Thursday, June 22, 2017

Sandals Saint Lucia-Stay at One Play at Three

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We are currently loving our stay at Sandals Grande Saint Lucia. It is a beautiful resort in the Carribean. Of course since it is a Sandals resort it is ultra all inclusive so the Hobie Cat, Kayaking, snorkeling are all FREE! We have taken advantage of all of these and enjoy them. We never have reservations but instead just walk up and get our life vests and take off. Your first trip out on a Hobie Cat you will get lessons on how to sail but after you master things you are able to come back anytime.

There are three resorts here and all are distinctive.  We chose Grande because it has the most restaurants. It is also the most expensive, you pay for convenience. The Grande boasts a large outstretched public beach. Locals are allowed to approach on the beach but they are friendly and once you let them know you don't plan to make any purchases they move along.  We are in a standard room with a completely remodeled bathroom and  garden view off the back porch.

There are always way too many room categories at a Sandals resort but it can be broken into a few areas. VIEW and butler or club levels.

  • Standard rooms: Least expensive category with a refrigerator stocked with water, soda and fruit juice. These rooms are clean and remodeled.
  • Club rooms: these rooms have a bar stocked with liquor and beer in the refrigerator. Another advantage is view and location. You can get a walk out into a quiet pool or a room with balcony overlooking the ocean. You also get ROOM service in this category...FREE
  • Butler rooms: these rooms have an employee assigned to you for your stay. You tip them once at the end of stay (normally there is not any tipping on sandals properties). You have different locations within this category. There are Roundevilles and Over the Water  bungalows. Both offer privacy beyond standard rooms and amazingly up to date rooms and services. These are so impressive that it is well worth it if this is a financially "doable" option.
Three resorts here have their own personalities.

  • Grande-the longest beach and the most expensive with the newest Sandals room category of Over the Water bungalows. Lots of restaurants including Barefoot on the Beach (one of or favorite seafood options), Gordon's on the Pier, Bombay Indian cuisine, Kimonos and Soy japanese hibachi and sushi.  As well as italian, buffet and jerk shops.

This resort is beside a really neat old hill/mountain as part of a public part. You can walk out of the resort and go over for a one hour hike/walk to the top to see old remains of forts and a pretty remarkable view. You pay American cash to get in it was about $15-20 for a couple.
  • La Toc-This resort is less expensive and still an excellent option. It includes a millionaire suite (only four on property so book early) These are up in the mountains with stunning views and a walk out pool on the balcony.You need to be able to climb and walk up steep inclines. If you have mobility issues I would not choose this one.  There are also standard, club and butler options. A favorite room of ours when touring this resort was a club level room with a soak tub and balcony overlooking the ocean. This resort has several restaurant and bar options as well. There is a golf course on property. Golfing is free, you can rent clubs or golf course if you don't bring your own. You are required to hire a caddy for $11 on 9 hole course. 

  • Halcyon-this resort is definitely a different one of the three. It is much smaller and goes at a slower pace. The employees are very friendly with less stress to handle the masses. There are only a few restaurants so you would want to take advantage of the free exchanges to the other resorts for nightlife and dining. This would be the choice for a couple that truly wants to be left alone and not interact with many people the whole week. The area seemed dated but there were major renovations going on while we were there. We got into a room under renovations and it was very nice.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Royal Caribbean: Allure of the Seas

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Prior to this cruise we had cruised on the Disney Fantasy and its sister ship the Disney Dream. We loved them both and we were pretty nervous about going with another cruiseline because Disney customer service and cleanliness are second to none.

We had 7 people to pay for on this trip and additional family and friends that joined in the fun so we decided to try to be more careful with cost. For this spring break trip we spent almost half the amount on a Royal Caribbean cruise as we would have on a Disney cruise.

I have been pleasantly surprised. First, it is clean and the employees are friendly. The food has been good and even great in spots. (I would still easily rate Disney food higher). This is an enormous ship but it rarely feels crowded. I have always found empty seats and really enjoy the adult only "Solarium". There's a pool, hot tubs, bar and plenty of chairs to relax in. The sign says 16+ for the age but my mature 15 year olds walked in unquestioned. I assume had they been loud or obnoxious they would have asked to see their ID.

Who is this ship for?  I would suggest it to any group of adults, people with children can take kids to a kids club on board. We don't have anyone that age so we don't have first hand knowledge.  As far as teens go, I think mine have had a blast but it is definitely because we have such a large group. They are constantly grabbing each other for a soccer game, ziplining, rock climbing, putt putting and laying by the pools. They have gone to shows and comedy shows together. I cannot imagine this trip as an individual family with older teens. Kids 13 and younger would probably go to the kids club and make friends pretty easily. If you are planning to go with older kids I would take a friend or invite another family to join in the fun so your kids can hang out.  Unlike our European trip there is a ton of down time. In Europe my kids enjoyed each other and we were going on one tour or excursion after another with plenty to do. Here you make up your plans as you go and I am convinced my kids would have whined or been bored if they didn't have friends and grandparents along to spend time with them. Keep in mind they are without their precious electronics so boys, especially, would struggle with being still. Girls will go sunbathe and are more likely to hang with mom. You know your family best so you will know how they will do without constant activities. Again, it has been a blast but I am thrilled they have a lot of people in our group of 13 to hang out with!

There are sports (soccer, mini golf, ice skating, basketball, wave surfing, ziplining, rock climbing and more) all included with no cost. There are plenty of places to eat including 24 hour room service that is complimentary but you should have some $1's to tip and there's a 24 hour restaurant.   I have heard some complaints of people that generally do Carnival that they prefer the 24 hour buffet offered there. Disney and Royal Caribbean do not have that option.

I have talked to others onboard to ask comparisons between Royal and Carnival. An employee that works for the stores so she has been on other cruiselines told me that she would rank Carnival at the bottom on amenities and food, then Royal then Holland. Of course that is also the order of pricing! She feels there is A LOT more drinking on Carnival (maybe it's cheaper??) so people don't care what they are eating. I have also talked to a family that prefers Carnival but they love the sun and the pools. So, they don't have an interest in the rest of the activities on board and prefer the Carnival set up with buffets 24 hours a day right by the pool. With a young child they find that a lot easier to negotiate to keep everyone happy.

My teens love it, they have eaten a ridiculous amount of food including lots of desserts, ice cream and cheeseburgers. They have played almost every sport and taken breaks to see the beauty surrounding them and relax for an afternoon nap.

My mom is temporarily in a wheelchair and she has had to use the elevators the entire trip. Thank goodness Royal Caribbean outshines Disney on this one! Disney elevators were painfully slow and we would just walk the stairs. We have not had much trouble at all getting around even with a large group.

Disney has free movies in the room and free brand new movies showing every day in their theater onboard. Royal Caribbean charges $12/movie to watch rentals in your room. There is a broadway style show currently "Momma Mia" and Comedy shows as well as a casino (won't find that on Disney).  There are also dance clubs and aquashows.

Ports we visited on this trip:
  • Nassau, thanks?  Well, for any avid cruisers you know that a stop in Nassau seems to be the norm. I would not even get off the ship at this stop unless you plan an excursion to go to a beach or have never been to the Caribbean.  There is a straw market and a street of stores but it is all very touristy and the shop owners are very pushy which I don't like at all. They yell at you and talk to you even when you are trying to move on. My kids that have traveled a lot would rather stay onboard the empty ship. It is quick to get on and off so if you have never been it might be worth the experience to see it but you will never want to get off there again :-)
  • St Thomas: This is an American Territory so you can often use cell phones free. We decided to spend a day at the beach here and after some research decided on Magen's Bay. It was an $8/person open air trolley ride each way to and from the ship and an additional $5/person entry fee. It ended up being about $21/person for this trip and we were at the beach 11-4:30  We had people from 4-66 years old and had a great day. The further you walk down the beach you can find much less busy areas.The water is clear and the kids floated, laid out, went on some walking adventures and snorkeled with gear their grandpa brought.  A hamburger was $10/person and renting chairs was $8 each.  We brought towels from the ship and ate a huge breakfast before we left. We had our smuggled waters we brought and my mom had taken a big beach bag to breakfast to bring muffins and fruit and goldfish crackers. We were famished and burnt upon our return, it was a great day!
If we booked this as an excursion it was $49/person, we spent $21/person  Since we are a family of 7 that was nearly a $200 savings to do it ourselves. If you book your excursion with the cruiseline you are guaranteed a return to the ship and you can make plans in advance. We decided it wasn't far away and we returned earlier than necessary.
Items to bring:
    • beach bag to bring smuggled breakfast snacks including fruit, muffins (so bring ziplock bags on board) and boxes of cereal, bottled water
    • liquid sunscreen, reapply throughout the day and pay special attention to tops of feet.
    • a hat will save the top of your head, bring one that can be washed
    • snorkel equipment
    • towels from ship
    • charged phone for pictures
    • cash for driver and $5 entry fee ($21/person)

  •  St. Maarten: We decided to look through the local shops and wander the port since we had been in the sun the previous day. There is a $7/person roundtrip water taxi to take you directly to the market area. We opted to walk the mile instead. This is where the kids were able to pick up $1 sodas which made sense compared to the $60 drink cards on ship! The shops ranged from island shops with tshirts, sundresses, hats and bags at cheap prices for cheaply made products to much nicer and more expensive duty free shopping.  The walk was fine even with a stroller and wheelchair however it did get very hot. My husband enjoyed the walk as the local vendors were all selling bottles of beer for $2 each with local beers. Upon arriving at the other side we realized the water taxi was taking people not only to the shops but a large beach area. This is very easily accessible without paying for an excursion and you can see the ship the whole time.

Allure of the Seas is divided into different areas which we really enjoyed exploring. There is Central Park where live plants grow and sounds of crickets and birds are piped in at night. This was a really nice place to stop after dinner and listen to live music or stroll through. Park Cafe is the complimentary restaurant on this floor with excellent made to order salads and carved roast beef sandwiches.

There is also a Boardwalk with a delicious complimentary hot dog/sausage dog restaurant with Johnny Rockets for an additional fee.

Finally, there is the Promenade that has a pizza restaurant called Sorrento's that is complimentary and you can choose from the pizzas premade and available or make one to order.

Cruising is a neat experience for kids because they meet people from all over the world working on the ship and traveling. Our room attendant, Jose, is from Guatemala so we immediately loved him since two of our boys are also from Guatemala!

Disney has tea, lemonade, coffee and soda included. Royal charges for a weekly soda cup and it is $60-70/person. We didn't buy the soda cups because we can get by on tea and water. I noticed two things. First, there aren't that many soda fountains, I would be annoyed if I spent that much then was not able to get enough refills. Next, they say you cannot bring on bottled water or soda. We brought on a case of water in a suitcase with no problem. I figure if they take it we would be out $4.  It was worth the risk. Next, we saw people walking on to the ship carrying cases of soda unquestioned! Completely visible red cream if I was a soda addict I would definitely give that a shot!  One of the teens with us bought soda for $1/can in Saint Maarten right off the ship and carried it back in inside of a backpack and it was not taken.

Alcohol cannot be brought on board.  They will take it! Alcohol onboard ranges from $8-12/glass or bottle of beer.

  • Make or buy door magnets to make your door more recognizable.
  • Internet is about $90 in advance for one device. We did that for our business. I was pleased to realize you can login to your computer and later your phone using only one code. You can only be logged into one device at a time.
  • Call your cell carrier to see what the international plan covers. My Sprint plans allows international calling in some countries at a discount and free texting and data.
  • Bring clip magnets to hang your itineraries and room documents on any surface, you are inside a ship so every wall is magnetic.
  • Keeping track of where everyone is can be a hassle. We have $2 dry erase boards on every door to communicate throughout the day. 
  • Storage is limited because the rooms truly are small don't be excessive in packing
  • bring books and magazines if you enjoy reading
  • obviously you will need more sunscreen than normal as you will be in and out of water and it is very tropical, we don't feel the spray sunscreens can compete with the Caribbean sun so I would suggest higher than normal SPF levels and liquid sunscreen.
  • In all dining rooms remember you can truly order anything you want. My teen boys have ordered two appetizers and two entrees most nights.  
  • When booking your vacation you choose Main (around 6 pm) Late (8pm) or Any Time dining. There are two dining rooms if you are placed in Main or Late but the Any Time diners go to American Icon for dinner any time you want. You can make reservations in advance if you have a specific time between 5:30-9:30 you would like to dine but we have really enjoyed the flexibility to just show up and be seated in a standby line whenever we would like each day. I am a planner so this surprises me but it has been very nice to be plan free.
  • Food at dinner is the same in the three dining rooms. Women mostly wear sundresses and the men wear khaki pants or nice khaki shorts with polos.  Two nights of the week are formal nights, many men wear jackets or long sleeve button up shirts with ties. My crew is pretty informal and no one seems disturbed at our dark pants and polo shirts with nicer dresses but certainly not cocktail dresses for us girls.
  • The fourth option at dinner is Windjammers Buffet, My boys love it because they can stuff themselves silly. But I don't think the food is nearly as good as in the restaurants.
  • For breakfast there are options all over the ship and the fresh fruit is great. 
  • Lunch is also spread out with the daily buffets in Windjammers and a smaller buffet in the solarium for guests 16+, bagels and sandwiches in Park Cafe are very good and donuts on the boardwalk. 
  • There are quite a few places to pay an upcharge for finer dining or Ben and Jerry's ice cream or candy by the ounce. We didn't bother with any of that. Our teens certainly value quantity over quality!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Value Resort: All Star Sports

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Disney World has 4 Value resorts: Pop Century, All Star Movies, All Star Music and All Star Sports. Technically Art of Animation is a fifth value resort....BUT most of it is suites that cost more than two value rooms so it's hard to classify it as a value resort.  As part of a group Cheer Competition, I recently stayed at All Star Sports Resort. All Star Sports has six themed areas after five sports: Baseball, Football, Surfing, Tennis, Basketball.  As always you can request an area but it will not be guaranteed. Preferred area closest to food court and main pool would be a slightly higher cost and that area is the Surfing area.

The rooms are identical to all value level resorts. There are two double beds, a shower with toilet and a side area with a single sink. It is a very small room and definitely one where you get what you pay for as far as amenities and space. It is clean and on the Disney Busing system but there are no "extras" as far as proximity to parks or dining options.


The Football themed area has a large open area that kids tend to like and play on.


 The food court is similar to all Disney Value resorts. There are breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack options throughout the day. There are $16 large single topping pizzas made to order which is the least expensive option. Breakfast was disappointing but that has been in the case at all value resorts for me.

I was surprised at the size of the food court and even though it was crowded with cheer girls we had no trouble finding a pretty quiet space close to the back. The photo above was at breakfast time when it was pretty busy.

 There is a refrigerated area of different options like fresh fruit, sandwiches and alcohol. There are drink self service areas. The refillable mugs are currently $17.99 or free with dining plan.

Apparently, some parents need alcohol to survive Disney :-)

The food court has toasters, microwaves and an assortment of jellies, honey and butter. So, bring food along if you have a car or use an "Uber" to go to a local store especially for breakfast.

Common areas are clean, nice and sports themed.

Check in is quick and simple but I still suggest online check in. The lines here moved quickly and we spoke with concierge for some help with fastpasses and we had a very friendly cast member.

Playground is nearly always empty and tucked away within the All Stars Resort.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Disney-What NOT to do!

I get a lot of questions on what to make sure and do at Disney.  People should ask what NOT to do because oftentimes that will make more of a headache for you then missing something.

  • When your kids are melting STOP! Do not continue, do not get in line, do not do MORE, just stop!
    • get them a snack in an air conditioned facility
    • go back to the hotel and swim or just call it a day and get to sleep.
    • it is okay to break your itinerary, you will be miserable if you try to make them last.
    • Remember, the exception is a scheduled table service. Those must be canceled 24 hours in advance. You can still try calling to cancel last minute and see if they will forego the $10 per person cancellation for being last minute. 1-407-939-3463 Disney Dining
  • Do NOT rely wholeheartedly on the My Disney Experience app. It has stopped working several times. PLEASE print your itinerary including dining times and your Fastpass+ times from My Disney Experience before you leave home. If you do not do this I will not be able to access it for you.
  • Do not put princess shoes on your princess!  If she is going to fight to wear them bring real shoes and socks in your backpack. You will be walking a lot and the princess will turn into Maleficent!
  • Do not cram so much into a day that everyone is scrambling and not really taking it all in.
  • Do not stand in the entry way to a park in complete awe while thousands of people pass you and get on rides.  All of that magnificence will be there after you take advantage of early hour ride times in the parks.
  • Do not miss opportunities for candid snapshots of your kids when they approach a character. Often the best pictures are before the posed picture when they are walking up to their favorite character.
My princess, Emma, meeting Cinderella. This is the picture before the posed photo.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Disney Springs

This is a free shopping and dining location on Disney property accessible by Disney bus from all resorts (and boat at Port Orleans or Saratoga Springs resorts). If you have a car on property you should ask for directions, it is often very quick to get to this location on your own. This is a great place to go if you have some time on day of arrival or departure. It is also a place we go when we don’t have park hopper passes on the evening we go to Animal Kingdom (since you get back early from that park). 

Everything you buy here can be sent back to your resort gift shop free. This helps you spend way too much without realizing it! Thanks, Disney, how thoughtful of you!  

A few times in extreme rain we have actually watched a movie over at Disney's Springs AMC theaters.

Shopping (There are all kinds of unique shops here.)
  • Disney’s Days of Christmas store is open year round and offers personalized Disney ornaments they will ship home for you (you will pay for shipping but the safety of your purchase is guaranteed). We usually buy a customized ornament every year here.

  • There is a neat art store, The Art of Disney, has Disney prints and original art for sale. 
  • Lego Imagination Store is fun for the lego lover and the rest of us. There are Lego creations of Disney characters. Look for the Lego play area for kids to design their own lego fun. Obviously, they are happy to sell you legos as well.

  • World of Disney is an enormous store that has all things available. Disney items for kitchens, bath, kids, adults, toys, jewelry, housewares and Disney HATS and MUGS. If you are dying to get your Disney hat this is the place to buy it. There is every conceivable, wacky and ridiculous hat available. 
  • In the past couple of years, Disney has revamped this entire area. They added a variety of boutique shops that will interest the old teens and young adults.  We (the girls-we left boys at the resort) spent hours there this past trip.
  • Disney Kitchen store: Mickey's Pantry
  • Vera Bradley
  • Disney Pin trading store
  • Lefty person's kiosk
  • AND a LOT of boutique stores!
  • The Art of Shaving store
  • Basin is a favorite stop for my girls and I, there's lots of smelly soaps to try and soften your hands as well!
Snacks at Downtown Disney
  • Goofy’s Candy Company has some interesting snacks including caramel apples, cupcakes, fudge and cookies.
  • Disney's Candy Cauldron is an excellent shop to find unique Disney treats. I like to stand in the window and watch them create their amazing caramel apples. I've never eaten one, I just like to see them.
  • Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop is not on the dining plan but has become a family favorite for us.  First, if you go in the small chocolate shop connected to the dining area they ALWAYS give away small squares of chocolate. My daughter and mother go in and out of this store multiple times in the same visit in fits of laughter about getting their free squares of chocolate!  The ice cream parlor is also great. My dad and I visit this and share an ice cream treat, one favorite is The Ocean Beach Sea Salt Caramel Sundae  Many have multiple scoops so we buy a huge one to share which is far less expensive as long as your good at 'holding your own' with a spoon! 

      Quick Service Meal Options
  •       Wolfgang Puck's Express: This is our favorite Quick Service location on all of Disney property...should I say that again, OUR FAVORITE!!!  This is a Quick Service meal and is one of the best values in Quick Service. We eat here at least once each trip and find items for everyone. Young kids will survive but may not find their favorites here (we don't care, they will survive one meal and our kids love the giant cookie for dessert here as well as refillable soda). This is sandwiched between The Christmas Store and Mickey's Pantry set back a bit and it is easy to miss.  You might want a few dollars to tip. You order at a counter but someone brings your food and offers refills.  The servings are large and very easy to share. We usually get the kids a cheese pizza, it's about the size of a traditional Medium pizza.  There is a rotisserie chicken meal that is fantastic and abundant.  My favorites here are the refillable Mango Tea and dessert options including creme brulee.

  •      Earl of Sandwich: This is a very inexpensive option if you want to dine off the dining plan or are running low on meal credits. These are excellent sandwiches and refillable drinks. HOWEVER, every time I attempt to eat here there is no seating and the line is out the door. In off season (winter or September) this is probably a great option. During busier times I don't bother waiting. My mom loves PLAIN food and often goes there while the rest of us order at Wolfgang's. This is a great stop late at night if you sneak out without your husband to shop!