Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Disney Thoughts, Plans, and Logistics

Disney! We're still talking about it! The recaps are done, but I've already had friends ask questions about our logistics, so I thought I'd write them out in one place, along with other random, practical thoughts, and reflections on all the details and things I wondered about before we went. It's long. I apologize in advance.

First thing, use a Disney Planner. They're free (paid by Disney), they know everything, and they make the trip so easy (and they're FREE). As I told James, "this must be what it's like for you to go on vacation! A few conversations, some general preferences, and then a whole itinerary just materializes before you!" It's lovely. I highly, highly recommend our planner, Kaleigh Kirkpatrick. Her travel website is here and facebook page here. She is local in Fort Worth (and a swim school client, which is how I found her!), but we did all our work over phone and email and never actually met in person (Kaleigh! We should meet!), so she could plan your trip from anywhere. She helped me pick our dates, our hotel, our restaurants, fast passes, etc. She made all our reservations, getting up by 6 a.m. to login as early as possible precisely 180 days out (when restaurant reservations open) and 60 days out (when fast passes open). When certain ones we talked about were booked, she was able to flip around our itinerary in a moment and make it all work while I would have been frozen at the computer screen. She arranged our fast passes in a logical way I couldn't appreciate until we arrived at the park. She had an app for her company and a schedule to show us our itinerary for each day with suggestions, ideas, and a general plan that I LOVED. She made it easy and fun and I did not do one second of research or work I didn't want to (which meant I did almost no research, which was kind of fun... usually I like planning very much, but there's something to showing up and being surprised by it all, especially at Disney that let me feel like one of the kids.)

Once you're there you use Kaleigh's itinerary (that she made based on your preferences, kids' ages, etc.) and the Disney app on your phone to start your day. We found once we were at each park for an hour or two we figured things out well enough to use Kaleigh's plan as a guidepost and then sub in and out other stuff that looked fun or that the app told us had short lines. But I appreciated VERY MUCH her concrete advice and ideas for the first hour or so when we had no idea what was going on or what we should do first.

Oh and timing. Call early. If you know you want to go to Disney in the next year- call. I started talking to Kaleigh about a year before 11 months before our trip and I'm so glad I started early. We need a family suite or villa because of the three kids and so many of those were already full! You can also make dining reservations starting 180 days out and many of those were already full when she logged in at 6 a.m. on precisely that day to make them. You can do it later of course, and people cancel and stuff moves around, but if you know you're going to go, there's really no reason not to start planning early. It's super fun and way less stressful that way. Especially because Kaleigh does it all for you.

Moving on to our specifics. You know we did the Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. It was amazing, but mostly because we were the Festival Family for the night and got to skip all the lines. As I told Kaleigh afterward, I still absolutely think that doing the special party on your first night is the right idea- you have to pay for the separate party ticket no matter when you want to attend, so it's great to do it on a day you aren't otherwise paying for a park ticket as well and works out perfectly to end your first travel day. Plus, you can get in to the park 3 hours before the party begins, so you get some "free" park time that is pretty valuable. But I will say that it was kind of a lot to show up at the park for a party when you've never been to the park before and it's night and dark and there are a million people and all these special shows and events and characters and you don't even know what's special v. what's normal or what your favorite things are that you should be taking advantage of. So have a plan. Get there early (definitely earlier than we managed with our crazy travel afternoon + boutique trip) and get your bearings before the sun goes down. Maybe have a list of 3 rides your planner thinks you'll love and that normally have lines. Pick a character you definitely want to see. Otherwise you'll end up frozen in indecision in front of the castle while hundreds of people rush by you and you feel like you're already behind. (Though being frozen in front of the castle ultimately worked out for us!)

(Other semi-downside to visiting the parks during a party time, like Halloween and Christmas, is that Magic Kingdom closes early on party nights, so there were at least two nights we would have stayed at MK later or walked over after dinner but couldn't because it was closed for the party. Just something to keep in mind.)

Our hotel. We stayed at the Contemporary. I highly recommend it, specifically the condos in Bay Lake Tower where we were. It's not the themiest or most beautiful hotel (it's theme is basically "modern," as defined in 1971 when it was built), but oh my gosh, the ability to just walk to Magic Kingdom in 5 minutes AND to skip the bag check because you have your own tiny bag check with no line on your own personal walkway in to MK was absolutely perfect for us and we took full advantage. We had a 1-bedroom villa suite and it was wonderful. A big separate room for James and me with our own huge bathroom, a fabulous jacuzzi tub I used every night, and the stand-up shower with multiple shower heads and built-in-bench of James’s dreams. The kids slept in the living area with a pull out couch and chair, and then there was a large full kitchen with island and 8-person dinner table, another full bathroom, and a laundry room with washer and dryer. We used all of these things and my only regret is not doing a grocery order for at least two easy dinners in the room. I could have used a break from resort food and we got two of our dinners to go from the Contempo Cafe across the sky walk and ate in our room anyway. The Contemporary and Bay Lake Tower are the only hotels you can walk to MK from and for that alone, we'd stay there again. (The monorail also goes right through the middle of it for getting to Epcot which is great, but man, the walking and the private MK bag check -- we used those every day, even after going to other parks that morning.)

(view of our hotel from the Astro Orbiter ride in Magic Kingdom)

Disney Parks. There are four of them (I did not know this) and we did one day at each, with an extra day at Magic Kingdom at the end (that I thought we'd end around 3 p.m.- I even picked a cheap Orlando hotel with a great pool so we could play after we left, but instead we lasted until 6 p.m. when we were kicked out for another Christmas party). Each park is so different and so much to offer that I'm so glad we did them all. Our itinerary was:

- Travel Day: Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Disney Springs, Christmas Party at Magic Kingdom
- Day 1: Hollywood Studios - the only park we left in the afternoon instead of the evening, which was nice after our super late night before; also the only day the kids swam in our hotel pool, and then we walked over to Magic Kingdom after dinner.
- Day 2: Magic Kingdom - started with an early breakfast at Beast's Castle (loved the castle and meal, but glad it was our only breakfast as we preferred big meals later in the day) and ended after dinner.
- Day 3: Epcot - arrived at open, left at 6, could have stayed longer but we had spots for the MK fireworks that night (which were blow your socks off AMAZING)
- Day 4: Animal Kingdom - open to near close, absolutely loved this park. So beautiful, so totally different from the others.
- Day 5: Magic Kingdom - arrived for extra magic hours at 7 a.m. and then stayed until 6. We picked up a car (because of course Disney has a car rental center) and then drove to an inexpensive non-Disney hotel for the night before heading to Tampa/Clearwater Beach in the morning for some sun and fun before flying out of (the MUCH cheaper) Tampa airport that night.

Park Hopper. This allows you to go to multiple parks on the same day. I can see how it would not be worth it for many- you can easily spend a whole day in any park and once you're back at your hotel you are unlikely to want to go back out, but again, since we could just walk over to MK in a few minutes, we did that every night there wasn't a party. We could get dinner at a different quick service restaurant in Magic Kingdom, ride some rides, watch the fireworks, shop along main street... we just enjoyed being over there and we're always up for a walk. We did not ever hop over to a different park that wasn't Magic Kingdom, though I could see doing that for Epcot to see the nighttime show and take advantage of its FAR superior food options. We'd get the Park Hopper again.

Meal Plan. We did it. I'm mostly glad because while I'm good at spending money on vacations before we leave, I'm terrible once we go. If I'd known our character lunch at Tusker House in Animal Kingdom was like $60/person we never would have done it. Instead, it was just "1 Table Service credit," so sure! Let's do this thing! Did I totally spend that $60/person as part of my total meal plan fee? Absolutely. Did I care? No, because I'd already paid that as part of our hotel bill 30 days before we left. Bring on the Mickey buffets. That said, we did buy a few meals because we ran out of Quick Service credits (pro tip: there is no adult/kid differentiation on kid service meals, so only use your credits for adult meals and buy the kids' meals out of pocket as needed) and then we bought a TON of snacks at the end because we had so many credits left. Had we just been paying out of pocket the whole time we probably would have spent less, but we also wouldn't have eaten in some of the cool places we ate at and definitely wouldn't have sampled every snack in Magic Kingdom on our last day, something I do not regret. If we went again, I would probably not do the plan but I'd be happy I had the memories from our table service restaurants the first time around when we did.

Our planner recommended doing Table Service at lunch and that was perfect for us. We got to each park early, did lots of things, and then had a nice break for a big meal midday. I was glad we weren't tied to the park for an evening reservation as once we were ready to go, we found we were very ready to go, and we liked walking back out to Magic Kingdom after a dinner at the hotel. Our reservation meals were:

- Hollywood Studios: Prime Time Diner Lunch (Table Service; cute, yummy, but wouldn't eat there again if not doing meal plan)
- Magic Kingdom: Beast's Castle for Breakfast (Quick Service; great food, beautiful setting, would definitely do again for any meal)
- Epcot: Via Nappoli for Lunch (Table Service; amazing food, James was finally full, would do again except probably not just because there are SO many great places at Epcot to go try)
- Animal Kingdom: Tusker House for Lunch (Table Service Character Buffet; delicious, loved it, would do again)
- Magic Kingdom: Cinderella's Royal Table for Lunch (2 Table Service credits per person; super expensive, absolutely loved it, probably don't have to do it again but am so glad we did it on the trip, also by far the best food and service we had on the trip)

Everything else was random Quick Service credits used at our hotel's cafe (the Contempo; quite good, though it got old eventually) and other Magic Kingdom restaurants. James and I struggled a bit with the resort food- we love our desserts but are really pretty healthy entree eaters... I hate fried food and I wanted vegetables so bad by the end I had salad as both an appetizer and entree at Cinderella's Royal Table, so I wish we'd had food delivered to cook up in the room at night, but the Contempo had a solid grilled salmon and I just got double veggies. The kids thought everything was wonderful and very much miss having chicken fingers and hot dogs at random times throughout the day.

Cinderella's Royal Table - best meal of the trip by FAR

Other food note: we brought along microwave oatmeal, three boxes of granola bars, trail mix, almonds, individual peanut butters, and microwave mac and cheese. We ate all of it over our six days. There are snacks everywhere and you definitely don't need to bring your own (especially on the meal plan where you get a million snack credits), but that's not what our stomachs are used to eating and I was very glad for our simple, protein-rich snacks to eat in the morning and at random points throughout the day in between Mickey waffles and hot dogs and ice cream cones. I also wish we'd brought more dinner in the room options (like the mac and cheese) but couldn't have predicted that before we left.

Memory Maker Photo Pass Yes, times a million. I think it was like $150? Doesn't even matter. It's worth all the dollars. There are photographers all over all the parks and cameras on several of the rides. If you have the pass, it links to the magic bands of your whole family and puts them all nearly instantly on the Disney app on your phone and to a website where you can retrieve them. So we'd ride down Space Mountain and a few minutes later, the photo would pop up on my phone to download, save, send, whatever. All the princess pictures, iconic family shots, and more. When we got home I had over 1,000 pictures to download and even after some ruthless deleting, I have 400 still saved.

loved when this popped up on my phone after they rode

Autograph Books. These were so fun!! I'd never heard of Disney autographs before, but when I read a few posts about other people's trips I saw they all mentioned them, so down the google wormhole I went. I wasn't sure how much the kids would get into (short answer: VERY. All of them.), so I wasn't sure I wanted a permanent book, plus I didn't really want to lug around 3 full books all day. So I found a blog post where a woman mentioned cutting 4x6 card stock cards and having those signed to be put into photo albums when they got back. I loved that idea and got busy decorating three cheap little $2 photo books to give to the kids when we revealed our trip.

Before we left I got a pack of click-it Sharpies and three little clipboards. Those lived in our backpack and we'd stick a fresh pack of 4x6 cards (that I cut from 12x12 sheets you get at craft stores for photo booking) in there each morning. When we got in line for a princess, each kid would pick a color and we'd hand her the stack of clipboards and marker and she'd sign away, handing them off to me, and then smiling for pictures. They're VERY good at this, it's very smooth, and the kids LOVED going back through their signature pages each night (and then I loved that those pages stayed safely in our hotel room when we set out the next day for more).

When we got home, I printed up a bunch of the princess pictures and slipped them in the photo books with the signatures. Landon really liked his book, but is happy it now lives in his memory box. Claire flips through it occasionally. Cora reads it every night. It sits next to her bed. She loves every page deeply and talks to you about each princess as she flips through.

Shoes. I was obsessed with finding the right shoes before we left on our trip, but really, as long as they're comfortable and you've worn them before, you're fine. I flipped between my Tom's and the new Saucony's I found before we left that don't make my feet look like boats (love them!) It's all paved walkway and maybe it's just because we work out a lot and all our vacations usually involve miles and miles of hiking, but we walked a TON (like close to ten miles a day) and no one (including me!) ever complained about their feet hurting or their legs being tired. I will say there are surprisingly few places to sit down (particularly at Hollywood Studios) and you will be on your feet pretty much every minute you're not eating a meal or riding a ride.

Stroller. The last sentence is partly true because we rented a stroller for Cora. We rented through Kingdom Strollers, as recommended by our planner, and they were great. We got the City Mini, it was super reasonably priced, and they delivered a case of bottled water with the stroller for an extra $7. We threw 4-5 bottles of water in the bottom of the stroller each morning and that worked out great. (You can get cups of water for free any time from any snack stand, but you do find a snack stand and wait in line and we liked just grabbing bottles from the stroller and then sharing it as we waited in line for a ride.) Anyway, the stroller was awesome. We hadn't used one for Cora in years and don't even own one at home anymore, but it was SO GREAT for her to cruise around in their and rest between rides and for us to shove our stuff into the bottom of it. If we ever go again and Cora is older I'm going to miss having the stroller just for that reason. Getting around the parks was no problem and it folded right up for the monorail and bus transfers. Stroller parking was easy and Cora would wander around each section of the park (curtsying as she went) before we reclaimed the stroller and then pushed her to another section.

Purse. This was another huge agonizing thing for me before we went. I finally purchased an inexpensive cross-body that I still really like but never carried after the first morning when I stuck it in our backpack around lunch and didn't bring it out again. All you need for Disney Life is your magic band on your wrist and your phone which I kept in a side pocket in my capris (or the back pocket of my shorts, depending on the day). James carried a backpack with our other essentials, it went with him on all the rides and was never a problem (and compared to our usual hiking backpack it was so light, he never mentioned it at all).

Park Packing List: What went in our backpack:
- baggie of 4x6 card stock for autographs
- 3 mini clipboards
- click-it Sharpie (we found handing over 1 pen + 3 separate boards with paper set up on them was easiest for the characters)
- chapstick
- sunscreen
- sunglasses for all
- granola bars
- locking backs for pins (you can order a set cheap on Amazon)
- two mini portable phone chargers
- my little first aid bag that always stays packed and goes with us on all trips in whatever bag we carry (mini sizes of adult and kid pain medicine, stomach medicine, bandaids, benadryl, and antibiotic ointment)
- (waters were in the bottom of the stroller, but a few bottles would have gone in the backpack if we didn't have one)

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. This was one of our few "extras" (besides the fact the whole trip was one giant life extra) and while I had moments of regret while we were doing it (our bus transfer was late, making it very stressful when we almost missed our appointment, and it was raining, and then we were late eating dinner and getting to the party), I'm glad we did it now. It's a boutique (actually two; one in Disney Springs, one in Cinderella's castle) with fairy godmothers who can give kids a very fancy hair style (bun with tiara, braids with bun and tiara, or fake braids with crystal slips), painted nails, little bit of blush/lip gloss, in a very fancy setting. It was super cute. Cora was just wearing the braids she got at the boutique in her hair yesterday (and every day we were at Disney, and like 20 other days since). Claire LOVED her bun and tiara. Both girls still use the makeup, brushes, and nail polish they got to take with them. Landon liked his hair (he's a big hair guy) and really liked the sword and shield he got to take with him (his was like $20 or we wouldn't have done it for him). Overall I'm now really glad we did it. I don't think we'd do it again - it was a special birthday/first visit treat, but the fairy godmothers are amazing and it's a very special experience.

Trading Pins. OMG. I had never heard of these either, but my friend who was going to Disney a month before us told me about them and I'm SO glad she did. I bought lanyards and 10 starter pins for each off an Etsy shop (if you buy resale pins, make sure they're official Disney brand ones or you can't trade them) and gave them to the kids at our trip reveal. Once we got to Disney, this became Landon's obsession. You walk up to almost any Disney employee - anyone wearing a lanyard - and ask to trade pins. You choose which one to give them from your lanyard and then you get to pick any one off their lanyard (or pin board, or sometimes the lanyard of a kid waiting next to you in line). It is so fun and Landon curated a really awesome collection by the end. (I ordered ours from this etsy store.)

Claire also loved pin trading, while Cora couldn't really be bothered (so Landon traded for her). It was the best free activity ever and gave them a really great souvenir to take home at the end. (We ended up letting them pick out one souvenir each at some point along the trip for about $30 each. They loved the autographs and pins so much, and of course there's so much to do and see - they never really asked for or needed to shop more.)

Rides. Disney is great for young kids because almost all the rides have a height requirement of 40". At precisely 4, Cora was 42" and clear to ride just about everything. The only (devastating) exceptions were Space Mountain at MK, Expedition Everest at AK, Test Track at Epcot, and Rock'n Rollercoaster at HS. The rides are pretty smooth, even the intense ones, and I never got even a hint of a headache like I often get from rides that are more jarring (I love the rides, my head just doesn't enjoy being rattled anymore; this wasn't ever a problem at Disney). Cora LOVED them with her whole heart, as did the big kids, and I'm so glad there were more rides than I had pictured in my head before we went. Fast Passes are essential and you should have a planner book them so they'll set them up in a way that makes geographic sense for you. There's also Rider Switch which you can use with Fast Pass to jump the line after your partner goes on the ride while you wait with your devastated 42" child. They let 3 people do it, so you can take your tall kids with you and they have even more reason to think that Disney is the greatest place on earth. (You can also take your toddler child's magic band to scan at the fast pass entrance so you can ride again alone. You also think Disney is the greatest place on earth.)

Tampa. As noted above, we flew out of Tampa on Southwest. It was cheaper and wasn't sold out the way the Orlando flights were, so since we never mind a bit of a drive (just an hour) and the kids have never seen a U.S. beach, we thought we'd head over on our bonus last day. It was so great and I never blogged about it, so here's a few quick pictures. We transferred to an inexpensive Orlando hotel after our last day at Magic Kingdom, slept there that night and enjoyed the free breakfast in the morning, and then arrived in Clearwater Beach around 10 a.m. to play in the sand and get some lunch before our 2:00 dolphin cruise. The sand was great.

The kids of course got in the water, but I of course did not. It was cold. The sand was not.

We had a fabulous lunch at a local taco shop we walked to from the beach.

And then Dolphin Cruise was even better! We saw dolphins! We saw them jump behind our boat! The kids loved it.

It was a pretty great way to end our first family trip to Florida.

Magic. This was such a magical trip you guys. I really thought this would be a pricey hassle for James and me but awesome for the kids and we'd enjoy it through them, but it wasn't. It wasn't a hassle and our enjoyment didn't have to be filtered up through the kids. The whole experience is seamless and special. Little moments - we were getting a water at the Dole Whip stand the first night and Claire said "I really hope we can try that some time!" and I said "I'm sure we will." and we walked away only to have an employee jog behind me, tap my shoulder, and hand me a Dole Whip for Claire so she could try it. When Claire got really sick on our second night, we were incredibly well cared for and then checked up on the next day. The entire park is SPOTLESS. I didn't see a piece of trash on the ground ever. One day I was walking through Magic Kingdom and spied a napkin that had blown out of a trash can, I was about to point it out to James (he'd also noted the cleanliness) before picking it up, when a man in a suit with a walkie talking walked by and bent down to grab it without slowing down and kept on walking. I felt like the employees at every level were genuinely committed to the magic of their employer and I know how cheesy that sounds but it was true.

Our ages were perfect. Having big kids meant we did all the parks and all the rides and embraced longer days than we probably would have attempted without a 10-year-old. Having a toddler meant we met all the princesses and almost believed they were real. Even Landon waited in line to meet Aurora (for the second time) because watching Cora meet a princess (even again) was just the greatest thing.

Oddly enough I honestly don't know that we'd go again. I don't regret a penny, but it was expensive and there are so many other places to see. Part of what was so special was knowing it was new and knowing it was our time to experience it. I think we'll go to Universal and Harry Potter World in 4-5 more years when we have all big kids, and maybe we'd swoop back through some of our Disney favorites, but in general I feel very at peace with our Disney experience. It was wonderful, I loved it, I treasure the pictures and the memories so very very much, but I'm pretty pumped about the trips we have planned for this year and all the other places there are to go.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Flu, The Rodeo, and The Foods

It's been a surprisingly good week. As I sit here at 11:20 p.m. forcing myself to put down my book (a re-read of Red Rising; currently 50% through book 2 and it's even better the second time) to blog about it because it WAS a really good week and had many of the highlights I'd grown used to and took for granted - peacefully playing children, home-based productivity, fun outings, a flirty date night, fabulous barre teaching... it was just really good.

Which is surprising since it started with my Strep and continued with Landon coming down with the flu on Thursday. Our new nanny picked him up from school and texted me 45 minutes later saying, "He says he's fine, but we've been home for 45 minutes and Landon hasn't really spoken or eaten anything. Seemed unusual." No talking and no eating for 45 minutes? After-school? That's ALARMING. I had her take his temp (low fever) and tell him he would not be swimming (he had already changed into his suit). We went to the pediatrician first thing Friday and his Flu B was immediately positive. He had the flu shot which has clearly helped- his fever has never gone above 100, just hovers at 99.9 and he hasn't had any violent symptoms- no throwing up or aching or harsh coughing. Instead he's just a silent little shell of himself, pale as a vampire but less sparkly. Listless, can't read more than a chapter at a time, watches an unusual amount of Netflix. On Friday I did his wash and folded his clothes and suggested a light exercise of transferring his folded clothes from my bed to his drawers two rooms over. He did and was 2 shades paler, so that slow walk between rooms was clearly too much. I tucked him back in his blanket on the couch with a Powerade slush and the remote drooping in his hand. It was the saddest.

But before that happened, I taught barre for the second time this semester at TCU and I had TWENTY-SIX people in my class! Twenty-six! Do you know the kind of energy you get from leading a class with that many people? When everyone is moving as one and your music is pumping and you're yelling at them to hold for just one more second? It is so powerful. It's like sticking your finger in an electric socket, except you know, not that. It's such a high and I felt like I was flying on my way home (while blasting the Greatest Showman soundtrack, naturally). Then I came home to a coddle a sick and listless 10-year-old, but even as I surrounded him with soft blankets and gave him a cup with a straw to stay hydrated, I was absolutely buzzing inside. A working life with kids/spouse is pretty crazy and pulls you in many directions, physically and emotionally, all the time. You take your ups when you get them, like a battery charge to your soul, and you wring them dry. I was still smiling on the inside when I tucked myself in bed a few minutes after midnight many hours later.

Then on Friday, just after James and Landon got back from the pediatrician with our flu diagnosis and Tamiflu script, I was a guest on my very first podcast. A podcast! I am not a technologically savvy individual and only just figured out what they are (I'm now obsessed with Pod Save America, but the only downside to my commute-less life is I can never find time to listen to it! There's too much cursing to have it on the speakers while I'm cooking dinner and I can't play it at work because I can't read and listen at the same time), so I wasn't at all sure I could figure out how to do it (like I didn't know there was a microphone built into this laptop I've had for 6 years because I've never spoken to it before because I also don't understand how Skype works), but my host Sarah (of the SHU box, which I love) made it easy. I'll post more about it- and link to it, obviously- when it comes out February 13th, but I will tell you now that while I wasn't nervous at all before we taped it, I was a mess after. Like ohmygod what even just fell out of my mouth. Words. So many words. Words with a purpose or a point? I don't know. There are no words to see and edit and change. We just chatted for 30 minutes and we were done. I think I laughed a lot. Did I answer the questions? I feel like no? But I don't know, because there aren't any words on the screen to check and see. Did I sound like myself? Did I ramble? I'm not sure I talked about what I was supposed to talk about. DID I EVEN ANSWER THE QUESTIONS?

So what I'm saying is, come Feb. 13, grade on a curve. Maybe she'll let me come back.

On Friday night, we had a date night. For many reasons, James and I are re-committing to taking many more of those this year. Not that we ever weren't on board with that idea, it's just that Tara got a 2nd job last year and worked that one after her nanny job (because she's incredible and works harder than anyone I know) so she was never available to babysit and we just kind of never asked anyone else. But now, we have two new nannies and we're booking them for alternating Fridays from 6-8 into the foreseeable future. The goal is three a month and the plan is just for 2 hours of adult time with James away from the house and kids. We get lots of alone time when they're in bed and that's great, but as our kids get bigger and busier and just... more, sometimes stepping away while they're awake is good too. And since these dates will (hopefully!) be more of a regular thing, I want to do things beyond a nice dinner, which I love but is definitely more of a treat. Things like going to a yoga class together, grabbing a drink at an outdoor beef garden, walking around downtown, walking the trails, even just going shopping together. We need this. Very much.

So in that spirit I thought we'd ease in with a cheap dinner on Friday at our favorite taco place just down the street that has a great happy hour. The margaritas are $3 and the chips + queso + guacamole appetizer is $3.50. Perfect!

Except someone thinks that 9 is a reasonable amount of tacos to order and the budget totally got blown. So we went to get cake after because why not. Next time we're going for a walk.

But it was really really nice. And we got home right in time to tuck everyone in, give kisses and Tamiflu to those who needed them, and still have all our hours hanging out at home after bedtime. I'm re-reading the Red Rising series after LOVING Iron Gold (book #4, go read it, but read the trilogy first) and am enjoying it even more the second time around. I'm realizing so much more about the characters, having now seen many of them in the future in Iron Gold, and just generally now understanding where the story is going and being able to luxuriate in the details a little more. Pierce Brown is a good builder of worlds and teller of stories. I'm excited about book 5. (Book post coming soon, I need more.)

Saturday was busy- even without the basketball game we would have been going to if our player (who scored his first basket last game!) had been able to stay vertical for more than 2 minutes and not be contagious. I picked him up another smoothie to keep some calories in him since after 1 day without his constant influx of foods covered in peanut butter you could already count all his ribs. While monitoring our patient and other children, James and I fit in some yoga, swimming, and errands- the buying of food, reorganizing our living room, selling some Disney t-shirts on our neighborhood buy/sell page, and attending a 6-year-old birthday party. Then the girls and I got home from the birthday party at 6:30 to find a reborn Landon. From drinking smoothies because "chewing makes me tired" to being removed from the dinner table for 5 minutes to calm down after too many chicken butt jokes in just 12 hours! It was an impressive turnaround.

Pale, but loud and exploding with words

By Sunday morning he was back to deviling his sisters, laughing maniacally at nothing, and yelling "DUH DAVID" every few seconds. None of us still know who David is, but we're glad to have his friend Landon back. Mostly. I mean, the house was a lot quieter, but Landon was not meant to be a listless vampire. He needs sun and air and copious amounts of peanut butter.

We capped off his triumphant return to life by heading to the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo! A yearly tradition begun in February 2013 when Landon was 5, Claire 2, and Cora the fabulous but not-yet-known future result of our nightly "should we or shouldn't we have another baby" discussions.

Look at those squishy babies! Looking back at those pictures made me realize how many rides stay the same each year.

I love it.

We started our experience this year roaming the animal barns and exhibits. We watched some cow judging, impressed by the beautifully blow dried coats on each brown cow and wondering what the judges were scoring. We proceeded through some horses and bunnies until we found the midway.

Claire had gone to the rodeo on a field trip earlier in the week and had been talking about "her" baby goat ever since, so the petting zoo was our first paid-for stop.

It was a delight. Her baby goat found her immediately and she spent our full 10 minutes with him.

Landon got sneezed on by an alpaca and spent the rest of the time feeding fluffy-headed chickens and larger goats. Cora petted all the baby goats and then fed a gigantic alpaca her entire cone of feed. Everyone was happy. We proceeded to the midway rides, approaching all the kids' favorites in the most inefficient manner possible to ensure my cowboy boot's yearly outing got as many steps in as possible.

Cora was thrilled to be reunited with her beloved rides from "Dizenney Wrrrld" and Landon was thrilled to try his first fried Oreo.

Seriously, no one loves rides like Cora loves rides. She squeals in delight and laughs the whole time. Like a little sparkplug of joy.

Landon did the bumper cars and I realized this will be a real thing in 5.5 years. Oy.

Cora was tall enough for the fun house that broke her heart last year. There's a spinning tunnel at the end which Claire rocked with speed and enthusiasm.

Cora attempted the same and then flipped sideways and had to be rescued. She smiled the whole time.

The big kids did the swings, which they LOVED,

while Cora struggled with the reality of height restrictions.

It was a spectacular day.

After a few more rides I finished out my rodeo experience with ribbon fries. They are my heart and soul of the experience.

Landon had heard from a friend that there was a vendor who could make a 3-D image of you and then turn you into a lego figure. And because he'd been great all day and I knew he'd tucked all his pet sitting money into his little wallet and carried it around in his pocket, we walked the opposite direction of the exit and roamed a million miles around the Exhibition Hall to find the right vendor. He got his head imaged and when we went to order the lego head, the vendor was so touched by Landon's careful counting of $42 worth of crumbled one and five dollar bills, he said he'd send him two. What could be better than two Lego Landon's? He is TREMENDOUSLY excited about this.

And so we walked back to the car to head home, where the kids built a fun house out of our backyard play set, I ran more errands, and James worked. Dinner (below) was delicious and our sleepy little pretend cowboys were in bed at 7:55. We have not heard from them since.

~ ~ ~

Food! Always a good end. This is last week's menu, with notes, and the menu for the week ahead. This blog archive is 50% of my meal planning method now, so I've learned the more notes the better!

Sunday: Sunshine Lentil Bowls with Trader Joe's Green Goddess dressing, which was amazing and tasted even better because I didn't have to use a blender to make it. This remains one of our very favorite meals and everyone eats every bite; served with crackers and cheese (and goat cheese on the bowl! Essential.)

Monday: BBQ Quinoa Salad - Claire's favorite FAVORITE meal. Shredded BBQ chicken (chicken breasts in crockpot + BBQ sauce + 1/4 cup or so of Italian dressing) on low all day then shredded and put on top of quinoa with various toppings: black beans, corn, diced tomato, avocado, cheese, cilantro, another swirl of BBQ sauce (and Ranch if you're into that sort of thing).

Tuesday: Beef Stroganoff, served on egg noodles, with green beans on the side. This was SO good. I've been looking for a delicious but not too creamy stronanoff and this was perfection. Loved the greek yogurt instead of sour cream and I pureed the mushroom saute with an immersion blender before adding the steak back in - I hate the texture of mushrooms but don't mind the flavor in certain situations. This was perfect and everyone loved it.

Wednesday: BBQ Chicken Quinoa Enchiladas (leftover shredded chicken and quinoa, because James dumped the leftovers of both pots together in the same glass storage container, rolled into tortillas with cheese, topped with a little sour cream and more cheese and baked at 375 for 20 minutes). Love these. Served with black refried beans and avocado and tomato.

Thursday: Crockpot Chicken Pot Pie Soup. This was delicious! Loved the homemade cream of chicken soup recipe. Highly recommend.

Friday: Date Night; pumpkin pasta with butternut squash sauce for the kids.

Sunday: My Favorite Salmon, roasted carrots, mashed potatoes, salad. Forever favorite in this house, I just use the crust on the salmon (double the recipe and rub all over a Costco sized salmon fillet, sliced into 5 pieces; broil on high for 10 minutes) and skip the salsa and everyone eats it.

Monday: My Favorite Meatloaf (1 lb. ground beef + 1 cup panko + 1 cup diced onion + these seasonings, put into a loaf pan, topped with a 50/50 mix of ketchup and mustard), bake at 350 for 1 hour, mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli. Landon's favorite meal and the result of much experimenting on my part with seasoning recipes.

Tuesday: School Fundraising Night at our favorite taco place! If you're in Fort Worth - head to R Taco on Bluebonnet Circle and eat all the things!

Wednesday: I will probably be out of town for work, so pasta and sauce that James can whip up quickly when he gets home from practice.

Thursday: Crockpot Chicken Enchilada Chili. A fave and no chopping required.

Friday: Cheesy Vegetarian Chili Mac. Another fave! Hearty and homey and delicious. You'd never guess it doesn't have any meat (except for that fact that it, of course, doesn't).