New Year’s Eve on a Disney Cruise

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This year, we found a fun way to spend New Year’s Eve that was just the right speed for us, although it will be cost prohibitive to do it again any time too soon.  This year, we took the New Year’s week cruise on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship!

My family enjoys doing something for New Year’s Eve, but we aren’t particularly crazy about dealing with huge crowds and complicated logistics.  While we have spent many quiet New Year’s Eves at home, we have also occasionally tried something a bit more grand, including a party at some friends’ house for 1999/2000 and a couple visits to Legoland California in recent years.  My wife and I spent New Year’s Eve at Disneyland together one time, although it was actually a few weeks before we officially went on our first date.  New Year’s Eve at Disneyland was a fun experience, but not one that we have wanted to repeat.

The cruise was a New Year’s Eve experience that was full of excitement and fun, but with crowd sizes kept very manageable by the ship’s capacity and logistics that made for a relaxing and never-too-complicated day.  Sure, there were a lot of logistics (and cost) involved in planning out the cruise and getting there, but the vast majority of stress and complication melts away once on board the ship.

Picture During the daytime, New Year’s Eve was a port day on the island of St. Maartin.  We were able to sleep in a bit and have a leisurely breakfast at Cabana’s, the ship’s buffet restaurant.  We then spent the rest of the morning just relaxing and enjoying some of the ship’s amenities with a quick lunch at one of the fast food stands on deck.  In the early afternoon, we went on a pre-arranged shore excursion to Orient Bay Beach, one of the island’s largest and best known beaches.  Yes, we spent New Year’s Eve afternoon at the beach!

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A Quiet Christmas with Family

 

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For this year’s holiday season, we put together the longest and most elaborate vacation my family has ever taken. This trip includes a 7-night Caribbean Cruise, stays in 5 different hotels (not counting the cruise ship), plus visits to Disney World, Legoland, Kennedy Space Center, and Daytona Beach.  We have been planning and saving for this trip over 2 years and it is hard to believe that it has finally arrived (I wrote this about 1/3 of the way into the trip).

In the midst of all this excitement, we put together a very quiet, family-focused Christmas.  Both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were set aside to spend at my parents’ house.  They retired to Florida a number of years ago and this is the first time that I have been able to spend Christmas Day with them since that move.  Even more importantly, it was the first time that they were able to spend Christmas with their grandson.  My sister, who lives in Florida as well, was also able to join us on Christmas Day.  I really am not entirely sure when was the last time before this that all four of us (my parents, sister, and me) were together on Christmas.  I’m pretty certain it was close to 20 years and might even have been more.

While this isn’t the first time my family has visited during the Christmas season,  in the past, we have either come earlier in December or closer to the new year.  While this allowed us to do some early or late Christmas celebrations, this is the first time since I’ve been married (much less a father) that I have been able to bring my family to actually spend Christmas Day itself with my parents.  I am quite sure that this made this visit a particularly special one for all of us.

We chose to keep the celebration itself pretty simple, which I think made for the perfect chance for the family to simply spend and enjoy the time together.  We arrived at my parents’ house around 8:30am on Christmas Day and opened presents.  There was quite a nice collection of gifts under the tree this year.  I’m not quite sure if my son or my sister’s two dogs got more presents, but I think it was probably pretty close.  We all found that pretty amusing.

When my parents asked for ideas for gifts for my son, Andrew, it occurred to me that he had really enjoyed the Despicable Me movies, particularly the minions, but didn’t have any toys or other merchandise from that.  My parents and sister took that to heart and got him plush toys, a personalized mug, and, the biggest hit of the day, a singing/talking toy minion.  He was amusing in his reaction to the vocal antics of the minion, which was basically "That’s really annoying… but I like it!" all in one breath.

Santa must have known that Andrew is a fan of game shows and that he was on a vacation that would include a couple visits to the beach.  His main gifts this year were a Wheel of Fortune board game (Disney themed), a Jeopardy calendar, and a nice set of beach toys.  He was pretty happy with all of those gifts and the Wheel of Fortune board game provided us with another family activity for the afternoon.

Other gifts received by various members of the family included sweatshirts or t-shirts for each of us from University of Central Florida, where my sister is currently in grad school, as well as the usual assortment of Disney items.  My wife found a particularly clever Disneyland t-shirt of Darth Vader riding the Astro-Orbitor (and holding a Mickey Mouse ice cream bar!), which she got for me.  I hadn’t seen that one before and got a big kick out of it.

While my family has usually gone out for fairly big Christmas dinners at some restaurant or another, my parents very wisely decided to do a nice dinner at home this year.  They cooked a delicious dinner of ham, baked potatoes, salad, green-bean casserole, and apple or pumpkin pie for dessert.  Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the meal and the menu choices were a great mix of good, festive food without requiring that my parents (or any of the rest of us) spend so much time in the kitchen as to lose out on good family social time during the day.

Overall, that really was the key theme of the day.  With activities that included play time with my sister’s dogs, playing the Wheel of Fortune board game, watching Finding Nemo (Andrew’s choice) and the Disney Parks Holiday Parade on TV, and quite a bit of time just simply sitting around talking, this was very much a day of family togetherness and was one of the nicest Christmas holidays that I remember.

Memories of My Son’s birthdays – Part 4 (Age 6)

Click here for Ages 1-3
Click here for Age 4
Click here for Age 5

Age 6

As I mentioned when I started this series of posts, my son turned 6 last week.  After the fairly big and elaborate celebration of last year, we decided to keep everything very low key this year.  We even decided to limit the birthday celebrations to just the immediate family, although that really had more to do with logistics and scheduling than anything  else.

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As our son’s main birthday treat, we decided to make a trip down to Disneyland on the Saturday before.  We have an ownership interest in the Disney’s Vacation Club timeshare and looked into the possibility of getting a reservation at the recently opened Villas at the Grand Californian, but there wasn’t any availability that night so we decided to simply make it a day trip.

We live only about an hour away from Disneyland and have passes for admission, so we do make reasonably frequent visits down there, although not nearly as often as my wife and I did when we were younger and childless.  Our last visit had been only about a month before, but was primarily for the celebration of an adult friend’s birthday.  Since that day had a bit more of a scheduled agenda, we decided to make this visit an “Andy’s choice” day, where he would pretty much get his pick of rides and activities.  For this reason, we also chose not to try and meet up with any other friends, but instead just make it a family day.

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One special activity we included that day was lunch at Goofy’s Kitchen, the character dining location at the Disneyland Hotel.  Andy is still a huge fan of the Disney characters and gets a bit kick out of these meals where some of his favorites come around and visit the table.  During our meal, we had visits with Goofy, Chip & Dale, Mulan, Jasmine, Baloo (from The Jungle Book) and Brer Fox.  We also got to visit with Pluto for a couple photos before we went to our table.

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The restaurant also has occasional kid participation activities and Andy had the chance to get up and do The Twist with the characters as well as to help Goofy with baking of a cake (which mostly involved kids playing noisemakers and pretending to help clean up). 

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Toward the end of our visit to the restaurant, the waiter brought Andy a cupcake with a birthday candle on it and Chip plus a few of the restaurant staff members all gathered for a short birthday celebration.  It wasn’t anything overly fancy, but Andy definitely got a big kick out of it.

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After lunch, we headed back into the park to visit attractions.  This included a visit to see Mickey Mouse at his house in Toontown, where everyone did give Andy a bit of extra attention for his birthday.  The birthday visit was during the first weekend that Disneyland had all of their Christmas activities up and running, so we took that opportunity to see the Christmas parade and fireworks show.  Overall, it was a fun day and Andy seemed to really enjoy himself.

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For the evening of Andy’s actual birthday, he picked pork chops and mashed potatoes for his birthday dinner, a bit of a surprise since we had never really thought that pork chops was one of his favorites.  We then had the traditional ice cream cake for dessert and then let him open presents.

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While he got a lot of really nice gifts, it was kind of funny that possibly the biggest hit of the bunch was the birthday card that I had picked up for him the night before.  The card is the type that has a chip in it that plays sounds when the card is opened.  It features the characters from the Disney/Pixar movie Cars and plays the song “Life is a Highway” from the movie, which has been Andy’s favorite song for quite a while.  Even though my wife had already bought another card for him, I couldn’t resist buying this one when I spotted it while shopping for a couple other items at the local Walgreens store the night before.

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The main gifts this year included a couple Thomas the Tank Engine toys from my wife and me and a shirt and Mickey Mouse wristwatch from one of his sets of grandparents.  The watch was a pretty exciting gift for him as it is his first and he was pretty proud about getting a big kid’s gift like that. 

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Andy’s other set of grandparents were a bit late in shipping out his gift from them (a Mr. Potato Head and full set of parts), so he had a little extra gift opening event later in the week.  That turned out to be a bit of a nice opportunity to prolong his birthday celebration a bit longer.

There was also a little celebration of his birthday in his class at school, but I don’t have any photos as neither my wife nor I were there for it.  My wife brought along a couple packages of mini-cupcakes that were distributed around to the class and the teacher gave him a small gift as well.

While this was probably a much more low key birthday than many of his past ones (particularly the year before), it still was a fun time.  Happy birthday, Andy!

Memories of My Son’s Birthdays – Part 3 (Age 5)

Click here for Ages 1-3
Click here for Age 4

Age 5

5th Birthday Family Picture 

By Andy’s 5th birthday, he had completed his first full year of pre-school, as well as a couple years in a weekly Gymboree program.  Between the two, he had made a lot of friends and had also had the opportunity to attend quite a few of his friends’ birthday parties.  This led us to think that it was a good idea to celebrate his 5th birthday (something of a milestone) with his first real birthday party with other kids.

We live in a townhouse that doesn’t have a yard or an overall design that would really be suited to having a large group of kids over.  While there is a party room available for rent in our condominium complex, it isn’t really overly kid-friendly either.  We realized that we really needed to find a kid-appropriate venue for the party.

Our first thought (and Andy’s first suggestion) was Farrell’s, having spent his birthday there the two previous years.  We looked into it and found that the price wasn’t too out of line, but we had major reservations about whether or not it would really work all that well for a big group of pre-school aged kids.  Other than the little merry-go-round, Mountasia really doesn’t offer much for kids that age and we were picturing a party that was little more than the kids all sitting around a big table eating ice cream and pizza. 

Farrell's at Age 5 Farrell's at Age 5

Andy was still kind of pushing for having the party there, but we were able to placate him by promising a family visit there not too long after his birthday.  We ended up going up there the weekend after his birthday for dinner and ice cream, inviting a few of our adult friends to meet up with us there as well.  Of course, Andy again got in a bunch of rides on the little merry-go-round.

Andy's 5th Birthday Party at Gymboree Andy's 5th Birthday Party at Gymboree

Having recently been to another kid’s birthday party that was held at a local play gym, we realized that it would be vastly preferable to go somewhere that the kids could run around and play.  As I mentioned, we had been taking Andy to classes at a local Gymboree Play & Music location since he was really young. 

Andy's 5th Birthday Party at Gymboree Andy's 5th Birthday Party at Gymboree

We checked into it and found that their prices for birthday parties were within our budget and that they had availability on Andy’s actual birthday (which was on a Sunday that year).  During his weekly class, we mentioned that we were considering having his birthday party there to his teacher, who is an outstanding teacher that Andy, and we, adored.  The teacher responded by offering to host and run the party if we booked it, which pretty much instantly sealed the deal for us.

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Memories of My Son’s Birthdays – Part 2 (Age 4)

Click here for Part 1 (Ages 1-3)

Continuing my look back at my son’s previous birthdays in celebration of him turning 6 this week, here are my memories of his 4th birthday.  As he has gotten older, I have found that I had a tendency to take more photos, so the remaining posts will cover just one year at a time.

Age 4 (2007)

Andy's 4th Birthday Andy's 4th Birthday

Opening presents at Farrell's Opening presents at Farrell's

Andy’s 3rd birthday was the first that he still remembered pretty well a year later.  Because of that, he decided that he wanted to do pretty much the same thing as the year before, returning once again to Farrell’s.  This time, we decided to forgo the formal birthday package and instead just let everyone order whatever they wanted off of the menu.

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Opening presents at Farrell's Opening presents at Farrell's 

As with the previous year’s visit, we included some play time in the game area at Mountasia.  Once again, Andy used the majority of the game/ride credits that we got for him to ride on the little merry-go-round.  During this visit, he did also give skee-ball a try for the first time, although I really was doing most of the work.

Farrell's Merry-go-round Skee-Ball with Daddy

A couple months before his 4th birthday, Andy started his first year of pre-school.  For birthday kids, the teacher had a short celebration where the child was given a birthday crown and allowed to put candles onto a felt birthday cake. 

Andy's 4th Birthday at Pre-school Andy's 4th Birthday at Pre-school

Finally, we did also do the now-traditional cake and gift-opening at home on his actual birthday.  Once again, the cake was an ice cream cake.

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Eating Cake Eating Cake

He had received most of his major gifts during the party at Farrell’s, but we gave him a toy fire truck that I had found at a really good sale price between the two parties and he also had gifts from his grandparents to open.

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Opening presents at home Opening presents at home

 

To Be Continued with Memories of Age 5.

Memories of My Son’s Birthdays – Part 1 (Ages 1-3)

Today is my son’s 6th birthday!  As a celebration of that big event, I thought I’d share some memories of his past birthday celebrations in posts over the next few days.

Age 1 (2004)

Disneyland Plaza Inn Birthday PartyAndy's First Birthday Party at Plaza Inn

To celebrate his first birthday, we attended the Disneyland Birthday Celebration that they offer a couple times a day at the Plaza Inn restaurant on Main Street.  At this event, everyone gets an undecorated cupcake along with small cups containing frosting and sprinkles to use to decorate them.  A character named Pat E. Cake hosts the event and Mickey and Minnie Mouse also pay a visit.  Quite a few of our friends were able to join us at the park for the party as well.

Family with Mickey and Minnie at Disneyland Plaza Inn Birthday Party Andy's First Birthday Party at Plaza Inn

The first birthday also started our now usual tradition of going out somewhere for a bigger party, but also having a little family-only party at home with cake and the opening of his presents from us and various relatives.

Andy's First Birthday Party Andy's First Birthday Party 

Andy's First Birthday Party Andy's First Birthday Party

This was also the one time that we attempted to make his birthday cake instead of buying one from the store, but we found that we generally lacked much cake decorating talent.

Andy's First Birthday CakeAndy's First Birthday Cake 

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Fourth of July Memories

I’ve always really liked the 4th of July, a holiday that has always seemed particularly celebratory while still being generally more casual and lower pressure than most.  I’ve always had a bit of a patriotic streak and enjoy the day of paying tribute to the United States.  I also have a definite fondness for the marches and other patriotic tunes that dominate the holiday.

For the past several years, my family has been going to Disneyland on the 4th of July to see their special fireworks show.  We have learned how best to manage the crowds on that very busy day, making it a pretty easy experience.  We also get a hotel room close-by in order to avoid having to deal with the night-time traffic.

When I was growing up, more often than not we spent 4th of July at home instead of trying to go out to see a professional fireworks show or some other public event.  Generally, we were pretty satisfied simply enjoying the day at home as a family.  This would usually include watching the Boston Pops’ 4th of July concert on TV or other similar patriotic shows.  We would often have a BBQ dinner at home.  There were a few years that we did go out to municipal fireworks displays, though, so I did at least have that experience a few times as a kid. 

The most memorable trip out to see a 4th of July fireworks show was in 1977.  That summer, my father had just taken a new job that required our family to move from Florida to Flint, Michigan.  For the first couple months, we had to find an alternative place to live while we were waiting for the house my family had purchased to be vacant and ready for us.  We had a Starcraft pop-up style camper that we used on vacations, so we spent that time staying at the Holly Hills Campground (based on an online search, I think it is a KOA now) in nearby Holly, which was just a short distance outside of Flint.

On that 4th, we decided to drive into Flint for their big municipal fireworks show downtown, but it ended up being Mother Nature that put on the more memorable performance that night.  There was a huge rainstorm and I honestly can’t remember for certain whether or not the fireworks display actually took place, although I think it did.  The most memorable part was returning that evening to learn that a tornado had touched down in the campground while we were gone!  We were lucky that the actual touchdown (and most of the damage) was on the opposite end from where our campsite was located, which meant that our camper was ok.  It was definitely a bit of a fright and still is the closest call with a tornado that I ever experienced.

I don’t remember completely for certain, but I don’t think we ever went out to public events on the 4th of July in any of the other years that we lived in Flint, instead opting for celebration at home.  In the late 70s and early 80s, Michigan had pretty loose restrictions on the sale of fireworks for home use, which meant that every supermarket had big display tables with a big selection of firecrackers, sparklers, roman candles, bottle rockets, and other similar items.  My parents were appropriately nervous about these types of things, though, and would only allow us to get some sparklers, which we would only use with close supervision.

Many of the neighbors did buy and use the other kinds of home fireworks, which meant that there was always a sort of second-hand display that we were able to watch a bit on the evening of the 4th.  On the 5th, the neighborhood streets would be very littered with the spent casings from many of the fireworks and firecrackers that had been set off the night before. 

My best friend and I had a tradition, which we obviously never told our parents about (this post may end up as a confession…), walking through the neighborhood on the 5th examining the litter from the night before searching for accidentally discarded fireworks and firecrackers that had not yet been fired.  Each year, we found and gathered up quite a bit of stuff that was still live.  I remember one year we even found an unexploded cherry bomb, which was a particularly exciting find for a couple pre-teen boys.  I don’t remember exactly what we did, but I remember that it was never much of a problem finding a spot outside of eye and earshot of parents in order to light off everything we found.

Regardless of whether I just stayed at home with family or went out to do something special for the holiday, my memories of the 4th of July are pretty much all positive.  Here’s hoping for another great 4th of July holiday tomorrow.  Happy Birthday, USA!