My New Favorite Mexican Restaurant In Bloomington-Normal

My wife and I have been searching for a new Mexican restaurant ever since Carlos O’Kelly’s closed its doors.  Yes, that was five years ago.

We’ve tried a few local establishments over time, but nothing really won us over.  In the interim, we’ve made due with Mexican dishes at Chile’s, Applebee’s–you know, those kinds of places.  That’s fine, but we missed an actual authentic Mexican restaurant.  Actually, I don’t know how authentic Carlos O’Kelly’s was, but you get my meaning.

A few week’s ago, on New Year’s Eve, my wife suggested a relatively new Mexican restaurant in town called Hacienda Leon.  We were going out as an entire family to see Mary Poppins Returns, and we wanted to eat together afterward in order to celebrate the holiday.

As we walked in, the size and open layout of the restaurant immediately struck me.  I loved the roominess of the place.  I also really liked the decor and general style.  I’m no expert at that kind of thing, so I’ll simply say everything pleased the eye.

We’ve been back since, and on both occasions the service proved friendly and capable.  The menu is very diverse with a wide range of rates.  You will be able to eat quite affordably if you wish, but there are also some more expensive and elaborate dishes available.  The drink menu also has a lot to offer with some very fair prices.  Both of my children were happy with the kids’ menu and were glad that they could substitute the rice and beans with fries.  By the way, my ten-year-old daughter just told me to tell you that their fries are “delicious.”

I don’t know how “authentic” Hacienda Leon is in terms of cuisine, but as far as I’m concerned, the two meals I ate there were wonderful.  It has instantly become my favorite Mexican restaurant in the area, and probably my second favorite restaurant around here in general.

If you live in the Bloomington-Normal region and crave Mexican fare, I urge you to give Hacienda Leon a chance.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Visit their website to see a photo gallery, their location, and the menu: Hacienda Leon

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

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Mary Poppins Returns – A Movie Review

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the original Mary Poppins from start to finish.  We had it on a few years ago for the kids, but I thought it was really strange and didn’t pay it much attention.  I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the character.

However, when we first started seeing the trailers for Mary Poppins Returns, my kids got very excited.  Frankly, I did, too.  I thought Disney really rolled the dice on trying to revitalize an iconic, beloved character that is deeply ingrained in many people’s psyche.  The willingness to risk financial failure on a venerated property shocked me.  And Emily Blunt?  Can you imagine the guts it takes to try to reprise such a famous role?  A role previously played by a revered actress?  Wow.

So even though I’m not necessarily a Mary Poppins fan, I have to confess that I had a great time watching Mary Poppins Returns.  I found it charming from start to finish.  It felt to me like a classic family movie–the kind of movie they don’t really make that often anymore.  I liked the message, the humor, the acting, the music, and the general creative direction.  In fact, we went with the grandparents and a great aunt, and they all loved it, too.

I’ve heard it argued that it just retreads the original movie.  Some have said it hits the same beats at almost the exact same cadence.  That may be true, but this movie isn’t made for the original fans of Mary Poppins.  This is a completely new experience to my six-year-old and ten-year-old.   Seeing it in a dark theater on the big screen with the loud speakers–this will be their Mary Poppins for life, and we need to realize that.  The same argument can actually be made for Star Wars.  Let the young have what we loved, too, but on their terms, in their own way.  It’s okay to borrow from what made the original a hit, and it’s okay to take things in a different direction as well.

By the way, I’d like to rave about Emily Blunt.  I adored her portrayal of Mary Poppins.  To me, her singing exceeded my expectations.  She sounded as good as anyone, in my opinion.  Furthermore, she had a sly glimmer in her eye that, for the first time, made me really consider the fact that Mary Poppins may be some kind of a supernatural entity–like a well-meaning fairy, or a helpful nymph, or maybe even a sort of angel.  She played the character incredibly stuffy, as the literary source material dictated, but she would at times offer a private grin, a lift of the eyebrows, or even a giant smile, that told me Emily Blunt is playing a character who is playing a character.  I think Mary Poppins’ whole persona is an act, and I loved that interpretation.  Though understated, Blunt’s execution of Poppins using exaggerated facial expressions and body language really struck me as funny.  She always held her hands just so.  The eyes would bulge indignantly just right.  I found the extrovert posing as a strict, prim, and proper snob totally engaging.

I’ve also heard some fans of the original movie claim that Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t have very catchy music.  Again, I’m no expert, but I thought it had excellent music.  My kids had me download the soundtrack which has resulted in several songs being stuck in my head.  Isn’t an earworm the sign of a good song?  Or at least a catchy one?

Finally, the production value of Mary Poppins Returns is phenomenal.  There are several instances when Mary Poppins and the children for whom she is responsible enter a world infused with cartoons.  The special effects are seamless.  I found it amazing to see the actors interacting with what appeared to be classic 2D images.  Of course, I could be mistaken.  Everything could have been CGI for all I know.  The point is that it looked beautiful.

Did the story make perfect sense?  No, not really, but who cares?  I’m not going to Mary Poppins Returns for a think-piece.  I’m going for the singing, the dancing, the humor, and the fact that it is a wholesome movie with a positive message for not just the children, but for everyone watching.

If you’re looking for a family movie, I completely recommend Mary Poppins Returns.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Our Trip To Wisconsin Dells (Part 3) – Restaurants

Two days ago I discussed our lodging while staying in Wisconsin DellsYesterday, I provided details regarding the numerous attractions and water parks within Wilderness Resort.  Today, I’d like to share our restaurant experiences with you.

Field’s At the Wilderness – Located in a separate building on the Wilderness Resort property, this steakhouse absolutely won me over.  It was by far my favorite.  I particularly appreciated the interior’s tasteful design, the elegant ambiance, and the rare combination of both friendliness and professionalism displayed by the staff.  Our waiter in particular, a young man, conducted himself seriously, yet also offered a ready smile and jovial demeanor.  Yes, the menu is expensive, but I consider Field’s a treat worth the expense.  We ate here at night after checking in at the Glacier Canyon Lodge, and it provided the perfect respite after the long drive.  Visit Field’s website HERE.

Buffalo Phil’s Pizza and Grille – Both friends and online reviews urged me to take my family to Buffalo Phil’s, so we made sure to pop by around two in the afternoon for lunch.  Located not quite a mile from Wilderness Resort, Buffalo Phil’s is right next to perhaps the nicest outlet mall I’ve ever seen.  Once again, this staff conveyed both warmth and professionalism.  Don’t expect the elegance of Field’s, though!  Buffalo Phil’s is decorated with all kinds of stuffed critters, including an enormous buffalo.  It has a small arcade with a very friendly claw machine, but the rear of the restaurant feeds into a giant–and I mean giant–arcade called Knuckleheads.  The real attraction of Buffalo Phil’s, however, is the fact that your food and drink will be delivered by a model train on rails.  My kids absolutely loved this feature, and I did, too, honestly.  They took this premise very seriously.  We we got drink refills, even they were transported to us by train!  When I walked in, I was sure to tell the host we wanted to sit by the tracks for the train delivery, and he assured me it wouldn’t be a problem.  This turned out to be true.  The whole eating area is arranged so that a train can reach virtually any table.  Our waiter was friendly and capable, and the food tasted delicious.  Be aware–they give you more than you can probably eat.  It’s pretty rare when I can’t finish a sandwich, but they had so much meat piled on mine that I had to give up.  I heartily recommend you give Buffalo Phil’s a try.  Visit their website HERE.

Sarento’s Italian Restaurant – The Internet counted Sarento’s Italian Restaurant among the best in the area, so we thought we’d try it out for dinner.  Located just around the corner from Wilderness Resort, Sarento’s sports lovely decor as well.  However, the staff, while polite, did not quite reach the standard we experienced at Field’s and Buffalo Phil’s.  In fact, when I got up to use the bathroom, I saw the hostess on her cell phone.  Maybe this shouldn’t turn me off as a customer, but it does.  Furthermore, our waiter did not impress me at all.  He struck me as a bit too informal, and seemed almost annoyed to have to wait on us.  He didn’t know much of anything regarding the menu, and told me to look at the flier when I asked about the specials.  For the amount of money I was about to spend, this did not sit well with me.  I actually wanted to leave before we even ordered, but my wife talked me into staying.  Though a young man, I expected better.  I would like to say, however, that at times a young woman would check in on us, and she maintained a personable, capable persona that I appreciated.  Had she been our primary waitress, I imagine the experience would have been much different.  Though the food tasted good, I can’t really recommend Sarento’s over Field’s or even Buffalo Phil’s, for that matter.  I would put it at the bottom of our list.  You can visit Sarento’s website HERE.

Moosejaw Pizza and Dells Brewery – I’ll be honest–I had no desire to visit this restaurant.  We’d spent a long day surrounded by other people’s children and the last thing I wanted to do was visit a restaurant that I knew would be teeming with more of the same.  However, a good friend told us we had to check it out and my kids genuinely wanted to go, so I relented.  I’m so glad I did!  We had a fantastic experience at Moosejaw.  The hostess must have sensed my distress because she placed us in a room virtually by ourselves in a spacious corner next to a stone fireplace.  Our waitress, Lynn, was phenomenal–probably one of the best wait staff I’ve ever experienced.  She was funny, friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, engaged,  and just a true delight.  She made amazing recommendations to us, offered to take our picture as a family when she saw us snapping the kids, and made sure to clear away any garbage almost immediately–even the straw wrappers!  Our pretzel bite appetizer was delicious, my personal pizza tasted great, and our Sasquatch dessert for four left us giddy.  Thanks to Lynn, this restaurant both impressed and satisfied.  I highly recommend it to families visiting the area.  You can check out their website HERE.

So there you have it!  We were only in the Dells for a few days, but we managed to eat pretty well, wouldn’t you say?  If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section below.

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

 

 

Our Trip To Wisconsin Dells (Part 2) – Water Parks and Attractions

Yesterday I discussed our lodging while staying in Wisconsin Dells.  Today, I’d like to talk with you about the attractions we experienced.  Again, the whole goal of traveling to Wilderness Resort in the winter was to take advantage of the indoor water parks, so I’ll start with those.

Wild West (click to see gallery) – Located in the Wilderness Hotel, we entered this water park as soon as it opened on our first day.  As a result, we managed to easily grab seats near the giant play house.  This park by far proved to be our favorite.  They say it’s the largest of the three, and that seemed to be true.  My youngest daughter loved the play house with it’s mini-water slides.  I rode a few of them, too, and even though they were mini, they still provided a thrill.  My oldest daughter and I tried out the huge tube slides as well.  Though you have to climb quite a few stairs to get to these slides, it’s totally worth it.  The descent is a series of twists and turns in total darkness — it’s a blast!  The tubes are so long that they jut out from the building for several curves before reentering the facility.  We managed to get my youngest daughter onto the four-person tube slide, and she loved it, too!  If we’re being honest, I would recommend spending all of your time at this water park between the three.  More on that to come.

Klondike Kavern (click to see gallery) – We entered this water park on our second day.  Though we arrived twenty-five minutes after it opened, we literally could not find a seat or table.  We had to rest our things on the edge of a rock feature.  With that being said, my youngest again enjoyed the play house.  It was very similar to the other one at the Wild West.  My oldest particularly liked the lazy river.  However, as you probably guessed, this park was packed, so the lazy river felt more like bumper cars to me.  Also, lots of feet jutting out everywhere.  Lots.  Of.  Feet.  My oldest daughter and I also enjoyed the giant water slides, but they weren’t quite as fun as those at the Wild West.  I had to do one of them on my own, which was pretty cool, called The Hurricane.  One of the workers described it as like being flushed down a toilet, and he was right!  You start down a tube, enter a giant enclosed bowl, then spin around and around before dropping into a smaller tube.  As I said, I had to do this one by myself, and right before I started I noticed a sign that said not to panic if you become stuck in the bowl — someone will come help you!  That got the heart racing.  Luckily, I didn’t get stuck.

Wild Waterdome (click to see gallery) – This isn’t really much of a water park in the New Frontier area of Wilderness Resort.  It’s an enclosed section that allows sunlight through — kind of like a greenhouse.  It’s main, and almost only, attraction is the Great Wave, which is an enormous pool that creates giant, six foot waves.  My daughters and I stayed pretty far back in the pool where the waves weren’t quite so extreme.  It was fun at first, but the novelty soon wore off.  Again, because the place was so packed, every wave sent you careening into someone else.  We were in it for about forty-five minutes, and the lifeguards had to stop it three different times during that duration in order to jump in and save someone in distress.  People insisted getting as far into the six-foot deep end as possible, but once the waves started, couldn’t keep themselves afloat.  Not to worry — all three individuals were fine.  We got out because my daughter lost her footing and scraped her knee on the floor.  After the friendly first-aid worker patched her up, we sat along the edge of the Great Wave and watched the sea of humanity floating up and down like flotsam and jetsam.

Again, I would plan on an hour or two at Wild Waterdome, skip Klondike Kavern altogether, and spend most of your time at the Wild West.  It could simply be that because Wild West was much bigger, we didn’t feel quite so crowded, which increased my overall enjoyment.  Now on to the attractions in the Wilderness Resort that were not actually water parks.

Wilderwoods Go-Kart Trail (click to see gallery) – This was a blast!  These little go-karts could seat one individual or two, so my wife drove one with one of our daughters and I drove with the other daughter.  You begin by working your way up a corkscrew ramp, then you race down another ramp in circles as well.  They give you about five minutes to race.  In my experience, wherever your position was at the start of the race pretty much guaranteed your position at the end of the race, but it was still a ton of fun!  This feature costs extra, but you can purchase a pass that packages it with some other fun activities.  By the way, the workers were super friendly here.

Northern Lights Sky Ropes Course (click to see gallery) – Literally located above an arcade, this course also delighted us.  Before you begin, you will be tethered into an aerial track that prevents you from falling.  We all enjoyed this feature — even my six-year-old!  You will walk across balance beams, tight ropes, and rolling barrels.  I’m generally afraid of heights, but I felt perfectly safe and at ease because of the tether, so it proved quite fun.  Be aware, they make you remove all cell phones, purses, keys, wallets — anything that can fall off of you.  However, they provide you with a locker and key in order to protect your valuables.  You are allotted thirty minutes on the course which totally flies by.  I’m sure you could stay longer if you wanted.  They write the time you start on a wrist band and you are expected to follow an honor code.  I highly recommend that you give this one a try.  Again, this feature costs extra, but you can purchase a pass that packages it with some other fun activities.  The workers here were very safety-minded, engaged, and friendly.

Marshall Training Lazer Maze (click to see gallery) – Total waste of money.  Don’t bother.  It was included on our fun pass, so we gave it a go.  You enter a small room with lasers shining everywhere.  The worker gave us no instructions, no pointers, no information at all.  We had no idea what we were trying to achieve.  It lasted about two minutes.

OK Corral Lazer Tag (click to see gallery) – This was also included on our fun pass, and we loved it!  You are outfitted with a vest that has targets on both the front and the back.  A laser gun is attached to the vest.  You are thrust into a giant room with ramps, windows, walls dividing up areas, and even a stage coach!  Your gun shows you a time limit, so you have to try to earn as many points by hitting opponents as possible as quickly as possible.  It’s very dark with black lights providing the only illumination, so you have to be careful where you walk.  Though there’s no danger of falling off of anything, I nearly collided with several kids!  Once the game ended, you’re given a score card with all kinds of cool statistics about your performance.  My youngest wasn’t too cracked up about this one, but my oldest daughter thought it was really cool.  The main worker explained things well and seemed to genuinely want everyone to have a good time.

Wild West Bumper Boats (click to see gallery) – Located in a pool within the Wild West water park, these bumper boats were pretty fun.  They never get moving too fast, so the bumps are never too jarring.  The boats are also very easy to operate.  My ten-year-old had no problems moving the boat around at all.  Be aware, though, that they also have spray guns shooting ice cold water.  We all got shot in the face on numerous occasions.  If that’s not your thing, avoid this attraction.  It was included on our fun pass, though, so we gave it a try.  The worker was super friendly and helpful here.

Wild Abyss 3D Mini Gold (click to see gallery) – Also included on the fun pass, this little nine-hole course provided for a fun twenty minutes.  Though not terribly difficult, my kids both enjoyed not only the holes, but also the black lights, the 3D features, and the aquatic theme.  Honestly, though, my six-year-old got a little freaked out by the sound effects.  You can find this attraction beneath the ropes course off to the side.  The worker at this course barely spoke to us and seemed more interested in her phone than anything.

Mega Prize Arcades (click to see gallery) – There are arcades literally everywhere in Wisconsin Dells.  Wilderness Resort is no exception!  My oldest daughter loves video games, especially claw machines, so she had a blast sampling the various arcades located, well, everywhere.  The system in the Wilderness is interesting.  You load a card with a certain amount of money, which equates a particular amount of credits.  Each game costs a specific amount of credits.  You swipe the card through a reader on the game, which then deducts the appropriate amount of credits.  However, you’re also awarded “tokens” onto the card after each game.  When you’re ready to claim your prize, you go to the prize counter where a worker will swipe your card to find out how many “tokens” you earned.  You can then choose a prize accordingly.  In my experience, most of the workers would round up the token amount to the nearest ten.  They also have machines around that will tell you your “token” amount as well in case you fear the trustworthiness of the workers.  Most of the claw machines are scams, as you would assume, but there was one claw machine that awarded a win virtually every time I saw a kid use it — including my own!  This machine was full of giant, rubber spiked balls with faces printed on them.  I’d say they were probably twice the size of a basketball.  My daughter won one on her second try, and we saw kids lugging these balls around all over the place.  By the way, the workers at the prize counter were incredibly helpful and friendly at the Northern Lights Arcade beneath the rope course.

Timberland Playhouse (click to see gallery) –  Rejoice — this attraction is free!  My six-year-old would have happily spent our entire visit in this gargantuan play land.  Divided by netting, kids can climb up several levels and experience swings, slides, bridges, and obstacles.  Even though it was full of kids, it’s so big that my daughters never felt crowded or overwhelmed by too many people.  There’s plenty of seating next to the play house, so parents, this could be a good time to regroup, relax, or veg out.

I hope you found this information useful.  If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section.

(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Having a Ball At Epcot: Family 2018 Disney World Vacation (Part 6)

I have to tell you–I love Epcot!  I know some of the rides are a little older, but I prefer to think of them as “classic.”  I really mean that!  Because we stayed at the Beach Club, we could literally walk into the back of Epcot in about five minutes.  Because of this, we spent many nights watching their fantastic fireworks.  But we did more than just the fireworks, as you’re about to find out …

Rides

Spaceship Earth — We did this both in the summer of 2017 and 2018.  I love it, but it’s definitely dated compared to newer attractions.  This ride takes place in the giant Epcot “ball.”  As you work your way up, you experience the history of our planet with special care given to our technological advances.  My nine-year-old and I find it to be a charming, educational ride, but it’s certainly not thrilling in the conventional sense.  I consider it a “must experience.” It’s the Epcot ball–you have to do it!

Living With the Land — Again, this is more educational than anything, but the slow boat ride is incredibly informative.  It details how different parts of the world grew food in the past and offers actual examples of cutting edge advances in farming techniques.  I personally found these innovations amazing.  For example, they showed how we can use fish farms and hydroponics to utilize the same space.  I also loved how they showed that many crops can be planted on pillars, thereby reducing the use of large fields.  I’m not sure how much our little ones enjoyed the actual ride, but my wife and I were very impressed by the educational aspect of it.

Soarin’ Around the World — I had to beg my nine-year-old to do this with me, and once she did, she loved it!  I think we rode it four or five times, mostly in that last hour before the park closed.  I personally would rate this as a “must experience” at Epcot.  In this ride, there are three rows of seats.  You strap in, and then the rows move out and up over a pit.  The row in front of us moved above us, and the row in front of them were at the very top.  You face a large screen which commences to take you through the skies on an adventure across the entire world.  Your row dips forward and back, simulating the feel of sitting in a hang glider.  It even blows wind in your face with accompanying scents.  You’ll see several wonders of the world with the ride coming to an end during the fireworks at Epcot.  I couldn’t get enough of this ride, and neither could my daughter.  I’d never ridden it before, and our first time enjoying it together felt absolutely magical.

Journey Into Imagination With Figment — Okay, this one was just weird.  I guess the little dragon guiding you through the ride is named Figment.  It briefly refers to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Flubber, and the Dexter Riley movies.  (I had to look that one up.)  It’s a strange ride about trying to determine the best way to utilize our imagination.  I’d skip this one.  None of us got much of a kick out of it, though it did have a nice gift shop at the end.  I would like to say, though, that the workers at the ride were incredibly nice and friendly.  That could be because we were literally the only ones on it.  (This was the last hour before closing.)

The Seas With Nemo and Friends Attraction — I didn’t actually ride this one, but my six-year-old adored it.  My wife rode it with her countless times.  My wife tells me you ride in a clam much like Under the Sea with very similar attributes.  Lots of neat scenery and video from the movies.  She tells me it’s a fun experience for the little ones.  Sorry I can’t be more helpful!

Gran Fietsta tour Starring the Three Caballeros — We found this little boat ride while in “Mexico” at the World Showcase.  It’s very similar to “It’s a Small World” except that it takes you throughout the country of Mexico.  It features puppets, beautiful architecture, and a musical video found on screens throughout starring Donald Duck, Panchito, and Jose Carioca–the Three Caballeros!  It’s a cute, engaging slow-moving boat ride that truly delighted us.  In fact, because it had such a short line, as soon as we got off we moved to get right back into line.  When we told a “cast member” (remember, this is how Disney refers to its workers), she moved us right to the front!  It’s kind of hard to find, but definitely worth the effort.

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Frozen Ever After — This was a HUGE hit with my six-year-old, and probably the most daring ride she’s ever done.  She thought she was big stuff!  It was a very fun ride.  You ride in a boat through several moments from the movie.  The ride is fairly tame, but there is a thrilling moment when you go downhill backwards.  The scenery is intricate and beautiful, and the music, of course, titillates.  Be aware, though, the ride ends fairly quickly.  I would definitely use your “Fast Pass” on this one.  The lines were consistently very long.  We got in line with 30 minutes to closing and had to wait about 40 minutes.  Of course, if you’re in line when the park closes, they let you finish out the ride.

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Attractions 

Illuminations: Reflections Of Earth — These are the fireworks that go off every night before closing.  We watched them from the World Showcase, which is the back part of Epcot.  They weren’t as extravagant as Magic Kingdom’s, but they were better than virtually any other fireworks show you’ll see!  Best of all?  We had plenty of room to get a great view.  At Magic Kingdom, you are packed together no matter where you stand for the fireworks.  At Epcot, this wasn’t the case.  Like I said, because Beach Club was only a five minute walk from the back of Epcot, we took in the fireworks often and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Disney and Pixar Short Film Festival — We love movies, especially Disney and Pixar movies.  This short little festival included rumbling chairs, smells, and even some splashes of water!  Though all of the shorts are in 3-D, Get a Horse proved the best 3-D I’ve ever seen in my life.  It was perfect!  The other two shorts included Piper and Feast.  We’d seen them all before, but the 3-D made them feel fresh.  And, like I said, Get a Horse was insanely seamless.  Seriously.

Turtle Talk With Crush — My wife and I did this with the kids in 2017 and then my wife did it again with my youngest this latest trip.  It’s actually pretty cool and worth experiencing no matter what your age.  You sit in front of a giant screen.  Pretty soon, Crush from Finding Nemo appears.  He talks a bit about ocean conservation, but he somehow also interacts with the audience.  He actually asks the audience questions, then replies to their responses.  It’s pretty amazing because he physically points in the direction of people he’s interacting with, his mouth moves in accordance with the people’s names he saying–it’s quite a sight to behold.

Canada — Yes, you read that right–Canada!  Again, Canada is part of the World Showcase and it was super cool.  There was a great castle to view from the outside, a lovely garden, a small mountain, and even a totem pole!  Also, we took in a short film called O Canada!  Hosted by the always-hilarious Martin Short, this movie is basically a promotional piece to get you to visit Canada.  Let me tell you–it worked!  I learned more about Canada and saw more of Canada during this little movie than ever in my whole life!  Now I’m itching to pay the land up north a visit!

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World Showcase — Just in general, we were excited to explore this entire back half of Epcot.  Our girls weren’t terribly interested in it, but my wife and I could have spent a whole day wandering around this area.  We didn’t actually enter many of the locales, but we promised ourselves that one day we would.  If just walking by on the path awed us, imagine what the interior would do!

We didn’t do nearly everything there is to do at Epcot, but we did about as much as we could at this stage of our daughters’ lives.  I’m hoping there will come a day when they are willing to do Test Track and Mission: Space with me.  We met many of the characters, but I’m going to write a separate entry on that because we met a lot of them.  Maybe all of them?  Surely all of them.  Thanks for reading!  Magic Kingdom will be up next!

By the way, most of the above photographs were taken by my wife, Kristen.  I wanted to give credit where credit is due!

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

Traveling To Disney World: Family 2018 Disney World Vacation (Part 2)

Now that you’ve booked your trip to Disney World in Orlando, you need to actually get there.

Our daughters are both under ten, so driving from Central Illinois all the way to Orlando did not seem like the ideal means of travel to me.  We are very fortunate in that we have a local airport, Central Illinois Regional Airport, that flies to the Orlando/Sanford International Airport.  Using Allegiant Air, you can fly to Orlando/Sanford in about 2.5 hours.  That sure beats 20+ hours in the car.

I know flying can be expensive, but when you take into account the gas, the food, the hotels costs, and the incidentals of driving, flying seems far more convenient and not that much more expensive.  It was very nice to wake up in Illinois and go to bed in Florida.

A few words about Allegiant Air–yes, they had that scathing news report a few months ago.  We’ve flown Allegiant four times now in the last two years, and not once did I ever feel that our lives were endangered.  However, annoyances will arise with this airline.  They are a budget carrier, and it shows.  Three of the four times we flew with Allegiant, we had delays.  This is partly just air travel.  Everyone has delays.  One time, though, last summer, we were on the plane about to pull out three different times before they postponed the flight to the next day.  I’m talking we got on the plane, then we got off the plane.  Then we got on the plane, then we got off the plane.  Then–say it with me–we got on the plane, then we got off the plane.  My kids were great through the whole thing, but they were very confused.  The most irritating part about that ordeal is that it was impossible to reach their corporate headquarters.  I should say, though, that Allegiant put us in a nice hotel that night, and gave us each $100 vouchers with a one year expiration date.  We used those vouchers to offset the cost for this most recent trip!  I’d also like to say that all of the Allegiant employees we’ve dealt with have been very kind and professional.  Allegiant is not the most luxurious way to fly, but I certainly have no trepidation about getting on their planes.

Central Illinois Regional Airport is a dream.  It’s so clean and well-maintained.  The employees are very good there as well.  Orlando/Sanford International Airport is a little more dicey.  If you get there during off hours, it’s not bad at all.  However, it’s been packed to the gills each time we’ve been there.  It’s an international hub, so that stands to reason.  Once again, though, the employees were great.  I have a little inside information for you, by the way.  If you find yourself stuck in the Orlando/Sanford airport for any length of time, check out the international wing.  You walk down a long corridor before you enter it from the main wing.  It’s wide open with plenty of seating, plenty of shopping, plenty of restaurants, and big, clean bathrooms.  It looks much newer than the main part of the airport as well.

One more tip for flying with Allegiant.  Backpacks count as personal items, not carry-ons, as do purses.  To save money, I checked a suitcase, my wife checked a suitcase, and then our daughters shared a checked suitcase.  We did not use any carry-ons, but we each had a backpack for which we were not charged.  These personal items must fit under the airliner seat, though, so be sure to check your dimensions.

Okay, so we’ve made it to Orlando/Sanford International Airport–now how do we get to Disney World?  Ah, you’ve heard Disney runs a shuttle to Orlando International Airport, right?  Here’s the thing, Orlando/Sanford is not the same as Orlando International.  They are two different airports about forty minutes apart.  You’ve got some choices.  You can hire Lyft, Uber, or a taxi.  Lyft and Uber were out of the question for me–I’m not trusting a stranger to drive my family in Florida.  Taxis were about the same price as simply renting a car.  So … I rented a car.

I know what you’re thinking–“Scott, that’s crazy!  You rented a car just to sit in the parking lot of your resort!?”  Well, no.  We timed our flight so that it would arrive late Thursday evening.  We wanted to check in and hit Hollywood Studios right away Friday morning.  So, I rented a car from Alamo, which is a very short walk down a sidewalk outside of the Orlando/Sanford International Airport.  (Of course, I set all of this up ahead of time at the Alamo website.)  We rented a car, drove to a nearby hotel, spent the night, then drove to our resort first thing the next morning.  I parked at the resort, checked in the family, then left them to explore the resort as I returned the car at the Disney Car Care Center which has an Alamo onsite.  The Car Care Center is pretty much in the middle of the Walt Disney World grounds–it’s close to everything.  When I returned the car, I only had it for 24 hours–a one day rental.  (Actually, I only had it about 15 hours, but that’s okay.)  You see, this way you don’t have to pay a full week’s worth of car rental fees!  Great, right?  Best of all?  The Alamo at the Disney Car Care Center will shuttle you back to your resort.  In fact, they told me they’d take me anywhere I wanted to go as long as it was on Walt Disney World grounds.  Furthermore, they will also pick you up!  When it was time for us to leave, Alamo sent a shuttle for us, loaded up all of our luggage, and then drove us to the Disney Car Care Center in order to check out another car, which I then turned in to the Alamo at the Orlando/Sanford International Airport.  It’s a really fantastic service!

Of course, all of this requires careful planning.  You need to figure out what you need, communicate what you need, reserve what you need, and you need to keep all confirmation numbers on you.  I literally kept all of my confirmation papers in separate color-coded folders in my backpack with me–but I’m a little … you know.

And that’s how we got from Central Illinois to Walt Disney World and back!  Thanks for reading!

The next installment will arrive soon, and it will detail the resort we stayed at in 2017 and the resort we stayed at in 2018.  Hint: not all outlandishly expensive resorts on Walt Disney World grounds are created equal.

CIRA Airport 2018

(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

How We Booked Our 2018 Trip To Disney World: Family 2018 Disney World Vacation (Part 1)

We were fortunate enough to visit Disney World during the summer of 2017 in celebration of my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary.  Because my brother and sister-in-law had done Disney on several occasions, they, as well as my parents, basically prepared the whole thing for us.  I loved it so much, I insisted on going back this summer!  And because we learned so much last time around, we were able to duplicate what we found to be a magnificent time.

My wife, children, and I just returned from another magical trip, and I’ve already had a few people ask for advice on planning their own excursion.  I thought our personal experience might be helpful, so I’m going to write about it during the coming weeks — from start to finish.

The first step is planning the trip.  This is something you probably want to do several months ahead of time.  There are people who will plan your trip for you (such as Jessica Parlier  or Stephanie Reed), but you can also simply call Walt Disney World and work through it all with a cast member.  (They call their employees “cast members.”  It was really confusing at first.  Everyone is a cast member — whether acting on stage or taking phone calls.)

We began this trip, just like last trip, by buying the latest copy of Birnbaum’s 2018 Walt Disney World: The Official Guide.  Trust me when I tell you this thing is worth its weight in gold.  It details every park (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot), every resort, every ride, every show, every restaurant, and every shop.  Thanks to this book, we knew exactly what we wanted to do on a daily basis.

So, after settling on what we wanted to get out of this trip, we called Disney.  Fortunately, we ended up speaking to an incredibly nice man named Cal.  Cal spent well over an hour on the phone with us organizing our trip.  He next answered several call-backs during the following days, as well as various emails.  He is incredibly patient, helpful, and informative.

This is his job with Disney, so he does not charge a percentage.  If you’d like to reach him, here’s his contact information …

Cal
Walt Disney World® Vacation Advisor
(407) W-DISNEY / (407) 934-7639 Ext. 5243362
Days Off: Wednesday and Thursday
Hours: 10:15 AM to 7:00 PM ET

There are a few items I want to discuss with you as you plan your own trip.  Last summer, we went all out because my parents were willing to pay for us to go all out.  Let me tell you, after paying for the trip myself this time, every penny is worth it.  Allow me to explain …

We decided to stay on site.  That means that our resort is actually connected to the parks.  For example, Epcot was literally a five minute walk from The Beach Club Resort, the place we most recently stayed.  At Beach Club, they also had (nice) buses that would transport you to any of the other parks at no extra charge.  These buses run all day at about twenty minute intervals.  They continued running up to an hour after each park closed.  This means we could close down the parks without worrying how we would get back to our room!  In the summer of 2017, we stayed at The Grand Floridian.  This (best-of-the-best) resort actually had an elevated monorail that would drop you off right in front of Magic Kingdom and Epcot.  Otherwise, you could ride buses to Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom.  All of the resorts have these buses running all of the time.

Yes, these resorts are very expensive.  However, the convenience of it all made it well worth the money.  You also get to enjoy “Magic Hours” if you are staying on site, which means, on certain days, you get to open the park an hour early or stay an hour later than everyone else.  (Be sure to check the schedule, though.  Magic Hours change from day to day, park to park.)

Also, I heartily recommend that you purchase the “Park Hopper” pass.  This means you can go to any park you want on any day during your stay.  You can start the day at Animal Kingdom and then finish the day at Epcot to watch the fireworks.  Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s also very freeing overall and allows you to do what you want, when you want.  Talk to Cal, he’ll explain it all to you!

Next, take a hard look at the dining plan.  Again, this appears very pricey upfront, but it will save you money in the long run.  Our plan basically provided us a quick service meal per day, a sit-down meal per day, and then several “snacks” per day.  You pay a flat-rate and can then order basically whatever you want.  I could order a $75 steak and it cost me no more than the $25 hamburger.  A drink and dessert is also included with each sit-down dinner.  Plus, many strange things can count as snacks.  For example, a side of bacon at my resort counted as a snack.  As did a muffin.  Or a cinnamon roll.  If you research, you can basically eat your breakfast off of your snacks.  We never end up using all of our snacks, but that’s okay, because you can purchase packaged food items or candy in the gift shops with your snacks and then take them home with you!  If you elect to pay out of pocket, you will spend $50 to $100 for a family of four eating a lunch consisting of a hamburger, soft drink, and fries.  The food is grossly overpriced, but it somehow all evens out if you go with the dining plan.  Ask Cal about it!

Finally, we all want pictures of our wondrous time, right?  Disney offers something called a “Memory Maker” package.  Again, you pay upfront for this, but it is so worth the money!  Any time you see a Disney photographer in a park (and they are literally everywhere), you can have them take your picture.  After they take the picture, they will tap your “magic band” (which is a wristband you’ll get in the mail well before you’re due to arrive) and then the pictures will automatically upload to the Disney app you will download to your phone.  Once the pictures download, you are encouraged to save them to your phone and start sharing them via text, social media, whatever!  These are high quality photographs that could certainly go in a frame provided you are not a sweaty mess from that Florida heat.  We had Disney photographers take about 200 pictures of us between the park attractions, meeting characters, etc.  (I’ve included one at the end of this article.)  I don’t know how much these pictures would cost to purchase on an individual basis, but I heard somewhere in the area of $20 per photograph.  If you’re picture people, this is a must.

So, that wraps up this first installment.  My biggest piece of advice is plan ahead, do your research, and know what you want to get out of the experience.  You’re going to spend a ton of money no matter what, but if you’re spending it on exactly what you desire, it’s worth it.  I have not regretted one penny from either trip I’ve taken.  I am financially conservative, but believe me when I say if you try to save a little here and there beforehand, that amount you saved will get spent in the park.  If you’re going to Disney, you might as well go all out and get the full experience, right?

MagicKingdom2018

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)