Disney!

If you know me on social media you know that last week we surprised the kids with a trip to Disney. This was a trip nearly 2 years in the making (in order to pay for it all with cash… yikes!). Anyway, here are my randomly thrown together thoughts about what we did and what I’d do different if we ever did it again (doubtful… $$$). As a Virgo I felt the need to plan everything but I had no desire to become a Disney expert. So I tried to research as much as I could while allowing for some flexibility. Buckle up – this one is long.

The Surprise
The kids had NO IDEA we were planning this trip. We timed it during a 5 day weekend school break, they only missed 2 days of classroom time. We left on a Tuesday and came home on President’s Day Monday. We told them about the trip the evening before we left. My sister had sent them Mickey ears/hat along with autograph books, and we packed them up with the MagicBands and some Disney lanyards and had them open the box. They were kind of “deer in headlights” for several minutes. Just kind of “what? huh?”. After a full explanation they were super excited (and then had a hard time sleeping that night!)

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Lodging
We were lucky that my parents graciously offered use of a 2 bedroom Marriott Villa for 5 nights. Cypress Harbour to be exact (Marriott has at least 3 villa properties near Disney). Since we had 5-day park passes we also booked a single night at Disney’s French Quarter hotel – it was coincidence that we were there on Mardi Gras which was fun.

While the French Quarter was a very nice resort I am so glad we didn’t stay there for the whole trip. Mostly because it’s a simple, small hotel room with 2 queen beds and a tiny bathroom. There were a few minor issues (the beds weren’t that comfortable and the mattresses made a crinkling sound when you moved), but the location was pretty and we enjoyed walking around the grounds of the entire Port Orleans resort. Since it was Mardi Gras (or not? I don’t know if they do this all the time) they were giving out beads and noisemakers as we checked in. We had upgraded to a pool-view room and had a great corner room (which we requested and got), but even hardy northern kids draw the line at swimming in 55 degree weather so we enjoyed the view but not the water.

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We walked to the Riverside part of the resort for dinner at Boatwright’s Dining Hall which was very good. (Oh, I need to mention that the staff at French Quarter told us we could take a water taxi from our side of the resort over to Riverside… but when we got to the dock we learned that service ends at 4:30pm and they switch to only doing water runs to Disney Springs. Very un-Disney-like to give wrong information). Breakfast was at the quick-service Sassagoula right by our room. It was fine; people rave about the beignets – Mark and I found them just ok.

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The biggest reason we booked at night at a Disney resort (aside from the 30% discount running when we booked which made it the same price as a nearby Holiday Inn or Fairfield) was the “free” MagicBands and a day of free parking at the Magic Kingdom. (MagicBands cost $20 each if you want them but aren’t staying on-property, parking is $20 per day at the parks but if you’re a guest you get a parking pass). So, we saved $100 in those perks – It was totally worth the one night.

The rest of the stay we were at Cypress Harbour and it was SO GREAT to have some breathing room, two bathrooms, a washer and dryer, and a full kitchen. A bit smaller than our Marriott resort in Hilton Head but still more than enough to be comfortable. The kids shared a room with Matilda in the queen bed and Madman on a pull-out couch. Mark and I had a huge master suite with a ridiculously enormous jetted tub. I laughed at it when we got there but was so grateful for it as the miles of walking racked up and I was able to have an epsom salt soak after a long day in the parks. My parents joined us for 2 nights and they had the living room pull-out couch. The resort itself was very pretty with all kinds of activities (which we didn’t use much) including an arcade, 2 pools, rental paddle boats and kayaks, and a huge activity center that had nightly movies and ice cream. It was a pretty standard Marriott villa experience (with bonus daily housekeeping which is not a normal “owner” perk) which means it was way WAY better than a standard hotel. It was only a 10-15 minute drive to each park, too, and we liked having our own car for use to and from the parks. I would stay here again in a heartbeat.

Parks!!
We had a pretty aggressive plan to hit all 4 parks while we were there. We had standard 5-day passes (no park hopper) so we had the option of going back to one location on our final day. Since we didn’t fully book/pay for the trip until about 40 days before we got there we didn’t have our first choices for dining reservations or fast passes, since people can book those 90 days out. And honestly? I found the fast pass system kind of confusing and stressful. We got what we could but after the fact I feel like it wasn’t totally worth it. Anyway, we planned to get to the parks early since the kids wake up before 7 am, and play the day by ear for departure time. Here’s what we ended up doing:

Wednesday: Magic Kingdom. We followed all the advice and got there about 45 minutes before the gates opened at 9. We scored amazing parking just steps from the ticket and transportation center. I had forgotten how complicated it is just to GET to the Magic Kingdom. The monorail wasn’t working that morning so we took a chilly boat ride across the lake. By the time our bags were checked by security we were in line at the gate about 10 minutes before they did the opening celebration.

Based on recommendations from TouringPlans.com (I HIGHLY recommend this website and app for true wait times and expected crowd levels – their info was spot-on) we knew we wanted to get to the 7 Dwarf ride quickly but we did a quick stop to see Mickey on Main Street. And we were his first visitors!! Yes, we had to bribe Matilda to even get near him and Madman refused to be in a pic, but at least we got to meet him and get it done, even though we forgot to get his autograph in the kids’ books. Then we were able to get some great pics with the castle since there weren’t many people there.

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While Mark and Matilda waited in a 40 minute line for the roller coaster Madman and I rode the Pooh ride and walked around. He wasn’t too sure about any rides so I couldn’t coax him on anything else while we waited. We had a snack and watched dozens of the 7 Dwarf trains go by as we waited. Madman LOVED playing on Tom Sawyer Island where he and Mark spent time while Matilda and I rode Thunder Mountain. He was honestly upset to discover “the park” we kept talking about was not indeed a playground. So being able to romp around the island was perfect for him. Matilda had a great time on Splash Mountain with Mark and we caught the afternoon parade as it went through Frontierland. We ate lunch and dinner at quick service spots – nothing memorable. We had to coax Madman on the Pirate ride but he loved it even though he was nervous. He adored the Swiss Family tree house, too. Matilda had a blast with the A Pirate’s Adventure, using the talisman to complete missions throughout Adventureland. Both kids loved the Jungle Cruise. No one would ride the Magic Carpets, Dumbo, the Tea Cups or the Carrousel. Peter Pan’s Flight was another favorite for both kids and Matilda insisted on riding Small World (the song is still stuck in my head).

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We were still going strong after dinner even though it was getting chilly. Matilda met some princesses via a Fastpass (she insisted she was too old for but she really enjoyed meeting them) and then we rode Stitch’s Great Escape, which was not what we were expecting but everyone survived. Matilda and Mark went to ride Space Mountain, which broke down while they were in line, so they rode the Astro Orbiter instead. That was when Madman discovered his love for the People Mover (I think he rode it at least 7 times in the 2 days we were at Magic Kingdom!). Since we were there so late I insisted we stay for the Electric Light Parade so we planted ourselves in a spot near the end of Main Street. It was great to see Matilda wave at everyone and Madman’s wide-eyed stare. Matilda even shouted “Cinderella! I know her!” as her carriage went by… you’re never too old for princesses.

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Keeping your space during the parade is no joke. We had people jostling into us and pushing to get closer to the street. Mark and I managed to box out for the kids so they could watch without getting bumped. But it meant constant pushing from the people behind us. Not the best way to end the day but the kids loved it and I picked up some ideas for future space-saving by watching others around us. This is also where I will remind you that if you got glow necklaces at the dollar store before you left like you should, that it’s a good idea to actually take them to the park with you! I forgot 3 times.

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All in all we spent a whopping 12.5 hours at Magic Kingdom and clocked in at 8.5 miles for the day. Touring Plans said the crowds were 6/10 and I would agree. Didn’t feel crowded at all.

Wednesday: Hollywood Studios. There was some strategy to picking which park we would go to each day. We had to have a plan so we could make reservations, and I didn’t want MK and Epcot to be back-to-back due to their size. The predicted crowd level at Hollywood Studios for this day was only 4 out of 10, so it seemed like a great choice. My parents were joining us for this day and Matilda was excited about our lunch reservations at the 50’s Prime Time Café because “grandma and grandpa will feel like kids again!” Thanks to Megan and her instagrams (she was at Disney a few days before we were) I knew that we needed to get there early to be part of Jedi training. Her tip got us there about 40 minus before the park opened and thank goodness because they opened the gates at 8:30 instead of the listed 9am! So we hurried over to the line to sign up and Matilda got her training assignment for right after lunch. Our Fastpasses for the day (India Jones, Star Tours and Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster) were in the late afternoon so we had much of the day to wander.

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From that line we headed to Toy Story Mania as everything I read said this was the longest line in the park. It was a 30 minute wait at 9:10 and we hopped in line after posing with an Army Man.

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About 15 minutes later Madman declared he had to go to the bathroom. Half of a family not far ahead of us in line had just left for the same reason. So Mark took him and asked at the door if he could re-join us after the pit stop. He was told no because the line was now too long. Of course, the father son duo that left about 2 minutes before them were allowed to rejoin their family in line. I was NOT HAPPY. Matilda and I had a blast on the ride and I knew Madman would love it, too. I was sad that the line was 90+ minutes for the rest of the day so he never got the chance. However we DID learn our lesson that before getting into any long line we needed to make the kids go. We had another poor incident with this ride later in the afternoon when they wouldn’t allow my father, who was in a motorized scooter due to a disability that won’t allow him to walk distances, enter the ride because he “didn’t have the right ticket”…this was after having zero issues with rides and shows all day. They said he needed to have some special disability access attached to his ticket, which was the first time we had ever heard about that (and my parents have been in the Disney parks several times in the last few years with no issues like this). We didn’t peruse it at the time but I was really disappointed with how he was treated by the Toy Story Mania staff.

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Anyway…Mark and Madman spent the time waiting for us to do Toy Story playing in the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground which was empty for most of the time they were there. They both really enjoyed it. Lunch at the Café was great. Delicious food and a wonderful vibe – thanks to April and Mo for the recommendation! The kids marveled at the small TVs and my parents loved how authentic the decor, and the waitress/”mom” was.

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After lunch was the big thrill – Jedi Training Academy. Matilda got in her spot and got geared up to be trained in the ways of the Jedi. It was great and she loved it (even if she hid behind another kid when Darth Maul came out at the end)! It was one of her favorite experiences of the trip and she has been so excited to share the video and pictures with anyone who will listen.

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We caught MuppetVision 3D and The Great Movie Ride (the kids rode much of this with their heads down and ears covered due to the shooting and Alien scene) before we split up — Mark and Matilda had Fastpass for the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster — Madman, my parents and I to Lights, Motors, Action! which Madman gave 2 thumbs up. Mark and Matilda thought the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster was the best ride in any park by far and the only thing that could be deemed Cedar Point-worthy. Then we spent some time checking out all the Star Wars displays in Star Wars Launch Bay.

By then it time for us to see the Indiana Jones Stunt Show – which Matilda loved and Madman tolerated (too loud). By the time it ended it was dinner time and my parents headed back to the condo while we stayed for food and our Star Tours Fastpass time. We were nervous about Madman and Star Tours but he LOVED it (I, however, nearly lost my dinner). We didn’t think there were any fireworks that night but as we were buying a t-shirt on the way out of the park they started. So, we got to see the show set to Star Wars music before we left.

Stats: another 12 hour day and 8.75 miles walked in the parks. I was getting a decent blister on my foot.

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Friday: Epcot. My parents were headed home today so we said our goodbyes before heading off to Epcot. We “took it easy” this morning and didn’t arrive until about 9:00 am. Seriously – how can the kids walk that much, stay up at least an hour past normal bedtimes and still pop out of bed by 6:30 each morning? I was hoping to stay until the fireworks.

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We had Fastpasses for Turtle Talk, Spaceship Earth and Test Track along with dinner reservations at Via Napoli. When we entered a cast member offered to take our photo using our phone and then we spotted Pluto with a very short line and stopped for autographs and photos.

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From there we went to The Sea to ride Nemo & Friends. On the way we passed both Baymax AND Mickey both with short lines but the kids declined to meet them. We hopped right on Nemo and then 45 seconds into the ride it…stopped. After being stuck for about 10 minutes we were walked off and given paper Fastpasses to come back later. So, we checked out the aquarium for a bit before going to Mission: Space we crossed our fingers it wouldn’t terrify Madman. By the time we got on *I* was terrified because they warned us several times about motion sickness and the ride had barf bags. We all loved it (we rode green which doesn’t spin) and Madman is telling everyone that he drove a spaceship. While Mark and Matilda designed their own ride with Sum of All Thrills, Madman and I checked out Innovention. We used our Fastpasses for Turtle Talk (super cute) then went on Nemo which was working again. We stopped by The Land to rest while we rode the boat (Soarin’ was closed during our trip).

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Our lunch plans were to snack through the countries and we did just that. Starting with croughnuts (croissant doughnuts) outside of Canada then working through pastries in France, sushi and udon in Japan, and of course pretzels and beer in Germany. Man, I love Epcot.

Matilda got to play her first round of Agent P’s Adventure and it was SO COOL. This was her favorite thing at Epcot and Mark and I were smitten with it as well. We only saw a few other kids doing it and, for us, it was totally worth the time and was magical.

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After our loop we had to head back up to Spaceship Earth for (which Madman called the “Time Machine”) for our Fastpass. Then we did a spin through the Figment ride which is so cheesy and I loved it…the kids enjoyed the “hopping” fountain outside more than the ride.

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We had early dinner reservations in Italy so we had to walk back to that side of the lake. Dinner was wonderful – we all really enjoyed this meal and I was so glad to have reservations as people were being told it was an hour wait at 5:00. After dinner we headed up to the Test Track and, to our shock, Madman wanted to ride. We held our breath again and braced for a bad reaction to the fast part but once again he loved it. Another 2 thumbs up from him (the kid who had to be BRIBED to ride the Pooh ride at MK!). From there we still needed to ride the boat in Mexico (and get nachos and churros, natch). And the kids still had more stamps to collect from a few of the countries so we did ANOTHER loop around the lake, hitting Mexico first and stopping in China for another round of Agent P’s Adventure and then finding the Kidcot spots in each country.

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We got a spot for the fireworks between Canada and the path back to Future World. Of course it was crowded and of course Matilda had to use the bathroom 3 minutes before the show started. And, honestly? It wasn’t worth us staying… I remember IllumiNations being amazing but we were totally underwhelmed by the show this time. Bummer.

However, Epcot is where we finally found Rey pins after literally looking in dozens of shops in Disney Springs, Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. So – good job, Epcot… you’ve always been my favorite!

Stats: The crowd was predicted to be 6/10 and I think that was right. We somehow managed a third day of 12+ hours and walked a ridiculous 14 miles. I was shocked the kids were still upright.

Saturday: Animal Kingdom. We were all feeling the previous 3 days today. Animal Kingdom was on the agenda and our rough plan was to spend a half day there. We had no Fastpasses and hoped to get there early enough to ride Kilimanjaro and Everest early then just roam. When we walked in we asked a Disney photographer to take a family shot of us on my phone. Right before he did the Winged Encounter show took place and dozens of macaws swarmed overhead… very unexpected and very cool.

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We were able to get on the safari with a very short wait and the kids loved seeing all the animals. Then Mark and Matilda went to ride Everest while Madman and I rode the train to Conservation Station. Then we switched off and I rode Everest with Matilda while Mark and Madman played in the Boneyard playground. We were bummed to find Discovery Island Trails closed so we couldn’t check out the Tree. And the kids didn’t want to see any shows (like It’s Tough to be a Bug). So we grabbed some lunch and then waited in line for Dinosaur! which was way, way more intense then we expected but the kids liked it (1 thumb up from Madman).

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After that we headed home where the kids were thrilled to get some pool time. After dinner Matilda and I rented a boat and Madman won a ton of tickets in the arcade… his prize? Fake teeth. Everyone had a good Epsom salt soak in the giant tub and we were all in bed by 8:30.+

Final sats: 7 miles and we were all exhausted.

Sunday, our last day, back to Magic Kingdom: I was determined to see the fireworks at Magic Kingdom since we didn’t stay the first night. Matilda still had to ride Space Mountain and Mark hadn’t had a chance to ride Thunder Mountain. I hadn’t set up any Fastpasses for this day and was surprised to snag morning times for Space Mountain, the Speedway and Buzz Lightyear at the last minute. We decided to get there when the park opened at 8 so we could do all three rides, then head home for a disco nap and some pool time before heading back at 7 for fireworks.

IMG_0924Magic Kingdom is nearly empty at 8 am on an Sunday!

We got there before the opening ceremony again (and had rockstar parking again) and headed right to Space Mountain where Mark and I took turns riding with Matilda while Madman had 2 more chances to cruise on the People Mover. There were no lines for anything in Tomorrowland but we skipped the Speedway and Buzz Lightyear since we had fast passes for later in the morning. We headed back to Thunder Mountain but stopped to say hello to Rafiki on the way. Madman and I took another trip through an empty Swiss Family Treehouse and while the others rode; we took the train back to Fantasyland where I forced everyone to ride Dumbo with me. The kids were more impressed with the play area in the line.

When we got back to Tomorrowland for our Fastpasses and discovered I accidentally got passes for 8:30, 9:30 and 10:15 PM instead of AM. DOH! We ended up waiting for 30 min for the Speedway and skipped the Buzz ride since the line was 45 min. I was so mad, since we could have walked right on to each ride after riding Space Mountain that morning. But, while in line for the Speedway I was able to get lunch reservations at the Jungle Navigation Co., recommended by Jen so all was not lost. Mark and Matilda rode the Haunted Mansion while Madman and I went through the Swiss Family Treehouse again and then caught some of the Move It Shake It Parade by surprise. We danced with the Genie and Chip with Mickey right above us. Lunch was fantastic – by far the best food we had in the Magic Kingdom. On the way out of the park we snapped some castle pics and I scoped out good firework viewing locations. It was getting crazy crowded.

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Back at the condo we all napped for a bit then the kids swam for an hour in 68 degree weather while the locals were in parkas and scarves. We had dinner at home then packed up to head back to the park around 7. It had been chilly once the sun went down so we loaded up the coats and I finally remembered the dollar store glow necklaces. I also packed a beach towel to help save our fireworks spot.

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We arrived around 7:00 and Main Street was already packed with people for the electric light parade. Lots of Disney sites recommend the area in front of The Crystal Palace as a prime fireworks viewing location so I headed in that direction. It was already full with strollers and people so we walked around a bit and found that the walkway in front of the firework Fastpass viewing area was ideal. A place to sit, no one in front of you and a great view of the castle. At 7:15 there were only a few people there so I laid out the beach towel and Mark offered to sit while I took the kids to the Carousel of Progress. Then we switched off and he went to Sleepy Hollow for a waffle and hot chocolate.

ViewingSpotThis! This is a fantastic spot to watch the shows. A++ would do it again.

IMG_8798Just be prepared to stake your territory. A beach towel helps a ton.

We looked crazy, staking out our spot nearly 2 hours before the show but had a great spot to see most of the parade, and perfect view of Celebrate the Magic (the projection show on the castle) and Wishes fireworks. And since the area to our backs was a walkway kept clear by Cast Members, it never seemed too crowded. The view – well, it was amazing and the perfect end to our trip.

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Final stats on our last day in a park? 8.5 miles.
Overall stats including our first day at the French Quarter? 56 miles walked. Holy crap.

What Would I Do Differently?
My sister, a much bigger Disneyphile than I, has heard good things about this service and if we ever went back I think we’d use it or something similar. Without dedicating serious study and time to booking Fastpasses and reservations you end up ping-ponging back and fourth across the parks and I kept feeling like “there has to be a better way”. I used TouringPlans.com a ton to help plan before we left but honestly? I would pay the $250 for someone else to do the planning. It’s just so overwhelming – especially when this may be your ONLY Disney trip (we have no plans to go back in the next few years). We had Fastpasses for each day but they meant we were walking all over to get to the right rides at the right time. Anyway – when you’re spending a boatload just to get in the gate, another $250 for an expert to plan a custom itinerary that will reduce walking and waiting time? Money well spent in my opinion.

Take a bigger backpack. I had a decent size cross-body bag and Mark ended up carrying Madman’s drawstring backpack and we often wished for a bit more room for our stuff. Part of that was because the mornings and evenings were chilly so jackets were a must. Plus you can bring food and drinks in the parks so we were able to stash snacks and water bottles. Add sunscreen and sun hats, and a place to put the kids’ Mickey ears when they didn’t want them – a full size backpack would have been much better.

I’m not sure I would change anything else. Going in February meant great weather. It was chilly our first day and a few nights it was chilly after sunset but I’d prefer that to being hot. We had beautiful, sunny blue skies every day and crowds were low (except for Saturday and Sunday). I’m glad we hit each park early because the first hour or two were very very low crowds. It was nice to be able to zip through the parks and hop right on rides.

After reading about several people being late or frustrated with the Disney transportation I was happy to have our own car.

Other Stuff:
After reading so much about pin trading I got the kids lanyards and they picked out 2 pins to start out with when we got there. Madman refused to trade since he wanted to keep the pins he selected. Matilda only traded once and then she lost one of the pins we bought. So, I’m glad I didn’t invest in pins before we left like I contemplated.

We got a BubbleBum inflatable booster seat and it worked perfectly… easy to stash in my carry on while traveling and Madman loved it.

Finally… Disney, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!? All my girl wanted was a Rey t-shirt and a Rey pin. As I mentioned above we started looking right away – both at Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney) and at our resort. All the shirts we found were women’s and way too big for her. No one had the pin. Even at Hollywood Studios which is dripping with Star Wars… no Rey pins or kids shirts. We asked at several shops and most people looked at me like I was nuts for wanting Rey stuff. Finally one young cast member replied “it’s SO BAD right? So many people ask for kids shirts and we’ve totally missed the boat. She’s the STAR of the movie!” There were dozens of Kylo/Finn/Poe/BB8 shirts, toys and pins everywhere of course, but only two toys with Rey and no kids shirts to be found. I was SO EXCITED to finally find the pin at Epcot, of all places.

What the kids are getting for Christmas

I always get good ideas when others post their gift lists and I’ve also found that I’ve gone back on this blog to remember what we’ve given in previous years. As usual, we do “want/need/wear/read” as general gift categories.

Matilda, age 9:
Wear: bathrobe – mostly to wear at swim meets but I’m sure this will get a ton of use at home. This was surprisingly hard to find at a decent price so I was lucky to snag it during a half-off sale). And new sneakers.

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sneakers(photos from landsend.com and puma.com)

Read: Smile and Sisters – both by Raina Telgemeier. These were a hot item during the school book fair and I know she’ll love them.

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(photo from paperbackswap.com)

Need: a coveted swim team backpack – the Speedo Teamster 35-Liter which nearly as big as her and might actually hold all the stuff she needs for a swim meet (unlike her current bag: a free-promo duffle from our bank). And soccer cleats for the spring because her feet never stop growing, and I found them for $10 so under the tree they go.

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cleats(photos from speedo.com and puma.com)

Want: She wants a bed (“a REAL American Girl bed! not a Target one!”) for Hazel, the AG doll she got for her birthday quite badly. So when AG had a deal on this bed set I jumped on it.

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(photo from Americangirl.com)

Stocking: A Beanie Boo, chocolate coins, and ornament

From Madman: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Illustrated Edition

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(photo from behindthebloom.tumblr.com)

Madman, age 5.5:
Wear:
A bunch of long-sleeve tees since most of his are getting too small. I won’t list them all but I think I have 5 or 6 for him. Dinosaurs are on a many of them.

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(photo from Carters.com)

Read: I scored a bunch of  of books at the university bookstore at the end of summer clearance sale including some William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood series and Mark Kelly’s Mousetronaut series.

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(photos from Amazon)

Need: “Kids have feet that grow” is a theme this year so Madman is in need of new footwear, too. A pair of everyday boots from StrideRite and Puma sneakers fit the bill (or should I say foot?).

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(photos from strideritecom and puma.com)

Want: Madman’s been asking for a dinosaur robot forEVER. So when I found a killer deal on a Zoomer I jumped on it. We’ve had this since October and I can’t wait to give it to him.

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(photo from Amazon)

Stocking: A bat Beanie Boo that he’s been obsessed with since Halloween, chocolate coins, and ornament.

From Matilda: Playmobil sets including a dinosaur, a scientist, an alien, and a robot …all of Madman’s favorite things.

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(photos from Amazon)

JOINT GIFTS
We’re an Apple family through and through but when looking for something that can belong to the kids we decided the Kindle Fire deals were too good to pass up. We’re really impressed with the FreeTime controls, too. It’s all loaded and read to go when they open it.

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And, thanks to a giveaway by Mir at WantNot I won a Sphero SPRK and I’m SO EXCITED. I was thinking this would be a great gift for Matilda for her next birthday but there’s no way I can wait that long. This should be super fun for both kids.

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I feel like they are getting a TON of stuff this year but now that I see it all laid out like this I think it’s balanced between practical (clothes and shoes) and toys.

My First Hatch Chile Experience

Disclaimer: This post is part of Heinen’s campaign. I was given a gift card and cookbook in exchange for a post about Hatch Chiles. As always, my thoughts are 100% my own.

A few years ago I noticed people on social media talking about Hatch Chile season and I had no idea what they were talking about. Then last year I noticed Hatch Chiles at my local Heinen’s and inspected them with curiosity but never bought any. This year it was time to change that and try this seasonally celebrated food.
HatchAtHeinensHatch Chiles are grown only in Hatch, New Mexico and have short harvest season. The unique soil and growing conditions give the chile a complex flavor and culinary versatility that has produced a cult-like following. Tens of thousands of people make the trip to the fields of Hatch each year to take part in Hatch Chile festivals. Lucky for us, we just have to travel to the closest Heinen’s to take part in this annual taste tradition.

There are hot and mild varieties and I stuck to the mild. You can get them fresh and roast them yourself or buy them already roasted by the Heinen’s crew. I opted for this shortcut method although there are all kinds of instructions for roasting them at home, both indoors and out. Want to really get into the experience? Order a case from Heinen’s then watch them being roasted for you! This weekend is the final weekend for Hatch roasts at Heinen’s – roasts will be happening on September 11, 12 & 13 at the Mayfield Village (OH) store and the Barrington (IL) store.

If you are trying something new, incorporating it into a familiar thing is always the way to go. So the Hatch Chile Cornbread was my first recipe:
1 cup AP flour
¾ cup cornmeal
3 tablespoons sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup whole milk
¼ cup melted butter
½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
½ cup roasted Hatch chiles, stemmed, seeded and chopped (about 1 chile)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and grease a square pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients (flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt). In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, milk and butter. Add the wet mix to the dry mix all at once. Stir just until moistened (do NOT over stir!). Gently fold in the cheese and chopped Hatch chiles.

Pour into pan and make for 15-20 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool slightly before cutting into squares. Best consumed warm (if you’re me, while hovering over the kitchen sink!)
Recipe from Melissa’s Produce Hatch Chile Cookbook

You could likely shortcut this by stirring the ½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese and ½ cup chopped roasted Hatch chiles into a box of Jiffy Cornbread mix, too! A super easy way to spice up a weeknight meal.

Now that I had my first taste of Hatch Chiles I wanted more. Time for an entrée!

Chicken Chile Empanadas
Recipe from Melissa’s Produce Hatch Chile Cookbook

1 cup cooked chicken, dicked
1 cup shredded Jack cheese
4 roasted Hatch chiles, stemmed, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 1-lb package froze puff pastry, thawed
flour for dusting
1 egg, beaten
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.

Mix together the chicken, cheese, Hatch Chiles, garlic, cumin and salt. Refrigerate the mixture until you’re ready to assemble the empanadas (can be done up to one day in advance).

Unfold 1 sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured surface. Use a floured rolling pin to roll to a ¼ inch thickness. Use a 5-inch biscuit cutter (or bowl, or large drinking glass) to cut out circles of dough. Repeat with the second sheet of pastry.

Spoon 1 tablespoon of the chicken mixture on the center of each round. Lightly brush the edge of the pastry with the beaten egg and fold the dough in half, forming a half moon. Crimp the edges with a fork to seal.

Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and brush with the egg wash. Sprinkle lightly with the salt a pepper. Bake until golden brow, about 30 minutes. Serve warm.

—–
All I can say is that I am a fan. The chiles are sweet and smoky with a pleasant bitterness. The flavor is deep and complex with a unique earthiness; not as bright as a poblano, not as fiery as a jalapeno. Get yourself to Heinen’s and get some before they are gone!

Things I’ve Sprayed Lately

I realized lately that I’ve been buying a lot of empty spray bottles when I’m at Target. It seems like all of a sudden I’m DIYing all kinds of solutions for household tasks. It struck me as weird that this is my new unintentional obsession, and what’s a blog for if not sharing your weird obsessions?

Weed Killer
I live in Cleveland, in the watershed of Lake Erie so I try not to spray anything on our lawn and garden. Roundup® is especial evil as it’s active ingredients glyphosate and POEA are extremely toxic to aquatic life (not to mention that glyphosate has been classified as a probable carcinogen). So what do you do when you have a long flagstone front walkway that gets filled with weeds quickly? You switch up the chemicals to acetic acid +lauramine oxide + sodium chloride (i.e. vinegar, dish soap and salt)! The vinegar burns the plant leaves so it can’t produce food, the soap is a surfactant that helps the vinegar stick to the leaves until it does it’s job, and the salt kills off the roots

I tried a combination of vinegar, a few drops of dish soap and plain kosher salt. I heated it up in the microwave (to help the salt dissolve) and poured it into one of my spray bottles and soaked each joint of the walkway. Within 3 days everything was dead and those neat joints lasted about a month before I had to spray again. Don’t use too much salt as it will kill the soil microbial activity (soil microbes are a good thing!) but in the cracks of a sidewalk or driveway this shouldn’t be much of an issue. The best part? I had all the ingredients but even if I didn’t I would cost about $2 to make up a batch (compared to $20+ for the commercial stuff).


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IMG_6297After 3 days

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3 weeks after spraying with vinegar + soap + salt. No crack weeds!

Hard Surface Cleaner
A few months ago I set up some chores for Matilda to do on a regular basis. She has a little checklist for each task and can earn allowance by getting them done. One of the chores is cleaning the bathroom and seeing her spray those smelly cleaners had me searching for a better option. So I did a little googling and came up with this new chemical concoction which I feel better about her using.

– 2 cups hot water
– 1 tablespoon castile soap (we use Dr. Bronner unscented)
– 1/4 cup rubbing alcohol
– 10 drops antibacterial essential oil (tea tree, lemon, rosemary or peppermint)

In theory it kills germs but I can’t say for sure it really does. We use this in the bathroom and the kitchen and so far no one has gotten sick so we’re sticking with it. It’s still a spray cleaner so you have to be careful about breathing in the spray, but I feel better about my kids using this than I would having them use 409 (this may be foolish, but I will keep my head in the sand on this).

Bathtub Cleaner
Yes, I finally tried that Dawn + Vinegar thing that ‘s been floating around Pinterest for years and hot ham! it actually worked. Smelled horrible but the ring-around-the-tub line from the kids was gone without scrubbing. Mix 50/50 Dawn and hot vinegar in a spray bottle, spray on and let it sit for awhile, wipe or spray off.

Hair Conditioner
This one I didn’t make but bought, however you could make it. It’s apple cider vinegar and distilled water. Spray on your damp hair and comb through. I CANNOT believe how shiny and smooth my hair is. I’ve only been using it for a few days but the difference is noticeable. It seems the recipe is about 2-3 oz of ACV to 12-15 oz. of water. I bought this because it was $3 from soap maker in my neighborhood and I can refill the bottle on my own.

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Hotel Breakers at Cedar Point

Disclosure: As a #BloggingatCP blogger for Cedar Point my family stayed one night at the renovated Hotel Breakers and entered the park for free.  Food, travel and all other purchases were on my dime. As always, my thoughts are 100% my own.

I have lived in Ohio my whole life and an annual (or more!) trip to Cedar Point is a must. While I’ve been going there for decades I’ve always lived close enough to not necessitate an overnight stay. I recently learned that there is no reason to “need” to stay overnight when the accommodations are enough of an attraction to stand on their own.

When Cedar Point offered me a stay in the newly renovated Hotel Breakers I very literally gasped at the offer. Hotel Breakers has always been the fanciest place to stay near Cedar Point. The U.S. National Historic Landmark beachfront hotel has been there for 110 years and has always been “THE place” to stay when going to Cedar Point. In it’s heyday it hosted celebrities like John D. Rockefeller,  Hellen Keller and many US Presidents. I said yes immediately and started counting down the days to our trip.

The reason I was invited was to see the new renovations – 2 years in the making and the largest cost project ever at Cedar Point. The results are stunning.

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With an indoor pool, outdoor pool, zero-depth entry splash pool with watersides and the beach there is something for everyone. Plus each pool is watched by some of the most alert and attentive lifeguards I’ve ever encountered.

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The indoor pool was a good size, guarded and had plenty of chairs. Bonus – it overlooks the lake! IMG_6192

They each got 2 trips down the slide before the thunder started rumbling, sending us inside. This pool has 2 very alert guards and is enclosed by a fence. The opposite end is zero entry and has all kids of splash/spray stuff. 

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Lots of room on the beach to enjoy the sun and sand.

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Of course, there are two more lifeguards keeping watch over the Lake Erie swimming area.

If dry activities are more your thing there is an arcade, fire-pits overlooking the lake, a bar with views of the beach, lots of lounge chairs and rocking chairs . Plus tons of eating options including an ice cream shop serving delicious, local Toft’s ice cream, and a full-service Starbucks.

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With the storms keeping us inside, we had lots of time to explore the hotel. We found this great ice cream parlor tucked away near the doors to the outdoor pool area.

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When your kids are up before 7:00 AM no matter what, you are some of the first guests at the on-site Perkins restaurant

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View from Starbucks on Sunday morning.
Lake Erie was angry that day and the rain was pouring down.

Guests staying at all Cedar Point resorts get early entry into Cedar Point, discounted tickets, free shuttle service, and free parking. From Hotel Breakers you can enter the park at the beach entrance – a 2 minute walk with no lines, no crowds. Due to the thunderstorms the weekend we stayed we didn’t get to take advantage of these options but it would make for a very easy trip. Plus the early entry would mean getting to ride a number of rides before there are any crowds! That is worth a lot.

The rooms are playful with punches of red in the decor and the best headboards around. The desk chairs are so cute I was looking at the bottom to see who made them because I want to buy them for our kitchen table.

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A seagull nest was right outside our window and the kids checked on the bird constantly. 

But what really stood out throughout the whole hotel was the family-friendly attention to detail:

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The area near the front desk has tons of seating and the kids immediately started making faces in the fun-house mirrors on the wall. It made checking in so easy to have them entertained nearby. 

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The rooms have a dorm-sized fridge with a real freezer – an unexpected bonus – plus a microwave and shelves to stash snacks. I loved this set-up.

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This seems so silly but this drying rack in the bathroom MADE MY DAY. We are always draping wet suits and bath towels all over the bathroom when we’re at hotel and they get in the way. I have been know to travel with those Command removable hooks just to have a place to hang wet swim gear. Having a bathroom with plenty of hooks is a DREAM.

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We got to say goodnight to Snoopy, who was dressed for bed himself.

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The room had plenty of space for the 4 of us and our stuff. It was very comfortable. 

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I think she was excited to ride. Too bad the storms meant we couldn’t go the following morning.

Mark and I also really enjoyed the attention to detail they took when renovating and decorating. As owners of our second 100-year old home we could appreciate the craftsmanship and care they took in the work of updating the historic Hotel Breakers. From the beautiful stained glass in the entry to the often-photographed rotunda. Everything was well done and well cared for. We also enjoyed the artwork – nostalgic photos of the park’s 145-year history.

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We went back to the park to ride 2 weeks after our stay and I found myself wishing we had booked a room for the night on this very hot day. Even so, we had a great time as always:

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After 2 Cedar Point trips with him refusing to ride anything but the CP & LE Railroad it was fun to watch him ride a few things this year.

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 I can’t leave the park without taking this pictureIMG_6345

Checking out the view of Hotel Breakers from the top of the Giant WheelIMG_6336

She has refused to even think about riding the Gemini ever since her first time in 2013 that included the train stopping while going up the first hill. After a little bribery (I promised to ride the Pipe Scream with her) she conquered her fear and declared the Gemini “the best ride ever”. 
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Madman and I spent some time in the (air conditioned) Town Hall Museum in Frontier Town while Matilda and Mark rode the Mine Ride. It was there that we found this great Gemini photo set up.

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It was Matilda’s idea to recreate this shot to copy the artwork from the Hotel Breakers bathroom.

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THIS is how you end a 95 degree day at Cedar Point.
Which leads me to my #1 Cedar Point tip: ALWAYS bring a complete change of clothes, including shoes, for every person!

The Monday-est of Mondays

Scene: Monday morning. 7:20 AM. First day of camp and our summer schedule, which has us leaving about 45 minutes earlier than the school year. Includes me driving another kid to camp.
Internal monolog in italics.

  • [Up early, backpacks packed, kids eating breakfast. I go to load the car about 30 minutes before we leave.] “New schedule, I OWN YOU.”
  • “Hmmmm, my keys aren’t on the hook. Must be in my purse”
  • “Um, where is my purse? Not on the hook, did I leave it on the table?” “OMG DID IT GET STOLEN LAST NIGHT?!?!”
  • “Calm down, Kate. No one broke in to the house and took only your purse then locked up behind them. You last had it at the hardware store yesterday. Where is it? Let’s see… when you came home you went right into the garage to glaze windows….oh crap! It’s in the car!”
  • [Walking out to car, which is parked in driveway] “Please let it be there, oh please oh please.”  “YAY there is is!”
  • [Goes to open door] “CRAP! LOCKED!! NOOOOOO!”
  • “Ok ok, it has this nifty keyless entry button… maybe that will work” [tries both front doors] “SH*T”
  • [texts Mark to tell him I’m an idiot]
  • [texts mom of car pool kid to tell her I’m an idiot]
  • [calls police to ask if they can help – they can and they will be there “soon”]
  • [text Mark to say he doesn’t have to come home with his key after all]
  • [flurry of texts – girls will get to camp thanks to other kid’s dad who has the week off. whew!]
  • [25 minutes later the cops arrive] “Hooray! we’ll be out of here in a few seconds!”
  • [10 minutes pass]
  • Madman thinks it’s the coolest thing ever that a cop is outside and the squad car is in our driveway so he digs out his old police car toy

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  • Cop: “Ma’am, I can’t seem to get it unlocked. There’s an anti-theft bar blocking the tool. I’ve called for backup and a different tool”
  • [2 more cops arrive, they fuss with car] “This does NOT look promising” 
  • [Mark texts to say he’s coming home anyway because the A/C in his office is broken. He’s on the train already]
  • [car is still not open] “Sir, my husband is on his way home with the extra key. You can stop trying. Thanks so much for coming over to help” [cops leave]
  • [about 10 minutes pass] “I should go check to see if they damaged anything while they were trying to unlock it”
  • [sees a few small scratches. Tries door handle just for fun. IT OPENS. Car alarm blares] “WUT?!?! OMG IT’S OPEN” 
  • [flurry of texts to Mark. he’s almost home. dangit!]
  • [pick him up at train stop and drop him at home]
  • [take Madman to daycare, nearly get hit head-on by an F150 speeding the wrong way down Courtland Blvd] “Are you freaking KIDDING ME WITH THIS DAY RIGHT NOW?!”
  • [text from Mark. He forgot about a meeting downtown so he has to go back. I feel terrible] “OH COME ON, MONDAY!”
  • [realize I have a Starbucks gift card in my purse and if any day needs a venti iced double dirty chai it’s today]

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End Scene

Garden Local with Petitti + a Giveaway! #ad

Disclaimer: This post is part of a Petitti’s campaign. I was given a gift card to use for myself and one to give away in exchange for a post about my experience. As always, my thoughts are 100% my own. Since I was already a Petitti’s customer, I was happy to be a part of this campaign. 

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Update: Congratulations to Jennifer – winner of the gift card!

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Last month Matilda and I were lucky enough to get a tour of Petitti Garden Center’s Casa Verde, in Columbia Station. This massive greenhouse operation is where 98% of the live product sold at Petitti is grown. NINETY EIGHT PERCENT! It means that every plant you buy from Petitti is already acclimated to our climate (hello 80 degrees one day and 45 the next!) because they were grown from seed right here. In fact, Petitti is one of the only area growers that takes the plants through 3 stages of growing (in different greenhouses) before deeming them ready for purchase. During high growing season they have as many of 100,000 hanging baskets at Casa Verde – it’s truly amazing to see!

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Casa Verde is also where they do things like mix their custom blends of potting and planting soils, and assemble and plant their beautiful planters that are ready for your porch.

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During our tour we got to hear Angelo Petitti’s story of how he immigrated to the US from Italy when he was 16, started his business and grew it to 9 stores plus a 32-acre greenhouse which employes up to 400 people during peak season. I have always known that Petitti was a family-owned operation but hearing his story and seeing the facility was eye opening. I always like to shop as local as possible and it was great to see “behind the scenes” of a robust local company.

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As part of the visit we were given a gift card to start our garden for this year (and some awesome Troy-Bilt garden tools – also a local company!). This past weekend Matilda and I were finally able to hit up the original Petitti Garden Center in Oakwood for our plants. We were after some tomatoes and herbs to fill our patio pots of for the summer. Our yard gets a lot of shade, the soil is a terrible clay, and our neighbor has a black walnut tree so growing veggies in the ground is nearly impossible. So we make due with a hodgepodge of pots on the back patio.

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Matilda picked what we were planting this year – lots of cherry tomatoes (the kids snack on these right off the vine when they are playing outside), some big heirloom tomatoes, cilantro, basil, rosemary and mint. She was also pretty excited to pick up several bags of Petitti’s soil since we saw it being mixed and bagged at Casa Verde. We added a bag of organic vegetable fertilizer and some compost to the cart before we checked out.

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Once we got home she declared the planting her project. With just a little guidance from me she filled up all 6 pots with soil and plants. She might have more of a green thumb than I do!

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Do you have a garden project you want to tackle? A black thumb you want to turn green? I have a $50 Petitti’s gift card to give away and it could be yours! To enter leave a comment about what you would buy with $50 at Petitti’s. For an extra entry tweet the following: I want to win a @Petittis gift card from @kakaty #Pettitis: http://wp.me/p3i9i6-Pa 

Limit 2 entries per person (one comment + one tweet). This giveaway will run until Monday, May 25th at 11:59 pm. Good luck!   Giveaway is closed.