, there were just a few people still going through the check-in process. We were able to get through security and all the lines quickly. The final thing before you get on the ship is they take a picture of you as a family.

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Look at us. That is the definition of hot mess. We had been running around like crazy for the last couple days just trying to get to this point. The looks on our face are a mixture of fatigue, happiness and relief. We made it!

Moral of this story is….always get travel insurance. It is worth it. Particularly if you are traveling with kids.

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Marseille, France

The first stop on our cruise was Marseille, France. Our original plan for this stop was to take a ferry to Chateau D’If and the other islands in the Frioul archipelago. Chateau D’If is the prison setting for the book The Count of Monte Cristo. The other islands in the archipelago are mainly wildlife preserves with some quiet beaches. Unfortunately, it was very windy the day that we were in port and we didn’t feel comfortable having the kiddos on a small boat in rougher water. Our back up plan was to take the little tourist train up to the Cathedral on the hill. It is supposed to have a stunning view of the city and harbor.

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There is the cathedral way up there.

However, when we arrived at the tourist train the line was extremely long and it hadn’t even opened for business yet. I guess everyone else had the same idea as us. So instead we walked along the harbor and had some snacks that we picked up at the local farmers market.

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We did get to see some nice architecture and scenery on the shuttle bus ride back.

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Not the most exciting way to start a cruise but it was nice to have a calm day to recover.

 

Villefranche-sur-Mer, France

Most cruise ships usually dock in port in Nice, France. However, since we were on the Disney Magic, which is Disney’s smallest ship, we were able to have the pleasure of dropping anchor in Villefranche-sur-Mer.

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This little harbor is just stunning. The views from the ship in the morning were breath-taking.

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We weren’t able to dock directly in town but instead we dropped anchor in the entrance to the bay and took tender boats into town.

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We didn’t realize how beautiful Villefranche was going to be. We thought it was just going to be a port that would be easy to hop on a train and get to A) the beaches of Nice or B) Monaco, with Monaco being our original plan. We could see a beach from the ship and we decide that was going to be our destination for the day.

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The beach is a bit of a walk from where the tender boats dock, maybe half a mile. You get to walk along the water and there are cafes along the way if you just want to sit and watch the water. When we got to the beach, there were maybe 20-30 people, who all appeared to be locals having a morning swim. The beach is sandy but there is a fair amount of rock. It wasn’t huge but it was perfect for us and the littles.

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This was E’s first time with her feet in the sea. We had visited a beach in the Netherlands during the tulip season but it was much too cold to get in the water (or in bathing suits for that matter). So we are considering this her first true beach experience.

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She absolutely loved it. The water was a bit cold.

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It didn’t seem to bother the kiddos.

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Plus look at the view.

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On the way back to the boat, we decided to stop and grab the kiddos an ice cream. We saw a black and orange food stand with an ice cream sign and decided to stop there. As we are waiting in line, we notice that they serve sandwiches. Gavin and I start debating if we should get some sandwiches as well. The guy in front of us turns around and says “do you guys like anchovies?”. For Gavin, the answer is a firm yes. For me, the answer is more of a not really but I’ll try new things. So we said yes and this really nice gentleman recommended the seafood sandwich. He was also visiting France and said this was his third time that week visiting the stand to get this particular sandwich. I have to be very honest here. This is a black and orange food stand that isn’t looking the nicest or even that well refrigerated but here is this guy highly recommending this seafood sandwich. Despite our initial hesitation, we ordered 2 seafood sandwiches with anchovies. The sandwiches were absolutely amazing. My mouth is watering right now as I write about them. This is one of the things I absolutely love about travel. Here we are in some town far from home when a nice stranger recommends we try something and it becomes a wonderful experience. Ok now I am hungry.

Villefranche also has a lovely little town center (though it is all up hill with lots of stairs). There are cute shops and cafes tucked in every corner. We had a nice look around before heading back to the ship

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I just cannot get over the beauty of this place.

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This last picture was taken on my iPhone from the back of the tender boat right before we departed for the cruise ship. Seriously, every angle of this town is stunning.

That is the start of our journey. Next up is Italy!

 

Our Disney Cruise- The Ship

I have been debating how to break down writing about our amazing Disney cruise. There is so much to tell you guys about! I think I will start by just talking about the ship and everything that goes with it.

We did a 7 night Mediterranean Cruise on the ship the Disney Magic. We left Barcelona, Spain and finished in Rome, Italy with stops in Marseille, Villefranche-sur-mer, Genoa, Livorno and Naples.

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Our Room

We opted to stay in a room with a porthole window. We were debating about getting a balcony and then we remembered we have 2 small children who love to climb. Soooo….we’ll take a room with a window only please. Plus look at the fun pictures.

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The rooms are pretty much like a typical hotel room except that the couch becomes a single bed and a second bed can drop down from the ceiling. The room hostess does this for you before bedtime each night so you don’t have to worry about managing any of this alone. The nice thing about this is that you have access to a “living room” during the day and then it converts just for sleeping at night. We needed the extra space for activities.

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Another nice feature of the room is that the bathroom is split. In one side is a toilet and sink with mirror and in the other side is the tub/shower combo and a sink with mirror. First, having a tub is so nice with the little ones. Second, it makes getting ready easier when there are 2 sink and mirror options.

There is a ton of storage in the room with dressers, closets and drawers everywhere. Our large suitcases were able to fit under the bed and E’s car seat fit in the closet.

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Overall, we felt very comfortable in the room as a family of four. We stayed on Deck 7, which was only 2 floors down from the pool deck (where lots of food and drink options were available) and only 2 floors up from the Kids club area. This made everything easy and convenient for us to reach and we could take the stairs instead of waiting for the elevators.

Dining Options

There were 3 main dining rooms on our ship: Animator’s Palate, Rapunzel’s Royal Table and Lumiere’s. On the Disney ships, you have an assigned table number and dinner-time but where you have dinner changes every night (there is an assigned rotation you get at check-in). You have the same servers every night (they rotate with you) but the scenery changes.

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Spoiler Alert!

At Animator’s Palate during one night of the cruise, you will start your dinner by drawing a character onto a provided piece of paper (with instructions). Then by the end of the meal they make your characters come to life and the characters dance and do different things while placed in iconic Disney movie scenes. Super fun! Though O didn’t make it to see his character come alive.

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At Rapunzel’s Royal Table, this is like a dinner with a show. We are all preparing for Rapunzel’s birthday party. The Snuggly Duckling characters are there and Rapunzel arrives. After they do their performance, Rapunzel comes around to each table to greet the guests. O was very shy when the Snuggly Duckling characters came around but they were so nice to him and he absolutely loved it!

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Lumiere’s is a great dining room with excellent food. The theme is based off of Beauty and the Beast, though this is the only dining room that could easily be on any ship. The Disney stuff is kept to a minimum and this dining room is more focused on the food (in my opinion).

Beyond the main dining rooms, there are lots of food options available. You will never go hungry. Disney is unique in that room service is included (though you do need to tip the person who delivers and some food items are extra, like alcohol, etc.). The buffet is Cabana’s at the back of the ship. They always had excellent options there, but we ate most of our dinners in the main dining rooms. There was also Daisy’s De-lites, which was a little food area next to the kids’ splash pad area. This was our go to place. They had quick and easy to grab breakfast items in the morning. They also always had fresh cut fruit, salads and sandwiches. We had watermelon every day after swimming.

Of course there was free ice cream

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Basically, there were a million options for food. There is a reason you gain weight on a cruise.

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Don’t worry it is only milk!

Entertainment

There was always some activity going on throughout the day on the ship. Every night you would get a “navigator” placed on your bed. It was a piece of paper that laid out the next day events. Everything was listed from kids’ club activities to movies to dance parties to the theater shows. Disney Cruise Line also has an app now that provides all of this information. We used the app but I also loved having that piece of paper in hand to highlight things and figure out what we wanted to do. I also thought it helped me visualize better how things would overlap.

Movies:

The Disney Magic does have a movie theater as most ships do these days. We were lucky in that The Incredibles 2 movie had just come out to theaters the day before our cruise departed. O loves the original Incredibles movie so it was an extra special treat that he got to go to his first move theater on “Mickey’s ship” (as he preferred to call it) and see Incredibles 2 only a few days after it came to theaters (and at no additional cost!)

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Gavin and I took turns with the kids (and with the assistance of the kids club and nursery) so that we could sneak in a couple of movies as well. In addition to the movie theater, the TV in the room had access to the “Disney Vault”, meaning you had access to watch any Disney movie you desired.

Character Meetings:

This is a Disney ship so of course there was plenty of opportunities to meet with some of our favorite characters.

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O was so excited to see the characters but didn’t know what to think about them once they got a little closer.

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Notice Gavin’s arm. Ha!

But by the end of the cruise, O was actively seeking out characters to make sure he could get a picture with them.

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E was more than happy to meet everyone

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The one exception to all of this was the Princess Gathering. All of the Princesses get together at one time and you get a chance to meet all of them in one go. Perfect! I signed us up and got our tickets (they are free) with our designated time. I get E all dressed up in her Snow White outfit. We get there and everything is going smooth. It is our turn to meet the Princesses. O becomes super shy and hides behind me and E starts screaming. Like top of her lungs, cannot be calmed, SCREAMING. We exited stage left and didn’t even attempt a photo with those poor startled Princesses. Ah the joys of littles!

Dance Parties!

Dance parties are our thing. Well Gav and I have no dance skills. I look something like Elaine from Seinfeld attempting to get my groove on. But for some unknown reason, our children LOVE to dance and we support this passion. So we hit up ALL the dance parties. It started with the Sail Away party.

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Through Pirate Night and including the Princess and Pirates Dance Party

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And even randomly dancing on the decks. They love to dance and the cruise ship was more than happy to give them plenty of opportunities.

Kids Club

Obviously, Disney Cruise Lines is very focused on families and particularly on kids. They do not disappoint with their kids club and nursery. The Kids Club is for kids 3 and older who are potty-trained. O was able to hang out here and he had a fantastic time. I think the fact that there was a Toy Story room with a slinky the dog slide helped. Kids Club was included free of charge. E stayed in the nursery but only during our dinner time. The meals took 1.5-2 hours due to the shows and it wasn’t possible for E to sit that long at a table. She seemed happy with the nursery. If we do another Disney cruise, we plan to wait until E is old enough to be in the Kids Club with O just for convenience and I think they will both be happier to be together.

Pools

There were several pools and splash areas on the ship. Children in swim diapers could only play in the small splash area and were not allowed in any of the pools (due to some health regulation). So E and I hung out in the little splash area while the boys enjoyed the rest of the pools.

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There was a small very shallow pool with a larger splash pad area. This is where O spent the majority of his time until he discovered that they play Disney Movies on the big screen over the other pool. Ha!! The ship provided swim vests/ flotation devices in all different sizes and that was very convenient for us. The pools were rather small but the only day they felt crowded was the day at sea.

There is also an adults only pool (in the adults only area). This pool looked very nice. It seemed larger than the other pools with 2 hot tubs, beautiful blue tile and nice lounge chairs surrounding it. At least that is what I could tell as I looked longingly at the pool while I quickly ushered my 2 kiddos through the area after realizing we had stumbled into the kid free zone with ours. There is a full bar at the pool and the Cove Café is tucked in this area as well.

Random Details

We didn’t bring our stroller with us and instead we brought the backpack carrier. However, we didn’t have a plan to get E asleep for her nap. So we ended up renting a stroller from the front desk at no extra cost. We used it to push E around Deck 4, which is the shuffle board/running track deck where it is quiet and usually no one around. It worked well.

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We did have to get the stroller right away on the first day as it is first come first serve. We also had to keep it in our room but it fit under the bed with our 2 suitcases just fine.

Ok that is it for the ship. Coming up next will be where we stopped and what we saw!!

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Cologne

Spring has sprung! Well…not really. Some flowers have bloomed and we have also had some snow. Winter is still trying to hold on but we are finally turning the corner toward some nicer weather. This weekend there was SUNSHINE!!

Sunshine means time for another quick day trip. We headed north to Cologne.

I knew going into this trip that it was going to be a quick get in and get out kind of trip. The kiddos could rest/nap on the car rides there and back (1.5 hours each way) and we would attempt to see as much as possible as quickly as possible before they crashed. Here is what we managed to accomplish:

Chocolate Museum (Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum)

After we parked our car, we headed straight for the river and toward the Chocolate Museum. As mentioned before it was nice and sunny, so we were able to enjoy a little walk by the river on the way to the Museum.

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The Chocolate Museum is extremely popular. It is always busy and there is always a line. I have heard mixed reviews about the museum itself particularly for small children (though it must be good because it feels like everyone in town is there) so I decided to take a different route.

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I had read that you can go into the gift shop and café without going into the museum itself. So that is exactly what we did. We weaved our way around and through the long winding line inside the museum and at the back of the entrance was a really nice large café. It had stunning views overlooking the river.

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(Apparently there is a nice view behind me. I was distracted)

There was a handful of people in the café itself despite the large crowd outside. We had coffee, cake and a children’s hot chocolate.

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(Good to the last bite)

We didn’t get to enjoy the museum itself but it was a happy compromise for us. O seemed to approve.

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German Sport and Olympic Museum

Right next door to the Chocolate Museum is the German Sport and Olympic Museum. This is the real hidden gem.

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This museum as the title implies follows the history of German Sports with a focus on Olympic sports. There are lots of wonderful displays with signs in German and English. Most importantly, there are hands-on activities throughout the museum! There was a balance beam, a long jump, gymnastic bars, balance boards, etc. The list goes on and on. O loved it!

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Then to top it all off, there is a soccer field on the roof of the museum. You can go play a game (or let the kids run wild) with a nice view of the river and city.

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After providing the kids chocolate and a super fun interactive museum, it was my turn to sneak in something I wanted to see.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral is the icon of the city of Cologne. The cathedral dominates the skyline of the city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When you see it from a distance, you can already tell that it is going to be immense. It still doesn’t prepare you for its colossal size. It is simply massive. (Did I mention it was big?)

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(of course I forgot my fancy camera at home. Bummer!)

Despite the cathedral being there in all its glory, O was not impressed.

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Oh the joys of traveling with toddlers! Needless to say we grabbed a quick late lunch (which is most likely the cause of the meltdown) and headed out of town. Attempting to travel around Europe with two small children can be challenging.

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(This is his “I am mad and not talking to you” face)

We don’t get to see the sites as in depth as we would like (and some we skip all together) but we are trying our best to make the most out of this opportunity. Thanks for following along with us!

Tuscany Part 2

Thanks for making your way over to Part 2 of our Turkey Day in Tuscany adventure. Here we go…

Florence

Of course we visited the city of Florence on our trip. We knew that Florence was going to be a bit crazy and crowded so we had a short list of must see attractions. First up, Michelangelo’s David.

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I read online to book your tickets far in advance but since we were traveling in November I thought I wouldn’t need to do this as peak tourist season was over. However, I double-checked online the week before we were set to travel. This is when I discovered that tickets to see David were already sold out for the day we originally planned to go to Florence. Needless to say I booked tickets right then and there and rearranged our travel plans to accommodate the change. Lesson learned: Do book your tickets in advance to see David no matter what time of year you are traveling to Florence. Also note that even though children are “free” to get into the museum, you do have to pay a 4 euro service charge for them so you have to add this to your ticket reservation. On the website it will literally say children free and then next to it you select quantity and it charges the 4 euros each.

There is a lot of beautiful pieces of artwork in this museum. We were trying to take it all in but we have a grabby 1 year old so it keeps you on your toes a bit. This picture says it all…. Don’t touch the artwork E!!

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We then swung by the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (or Il Duomo di Firenze).

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The next destination was the carousel in Piazza della Repubblica.

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This carousel is beyond charming. I also like that it is a bit of a slow mover (more our pace). O got to ride for the first time without daddy holding onto him and E had her very first carousel ride ever! Pretty memorable moment!

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We are now going to pause this lovely, authentic Italian vacation for a tacky tourist moment. After having fun on the carousel, we decided it was time to eat. There are lots of lovely cafes and restaurants surrounding this Piazza. However, out of the corner of my eye I spotted the Hard Rock. Now if you are visiting Europe for a short amount of time, I highly discourage you from visiting an American chain restaurant. This is particularly true when you are in such an outstanding food location such as Florence. However, the moment I saw that Hard Rock sign I thought: “This Momma could use a Bloody Mary!” The Hard Rock makes a mean Bloody Mary and I haven’t been to a Hard Rock since we lived in Baltimore (over 7 years ago). As a bonus, I knew there would be a baby-changing table in there. I could sense it with my super human mommy powers. Long story short, huge bathrooms with baby-changing table and one delicious Bloody Mary later and I was one happy camper.

Ok back to your regularly scheduled authentic Italian vacation.

Did I mention there is amazing shopping in Florence? There is amazing shopping.

The city itself was easily accessible for us. Stroller and kid-friendly, though I feel like this is an adult city. This is someplace that I would like to come back when the kids are a bit older or better yet an adults-only adventure for just Gav and I. I think then I could appreciate it a little bit more. It is always a good sign of an excellent vacation when you are thinking about when you can come back.

Oh and of course we got gelato on our way out of town.

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We actually stumbled on this quaint gelato shop called La Strega Nocciola on a side street not far from the Duomo. It is true homemade gelato. The type that is tucked away under metal lids not piled high in large containers like in other big gelato shops. Holy cow this was the most AMAZING gelato I have ever had and the best we had during our entire trip. I highly recommend the dark chocolate and the pistachio. And now I want gelato….

Florence American Cemetery

This cemetery is located south of Florence on the route to San Gimignano.

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We have made it a point to visit these places on our journeys, as this is an important part of our history. This is a generation that is being lost to time and I want to make sure that our family does not forget the sacrifice these men and women made for our freedom.

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There are 4,399 soldiers buried here and a memorial with 1,409 names of the missing. These men fought and died during World War II.

Inscribed on the wall are these words:

“Freedom from fear and injustice and oppression is ours only in the measure that men who value such freedom are ready to sustain its possession and defend it against every thrust from within or without.”

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Volterra

On our last full day, we decided to visit 2 smaller towns that were near our rental home. Volterra is a beautiful town on a hill east of San Gimignano.

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Apparently this town has become a more popular tourist town recently due to the Twilight series. I know nothing about Twilight but apparently some of the show is supposed to be set in Volterra (though the actual filming was done in another town south of here). When we were in town there was a movie being filmed here but we never found out the name of it.

This small town is easily done in a day (and stroller friendly). We did a nice stroll, stopped for cappuccino, and visited the Roman baths.

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I rather liked this sleepy little town but Gav was not impressed. I think O liked the town as well because 1) He got to pick out his souvenir.

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2) There was a gigantic red O in the middle of a field on the way up to the town.

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When O saw it he started screaming: “Look!! It is a big O just for me! That is my O!” So here’s another pic just for you kiddo.

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We finished our day at a playground in Colle di Val d’Elsa.

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Italy stole our hearts. We fell in love with the places, the people, the food and all the fun we had. We are already planning our next trip back! Until we meet again il mio amore!

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Tuscany Part 1

We have been in Italy for less than 24 hours and we find ourselves standing outside the Duomo di Siena

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I am in search of a place to change E’s diaper and feed her (Glamorous life I live I know). I walk into a door that says Tourist Information across from the church entrance. I ask the lovely lady sitting at the desk if she knows of a good spot to change and feed E. She responds that there is a cafeteria down the street but then she pauses for a moment and says “No that is no good. Come with me.” She walks me through a beautiful, antique, wooden door and into this huge room where an ancient fresco is being restored on the walls. There are couches placed throughout the room to allow people to sit and take their time viewing the amazing painting. This wonderful lady then offers me a seat on a couch and tells me that this is part of the art museum but that I am more than welcome to use this area. I could not believe it. I sat there taking in the ancient artwork and looking out the window, which perfectly framed the Duomo.

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And that was it. That was the moment I fell in love with Italy.

We spent the week of Thanksgiving finding our way around the Tuscany region. My father-in-law Larry joined us on this adventure. We stayed in an Airbnb home in Castel San Gimignano. This is a quaint, little town just south of the famous San Gimignano.

Siena

Our first day trip was to the breathtaking town of Siena.

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Piazza del Campo

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O’s favorite activity

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They hold a horse race in this Piazza every year called Il Palio. The seventeen neighborhoods of Siena compete for bragging rights. The Piazza is big but not THAT big. I can’t imagine holding a horse race there. However, the event looks amazing and you should Google Il Palio Siena if you ever get a chance.

Cappella di Piazza and Torre del Mangia

Sitting in Piazza del Campo is this Church and tower. The climb to the top of the tower is supposed to be very steep but has breathtaking views. We have two small children so the view from the bottom was good enough for us.

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Duomo di Siena

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Facciatone

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This was supposed to be an extension onto the existing church but the construction was poorly done and the plague hit town. So now it is a tall wall that you are able to climb up and check out the panoramic view of Siena.

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Siena was such a stunning town and a great way to start off our trip.

Cooking Class

When in Italy you must make pasta! We enjoyed a cooking class at Il Vicario, a small B&B located outside San Gimignano. Il Vicario is run by Fulvio along with his niece Katia. They grow almost all of their food on site. E was not feeling well this day so I had to stay at home while the boys learned their way around an Italian kitchen.

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Gavin said the class was great fun but also hard work. Apparently making pasta from scratch isn’t the easiest job in town but the results are worth it!

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Bonus for me: I am not the one with the pasta making skills in the house now.

San Gimignano

We did a quick trip to San Gimignano in the evening as the sun was setting. San Gimignano is a rather small town with only a few attractions so it can easily be done in a few hours (if most of the tourists have gone home for the day).

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While we were strolling along the streets, we noticed a sign that pointed to a scenic viewpoint. We got to it just as the sun was setting and it did not disappoint.

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Of course we also ran around the piazza:

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Saw the church.

Most importantly, we ate gelato.

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A nice way to end the day.

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Tours Around Tuscany

We hired a private tour guide for a day. My former classmate had highly recommended the company Tours around Tuscany. Gianni, the owner, was our tour guide for the day and it was fantastic. This company focuses on taking you to places off the beaten path. No large tourist areas but more small towns, local points of interest, family owned wineries/restaurants and a few places you may not have even thought to stop at and have a look. For example, Gianni brought us to a crystal factory where they hand make amazing crystal pieces. This is not something we would have scheduled to do on our own but it ended up being a really unique experience. If you are ever in Tuscany, you need to schedule a day with Gianni. It is worth it!

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That’s all for Part 1. Coming up next will be Florence, Volterra and more!