Sunday, April 5, 2015

An Incredible Weekend with Some Awesome Ladies!

A few weeks ago I posted about a blog conference I discovered, the Women in Travel Summit.  I had some fears about it, especially in the few days leading up to it.  Mostly I was nervous about showing up to the conference only to discover that everyone already knew everyone else and I would just end up being a wallflower who's too uncomfortable to introduce herself.  I just don't do well around cliques.

My actual experience ended up being nothing like that.

There were so many women who, like me, were attending their first blog conference.  Most of them were bloggers, some were businesswomen and a large handful were just world travelers looking for some tips and inspiration. I met quite a few from each of these groups.

The conference included workshops that followed three different tracks: the Blogger Track, the Entrepreneur Track and the Traveler Track.  I attended workshops from each of these but mostly stuck to the Blogger Track.  Workshops focused on such topics as improving your blog's SEO, learning about press trips and volunteer travel, and ideas for travel blogging when you're not traveling.  It was tough at times, having to decide between 3 great workshops going on at the same time, but I learned something new at each one I attended and I met some wonderful women and networked with quite a few companies too.
How to Be a Travel Blogger When You're Not Traveling

During the summit we had the opportunity to visit booths set up by the 3 finalists for next year's travel summit destination and voted on which one we wanted it to be.  The 3 finalists were Branson, Missouri, Irvine, California and Dunedin, New Zealand.  And the winner is....


On the outskirts of L.A., close to Disneyland as well as San Diego, how I wish I could go to Irvine for next year's Women in Travel Summit!  I'm not sure if my schedule will allow it though.  Between running a half-marathon in February and taking my mom to England in May my schedule and finances might not permit me to fly cross-country for this event.  But it will definitely stay on my radar in case I do get the chance to go.  I've also got The New York Times Travel Show on my calendar as well which is held in January.  So many things to look forward to next year!

Photo courtesy of Kayti Burt/Women in Travel Summit by Wanderful

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Doin' The Fatty Shuffle

For a long time I've always had this goal of accomplishing something incredible before my 35th birthday. I don't know why I chose 35, it might be because I was too busy trying to make babies at 30 and felt that I would be too old by 40 to do anything I could truly be proud of. So I stuck with 35. My first goal was to climb Mount Fuji, then Stink was born and our international travels took a backseat. I thought about biking the EuroVelo with a husband and daughter in tow but that would take months. Then I thought to myself "What could I accomplish in a day or a weekend that would also be family-friendly?"

RunDisney, Walt Disney World's annual marathon events. Or should I say half-marathon because that's what I'm going to do.

That's right, y'all. I'm going to run a half marathon.

I visited with my family during our last trip to Orlando and convinced my older sister to join the half-marathon with me. I'm afraid she'll cop out on me by the end of the year but if she does then I'll just publicly shame her on my blog and never let her live it down.

I'm honestly pretty nervous about this race. I think the last time I actually ran a mile (or close to it) was in high school and now I'm planning to run 13.1 miles. In a row. I'm ashamed to admit that I've been on a treadmill only once in the past year even though we have a perfectly good one sitting in our basement. I did, however, sign up for a gym membership at Planet Fitness last month and I'm ready to start training this week.

But Rome wasn't build in a day, amiright? I've got roughly 10.5 months to get ready for the Disney Princess Half Marathon in late February. Here's my plan of action:

Start Eating Healthy(ier)

Done. I've started using MyFitnessPal again and even though I don't log everything I eat I am keeping track of it in my head and I log my weight on a weekly basis. I'm not going all vegan or anything but I am eating vegetables more than once a month. Baby steps, people.

Get to the Gym

My new gym is 2 miles from my house but I've made excuses for the past month not to go so it hasn't happened yet. No more! I'm going to make time to work out at least 2-3 times a week starting this week. I promise.

Start the Couch 2 5K

I'm going to start the C25K a couple weeks after I get into a routine at the gym. It won't be the only thing I do there, I still need to lift weights, but it's going to be the real start to my running.

Run a 5K

This will be a good indicator of how far I'm coming along in my training and whether I can meet the minimum pacing requirements of the half-marathon (a 16-minute mile). I haven't picked out a 5K yet but it will just be a local one, maybe a benefit race or something. Perhaps I can even talk some of my friends into joining me, or make new running friends!

Start the RunDisney Training

If I can do a 16-minute mile consistently for the 5K then I'll register for the half-marathon and start training with RunDisney's program until February

Run a 10K

In the fall or early winter I'll run a 10K as part of my training, just for fun and to make sure I'm on track. This one will be all about pacing and making sure I can go the distance.

Run That Disney Half-Marathon Like a Boss

And before you know it the big day will be here! Crowds will be cheering me on, well maybe not cause the race starts at 5:30 am. But I'll be at that starting line pumped and ready to make this race my bitch.

After all my training I bet those first few miles will fly by.

Starting around mile 5 I might start to get a little winded but I'll just have to remind myself that slow and steady wins finishes the race. It's all about getting to that finish line.

Around the 10th mile I'll probably be going slower now. I might even be walking most of the way. Faster runners might start passing me by.

But finally, FINALLY, I will push myself across that finish line, greet my family and receive my participation medal.

And then I'll realize how ridiculously easy that was and sign up for a full marathon the next year!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Disney's Memory Maker: The Good and The Bad

**NOTE** None of the photos in this post have been edited.  They are exactly as the PhotoPass photographers took them with the exception of added borders and signatures.

For the past 3 Disney vacations we have purchased the Memory Maker, a photo package that includes all photos taken by the Photopass photographers at all the Disney parks and resorts, plus all of the ride photos.   It also gives you access to special borders, stickers and character signatures that can be added to your photos.  Considering that the cost of one photo download is $14.95 the Memory Maker can be an awesome deal as long as you use it wisely.

The first time we purchased the Memory Maker in December 2013 it was called something different, the Photopass+ but for simplicity sake I'll call them all the Memory Maker.  This photo package included a Memory Maker card that photographers used to upload our pictures, a CD with general Disney stock photos of all the parks and resorts, a CD of all of our photos plus the digital download, all for $149.  Our visit was during the holiday season so there were many Photopass photographers at the Disney resorts in addition to the ones at the parks.

PhotoPass+ picture with added signatures...
...compared to one taken with my personal camera (for free)
We had a total of 12 family members visiting Disney that year and some had their pictures taken by photographers elsewhere in the park.  Since I had the only Memory Maker card they received a generic one from each photographer and I was able to use the code on the back to upload their photos to my Memory Maker package.

After our trip I was able to go online and add some borders, stickers and character signatures to some of the best photos.  I especially loved the Christmas themed ones because this was our first trip to Disney World during the holiday season.  I received a CD copy of the pictures in the mail and made copies for the rest of the family.  During our first trip we got 184 photos in all.
A Disney stock photo that came with our first Memory Maker package
A Disney stock photo that came with our third Memory Maker package
The second time we purchased the Memory Maker was 5 months later when it had switched from being called PhotoPass+ to being called the Memory Maker.  We didn't receive a physical card in the mail, instead the photographers scanned our Magic Bands, nor did we receive a CD of Disney stock photos or a CD copy of our pictures (they were digital only).  Since everyone uses the Magic Bands there is no way for the photographers to tell that we had purchased (i.e. invested in) the Memory Maker.  I felt that with our previous visit the photographers made an extra effort to take decent quality pictures because we had the Memory Maker card.  This time around, however, our pictures weren't quite as nice and we only had 120 photos taken at the two parks we visited (we had a really rainy day at Epcot though).

Good photo: Everyone looking at the camera!
Bad photo: Poor lighting a little blurry
Good photo: Love the angle this photographer got on the picture
Bad photo: Clearly nobody was ready for the shot
This year I once again decided to purchase the Memory Maker, though the decision was a little more difficult to make.  I was concerned about getting poor quality pictures but ultimately decided to invest once again in the Memory Maker to ensure that we would get a few family photos.  Unfortunately the pre-purchase price had increased from $149 to $169 so I was determined to visit as many Photopass photographers as possible to really get our money's worth.
Good photo: A little dark but everyone is looking at the camera and smiling
Bad photo: Too dark and Brandon wasn't ready
This vacation was heavily focused on character meets but we also had our picture taken at other locations.  We asked about Magic Shots, special graphics that can be added to a photo after it's taken.  Each photographer can do different ones (almost all of them can do Tinkerbell) but don't forget to ask the photographer in Epcot's France about getting your picture taken with Chip.  That's the only location you can have it done!
A Magic Shot with Chip: My expression is over-the-top, Brandon and Stink's are indifferent
Although we managed to have 219 photos taken at the 2 parks we visited I was pretty disappointed in the quality of the pictures.  About half of them were scrapbook-worthy, and of those only about a dozen were truly awesome pictures.  Either the photographers aren't as skilled as they once were or they simply don't care enough.  Many pictures had spots on them, were in terrible lighting, or were taken when we weren't looking at the camera.
Good photo: A very sweet one of Stink and Goofy
Bad photo: Nobody was ready
Good photo: A great example of a Magic Shot...with a toddler!
Bad photo: Just accept the fact that the indoor pictures will be dark
The Verdict:  We've purchased the Memory Maker 3 times but would I purchase it again?  Only for special trips, not an annual vacation.  For me the Memory Maker was most valuable when we went with other family members and during the holidays.  Brandon and I recently purchased a set of 10-Day Non-Expiring Disney tickets so we have a few more trips to take.  We might purchase it again once during those next few trips.

For other visitors I would only recommend getting the Memory Maker under certain circumstances:
  1. You plan to use it at more than 3 parks 
  2. You plan to go on the rides that include ride photos** or do activities like Jedi Training or Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
  3. It's a very special once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disney
  4. It's during the Christmas holidays.  Photopass photographers are at many of the Disney resorts during the holidays and you can spend a whole day resort-hopping, checking out the themed Christmas trees in the resort lobbies and getting your photo taken in front of them.  
If you're only going to a few parks then skip the expensive Memory Maker and ask the photographer to use your camera instead.  They will gladly do this for free.

**If you're mainly purchasing the Memory Maker for the ride photos then consider purchasing the Attractions+ package instead.  At $44.95 you get all the ride photos but the videos from the Tower of Terror and Seven Dwarves Mine Train are excluded (you can only access the videos if you purchase a Memory Maker, they are not available for individual purchase).  The Attractions+ package is not available for pre-purchase online.  You must purchase it at the photo counter after your first ride.

Good photo: Stink is smiling!  That's a miracle in itself
Bad photo: Spots ALL over the picture and in all the others this photographer took (click to enlarge)

Tips and Tricks:  Don't rely on the photographers alone for your vacation photos, especially if there is a special character or photo spot that is important to you.  During our first vacation we had a large group photo at the 'Ohana breakfast, the ONLY group photo of our entire vacation, and it was lost by the Photopass photographers.  We were assured that it would show up in my account within a few hours so we didn't bother to group everyone back together for another photo.  Big mistake!

Also, the secret to getting good photos with the Memory Maker is quantity because quality is no guarantee.  One photographer in front of the castle might be inexperienced so have your picture taken by 2 or 3 different photographers along Main Street, and at different times of the day.

Review your photos at the end of each day.  It's easy to sort through your Memory Maker photos.  The pictures are divided by park tabs at the top and then within each park it's divided by times and meets.  For example we have "8:07 am Visiting Stitch" listed first under our Magic Kingdom tab.  When reviewing the pictures daily it's easier to spot missing pictures and sometimes a phone call to the Memory Maker customer service representatives can help retrieve those missing photos.

Memory Maker editing screen

When editing your photos keep in mind that the Memory Maker site has an auto-save feature.  If you don't like the changes click the button "Revert to Original" before moving to the next photo, or click the "Make a Copy" button before you make any changes to begin with.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Taking a Tour of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

I just want to preface this post by saying this was supposed to be about touring the White House and U.S. Capitol.  Unfortunately we never made it inside the White House.  After walking a mile and half in mid-December with a toddler and no juice, stroller, diapers or snacks we were turned away at the gate because I had brought my purse.  I was pissed, mostly at myself for forgetting to leave it at the hotel.  Brandon offered to take Stink back to the hotel with my purse while I went inside but by then I was too angry and we took the bus back.  This was one of the reasons why D.C. has been my least favorite vacation so far. But I digress.

One of the perks about visiting Washington D.C. is that almost all the attractions are free, including tours to see the White House and U.S. Capitol.  Simply send an email to your Congressman/woman and let them know the dates you will be in town (they'll need other personal information as well to book your tour).  Our Congressman (actually his assistant) was able to give us a tour date for the US Capitol right away but it wasn't until about 2 weeks before our trip that we were given the date and time for our White House tour.  The U.S. Capitol tour was at 3:20 in the afternoon which I thought was great because the afternoons are when Stink is most active and well-behaved.  It turns out that 3:20 is the very last of the tour times and because of this we were rushed through the whole thing.

Outside the Capitol building, right where you take the elevators for the tour
The entrance for the tours is located behind the Capitol building, on the opposite side of the National Mall.  A wide walkway has elevators on opposite sides that take you down to the first level, or you can take the stairs.  After going through a security check we went indoors to present our reservation tickets.  Unlike at the White House we were permitted to bring a very compact bag for Stink and even her stroller.  I also brought my camera as photos are permitted at the U.S. Capitol (but only in December for the White House).

Capitol Building Visitor Information Center
The tour starts off with a 13-minute introductory film.  Disabled persons and parents with strollers are taken up an elevator to a balcony where they can view the film.  Afterwards the group is divided up between 3 or 4 guides for a 45-minute guided tour.  Our group consisted of about 10 people.  Everyone is given a set of headphones that is connected to their guide so that they may hear what they're saying without the guide having to shout.  Genius!

Our guide's name was...hell, I don't even know because he talked so fast.  This was partially because he was just a fast talker in general but also because he admitted that we were the last group of the day and we could either get a thorough tour but not see as much or we could get the quick and dirty.
The old Supreme Court Chamber
A statue of Roger Sherman, first mayor of New Haven, CT

Guide NoName took us through multiple rooms, showed us a spot where George Washington was supposed to be buried but never was, pointed out various statues and artwork and showed us the beautiful dome which was still is under construction.  By the way, did you know that they're going to be electrifying the dome to keep the birds from shitting on it?  Seems like the wrong way to go about it, doesn't it?  I mean, wouldn't the electric zap just scare the shit right out of them?  Digressing again.  Back on track.

The spot where George Washington was supposed to be buried
I honestly do not remember much from our tour (except the bird shitting thing, obviously) and we were all so rushed that we weren't given time to ask questions before the tour was over and we were literally escorted out the door.  One thing that did stick with me was the history of the frieze, the panoramic artwork inside the dome that depicts 19 scenes of major events in American history.  The giant paintings and statues in the dome also match many of the scenes sculpted in the frieze.
The dome under construction
A portion of the frieze
The Verdict:  I wouldn't really want to do this more than once but I really feel that I need to visit again in order to fully enjoy the experience of seeing the Capitol.  Though by the time we make it back Stink will be out of the stroller which will allow us to finally see the galleries!

When to Visit: If you're given the 3:20 pm reservation time I really recommend asking for an earlier tour.  If that's not possible then try arriving about an hour or two early so you have to visit the gift shop and check out the Senate and House galleries before your tour begins.  You will not have time to visit these places after a 3:20 tour.

What To Bring: You can bring a camera, small bag and stroller on the tour but these items are not permitted in the Senate and House galleries.  We had brought food and juice for Stink for our trip to the Smithsonians but by the time our Capitol tour came she had eaten everything.  Food and drink are not allowed on the tour.

Child Friendly?  Older kids will enjoy visiting the Capitol, especially if they are studying American history.  Toddlers like Stink, though, wouldn't find any interest in this so it's best completed during naptime.

Pet Friendly?  No

Monday, March 16, 2015

Finalized Itinerary for Europe

With less than 2 months until we leave for Europe I'm proud to say that everything in our schedule is finalized. Our train ticket from Munich to Paris was booked this past week but that's the only public transportation that I'm booking ahead of time. I'm childishly excited to be traveling by train and even decided to splurge the extra 30 euros for first class seats. Our only activity that we pre-booked was our combination tickets to Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles, the rest we will buy once we get there. So without further ado, here is our finalized itinerary for Europe:

Hallgrimskirkja Church, Reykjavik.  Image courtesy of Trey Ratcliff via Flickr Creative Commons
Day 1
Arrive in Keflavik at 6 am. Pick up rental car at 7 am. Quick breakfast and spend a few hours at Blue Lagoon. Check into Hotel Laxnes in the afternoon. Shop at Alafoss Wool Store. Overnight in Mosfellsbaer.

Day 2
Day trip to Reykjavik. Visit Hallgrimskirkja Church and Laugardalur zoo. Eat hotdogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. Stay a second night in Mosfellsbaer.

Day 3
Take a drive around the Golden Circle. Stop at Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, Gulfoss Falls and Skalholtkirkja church. Stop for lunch and ice cream at Efsti-Dalur Restaurant. Stay a third night in Mosfellsbaer.

Neuschwanstein Castle.  Image courtesy of R*** via Flickr Creative Commons
Day 4
Leave for Munich at 7:30 am, arrive at 1 pm. Check into Hilton Hotel Munich Park. Spend the afternoon walking around English Garden (Munich's Central Park). Overnight in Munich.

Day 5
Meet my penpal and her son for a day trip to Munich Zoo (Hellabrunn Tierpark). Stay a second night in Munich.

Day 6
Spend the day around Munich city centre. Visit Marienplatz and watch the Glockenspiel play. Shop around Viktualienmarkt and pick up snacks for the train ride to Neuschwanstein. Have a meal at the Hofbrauhaus. Stay a third night in Munich.

Day 7
Leave at 10 am for a day trip to Fussen. Arrive at noon. Visit Hohenschwangau Castle at 2 pm and Neuschwanstein Castle at 4 pm. Eat dinner and shop around Fussen. Take 7 pm train back to Munich and arrive at 9 pm. Stay a fourth night in Munich.

Austria (Day Trip)
Salzburg, Austria.  Image courtesy of Diego Cambiaso via Flickr Creative Commons
Day 8
Leave at 9:30 am for a day trip to Salzburg. Arrive at 11 am. Visit Salzburg Fortress and Altstadt (Old Town) for shopping. Leave at 5 pm for Munich and arrive at 6:30 pm. Stay a fifth night in Munich.

Eiffel Tower across the Seine.  Image courtesy of Jiuguang Wang via Flickr Creative Commons

Day 9
Leave at 10:30 am for Paris. Arrive at 4:30 pm. Check into Les Toits de Paris B&B. Stay overnight in Paris.

Day 10
Take a cruise on the River Seine. Picnic and shopping around the Eiffel Tower. Stay a second night in Paris.

Day 11
Walk around Île de la Cité area. Visit Notre-Dame cathedral and Shakespeare and Company bookstore.  Play in Luxembourg Gardens until Stink naps, then visit Orsay Museum. Stay a third night in Paris.

Day 12
Check out of B&B and leave for home.

This itinerary isn't nearly as chock-full as our usual vacations are but then again we never had a Stink to accommodate so I think that with a toddler we have the perfect balance of busy and relaxing days. I still need to research places to eat in Salzburg and Paris but if I don't get around to it then we can always find a random cafe. My main reason for wanting to research restaurants is to find family-friendly establishments. But other than that it looks like the itinerary is done and all that's left is to look forward to our trip!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Learning New Languages with the Duolingo App

I'm constantly trying out new apps, especially free ones, but many tend to be glitchy and disorganized.  Over the past year I've been trying to find some travel related apps and one that I came across was the free Duolingo app.

The Duolingo app is a foreign language app that's actually intended for kids but the owl mascot looked adorable so I thought I'd give it a try.  The app includes 9 languages to learn: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Irish, Danish and Swedish.  I started with German but then had the grand idea of adding French which thus far has turned out to be a miserable failure.  It turns out that French is a REALLY hard language for me to learn.  I mean, "enfant" (child) and "enfants" (children) are pronounced exactly the same! So for the purposes of this post I'm going to stick with the easier German language.

No matter what language you choose to learn the Duolingo app is set up in the same manner.  There are various "courses" each with 2-6 lessons to be learned.  Each lesson focuses on a group of words to learn before moving on to a new lesson.  Mastering a full course opens up a new one.  Basics 1 and 2 come first, followed by courses like Phrases, Food, Animals, etc.  Right now I'm studying Plurals and Adjectives but the Travel category is a full 14 courses away, down in the more advanced section of the app.  I fear I won't reach that level before our trip in May but at least at I can say "The fly is eating the bread" in German.  Totally useful, right?

There are various ways that the Duolingo app teaches a foreign language, all of which are easy and fun.  There are matching games, translation typing, speaking via your tablet's microphone and sentence completion.  Each lesson has 20 questions and at the beginning of them you start out with 3 red hearts.  If you get a question wrong you lose a heart.  Lose all 3 hearts and you have to start the lesson over.  Keep all 3 hearts and you earn Lingots, Duolingo currency that you can use to buy snazzy outfits for your owl or to unlock special lessons for your language.  I unlocked the Idioms lesson for German but idioms are a little difficult to understand for a foreign language and I haven't managed to complete the course yet.

I don't practice nearly as often as I should
Duolingo Shop

The Verdict:  The Duolingo app really is a must-have for your traveling needs, whether it's for you or your kids.  The food course is one of the first ones offered so it makes ordering at a restaurant much easier and locals always appreciate it when you try to speak their language.  The only disappointment is that courses that are important to me like "Numbers" and "Travel" are waaaay down the course list and will take forever to reach.  It seems to me that "Numbers" should be ranked much closer to the top as its one of the basic things you need to know when traveling abroad.  Also, while it rocks that this app is free I do wish they would offer additional languages for purchase.  Perhaps Mandarin Chinese or Icelandic?  Considering the popularity of this app I wouldn't be surprised to see them offer new language options in the future.  **UPDATE** Turkish is in beta right now so it's great to know that Duolingo is adding new languages and I look forward to seeing what else is offered in the next year or so.