Family Friendly Resorts

Star Wars weekend at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Yes, girls like Star Wars, but bringing two little girls who don’t have a passion for all things Tattoine to Disney’s Hollywood Studios didn’t seem like the best idea. But here we were so we made an adventure of it.

Chewbacca signs an autograph

Chewbacca signs an autograph

I had planned our Disney dining ahead of time and was dismayed to find out that our reservation was changed just a few weeks before arrival from one meal credit to two, due to a new Star Wars-themed dining event. But we were determined to have our passes to Fantasmic so we kept the reservation.

I’m sure that if you are a dedicated Star Wars fan, you’d see more of the themed weekend. However, as visitors wandering around the park, we only saw a few things that gave us a clue that it was a different kind of weekend.

Star Wars weekend at Disney

Star Wars weekend at Disney

Besides the themed dining event, which included Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy dressed up as Star Wars characters, we were able to get in line and have our photo taken with Chewbacca.

Of course, we rode on Star Tours but that’s always a part of the Studios experience. We also had our first experience with Disney’s magic bands and the new fast pass system. It was certainly easy to have our park tickets, dining reservations, fast passes, photo passes and charge cards all on our wrist without needing to carry around any extra items.

Star Wars cookies

Star Wars cookies

The highlight of our visit and the best way to cap off a day at this particular park is definitely Fantasmic. The music, build-up and excitement of the show get me every time, and we always leave the park re-energized and happy.

So if you have any hesitation about coming to Star Wars weekend as a casual movie fan, it’s completely doable and accessible as a “regular” visit to the park on any other day.

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Mixing veterans and newbies at Disney World

We have something of a routine when it comes to a visit to Disney World. It involves at least two days at the Magic Kingdom, one day at each of the other parks and depending on the length of the trip, a second day at another park or a hotel (non-park) day.

ARtAnimation2We’ve seen the parades and fireworks many times, so now we head to the rides and attractions while the hoards of people stop to watch the entertainment. We know to stay at the park if it rains because the crowds are much better when it’s done. If there’s extra magic hours at night, it’s a good bet you’ll have shorter lines.

So when my sister-in-law asked my daughter and I to go to Disney World with her and her daughter, I went into planning mode. They had never been before, and my daughter and I have been several times. I cautioned my daughter early on that we might have to alter our usual routine if her cousin really wanted to see our experience something – it was, after all, a trip for her cousin’s birthday.

Disney's Art of Animation Mermaid pool

Disney’s Art of Animation Mermaid pool

But Disney being Disney, us veterans had our new experiences, as well. We stayed at the Art of Animation in the Little Mermaid area. If you have trouble walking, I don’t recommend it. We were in the building furthest from the check-in and dining area and it was a good hike.

We stayed at the Art of Animation during Memorial Day weekend, and my biggest complaint would have to be with the dining area. Half of it was roped off under construction, making the other half pretty crowded. Near the end of our visit, we arrived one morning to find that everything had been switched overnight – the closed area was open and the other area was now roped off, causing even more chaos and confusion.

Enchanted Tales with Belle

Enchanted Tales with Belle

The refillable mugs with electronic sensors are a good idea in theory, except when you are traveling with an independent child who wants to do it herself. When she pushes the button and stops because she slipped, you have to wait two full minutes before she can attempt to fill her mug again.

But those were the only downsides of the trip. The highlight was the new Fantasyland area, where we enjoyed the new rides and attractions. We were thrilled to find the Enchanted Tales with Belle open during late-night extra magic hours. We had a small group of people and my daughter and her cousin were both able to participate. We also had a surprise – the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was not officially open but they started testing it so we ran to the line. My daughter deemed it her favorite new ride.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

We included the dining plan and the photo plan on this trip so our new visitors would be able to make the most of their first visit. We had a ball playing with the various poses and loved the ease of having reservations for Cinderella’s castle.

Maybe because they are the same age and gender, but we really didn’t run into many instances where our group wanted to do separate things. Just a couple of times when the newbies wanted to go on a bigger coaster that my daughter wasn’t sure of, we just wandered nearby to another ride and met up again shortly after.

 

It’s always a good time to go to Disney World, but we had the most fun being able to show and share “our” world with those who have never experienced it before.

 

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Bringing the Outside In at Mauna Lani

Yoga can be relaxing, but when your view is whales playing in the ocean, it can become hard to concentrate. But I wouldn’t trade Oceanside yoga for any other option.

We stayed at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows near Kona, Hawaii, on the Big Island in January 2014. A few of the mornings, the locals were cold when the temperature was in the 70s. Coming from the Polar Vortex epicenter in Michigan, 70 degrees felt like a mid-summer 90s.

We had an ocean-view room, which had a great lanai for morning coffee while listening to the waves. The rooms were spacious and had a color scheme that reflects the local area. Getting to the actual room was different than most hotels, because you have to either take an elevator or stairs to a different level than the entrance, walk across another section and then take another elevator or stairs to the hotel area near the ocean. Although a small inconvenience when you have your luggage, it’s a great route during the day to see all of the views of the interior and exterior of the complex.

The hotel has an open concept, with a river meandering through the interior courtyard, stocked with various types of fish. The hotel offers a walking tour for guests to learn about the different types of Hawaiian sea life.

Walking in, one of the first views is a koi pond, and the interior gives you a relaxed vibe with a waterfall cascading over panels of glass. Starting your day with breakfast at Bay Terrace is a great way to linger over a cup of coffee while looking out over the ocean. The breakfast buffet had a large number of choices, including a traditional Japanese breakfast section.

I also ventured out to the fitness center. It’s a little ways away from the hotel itself but makes for a nice morning stroll. Shuttles also take you to the center or shopping areas in the complex. After a pilates workout, I took the path through the Hawaii Mauna Lani Historic Park to walk through the petroglyph fields. It’s a scenic walk and the best way to travel back to the hotel and oceanfront. The walk near Mani Lani also includes fish ponds, where I was able to see an eel playing hide and seek under the bridge.

The pool was nice and cool, a perfect refresher for a hot Hawaii day. Mani Lani also looked to have a new pool under construction, so more swimming options would be available in the future. The trails along the ocean are perfect for strolling or exercising, and you can’t beat the view.

Disclosure: I traveled with my husband for this trip and was not compensated for this post.

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Hawaii Island: Big fun at Waikoloa Marriott

Hawaii Island, sometimes referred to as the “Big island,” is full of big volcanoes, volcanic rock, big beaches and big fun. And a great place to make your home base when visiting is the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.

Of all of the resorts we visited on our trip, the Marriott ranks first for family-friendly fun. The complex includes an infinity pool, a pool with a waterslide and a pool with a beach sand zero entry point, in addition to a couple of hot tubs. With the beach just a few steps away, this is a perfect location for any water-loving family.

Out of the water, but right next to it, are some great paths to explore Anaeho’omalu Bay beach and ancient fish ponds. An ancient Hawaiian dwelling is partially preserved and in the evening, the fish leap through the air in the fish ponds.

The rooms at the Marriott are spacious. We enjoyed the extra space for a sitting area and the large balcony. We slept with the door open to the ocean, with the crashing of waves as our sound machine. The room came with a fridge to chill our wine and house some leftovers.

When checking in, we received a couple of coupons, which gave us a welcome Mai Tai and a discount for a meal. We had the Hawaii Calls buffet for dinner one night and it was full of seafood, a carving table, salad buffet and tons of dessert choices.

If swimming isn’t your choice, there are a ton of other activities right on site. The activity desk on the beach provides exercise (morning yoga beachside is worth it after a long flight), and the whale-watching tour on the catamaran had us in awe with the active whales who were flipping tails, slapping fins and breaching. A short shuttle ride away, or alternately a paved path through lava rocks, the Marriott spa and fitness center got me moving with pilates, and the tennis courts and lap pool looked like a great way to work off some of the wonderful food.

Speaking of wonderful food, the open air mall Kings’ Shops are across the street, with different restaurant choices and shopping.

We didn’t have our kids on this trip, but if we were go to back, this would be the choice. The resort amenities, location of other activities and spacious rooms would be the ideal location for a family.

Disclosure: I traveled with my husband for this trip and was not compensated for this post.

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Seven years and counting at Crystal Mountain

We first went to Crystal Mountain in the summer of 2006. I recently found the photos of my tiny, toddling children who loved the splash park and building your own stuffed animal. We also made tie-dye shirts that year, and if I would have kept all of them, we’d have a closet full.

Crystal Mountain cottage

Crystal Mountain cottage

This fall, we went on our annual trip to Crystal Mountain. We’ve been there to ski in the winter, to soak up the sun in the summer and to play in the fall. We haven’t made a springtime trip yet, but I’m sure it’s just as fun.

We’ve stayed in the cottages around the water park and it’s a great central location. There’s always a list of the day’s activities nearby and we’re close enough for an ice cream from the pool concessions.

Crystal Mountain Coaster

Crystal Mountain Coaster

This year, my daughter was big enough to go on the Crystal Coaster by herself. It felt a bit slower this year, which was good because in past years, it was pretty fast. For the first time, the kids tried laser tag. The only part they didn’t like was being paired up with some other kids who weren’t as into it as they were, so the games were a bit slower. Breaking it up into more age groups might fix that, though.

Another first this year, the kids were old enough to try a bike trial. We took an easy one and it was a beautiful trail and the kids loved it. I’m sure that there’s more mountain biking in our future.

Crystal Mountain lasertag

Crystal Mountain lasertag

We were there for Labor Day weekend and the weather was still hot — hot enough for the pool to be packed and the pool full of action. The kids took a break and climbed the rock wall. There’s also a nice sand area near the pool for smaller kids.

The cottages are perfect for our family. It has a kitchen so we can pack our food, have a quick and easy breakfast and snack without worrying about leaving. It’s also close enough to walk over and grab a pizza from the Crystal restaurant when we don’t feel like cooking.

Crystal Mountain pool

Crystal Mountain pool

And of course, we made tie-dye shirts. A tradition we have, and the kids need a new one each year because they grow out of the last one. It was the last getaway of the summer and we made sure it was a memorable one.

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Exploring Massachusetts beyond Boston

This summer, we spent a nine days in Massachusetts – and drove through Boston once without stopping. We were all around the attraction that most travelers come to see, instead making stops in Salem, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Plymouth.

As a history buff, I wanted to see the places that I’ve read about since I was a child. Salem turned out to be much more than a historical town, and we loved the downtown area and the waterfront.

Arts Dune Tours Cape Cod

Arts Dune Tours Cape Cod

We stayed at a couple of spots on Cape Cod and were able to see several areas. A trip to Provincetown was well worth it to experience the colorful downtown and have some adventures. First, we went on a whale-watching tour and say a couple of different types of whales. Then, we went on Art’s Dune Tour. Sure, we have dunes in Michigan, and the famous Sleeping Bear, but Provincetown has some historical dune shacks that are now artistic retreats. The dunes are full of rose hip, that we tried for the first time. Somewhat bitter, you peel the skin with your teeth and eat only that, leaving the insides behind.

Nantucket has been on my list for a long time, and it wasn’t nearly enough time to explore the island.

Rounding out our vacation, we toured Plimouth Plantation to learn about the pilgrims and the Wampanoag and how they lived. (As a grammar nerd, the explanation for the plantation spelling is that many variations were used in writings that have been found, and Plimouth was the most common spelling).

Plimouth Plantation

Plimouth Plantation

A few miles away, we drove to downtown Plymouth to see the Mayflower II, which was recently refurbished and back on display, and Plymouth Rock, which is a rock on the beach. The pilgrims actually landed at Provincetown first, but then ventured to Plymouth for access to more land and resources.

There are a ton of things to do in Massachusetts, both leisurely and historically. Our trip was a nice blend of the two and I’m glad that I was able to show my kids some things that they’ve been reading about, too.

Disclosure: A portion of this trip was due to my husband’s work travel but this post was not requested or required, and opinions are my own.

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A short journey to Quebec takes you a world away

I’ve always wanted to visit Quebec, and mostly Montreal. People talk of the city as a “little Paris” and the European vibe it offers. If you drive there, even renting a car from the airport, you’ll have a quick lesson in French. The signs for compass points are in French, as are the stop signs and other navigation signs.

It is the law in the province of Quebec to speak French first, so most will greet you with a bonjour, and then a hello if you give them a puzzled look. We only ran into one gentlemen who was appalled that we did not speak French. When I told him I had taken Spanish in school, he said he thought maybe that was a good choice for living in the U.S.

The plane ride from Detroit was short, just over an hour. Our first stop was the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in Montreal. We had a tour of the city, old and new, stopping by the beautiful Notre Dame Basilica and wandering through the Just for Laughs festival, which was taking place that week. We were treated to a Montreal bagel hot out of the oven and were taken up to the top of a hill to view the city below. Bikers are everywhere in the city and you can rent bikes at several stations throughout the city.

Montreal has an underground city, but we found it a bit difficult to navigate and directions were not clearly marked. We tried to walk through it from our hotel to another section of the city but came up to ground level a few times and back down in our attempts. We ended up giving up and walking at street level. However, I can see how that would be a huge bonus in the cold winter months.

Our next part of the trip took us to the Fairmont Tremblant in the Laurentian Mountains. A beautiful ski village, Tremblant is also bustling in the summer with many visitors, shops and outdoor activities. Activity passes are available for gondola rides, mountain cart rides and countless kids’ activities. I took a gondola ride to the top and opted for the birds of prey show. In addition to the hawks, owl and eagle, we were treated to Mother Nature’s own show when a deer wandered near us. The views to the village are gorgeous.

The resort has several small pools – a regular pool, therapy pool (a little warmer) a cold pool and a hot tub. I had a Swedish massage at the spa, which took away my knots from traveling. Down the mountain, the resort has a beach area, which you can pay to enter or access with an activity card. No transportation is provided and it is a good yet healthy walk, especially up part of the mountain on the way back.

We used the resort’s complimentary bikes to take a ride through the many paved trails. Living in a very flat part of Michigan, the hills were a welcome yet challenging pace but we were rewarded with fantastic views of the river and several deer.

Our last stop in Quebec was the Fairmont Chateau Montebello, a huge log cabin structure that used to be a private club. The walking paths are along the water’s edge, the outdoor pool is clean and warm and the indoor pool is huge. I did not go for a ride but the horses looked happy and healthy as they were readied for the days’ activities.

The breakfast buffet at all three resorts were similar, and I had my fill of maple crepes at each. Alas, we didn’t leave any time for the famous Canadian poutine, but we’ll have to venture back again for that experience. Also, the hotels have a dog on staff! At most locations, you can sign out the dog for a walk or just give him or her some pets in the lobby.

Disclosure: This was a work trip for my husband and I was along for the ride. These opinions are my own and are in no way compensated.

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Bay Harbor brings style to resorts in Michigan

Not much can beat a warm summer day in northern Michigan. And a stay at Bay Harbor makes it even better. In late June, my family and I stayed at the Inn at Bay Harbor for a few days. The weather was perfect, the resort pleasant and the views spectacular.

We used the complimentary bikes one day and rode on the path towards Petoskey. The bike path was in perfect condition with lots of bike and walking traffic. It was shaded so although it was a very warm day, we had the cool breezes of shade on our side. A few openings in the trees provided spectacular views of Lake Michigan.

Downtown Petoskey is just a short drive away, with all of the walkable shopping and cute parks and restaurants for whatever strikes your fancy. We stopped for a music performance in a park, and the kids had fun exploring a toy store and a garden store with fairy gardens on display.

We had a couple of fantastic meals at the South American Grille and Wine Bar. A local Northern Michigan seasonal salad really hit the spot.

The kids had a blast at the pool, which is placed near gorgeous views of the bay. We took a break to walk the shore and find Petoskey stones, of which we found several. We wandered down to the volleyball net and had a short family game.

The rooms are nice and comfortable, with a bedroom, living room with a murphy bed and kitchenette, creating the perfect space for a family vacation. A small balcony overlooking the lake is a great way to end the day.

At dusk, we headed to the fire near the lake and made s’mores and my husband and son played catch on the lawn. Just a few days at Bay Harbor and we were well-rested and recharged.

Disclosure: My husband traveled here on a work trip. My kids and I were along for the ride. This review is my own opinion and is not compensated.

 

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Convenience and comfort at Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel

When you’re traveling for work, you hope for a decent hotel and hope that the location is close enough to see or do something if you have a few moments of downtime. And of course, you hope that you can find a decent meal.

The Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel has all of this and more. Located outside of the city center of Atlanta, the hotel is connected to the Cobb Galleria Centre convention center with restaurants and shops. We ate at Jocks and Jills, a bar and grill, which had great food and friendly service.

Just across the street through a sky walkway sits the Cumberland Mall. You’ll find all of the standard mall stores inside, as well as some chain and local restaurants. We had dinner – and cheesecake – at the Cheesecake Factory, which is always a good place to eat with friends.

Atlanta Renaissance Waverly HotelThe hotel itself is nice. The inner courtyard is large and open, in what looks to be that it was an Embassy Suites-type hotel in a previous life. The hotel is perfect for groups and those coming to conventions. The rooms were clean, beds soft and the breakfast buffet was good.

Downtown Atlanta is a short drive away, depending on the traffic and time of day. I’d recommend staying at the Renaissance Waverly if you want to be out of yet near enough to visit the city center.

Disclosure: I stayed here for work. The hotel did not compensate me in any way and the opinions here are my own.

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What every hotel should have

I stayed at a hotel recently that didn’t have an alarm clock or a coffee maker in the room. Apparently, they don’t cater to business travelers and/or wanted people to sleep in. As I traveled on several trips to a few states in less than a month, I began to make a mental list of things that every hotel should have.

A plug near the bed. For your phone. Especially if you don’t offer an alarm clock.

A refrigerator. It doesn’t take up that much space. I was recently at a hotel that had a “cooling unit” with a sign that said it would only cool to around 55 degrees and was not to be considered a refrigerator. Why? Why go through that bother? Just put in a fridge and make everyone happy.

A hair dryer. Standard, yet so many have been through the ringer.

A magnifying mirror. I found that I like hotels that have this now that I’m getting a little older. Although, sometimes the results can be more than you bargained for.

Ample coffee. One caffeinated and one decaffeinated is usually standard. If you offer a one-cup experience, give us a little more, please.

A safe that can fit a laptop. Safes come in so many shapes and sizes, and if it can’t fit my laptop, it’s not very useful to me.

A thermostat that allows you to turn on a fan. When you’re in a room with three other humans (including the little humans), being able to turn on the fan at night can make everyone sleep a little more soundly by having some white noise. Especially when those loud people coming crashing through the hallway after hitting the bar.

Room-darkening curtains . The ocean view is nice, but not for my little humans who are still adjusting to a new time zone. We recently had a hotel that had sliding wooden louvered doors to cover the sliding glass door. Pretty, but it sure didn’t keep out any light.

So what did I leave off the list? What else should a hotel have?

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