Tag - Travel

REVIEW: Wilderness At the Smokies Resort (Gatlinburg, TN)
Disney on a Budget
REVIEW: Disney’s Disability Access Service Card
» Trip One: To Ethiopia and Back

REVIEW: Wilderness At the Smokies Resort (Gatlinburg, TN)

It seems so appropriate, on this very snowy day, to share what we did on the last Nashville snow day. We Nashvillians aren’t really snow people. So after enduring days of school cancellations and snow and ice accumulation the kids and I jumped at the chance to get out of town once the roads were cleared. We live about 3 1/2 hours from Gatlinburg/Sevierville so it has definitely become our weekend getaway choice whenever the opportunity presents itself. There is so much to do and see as a family. We have our favorite spots like the Donut Friar, located in The Village Shops, and after this trip we have a new favorite place to stay, Wilderness at the Smokies.

Wilderness at the Smokies is a water park resort. They have both an indoor and outdoor water park area. The indoor water park area features 3 raft style water slides, a wave pool, regular pool, toddler water play area, washout mountain kids water play area (our favorite!), surf rider and a huge indoor/outdoor hot tub. The kids and I enjoyed swimming in and out of the hot tub area while the snow fell on our heads.

We left daddy at home during this spur-of-the-moment “cure our winter blues” trip and while it felt a little crazy managing the four with water around we still had a wonderful time. Because our kids ages range from 3-7 we spent most of our time at the Washout Mountain attraction. It has two kid friendly slides, waterworks, climbing structures and exploding geysers. I was able to position myself at the front while my kids ran wild. It was very safe for all of them. Wilderness does furnish life jackets so we took advantage of those as well.


Special Needs Accomodation: When booking our room, the staff placed us in the same building as the indoor water park. This allowed us to stay in the building and have a shorter commute to the water park. This was huge! Lola had a great time on on the Surf Rider attraction. Because Lola could not see the boundary lines or navigate if she were to fall off the board they positioned a staff member on each side of her. I was so pleased to see them happily accommodate her and empower her to do the same activities as her sighted siblings.

We stayed in a studio suite and really enjoyed the rustic styling of the room. The ceilings are super high and there is a small kitchen area located in each studio suite. This made the room really functional for us as a family. The resort also has dining options and an arcade area. We did leave the resort one morning for our donut run and a trip to the outlets, which are super close, but it’s definitely a place you can just park the car and stay awhile.

The best thing about traveling alone with four kids to an indoor water park in the winter? They are so tired by bedtime from all the splashing and swimming that everyone sleeps solidly through the night. I didn’t hear a peep and got a great nights sleep! Bliss.

We can’t wait to head back to Wilderness at the Smokies and tackle the big slides and outdoor water park with daddy. It’s such an affordable getaway, as the water park tickets are included in the nightly room rate. If you are ready to cure your winter blues check out their spring break specials, because at this rate it’s still going to be snowing when Spring break rolls around in a couple of weeks.


Disney on a Budget

Sorry, couldn’t think of a better title for this one. But really… who isn’t going to Disney on a Budget? We all need a break when planning these huge, seemingly expensive trips for our kids. And honestly, those that know us were probably a little surprised when Instagram lit up with surprise pictures of us headed to Disney with our crew. In the past year we have continued to pay down adoption debt (interest-free thank the Lord!) and learned how to live on one income instead of two. But in true Erica fashion I got this little idea under my skin and I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to take my kids to Disney. I wanted to celebrate us making it through the past year and a half, I wanted to celebrate my kids who have been through a lot and are coming out on the other side. And so the wheels started to turn and they really started to turn when I saw that FREE dining was being offered. When you have four kids free dining is a big bonus.

Here is a breakdown of the ways we saved money and planned in advance for our trip. And don’t worry, it will be years before we head anywhere this crazy again. We bought a tent on clearance and will be teaching the kids how to gather firewood and cook in tin foil from this point on. Promise.

1. Plan ahead, look for promotions and deals. We chose to go to Disney in the “off season.” This means the crowds are slightly lower and the resort nightly rates are also lower. To get the best resort/plan for your money it’s important to book 8 months to a year from the time you actually want to go.

2. Pay as you go. When you book a year or so in advance you can set aside a little money each month to pay toward your Disney vacation. We took this a step further by purchasing Disney gift cards at Kroger when we had the extra funds (read: sold something on ebay).

Why buy gift cards at Kroger you ask? In our area we receive 2-4x the gas points when purchasing gift cards. For example, purchase a $100 Disney gift card during 4x fuel points promotion, receive 400 fuel points. This translates to 40 cents off per gallon. Fill up and ta-da! you’ve just saved yourself some money. We made sure to fill our cars up together, thus multiplying the money saved on gas. In the end we saved just over $400 using this method. That’s a good chunk of the vacation right there!

3. Utilize free dining (if it’s an option). We were able to receive a free dining plan for each family member because we watched for the promotion and booked our stay during the promotion. This covered lunch, a snack (Dole Whip!!), and a sit down Table service meal each night. We brought our own breakfast foods to avoid spending money on that meal. We also made sure to split snacks (using snack credits) so we could try twice as many items without spending extra money.

If you can’t utilize free dining, bring your own food for breakfast and lunch and choose to eat only dinner in the parks. Disney has a great policy and allows families to bring food into the parks. Peanut butter and jelly, cheese sticks, fruit and cut up vegetables could all contribute to an easy and quick lunch. Plan to bring your own water bottles as well. You can get free water at the various quick service locations but Florida water isn’t super tasty.

4. Limit souvenirs. Our kids were each allowed to choose one souvenir each, with a $20 limit. We were excited to discover that purchasing a coffee (or using a snack credit) at Starbucks in Epcot or Magic Kingdom gave us a receipt that included a 20% off coupon for the gift shops. We utilized this when the kids chose their items.

5. Buy Disney t-shirts and souvenir items ahead of time. For an entire year I watched for Disney clearance t-shirts and items at Target and other retailers. We paid an average of $2-$3 for each shirt throughout the year. We then packaged these up as a little present for the kids once we arrived. In addition we also purchased a set of 35 Disney Trading Pins and lanyards on ebay for a total of $14. Pins are anywhere from $10-$25 EACH in the park. The kids LOVED trading pins with cast members and continue to trade with each other at home.

6. Plan to stay longer than 2-3 days. The park ticket prices go down drastically with each day you add. When we compared a four day trip with an eight day trip there was very little price difference. We also used a travel agent to book our tickets and received free passes to Disney Quest in Downtown Disney, this is a great way to take a “free” day and explore that area. There are definitely some perks to using a travel agent. We used Jeff Lemmonds – MEI & Mouse Fan Travel, and God bless him, he may have wanted to hide from us after helping coordinate 4 families all going to Disney at the same time. (yes! the extended family came too!)

7. Vacation in the off season. I mentioned this before but we definitely received the best rate this way!

8. Bring your own stroller. Yes, you can rent one, but it’s $15 a day and they don’t recline. You can also rent one from a company but why spend the money? Label your stroller with your name by laminating a bright piece of paper and zip-tying it to the front. There is plenty of stroller parking and it’s really not a hassle. Save that money!

9. Use this trip as a gift. We went right before Christmas and explained to the kids that this was their present. The grandparents still got them Christmas gifts (spoiled) but we limited our gift to one item under $10. Including used Furbys. (shhhh….)

There you have it! There are many, many ways to save at Disney. A quick pinterest search will tell you that, but these are the things that worked for us this time. How do you save money at Disney? I would love to hear your ideas!

Click here to read our experience with Disney’s Disability Access Service Card.

REVIEW: Disney’s Disability Access Service Card

  • Hollywood Studios Light Display
  • Carribean Beach Resort
  • Frozen!
  • Mine Train!
  • Gaston's Tavern
  • Tusker House Breakfast
  • Everest

After one year of planning, making reservations and saving money our family made a grand visit to Disney World. We knew this would come with some challenges so we did our best to plan ahead, especially where Lola’s needs were concerned. She really had a great week and we were impressed with how the Cast Members (Disney employees) responded to her.

We were given a Disability Access Card, which I will refer to as the DAS card. This is a new system for kids and adults who aren’t able to wait in lines without great distress. Lola’s blindness and sensory issues make waiting in line very difficult, meltdowns etc. Trust me, we did the 40 minute wait for Buzz Lightyear without the DAS and it was a quasi-disaster.

The DAS card is basically waiting in line while out of line. To acquire the card you simply stop by the customer service area at the front of the park, explain the disability and why it makes lines difficult. We were asked very little questions and it was a very smooth process. They took Lola’s picture and printed out a little card with her name and photo on the front.

To use the card you simply hand it to the cast member at the front of each ride and they write a return time on the card. The return time is the current wait time minus 10 minutes. So if the Mine Train wait was 70 minutes our return would be an hour later. We were able to ride other rides with short wait times, eat a meal, take in the Christmas decor or rest a little. We also utilized fast pass so DAS wasn’t necessary with all rides. The cast members were always friendly and although the pass was only for 6 people they had no problem allowing more family members to ride with Lola. We were also allowed to sit in the very front for events like the Frozen Sing Along.

In addition to finding success with the DAS card we also found the characters and cast members quick to pick up on Lola’s extra needs and respond appropriately. For example, the characters recognized Lola’s need to get super close and to touch their costumes. They would take her hand and put it on their nose (Mickey) or bend down toward her face. We typically didn’t mention her eyes, but it was clear they realized that her experience needed to be slightly different.

Lola was also chosen to take part in a few shows. We were hesitant at first but once we informed the cast members they were sure to guide her and give her extra cues, no problem. Lola even played the part of the Beast, dancing with Belle as the story was told.

IMG_0538We had a great week at Disney, celebrating our family and spending time with extended family. We hope to return again in a few years to relive all the fun and excitement. Despite the changes to the disability system I still give Disney a thumbs up in this department.

» Trip One: To Ethiopia and Back

Wow. What a whirlwind. Our time in Ethiopia. Where do we start? This was a new kind of Africa for us. We’re used to the more rural, lush parts of Uganda. The huge city of Addis Ababa was a new experience. We heard a different population count from pretty much everyone in that city, from taxi drivers to orphanage employees. It seems that it falls somewhere between 3 and 5 million people. That’s quite a few folks. Addis is this crazy mix of nice coffee shops, big buildings, cows, lambs and extreme poverty. Addis is a mix of African middle class and starvation. It’s very unsettling to see a man selling off his little heard of sheep in front of a restaurant he could never afford. In a way, it’s nothing new for me. But at the same time I don’t ever want to get used to, or comfortable with, great need and desperation. Our experience with Addis was also heightened because our son is actually from that area. Many babies and children who are being adopted through our agency are from other parts of Ethiopia. But Liam is from Addis. This is his first home, the two orphanages he lived in were here in Addis. I keep saying this because I never want to forget it. I don’t ever want to forget how to teach him about his home. To teach him the good and the hard in a way that allows him to remember through my eyes. I don’t ever want him to lose his heritage. Speaking of heritage. We tried to experience as much about the culture as we could fit in. One evening we went to a traditional Ethiopian dinner and show. We got to see dances from all the regions and tribes in Ethiopia. Very fun and very delicious.

We also drank copious amounts of coffee. A friend in our travel group began suggesting that I hook myself up to an IV drip of coffee. Considering the jet lag I’m experiencing now that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Taking in the culture (and shopping!) was great but the highlight of the trip was, of course, being with our son. We got to spend about 3 hours a day at Hannah’s Hope. We fed him, played with him, rocked him and even helped with a bath. It was heavenly. We are just so in love and ready to have him home. We did pass court while we were there so that was just beyond words exciting. We are now looking at a time line of about 8 weeks until we can fly back and bring him home for good. We are legally his parents in the eyes of the Ethiopian court system but the US embassy has to clear us in order for him to come home. Would you like to pray with us as we wait for that day? That would be awesome. We felt each and every prayer while we were in country. And we continue to feel God’s peace and presence now that we are back home.

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