Finally, our long-awaited, much anticipated, and well-deserved vacation to Florida commenced!
I'm not ashamed to tell you that I spent a full year planning and saving for this trip. Seriously, I was checking prices a year ago this September to get an idea of what things would cost, I paid in full for the tickets to Walt Disney World in February, and the condo that we'd be staying at not long after. I paid for our character breakfast in Cinderella's castle about six months before the trip, made reservations at the couple of other Disney restaurants that we wanted to visit, and paid for a condo on the island off of the Gulf Coast of Florida that I had my heart set on visiting for a few days after Disney.
And then I started saving money for our actual trip.
I knew that I wanted to visit Walt Disney World in the off-season, but I wanted to go when it was still hot, so that we'd enjoy our few days at the beach afterwards. My friend Jenny suggested that the first week in September after Labor Day would be good, because nearly all schoolchildren would be back in school by then, and even parents who would pull their kids out of school for a vacation probably wouldn't do so at the start of the school year. The parks still had a good contingent of international families, perhaps because of the weather, so it wasn't completely dead--I've heard, though, that in times when the parks ARE really dead, like late January and February, a lot of rides get taken down for maintenance, so I'm pretty confident that we went to Walt Disney World at just about the best time of the year for a homeschooling family to go.
The tickets that I bought are through Disney's YES Program--highly educational, and sold at a deep discount from traditional tickets. To be eligible for the tickets, the girls and I signed up for a class for 5-8-year-olds to be taken one morning inside the Magic Kingdom. The flip side to the YES Program tickets is that they don't work with Disney's Magic Your Way packages--you can buy a room at the Disney resorts, for instance, without purchasing a package, but you can't buy a dining plan, nor are you eligible for the Free Dining promotions that Disney offers during these off-seasons. This threw me for a while, because I'd had it in my head that we'd do the dining program and then use all our table service credits for character meals, an extravagance that I otherwise wouldn't choose.
However, as I was shopping around online, I discovered that giant resort-type condos, with full kitchens to cook in, separate bedrooms for the kids, giant swimming pools, and locations minutes from Walt Disney World were available at this time of year for rates less than the cheapest Walt Disney World resort rooms. Considering that we could cook for ourselves for basically the cost of our regular grocery budget (it turned out to be a little more, since I chose only quick-to-cook and easy to clean up meals, but not much more), and that honestly, most days we all prefer quick and easy homecooked food to sitting down in a restaurant, we ended up being a lot more comfortable in our accommodations outside of Walt Disney World than we'd have been inside, and for less money, and the deep discount on our YES Program tickets more than made up for missing out on the free dining promotion. I also budgeted in paying for parking every day at Walt Disney World (even with this, the outside accommodations were cheaper), and that was us all set!
The other moms in my homeschool Park Day group spent many Thursday afternoons helping me plan my grocery list for the trip. My friend Betsy convinced me to take our cooler again--I took it on our Florida trip last year, but with just me and my girls it was a lot of extra work just to have refrigerated food--since Matt would be on the trip to help, so we shopped a couple of weeks before the trip for granola bars, cereal, disposable dinnerware (ugh, I know--but SO easy!), chips, juice boxes, peanut butter, jelly, and the energy drinks that Matt feels like he can't do a road trip without (I've never tasted one, but they smell like cough medicine), and then a couple of days before the trip for fruit, fresh veggies, sliced cheese, lunchmeat, yogurt cups, sandwich bread, guacamole, and deli cookies for the road trip.
And so we ate sandwiches for two days! The kids didn't give a flip--they're used to eating nothing but sandwiches and fruit while traveling cross-country with me--and Matt, who otherwise can be really picky about mealtimes, was encouraged by my pep talks about how much time and money we were saving over fast food, and comforted by nobody saying a peep about his giant sandwiches stuffed full with a ridiculous amount of lunch meat (normally I tease him, because seriously, who needs to eat a solid inch of turkey in a sandwich?).
We ate sandwiches, listened to audiobooks (Peter and the Starcatchers and Longitude) and podcasts (Freakanomics and This American Life), let the girls watch Magic School Bus on my laptop (I used my homeschool budget to buy the complete set, and I've been thrilled with it on this road trip), and posed with freaky coin-operated rides outside of gas stations:
Seriously, that thing is crazy, right? And you'll never guess who it's supposed to be:
Casper the Friendly Ghost!
We drove as far as we could in one day, stayed in a hotel that we got a coupon for out of one of those coupon books that you get from visitor's centers at the borders of states (I LOVE those places--we always stop at them, and the girls and I collect dozens of brochures to pore over in longing to visit the Cabbage Patch Museum, or the Coca-Cola factory, or some Six Flags or other), swam and ate the hotel's free continental breakfast in the morning and were STILL out of there by 10:00 am, and were safely checked into our condo in Orlando by 2:30 pm.
I'd planned this early afternoon arrival so that we'd have plenty of time to grocery shop, pick up our park tickets, and get to bed nice and early, but since the girls and I had spent so much time studying Africa last spring, one of the things that I'd REALLY wanted to do and so reserved a table and budgeted for was to eat at Boma, the African-themed restaurant at the Animal Kingdom Lodge on the WDW property. There isn't an African-themed restaurant in our hometown (there IS one in Indianapolis, an Ethiopian restaurant, but I'm the only one in the family who's eaten there), so this was kind of the last remaining thing to do on my list of unit study activities for Africa.
The Animal Kingdom Lodge itself is also nice to sightsee in on a day when you can't go to Disney, because it's immense, full of African museum pieces, has docents and interpreters and demonstrations and hands-on tables, and has a backyard that abuts a savanna of herbivores--we spied ostriches, and giraffes, and zebras, and various other hoofed little guys while walking around and stretching our legs, waiting for our reservation. The girls ran and ran and ran around, barely able to take anything in because of their excitement, and that still counted as good behavior in this place just full of families.
We had the earliest dinner reservation in Boma, so although we had to wait a bit for the restaurant to open (in both of the other restaurants that we ate at in WDW, we were seated early when we arrived early), we entered the restaurant through a line of drummers on one side and clapping waitstaff on the other side--it was both super-cool, and over after just a few minutes, so that only the first few families got to experience it.
As I write about our days in WDW, I am going to constantly bemoan the indoor lighting--it's unilaterally dim, and in some popular places seems designed so that only the WDW Photopass photographers, with their extra-bright on-camera flashes, get good photos--and because the rotten lighting often turned me off I was surprised that I came home with fewer photos than I'd anticipated. I bemoan the lighting here, as well, but the food was so amazing that I took photos of it anyway.
Boma is set up as a buffet--good for picky eaters, and also good for tasting every single thing on the menu, nearly none of which I'd ever tasted before. Here we have watermelon rind salad, salad with jicama and apples, fruit, curried pasta salad, couscous with raisins and apples, and, my new most favorite food ever, coconut rice:
Here we have fufu, bobotie, salmon with pistachios, flatbread with two different kinds of hummus, veggies, more coconut rice (NOM!), and in the background to the left, a zebra dome containing rum-soaked cake:
It probably wasn't the perfect day to visit a buffet restaurant--I tasted a lot, and got super-excited over our paper straws, but after two days of sitting in the car I wasn't really hungry, and I don't know if the girls ate ten bites between them (fortunately, although I have MANY flaws, one of my gifts as a parent is that I don't care what/if my kids eat, as long as they're offered healthy foods at conventional mealtimes)--but it was the only day that worked into our schedule, and Matt and I had a ball, anyway. As our WDW days went by, I did become extra grateful that I didn't pay for or try to finagle my way into a Disney Dining Plan, since because of the hot days and, I suppose, nonintuitively because of how tired we always were from all the walking, none of us had much of an appetite, and I can't imagine that we'd have made use of all the food that the dining plan gives you. Picking at sandwiches, eating up all our chips, and enjoying a mid-afternoon ice cream was plenty for us on our park days.
At a Publix on the way back to the condo, we bought frozen pizzas, Hot Pockets (I can't stand them, but Matt and the girls just adore them, ick, and they did turn out to be a much more practical breakfast choice than the cereal and oatmeal that I'd brought, since they could be eaten in the car on the way to the parks), frozen margarita pouches (ahem) and frozen fries and chicken strips. Then we swam, put the kids to bed, soaked in our jetted tub, watched cable, and went to bed early with the alarm set for our day in Hollywood Studios!