Harry Potter Party, Part 1 – The Decor

We do birthday parties every other year and in 2015 it was party year for Matilda. She had a few ideas and options but her love for all things Harry Potter won and we decided to have a Prisoner of Askaban party for her 9th birthday.

Why am I posting about it now? Well, for 3 reasons: I started drafting the posts 2 years ago and never finished; at her 11th birthday party last week (a tame, themeless sleepover) one of her friends commented on how that HP party was still the best party she’d ever attended; a friend of mine was asking about HP party ideas. So, I’m dusting off the old blog and finishing off these drafts.

Being a type-A former event planner I made her finalize her decision in August so I’d have 2 months to plan. Once she made her choice I was off to the internet for ideas. There are SO MANY ideas! It was hard to narrow it down. This post will be mostly about the decorations and details that were all prepared in the 60 days leading up to the party. The party itself will be a second post. I’ll link to where I found ideas and printables, but I found that many people claimed the same item as their own. If you are the rightful owner of something and I have linked something incorrectly please let me know.

Invitations
I decided to do something myself here although you can buy very realistic-looking custom invitations on Etsy. After getting inspiration from some other people I came up with this invitation. When printed on plain beige 5×7 invitations from Michael’s they looked great.

Invite

Of course we sealed these with the proper red wax and an “H’ stamp for Hogwarts (purchased at Michael’s). I will note that I did have to follow-up with an email to the parents as a few families not familiar with Harry Potter were a touch confused. 

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Potions
As soon as Matilda picked Harry Potter as the theme I knew we’d be doing a potions class, so I set out collecting interesting jars and bottles. I got some at IKEA and the Libbey Glass outlet in Toledo while we traveled this summer. Some were saved from the recycling bin and I got very luck that “potions” seems to be a big theme for Halloween these days. I found great apothecary-type jars in the dollar spot at Target and found some perfect colored jars with labels for 60% off at Michael’s.

To label the plain jars I again scored in the Target dollar spot with some chalkboard bottle hangers. I also found this terrific printable – by far the best of what I found online – and had it printed in full color on cardstock at my work copy center (cost: 15 cents). I cut them out and adhered them to the jars with good old Modge Podge. One layer to stick it on, then 2 layers to seal them. They looked so good! Once I got going it was hard to stop.

Crafty

The fun part was filling them up with witchy-looking things. Some of them would be used in potions class so they had to be the ingredients I needed. The other ones were just stuff pulled from my spice rack, garden and pantry. I did ZERO research on what each potion really was… I just looked for things that would be visually pleasing on the shelf. So, please, no comments about how wrong these are.

potions

Draught of the living dead: fruit snacks covered with corn syrup. The kids LOVED this one and had no idea what it was. Since the fruit snacks had been soaking for a few days they got really swollen and translucent.

Bone dust: borax (to be used in an experiment)

Flesh-eating poison: water, green & yellow food coloring, oil. This looked really cool in person – like a lava lamp.

Wolfshane potion: water and loose-leaf raspberry tea

potions2

Spider juice: Dawn dish soap with a few rubber spiders floating in it (to be used in an experiment).

Veritaserum: cherry juice (I know, I know, it’s supposed to be clear, colorless, and odorless but that looks boring)

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Beetle eyes: chia seeds

Beguiling Bubbles: Clairoxide 40 Volume Clear Liquid Developer (concentrated hydrogen peroxide needed for an experiment)

Felix Felicis – Smarties candies in water with food coloring. Again these were a favorite because after soaking the water the candy got all bubbly and fuzzy.

Pepperup Potion – food coloring (to be used in an experiment)H.

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Skele-grow – cornstarch with plastic bones from the dollar store thrown in.

Wartcap powder – dry yeast (needed for experiment).

Essence of Dittany – some decorative grass clippings in water with a drop of yellow food coloring.

Wool of Bat – empty (the bottle is black and you can’t see the contents).

potions5Bezoar – I was going to try to make something that looked like a real bezoar with hair and stones but it was easier to throw in some dollar store eyeballs with a string of LED lights (Target dollar spot).

As luck would have it, the built-in shelves in our dining room make for a perfect place to set up all the goods for potions class. I added some “creepy cloth”, more spiders and eye balls (all from dollar store Halloween decor) along with some LED candles and lights and it looked pretty awesome.

PotionsShelf

Entrance
For the party entrance we have a double front door/vestibule which lent itself PERFECTLY to Platform 9 3/4. Mark made a fantastic Platform 9 3/4 sign for the outer door, and I found this brick backdrop on Amazon for the inner door.  It is an enormous roll of material like a plastic party tablecloth. I taped it up on the inner doorway then cut a slit down the middle. The effect was that of walking through the wall to the Hogwarts Express – the kids LOVED it!

HogwartsExpress
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We added a couple more touches to the outside (and IKEA lamp and a whomping willow sign) to make for a magical scene as the guests arrived.

Entrance

Dementors
Since Dementors play such a big role in Prisoner of Askaban we decided we needed one for the party. It took the form of a piñata so the wizarding guests could destroy it. I googled around for info on making a paper bag piñata, filled it with Harry glasses, some HP goodies, and of course, some galleons, sickles and knuts (since we were doing candy at the end of the party, I didn’t want a candy piñata). I draped the bag with that dollar store “creepy cloth”, added some dollar store halloween hands and we had a Dementor on which we could practice our defensive charms. Expecto Patronum!

Dementor

Have You Seen This Wizard?
One of the Askaban-related party activities was getting a mug shot taken like Sirius Black. So Mark used a movie image as a guide to make up our own “Have You Seen This Wizard?” poster (this is where having an artist spouse husband comes in handy). He just used black sharpie on a gold foam-core board. Cut out the center and boom! Poster (and party activity complete).

WantedSign

Bathroom
We couldn’t let the theme fizzle out for bathroom breaks. So I found a movie image of Moaning Myrtle, had it color-printed as large as I could and she kept the guest company in the loo.

Bathroom

Hogwarts Castle’s Great Hall
This was the most fun and the thing the kids talked about the most. It took some work and investment but the impact was really great. I got a dozen taper LED candles from IKEA, strung them up with fishing line, and hung them at various heights from clear Command hooks. It honestly was the most time consuming part of decorating and I was ready to give it up, but the end effect was so terrific that I’m glad I did it.

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Hogwarts Great Hall: pre-party

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Hogwarts Great Hall: after dinner

That’s it for today – the next post will be about the party itself! Happy wizarding!

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No Other Country Lets This Happen

Gun control shouldn’t be a political debate. It SHOULD be common sense. And yet, here we are yet again. No talk. No debate. No common sense discussion about the glut of guns in our communities and the ease of access to them. Just thoughts and prayers. And the words: “the shooter…has been identified as… a white male”*.

Gun control shouldn’t be a political debate. But it IS a public health issue. And yet our government can’t even track and research gun deaths (estimated to be among the top 5 causes of death for Americans under the age of 65).

It’s sick and I’m so tired of “thoughts and prayers” and “but there are good guys with guns!” and the rest of the nonsense. And don’t tell me not to politicize the issue right now. Gun control shouldn’t be a political debate, but it is… always has been.

Yes, the right to bear arms is a constitutional right (as part of a “well regulated militia”, but we tend to overlook those words). But, just like the right to free speech, it is not an unlimited right. There are regulations on free speech, so why not robust regulations on bearing arms?

We live where efficient killing machines are able to be had on a whim. Where a person can stockpile these weapons and ammo. A place where ONE MAN can kill 59 and injure 500+ more in the span of 8 minutes or less. ONE MAN.

We regulate everything from driving to drinking to buying cold medicine.

Lawn darts injured 6000 people in 8 years, and killed one. We banned them.

Drop-side cribs caused 32 deaths over 10 years. We banned them.

KinderEgg chocolates have caused 3 deaths in other countries. We banned them.

Every day, 93 Americans are killed with guns – and we do nothing. And when we TRY to do something (like, make it harder for people with mental illnesses to purchase a gun), it gets revoked to score political points with the NRA.

For the last 4 years, on December 14 I write my congress-people to ask for the following things, which I think are “common sense” regulations on the right to bear arms:
– Limit the size of large capacity ammunition clips, and create a database to track all purchases of ammunition (similar to database used to track the sale of pseudoephedrine-containing products).
– Require a criminal background check, mental health screening** and mandatory waiting period for anyone to buy a gun, eliminating gun show and private-sale loopholes.
– Mandate spousal/ex-spousal notification before a gun can be legally obtained (similar to Canadian gun laws) and maybe reduce the horrific number of domestic abuse deaths in this country.
– Institute a gun-ownership purchase permit and license that requires the passing of a test and annual renewal of your license (similar to drivers licenses and license plate renewal).
– Require legal gun owners to secure their weapon and safeguard against theft and misuse (and maybe reduce the 200+ children who unintentionally shoot themselves or others each year).

I keep going back what British journalist Dan Hodges said in 2015: “In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was all over”

But I keep calling, I keep writing. This week I’ve called and emailed my congresspeople asking them to oppose the GOP-sponsored SHARE Act moving through Congress that would that would deregulate gun silencers.

I will continue to make my plea on the anniversary of Sandy Hook that we do SOMETHING, ANYTHING. I will continue to hope that our elected officials act like the public servants they are and stop offering prayers and condolences as if they were a corner preacher.

—–

*I would be remiss if I didn’t point out all the ways this particular, and all, white terrorists are described in the media by their “virtues” while any victim or suspect of color is described by any vices the media can dig up.

**I am very aware that most domestic terrorists do NOT have a diagnosed mental illness. And in calling their acts “crazy” or implying that they are mentally ill only further stigmatizes the mentally ill. However, as nearly 2/3 of gun deaths in the US are suicides, I maintain that by screening for mental health issues before purchasing a firearm we could reduce the number of people who take their own lives.

Pizza Pie

Pizza night is a sacred tradition in our house. We used to order delivery, but got tired of the mediocre offerings in our area. Then, a few years ago we discovered the bliss of wood-fired pizza and made a weekly trek to one our favorite local spots: Citizen Pie – best pie and the best people – great for when we just want a mind-blowingly delicious pizza and nothing else, Bigga – another unreal pizza, for when we have time for a drive and/or want more the of the full restaurant experience, or Vero – fantastic pies for when we don’t feel like leaving our neighborhood.

But then I got laid off from my job and eating out got cut from the budget. So, homemade pizzas became our new Saturday night tradition. I make enough dough so that all four of us can add exactly the toppings we want. Me being me, I started on a quest to find the best dough and that’s what I want to share with you.

I started with Annie’s Eats Perfect Homemade Pizza Dough. This is a solid dough, it can be made the day you want pizza, and it handles easily. You can make it ahead and freeze the dough balls which is helpful. I’ve made it a few times with decent success, and I would make it again if I wanted pizza within a few hours. But the crust lacked something… I think we were missing some of the chew and bubbles of a wood-fired pizza. Now, I know I’ve never going to get close to a fired pizza in my oven, but I was looking for something more.

I moved on to Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Pizza Dough, using the Serious Eats notes and video as a guide. This dough was better – it had more oomph, it was bubbly and crisp, but it was a HUGE pain to shape. I made this three times and I struggled each time with the shaping, often ending up with one of the 4 dough balls in the trash after too many failed shaping attempts. It would just get too thin in the center and rip, no matter how I rested or babied it.

After I gave up on the Lahey dough, I searched out a dough on Kitchn and ended up with their thin crust recipe. I tried it both ways – baking it the day it was made after letting it double, and letting it rest overnight and baking it about 24 hours after it was mixed. It was a dependable dough, much like the Annie’s Eats version. I wasn’t too difficult to work with  and shaping was easy. But, again, it just lacked something. I was good but not WOW.

So, back to the internet I went and this time I searched King Arthur Flour’s site for recipes. It was there I found their riff on Lahey’s recipe – Artisan No-Knead Dough and, almost more importantly the accompanying post with photos. I doubled the recipe so I would have four dough balls and let it sit for about 20 hours before doing the stretch and fold to redistribute the yeast. And, based on the step-by-step post and recipe comments, I was generous with the flour and the handling of the dough. After the 2nd short rise shaping the dough was a dream. I have a gas oven so I couldn’t bake it with the broiler like she suggests, but it didn’t matter. It was perfect!

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The dough was crisp and bubbly, it had a great chew and perfect flavor. She says you can let it do a slow rise in the refrigerator after the initial 24-hour rise. I hope to try that next week as it seems a 3-4 day rise would just up the flavor ante.  After several attempts, I think I have found my One True Pizza Dough. It’s not that dreamy wood-fired pizza that I can get at a pizza place, but it’s good enough that I can’t wait for pizza night.

 

 

What the kids are getting for Christmas 2016

It seems I have a habit of posting about the kids Christmas gifts as a way for me to keep a family record, so why give up now (even though I barely post here any more)? I’m a sucker for year-to-year comparisons (2015 here, 2014 here, 2013 here… there are posts from 2011 and 2010, too but all the links and photos are broken); and I do love seeing what other people buy their kids.

To refresh we do “want/need/wear/read” as general gift categories, plus gifts from siblings.

Matilda, age 10 (4th grade) – this age is SUPER hard… still wants some toys but also wants clothes and more expensive items.

Want: She is forever checking out all the clothing every time we are at any department store. So, she has been wanting this dress for months. I happened to score it on clearance a few weeks ago and I know she’ll be thrilled.

targetdressGirls’ Crochet Peasant – Xhilaration

Need: She is in desperate need of new swim suits for swim team practice. And since I’m too cheap to buy an official team suit, she also wanted a better meet suit (this is the first year she’s cared that she doesn’t have an all-black suit for meets). So, I hit the cybermonday SwimOutlet.com sale and got a practice suit, a meet suit and several pairs of goggles (see stocking) for less than the cost of a single official team suit. Boring but necessary.

swimsuit

Wear: We are officially in the age of Justice. I have mixed feelings about this. But I let her create a wishlist on the site and got her some of the leggings she wants. Then I went to Target and got some of their fleece-lined Cat & Jack ones, too. Because all of her pants and leggings are suddenly about 3 inches too short. Between this and what she’s getting from grandparents she’ll be set with a weeks worth of pants now.

leggins

Radiant print 4-way stretch legging

Read: She wants ALL THE BOOKS. But I narrowed it down to just a few. Raina Telgemeier is still one of her favorite authors so she’s getting Ghosts and Drama (although I think she’s read Ghost at school already – doesn’t matter as she will read Telgemeier books over and over). She’s also getting Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm.

books

From Madman: Matilda, at age 10, is suddenly obsessed with Shopkins. I thought we had successfully cleared the age of tiny toys, but no. He is getting her 2 packs of these ridiculous things that will be quickly lost.

shopkin

Stocking: Goggles plus bungee straps (you can never have enough goggles when you lose them all the time), a bunch of lip gloss/balm (there were a ton of BabyLips on clearance at our drug store), a travel Spirograph, and chocolates.

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Madman, age 6.5 (1st grade)

Want: LEGO Star Wars Special Forces Tie Fighter. More LEGO is always on his list, add in Star Wars and you have a winner. He’s been asking for this for months!

tiefighter

Need: I wasn’t sure what to get for this category but then last week his lunchbox started to fall apart. New lunchbox it is! Bonus that I already had a credit at LLBean.

lunchboxLLBean Lunch Box

Wear: I’ve been picking up a few tees when I find them on sale. A good thing since all the long-sleeve tees I pulled out of storage are way too small. I think there are 4-5 shirts plus 2 more pair of the Cat & Jack reinforced-knee pants.

shirt

Read: He loves FlyGuy books and anything Star Wars or PokĂ©mon, so he’s getting a variety of those options. (Side note: my sister got him the PokĂ©mon Deluxe Essential Handbook and I know it will be his favorite as he’s been begging for it since his school’s book fair).

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From Matilda: More LEGO!

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Stocking: Goggles, Pokémon cards, Shrinky Dinks, superhero band-aids, and chocolates.

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Root Beer Floats – A Summer Food Memory with Heinen’s

Disclaimer: This post is part of Heinen’s #SummerWithHeinens campaign. I was given a gift card in exchange for a post about my summer food memories. As always, my thoughts are 100% my own.

It’s the first week of August. How did THAT happen?? I swear this summer flew by. But I’m determined to soak up the summer vibe as long as I can, and sipping a float is one way I’ll do it. And as luck would have it, today (August 6) is National Root Beer Float Day.

I have such fantastic memories of making root beer floats with my Busia. I used to stay with her for a week or two every summer and one of my favorite parts of each stay was the evenings when we’d have some sort of cold treat as she gossiped with her neighbor and I caught fireflies. Some nights we’d have Fudgsicles, but the best nights are when we had root beer floats.

We each had our idea of the perfect float – I crammed my glass with ice cream and topped it with a bit of root beer. She’d fill her glass partway with soda then add a small scoop of vanilla. Either way, straws and long spoons were a must – it was a treat I rarely had at home so I savored every sip. Every year I have a float on her birthday in her memory.

So when my favorite local grocery store, Heinen’s, contacted me to be part of their #SummerWithHeinens campaign it was perfect timing. When they asked about a cherished summer food memory; I immediately thought of those evenings sipping root beer floats with my Busia and my brain started buzzing with ideas on how to expand on the idea of a float. Armed with some delicious, local Mitchell’s ice cream and a variety of bubbly drinks from Heinen’s I got to work.

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First up
 a classic float along with a hard root beer float. This isn’t a new concept but I was eager to try the classic with a grown-up twist. For the classic we used Maine Root’s root beer and we grabbed some Not Your Father’s Root Beer for the adult version (both of which you can get single bottles at Heinen’s!). Both were perfect – creamy and sharp, full of foam and bubbles.

rootbeer

From there we decided to try a creamy oatmeal stout with vanilla ice cream. Beer + ice cream = an interesting mix. We used Hoppin’ Frog B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher Oatmeal-Imperial Stout. I’m not a big beer drinker so this was my least favorite combo. Mark liked it okay, but thought a milk stout would be a better pairing. One thing is for sure, good vanilla ice cream is a must here!

oatmealstout

Then we tried out a variation on a root beer float, a Boston Cooler (which is named for Detroit’s Boston Boulevard, not the town in MA). Simply swap your root beer for ginger ale (some say it MUST be the original ginger ale – Vernor’s). And, if you want, rather than scooping and pouring over the soda, you can blend this one in a blender. Either way, the sharp ginger pairs delightfully with the smooth vanilla – both whiskey and rum go very nicely in this if you want an adult beverage. We made one with Vernor’s and one with Boylan Ginger Ale. Both were a refreshing twist on the the root beer but we thought the Boylan was a bit to sharp; the creamy Vernor’s paired better with the vanilla ice cream.

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And finally, of you want to go pinkies-up fancy may I suggest a French 75 float? You want to make this, trust me. The French 75 is a classic cocktail with made with gin, Champagne, lemon juice and sugar. What’s not to love? You can make this a fun summer treat by swapping the lemon juice and sugar with a homemade lemon sorbet. (Or, take a short cut with Heinen’s Two Brothers 100% fruit sorbet.)

Lemon Sorbet
1 c. water
1 c. sugar
1 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice (yes, it must be fresh and not bottled!)
2 tablespoons lemon zest

Over medium heat combine the water and sugar in a saucepan and boil until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add lemon zest; allow syrup to cool. Stir in the lemon juice, pour mixture into the bowl of an ice cream maker. Churn according to manufacturer instructions. When the sorbet has frozen into ice crystals (it will still be very soft), transfer to a storage container, cover tightly and freeze at least overnight or until ready to serve.

French 75 Float
Add one scoop of your lemon sorbet to a flute, add 1 oz. of your favorite gin, top with champagne and garnish with a lemon wedge. (I bet you could apply this concept to a bellini – make or buy a peach sorbet and top with prosecco!)

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CycleBar Addict

Back in March I was contacted about trying a free class at new fitness chain opening in Beachwood called CycleBar. At the time I was 2 months into a new fitness and eating plan and was game to try ANYTHING new. I was already doing Barre3 at home and was looking for more vigorous cardio, so it was perfect timing. I also figured it would be good to have friends around in case I died on the bike, so I recruited a couple of people to go with me for the trail run.

IMG_9005Emily and Kelly sweated it out with me on that first ride

After that first class (I didn’t die) I signed up for a few more classes since they were doing 2 weeks of free classes to kick off their grand opening. My plan was to try 2 weeks of classes for free and if I didn’t love it at the end I wouldn’t be out anything.

Spoiler: I LOVED it.

IMG_9894Seriously… LOVED. IT.

Since that first free class I’ve been to about 50 classes and I look forward to each one. I have done “indoor cycling” before but something about CycleBar just works for me in a way no other class or location has. The provided shoes, the water and water bottles, the music, and the facilities – it all just makes it easy and clicks for me; I actually crave my rides (I aim to get there 3-4 times each week). But the two things that make me work harder and keep coming back? The instructors and the stats.

I’ve been to a class with most of the instructors and like them all – I have never had a bad class. But I have 2 favorites and I try to make to each of their classes at least once a week: LaShawn and Lisa. Both are very different in their class style and music choices; but both leave me spent and wondering how 50 minutes have passed. They pick great music, the push HARD, and they are just fun.

IMG_0106This is LaShawn. She will kick your ass but also leave you smiling.

And the stats
.oh the stats! Anyone who knows me in real life knows I’m a bit competitive. (And come on, you KNOW you are always silently competing with others in your mind when you’re at the gym. Just admit it.) So the stats make me push harder. At first I was determined to be in the top half of the class. Soon I wanted to be in the top 3. Now, if I’m not #1 I crank up the gear and ride as hard as I can. I like that I can look back and see how I’ve improved, or see the proof of a hard ride even if I felt I could have done better.

IMG_0345My first CycleBar Class

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My 3 most recent classes

To be honest, seeing that first-place ranking makes fist-pump in my car. Plus, CycleBar has helped me lose more than 70 pounds.

I think the biggest part of exercising for anyone is finding something you love doing. For me, CycleBar is that thing.

*This post was in no way sponsored or requested by Beachwood CycleBar. I was told about the free rides they were hosting as part of their grand opening, however those were open to anyone and I received no special treatment. Since that time I have paid for all rides myself.

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 CafĂ© 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 CafĂ© 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.