Review: Pump It Up – Knoxville

pumpitup3My son has a winter birthday. That means, we can’t plan on having his birthday party outside. Normally, we just do cake and ice cream at home with the family. But for his fifth birthday, we felt we really ought to have a party. This was a major birthday and would be his last chance at inviting kids he’s spent his entire life with at daycare.

Looking around town, there are several options, Chuck E Cheese, a couple of gym places, but the place that seems to be the post popular with the five-year-old set is Pump It Up.

We’ve been here several times now for friends’ birthdays so decided to go here.

Here are some of the things I really like about it:

  1. There is a time cut off. The parent is not the bad guy telling the kids they have to stop playing.
  2. I don’t have to come up with games for kids to play. Parents just have to watch the kids to make sure no one gets too rough and everyone follows the rules (as closely as a bunch of excited five-year-olds can, anyway).pumpitup1
  3. You have options for different types of parties. Since we were inviting all 20 kids from his pre-k class, plus several kids from church, we went with the package that was two hours and let up to 25 kids (plus the birthday kid as #26) play. I really like that package. You get 1 1/2  hours to play and a 1/2 hour to eat cake and open gifts. The smaller package has an hour of play time and a 1/2 hour to eat. For the difference in price, I’d go with the extra play time, if possible, even if you have fewer kids.
  4. You can bring your own drinks, cake, cookies, fruit, other snacks. They have an option for them providing pizza – but seeing all the uneaten pizza at the other parties I’ve been to, we decided to save that money and just bring our own stuff.
  5. Parents can play too. Yes, watching the 20-something-year-old moms climbing the obstacle course and then discovering that his 40-something-year-old mom couldn’t make the last ladder on it was disappointing, (If I’d had one more hand-hold I could have made it!) but I was more than capable of doing the other slides, bounce houses, and games with my kid. That’s a really fun memory to have.
  6. It’s not outrageously expensive. Comparing two hours of time at Pump It Up to a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese where the kids spend most of that time playing annoying, loud games for tickets, the price is not that bad. Plus, again, my kid doesn’t like pizza. So the idea of having to buy awful pizza for a kid who doesn’t pumpitup2want it is annoying.
  7. The party time. The employees get everything ready. They provide the cups, forks, plates. They clean up. The kids get to watch pictures the employees have taken and feel like stars because they’re on the TV. The employees even give a handy list of what child gave which gift so those of us who still do Thank You notes have something to go by.

What could be better:

Their directions and how to find the building. This place is awful to try to find. The first time I went there, I followed my GPS, which tried to send me a 1/2 mile further down the road. Coming into the building, it looks rather sketchy and there is not a good sign to really tell you that you’ve arrived. It actually appears like you’re going into the back door of the business, rather than a front door. They need a bigger and better sign to let folks know they have arrived. Trying to explain how to get there to my son’s grandparents from Nashville was an adventure, and their GPS also sent them the wrong way.

But that’s really it for what could be better. Just remember, the place is so popular that you have to book about a month in advance – minimum.

I wouldn’t do it every year, partly because I feel like a child shouldn’t have an all-out mega birthday party ever year, but also because it is a pretty big chunk to spend. But, we also didn’t get him a big birthday gift either like we had in the past. And that’s something to think about. Does a kid really need a big gift they will not play with much, or do the experience and the memories matter more?

 

 

 

Disneyland – first impressions

tink-walt-mickey

While I was in Anaheim for Educause this past October, my boss and I got to visit Disneyland on the Friday afternoon when the conference finished. Since we weren’t flying out until dawn the next day, we had an afternoon and evening to see the area. I had never visited a Disney park with a non-family member before, so this was a new experience for me.

rachael-disneyland

As many will say, Disneyland feels a lot like the Magic Kingdom in Disney World. However, it does have quite a few other rides – though we weren’t able to ride several due to them being down in order to decorate for Christmas – including It’s a Small World. This was such a shock to me. At Disney World, decorations seem to happen magically overnight. Disneyland had a much more hometown park vibe than any of the Disney World parks.

One of my goals in going to Disneyland on this trip was to decide if we should make a special trip here for vacation. Verdict – if we were ONLY going to do Disneyland, I would not fly across the country for it. But if we were going to combine that trip with Disney’s California Adventure, the beach, and a partial cross-country jaunt to see the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, or Carlsbad Caverns, I’d definitely include it.

I’m fairly spoiled when it comes to Disney parks. We usually plan our Disney trips months in advance, make sure we have meals and rides set up with fast passes. We expect to be able to adjust fast passes on the fly using the My Disney Experience app. Going to Disney World is like going to a park in the 21st century. Going to Disneyland is like stepping back in time to the parks I visited as a kid. It was quaint receiving a paper ticket to get into the park. The idea that they offer hand stamps to allow you to return to the park is old-fashioned. Fast Passes are handled by inserting your paper ticket into a machine and receiving another paper ticket with a return time on it for the ride. It left a good feeling to be able to hand a couple of kids our return tickets for Haunted Mansion at 9 p.m. when we realized we were both tired at 5:30 p.m. and needed to leave the park in order to get up before the crack of dawn the next day. That’s something you can’t do with the Disney World fast pass system.

Disneyland has the feel of a hometown park. And it’s obvious that the majority of people attending are locals. I’d read that you don’t want to visit Disneyland on the weekends. As soon as 5 p.m. came on Friday, the park went from comfortable to crazy busy within minutes. My boss and I both felt boxed in and too crowded. In the short 3 hours that we’d been in the park, we had been able to ride Star Tours, Matterhorn, Pirates of the Caribbean, listen to music on the Mark Twain Boat, listen to the Barbershop Harmony group, shop, and sing along with with a character in Frontierland.  We were not in a rush. We were ambling along and taking the time to look at the art and details. After the locals came, wait times tripled. The only thing we had really wanted to do that we didn’t have time for was ride Haunted Mansion, but between the locals and this being the Friday before Halloween, it was no surprise that fast passes for that ride were rarer than gold.

Just an aside – those who say Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland is better than the one at Disney World are correct. It was longer and had more details; I was impressed.

Can you compare Disneyland to Disney World? No. Can you compare Disneyland to the Magic Kingdom? Yes. And a day at Disneyland can be just as much fun as a day at the Magic Kingdom. But, if possible, go Monday through Thursday.

Legoland Review

Castle in Legoland HotelRecently, we went on vacation to Florida, and for the first time in years, did not go to Disney World. But, we couldn’t just skip parks all together, so we decided to try Legoland.

Legoland is certainly a better park to go to than Dollywood. On a scale of one to ten, where Disney World is a 10, I’d say Dollywood is a 3 and Legoland a solid 6.

Legoland is ideal for kids ages 4-8 years old. So if you are like many people with multiple kids, you may have one or two kids it’s great for, and then another kid who is bored.

The Boy driving a firetruck on a track for 3 to 4 year olds onlyIt does have good things for that age group. They even have some rides that only kids ages 3 to 4 can ride while older kids have to go someplace else. I liked this because it meant no older kids ruining things for my kid.
Other parents didn’t like it because it meant mom and dad having to split kids up into two lines at two different areas. Kudos to the employees who insisted on brothers and sisters splitting up too, even in the face of a couple of rude families who had obviously read the signs but felt they didn’t apply to them (or apparently the rules for kids to not climb on the rails, or not cutting in line). For those of us with one child, it was an advantage not having ill-behaved 7-year-olds running over my child in a car while he tried to steer.

The Boy riding as a Knight on a Lego horseYou can certainly tell that Legoland used to be a local amusement park. Just as you can still see the bones of Silver Dollar City in Dollywood, you can still see a lot of Cypress Gardens in Legoland. Some of the rides have obviously just been face-lifted to have Lego themes. Some newer rides, like in the World of Chima area, are much better made. But the employees are obviously proud of the history of the park and it made it feel more interesting.

We weren’t able to get to the water park section and I’ve heard that is a great area to visit. We’ll probably do that next time. Since we got to ride the water ride in World of Chima over and over (there were times where the employees just asked if we wanted to stay on) we ended up soaking wet as it was.

We liked Legoland.

We liked that we were able to find discounts on annual passes. We got The Boy the Awesome Pass and Mike and I got the special they ran on Cinco De Mayo of buy-one-Awesomer Pass and get-one free. That saved us $150.

The shopping, which seems to be a great deal of the park, doesn’t have anything that you can’t find online or a big Lego store. We did buy some Lego sets since the Awesomer Pass did get us a discount. One of the nice employees did spend quite a bit of time for me feeling all the minifig packs until she found me a Buzz Lightyear, Captain Hook and Peter Pan. So that’s something you don’t get in most Lego stores.

That brings me to the employees. They were not on par with Disney cast members, but they were running a pretty close second. Everyone was helpful. Everyone had a pretty good attitude. The young employees at the World of Chima water ride were the best. Taunting the riders to try to soak them with water from the guns as they pulled up from the ride. Laughing if they accidentally got hit as riders started the water guns up as they were leaving.

Legoland is not Disney. Where Disney would cover up the mechanics of how things work, Legoland was missing many of those touches. In the Miniland area, all the little tracks that boats, cars, etc. ran on were not covered up. Water in the Miniland area was stale looking. Miniature buildings looked like they needed a good scrubbing. It was neat to look at, but a little disappointing too knowing they could have taken that small extra step to make things, well, more magical. It was really these small touches that made it not feel on par with Disney. That being said, The Boy loved pushing the buttons in this area to get cars to move, pirate boats to squirt us with water, and smoke to come out of Star Wars fire-fights.

The family and the knight in the Legoland hotelThe Legoland hotel was a well themed hotel. We didn’t stay overnight, but we spent a few hours there letting The Boy play in the Lego pit, at the castle, and then had lunch in the bar area. We met the Knight; they also had a court jester to play Lego with the kids. The lunch we had there was pretty good, much better value and quality than the food we had in the park. I don’t think I’d stay at that hotel since the rooms were $300+/night. But it was nice to see and I’d definitely leave the park to eat in the bar area of the hotel. They even have non-alcoholic fancy drinks you can buy for your kids.

Legoland may not have all the magic of Disney, but, it also was a LOT cheaper than going to three days at Disney would have been. I think if we’d not been able to get a buy-one, get-one on our passes, I’d have been a bit disappointed. But we spent in total $270 on passes for three people for tickets we can use for a year. We get food discounts, we get free parking, we get discounts on merchandise. That’s not bad at all. As a comparison, a 3-day ticket for two adults and one child to Disney World is $852 and parking at Disney would be extra unless staying on property. Disney tickets get cheaper/per day the longer you go, but a Disney vacation is still a lot more than going to Legoland.

But, something to remember:  Disney World is the destination for your vacation. Legoland is the fun place you go to while you’re on vacation. I think we’ll be going back.

The Santa Problem

Even before we had a child, Mike and I talked about how to handle The Santa Problem. Mike will tell you he was (and still is) traumatized by discovering his parents had flat out lied to him for YEARS about this. My family came at Santa more from the idea of whoever gave out the presents on Christmas morning was Santa and it was fun to pretend he existed. We always joked that it was Mrs. Claus who filled our stockings since it was our mom who did the work.

We decided when The Boy came along to go at Santa more from the perspective my family had. We didn’t want him to be That Kid who ruined it for everyone else, but we also didn’t want to take part in a lie that society seems to think is perfectly acceptable to do right at the age where we’re teaching kids that lying is wrong.

But here’s where the problem comes. The Boy talks to his friends at pre-school. These kids are indoctrinated by desperate parents who have told them to behave or they’ll end up on Santa’s Naughty List. (And believe me, there have been times I’ve wished to be able to use that.) But now, the kids have a go-to threat with each other. You make me angry; I’ll tell you you’re on The List.

We have been very careful to tell The Boy that we like to pretend about Santa; that it’s a fun thing to do. We’re not quite sure if he believes or not. He’ll make comments about pretending there’s a Santa or noticing that the Zoo Santa we saw this year was the same Santa as last year. But then, he’ll make comments about how all his presents come from Santa. We both shot that one down fairly quickly since we want him to understand that those come from family who need to be thanked when they give him a gift.

I’ve told him how much we liked pretending that my mom was Mrs. Claus and how I’m looking forward to being Mrs. Claus to fill his stocking. I’ve told him about the man, St. Nicholas and how that name eventually turned into Santa Claus. We’ll see how he does as he gets older. I don’t remember ever being surprised about Santa as a child. I’m hoping we’ll be able to walk the fine line between fun and truth a few more yzoosanta2015ears.

In the mean time, we’ll enjoy the fact that The Knoxville Zoo has an awesome program for meeting Santa. It’s a wonderful place to go where one parent can stand in line to meet Santa while the other watches as The Boy plays on the slide in the jungle cave or looks for dinosaur bones in the dig pit. And getting to see animals afterward around the zoo is just one more amazing benefit.

The Beaches of Charleston, SC

We got to take a last minute vacation recently and decided to visit Charleston, SC. I’ll probably write a couple posts on it, but today, I wanted to give a quick review of a couple of the beaches.

We visited Sullivan’s beach and the Isle of Palms.

Sullivan’s IslandSullivansBeachsmaller

Sullivan’s Island’s and Folly beaches are the most well-known of the beaches in Charleston. They are certainly large and Sullivan’s Island is a protected barrier island that has lovely sand, not many seashells and fairly tame waves compared to other beaches I’ve been to. Parking was fairly convenient and free. But you have to find it on the many side streets and hope to get within an easy walking distance of the beach. There were no restrooms that I could find. But after only going to this beach, I was seriously thinking it was one of the nicer beaches I’d ever visited. The only trash I found was a small piece that might have come from a cigarette filter, very little kelp washed up, the sand was smooth and easy to walk on. Just a lovely, restful place to spend a day. Sullivan’s also had more and possibly better restaurants than we saw at Isle of Palms. I can definitely recommend this beach. That being said, we tried Isle of Palms at the suggestion of a co-worker and again at another suggestion from the lovely lady serving us at Hello Deli in North Charleston (a deli so good, we ate there three times during our 5 days in Charleston) and that one became my favorite.

IsleofPalmssmallerIsle of Palms

Isle of Palms is smaller than Sullivan’s. But it is gorgeous. The beach was quiet– granted, we visited here on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, so I’m sure it was packed the day before. The waves here seemed slightly more intense than at Sullivan’s, perhaps just because of the day we came, but I got the feeling Sullivan’s always has comparatively tame waves. There were still very few shells on the very clean beach, but more than at Sullivan’s. On the beach was a beautiful pier that many people used for shade from the sun but also acted as a great little science show for The Boy on where seashells come from. The nicest thing about Isle of Palms, though, was the amenities. There is street parking for $1 an hour close to the beach, but because this is also a park, there was a public parking lot for $7/day extremely close to the entrance to the beach. Plus, the entrance to the beach included a large bathroom facility with separate changing rooms and an outdoor shower where people could at least rinse off the majority of the sand, and a lovely playground area for kids. To top it all off, the sand at Isle of Palms even made a much better sandcastle than Sullivan’s. This was a beautiful beach and we will definitely be back.

Truly, if you’ve got time to spend at the beach, either Sullivan’s Island or Isle of Palms would be great choices.

Cooking adventures with The Boy

apronOur son is 3.5 years old. He’s at the age where he wants to learn and do things “all by myself!” but still needs help. There’s one thing I love to have him help with and that’s cooking dinner. I want him to know that boys can cook. I want him to know how to make food for himself and be independent, and I want him to know what it takes to get his food prepared. He’s been helping me a lot lately and I realized something early on that makes me really encourage him to help me cook. He loves to eat the food he’s made himself. He’s willing to try new things. He loves going out with me to the container garden and picking a tomato and then (if it lasts that long and isn’t eaten first) seeing that tomato end up on the table in a dinner he’s helped to make.

One of our favorite things to make together is pancakes. He does everything once and then “lets” me take over. We talk about how much Bisquick mix we need. He gets to stir, pour it out on the pan and flip the pancakes when done. If we’re in the mood, he sprinkles chocolate chips on some of them.  I even let him flip the bacon the first time (before it starts to really sizzle and pop).

Yesterday, he got his first “burn.” We’d been talking about not touching hot pans. I’d just turned the pan on and it was beginning to warm up. I warned him several times to not touch. But, I also decided to step back a bit and see what he’d do. As I suspected, he reached out and lightly brushed the end of the pan with his finger. He jumped back to show me his “burn” and we dealt with it. The pan was just barely warm and the “burn” was not even a red spot. (By the time we turned around to the sink to run cool water over it and get the medicinal Mama kiss, neither of us could remember which finger was actually “burned.” We finally settled on the right since that had been closest to the pan). I hope it was enough for him to understand not to touch, though. He could tell that the pans continued to heat up. Considering they are talking about the five senses this week in daycare, I’m wondering if he’ll mention this incident for “touch.”

Yes, having my helper makes it harder to get dinner on the table. But it is so much fun. We are learning about hand-washing before food prep and washing after touching raw meat and eggs. We’re learning what food looks like cooked and un-cooked. He’s learning that there are ways to measure things and how to be careful so we don’t make too big of a mess – though some mess is required and the cooks definitely get to sample the chocolate chips. But he’s also learning that he’s part of the family and has responsibilities to help. All this and the memories are priceless.

Dollywood and an unfair comparison to Disney World

Recently, we visited Dollywood with our family. We are new season pass holders. We had gotten passes at Christmas last year and thought we’d go a few times this year to make it worth it. We were extremely disappointed with Dollywood when we took family in May. We had Mike, Me, The Boy (3), Brother-in-Law, his 5-year-old son, and the two boys’ grandmother. I’m going to now, unfairly, compare Dollywood to Disney World.

Just a note: I use some patently unfair math below, but it’s to make a point about value for the dollar.

Reasons why it’s (possibly) unfair to compare the two:

  1. They are suppose to not really be in the same league and shouldn’t be compared.But why should they not be compared? USA Today even had one article that ranked Dollywood above Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. Dollywood is obviously trying to compete with the big boys. So shouldn’t it be fair to compare it to the bigger parks?
  2. Dollywood is cheaper on the surface, for a pass, it certainly is. Once you get in the park, not so much. And check out the value for the dollar math below.
  3. Disney World is the destination, Dollywood is a day’s distraction. Agreed. People go to Pigeon Forge for the shopping, Gatlinburg for the kitch and mountains and Dollywood is often a place to wear the kids out in between. Though locals, like us, do just plan on spending the day at Dollywood periodically as our only reason for braving the tourist traffic in Pigeon Forge.

So let me tell you about our recent experience and why we spent the day comparing Dollywood to Disney.

Rides

When we visited Dollywood, the park was open from 10a.m to 7p.m. Considering we were only interested in doing rides that small children could do, that limited us to about 1/2 of the park. That’s totally fine with us. Meant less walking. But here’s the problem. Many of these rides were either not working or had broken parts. We went on May 17, long after the website says the rides are to be open. Here’s a sampling.

The Carousel – broken. With no sign. It was spinning around and looked like it was working fine. People would walk up to the line only to be told by a half-hearted attendant that it was being maintenanced. There was nothing to indicate that the ride, which was spinning and playing music tempting little children to come to it was anything but functioning properly – until you walk through the line to discover it’s broken. The answer to the question of when would it be finished was a shrug. It was broken from before we took the train until after we left the elephants (a couple hours later).

Rockin’ Roadway – closed. At least the lady in front of it was nice about letting us know it was closed and should be working later in the day. But there was still no sign. And that didn’t help us when we were not going to be back in that part of the park.

Amazing Flying Elephants – several of the elephants were broken. Considering how long this stupid line was and the fact that some people seemed to decide they had to put their kids in one elephant and them ride separately, my brother-in-law and I spent most of our time at the park waiting in line for this low rent version of Dumbo with multiple elephants broken. If all of the elephants had been working, the line would have moved at a crawl rather than a snail’s pace.

This was the ride that really ticked me off. Why? Because Dollywood can’t do one simple thing that Disney does: Put up a sign that says how long your wait is going to be. How hard is it to do that? They could do it with a chalkboard.

So Dollywood has multiple popular rides either being fixed with no notice or in poor repair and broken and doesn’t post signs either about the fact they are broken or the times you’ll wait for poorly maintained rides. At least when Disney refurbishes a ride, they work on themeing the closure and their wait times and (free) Fast Pass + system are head and shoulders above Dollywood’s TimeSaver pass that costs $25 PER PERSON and just lets you put yourself in the line so you don’t have to stand there while you wait.

Winner: Disney

Food and Drink Prices

Drinks: We purchased the season pass beverage containers. They were running a special where the normally $20/each cups were on sale for additional ones. I think we ended up paying $20, and then $5 for three others. Something like that. Here’s the funny thing. The equivalent of these from Disney (which granted can not be used in the parks, only at your home resort) are $18 for your length of stay and then free refills. For Dollywood, each refill is $1, but the cup is good all season long. This kind of balances out for me. I might even give the winner here to Dollywood since the rapid refill mugs at Disney are only good at your hotel.

Drinks Winner: Dollywood

Since I went with a Gold Pass at Dollywood, we did get a 10% discount on our meal. I will say the food we got was pretty good for a theme park, though not as good as food at Disney sitdown restaurants. For this, I’m comparing Backstage Restaurant at Dollywood to Liberty Tree Tavern at Disney.

Positives for Backstage Restaurant – everyone can choose their own meal.

Positives for Liberty Tree – unlimited food, so many choices people can find something they like. YUMMY food. Awesome service

For me, Liberty Tree at Disney was much better for the taste. The food at Backstage was a bit uneven. Some was good, some not so good. Everything at Liberty Tree was great. Price wise, I’d say we came out slightly ahead per person at Backstage, but that included a 10% discount that we didn’t get at Liberty Tree (since we no longer have annual passes).

Split decision:

Taste Winner: Disney’s Liberty Tree Tavern

Price (with season pass discount): Dollywood’s Backstage Restaurant

Photos

We purchased the season photo pass for Dollywood. We purchased the Memory Maker for our Disney World trip. Mike and I both agreed that the $160 we spent on Memory Maker was the best thing we bought the entire time. Why? Unlimited photos from all the photographers around the parks. It was so easy to just scan our Magic Band and have the photos appear in our account. We got magic shots, we got posed shots, we even had photographers just come up to us during rainstorms to entertain The Boy and get great pictures. It was wonderful. And no, it is not expensive when you consider that for daycare school photos, we pay $150 to get 3 poses plus the digital image. We don’t care about the printed photos. We want the digital images. We got more than 100 photos on our trip and had so many good ones, I made a rather large photo book of the Memory Maker photos.

At Dollywood, the photo pass costs $50 annually and then you get to pay $2 per photo to get them to put it on your account. Considering that we have averaged exactly 1.5 photos per trip, that’s fairly expensive per picture, though granted, not daycare prices. We have both agreed it has not been worth the hassles for the quality of photos we’ve gotten.

Dollywood has very few places for people to get photos, so you are rushed constantly. On this trip, we got a photo before riding the train. Mike went to pay the $2 to get it added to our account while my BIL and I took the two boys to ride Elephants. Note: we were still in line for a 1/2 hour AFTER Mike got back from the ordeal of trying to GIVE THEM MONEY for our photo.

Mike was the first person in line for the photos since he didn’t need to stop and look at the photo to know he wanted to pay the $2. The attendant waved him back and said he had to wait until ALL the other people who wanted photos and who had NOT paid for the photo pass paid for their photo. So he was literally sent to the back of the line because he paid $50 extra for convenience. After he waited for an entire train’s worth of passengers to buy photos, he paid the $2 and was told it would appear soon. It was not there when we left. He had to stop at the window on the way out to ask about it. They said to give it 24 hours. He did. Called again. Give it another 24 hours. Called again, we finally had to go through the process of describing what we were wearing so they could manually go through the photos to find us. Surprisingly, they DID find our photo. So good on Dollywood for that. But this was a nightmare compared to the ease and customer friendly attitude you get with Disney.

Winner: Disney Memory Maker

Admission Price

For ease of comparison, I’m going to choose an annual/season pass for each park. I’m choosing the 2 park option for Dollywood since Disney’s pass gets you all 4 parks.

  • Disney Annual Pass: $654
  • Dollywood (2 park): $146

Looking at this, Dollywood wins. However, Disney is open 365 days a year. Dollywood is closed for nearly 3 months in January, February and March and an additional 45 days periodically throughout the year, when it has entire days in the middle of the week where it is closed. Be sure you check the calendar and not trust it’s open! So that means instead of getting 12 months as you do at Disney, you’re in effect getting 7.5 months where you can use the pass.

Let’s re-work our math:

  • Disney’s annual pass (per month): $54.50
  • Dollywood’s season pass (per month, this is assuming 7.5 months of usable time): $19.47

Wow, Disney is still nearly 3 times as expensive. But what do you get for the price?

  • Customer Service. No one can deny that Disney has the best customer service in the world.
  • Quality. Their stuff works. If it doesn’t work, they advertise it, they make it easy to know when it will be fixed, they handle it with style when things go wrong.
  • Choices: 4 parks to choose from compared to 2 for Dollywood.

Hey, let’s look at the per park math, shall we?

  • Disney Price per park per month: $54.50/4 = $13.63
  • Dollywood Price per park per month: $19.57/2 = $9.74

Prices aren’t looking too different now, are they? I’d say Quality, Customer Service and Choices are worth the extra money. That being said, it still is easier to go for a day to Dollywood than to run down to Orlando.

So there you go, for a difference of a few dollars per park, you get Disney. Is this math really fair when comparing the two? No, not really. But it sure does make me feel like I’m not getting the bang for the buck from Dollywood as I do from Disney. And that’s the important thing. My value for the dollar.

Value for the dollar: Disney wins.

Sexism and Disney

Truly, this is not just about Disney. But this post is related to the Sexism and Marvel post from a few weeks back and since most of the toys The Boy has are Disney related, they are going to get picked on here. This could really be a rant on most toy companies and attitudes in general towards what should be boy and girl toys.

The Boy absolutely loves the following three movie franchises in this order: Toy Story, Cars, Planes. These are Pixar/Disney films but it is Disney that handles the merchandising. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised when we looked for the 20″ Toy Story dolls for him that we were able to find a Jessie doll. At least those were something we could find. Maybe because both boys and girls are allowed to love those movies. But let’s look at Cars and Planes.

When The Boy let us know he wanted the characters from Cars (he is unaware Cars 2 exists except as a short-story that I edit as a read to him) we started looking for them – they made great potty training rewards and Christmas was coming up. It took awhile, but eventually, we found all of the Radiator Springs members. This was an old movie. We expected it would be difficult to find the cars. It was not impossible. Though, the only set we could find Miss Sally in was with her having dinner with Lightning.

But when it comes to the Planes movies, we noticed something odd. We could not find any of the female characters easily. These are PLANES, they are not gendered in real life. But it was very difficult to find Dottie. It was nearly impossible to find Lil’ Dipper – we finally had to settle for a larger, expensive version of her from the Disney store rather than finding the smaller version (like the other characters have) available at other stores. Pinecone (one of the Smoke Jumpers) is easier to find – but I think that might be because unless you pay close attention to the one line she has in the movie, you might not realize she’s female. But Dynamite? The leader of the Smoke Jumpers? The obviously strong female character? Impossible to find in any store. Oh yes, she’s available if you want to pay an arm and a leg from a collector on Amazon, but she is NEVER hanging on the shelf at Walmart or Target, or Kroger, or Toys R Us, or any of the other stores we diligently check to try to find female Planes and Cars characters.

I was even willing to buy the $100 set (later reduced and then discontinued) from the Disney Store that included all the characters in Planes Fire and Rescue in an attempt to get Dynamite. But, since many of the toys sold by the Disney Store are terrible quality, we had to return it after I dropped one of the cars on our rug while carrying it to the Christmas tree and it broke.

Note to Disney: I love most of  your merchandise. I love the quality of the t-shirts, kitchen items, beach towels, etc. But your toys are often pieces of junk. It’s depressing thinking I can find a better made toy at Walmart than I can at the Disney Store.

 

I was very glad I’d over-bought for his Christmas since this happened on Christmas Eve and we decided to not give him that set.

Not being able to find female characters in “boy” toys is common to all toy manufacturers, but it is really obvious in Disney and Marvel toys. Years ago, you could buy adorable prince outfits at the Disney Store that were similar to the princess costumes you see today. What do you see at the stores now? The Avengers. Hot, bulky costumes that a boy would never be able to wear to Disney World and would get uncomfortable wearing for the length of time it takes to Trick or Treat. If they have one of the other male characters, like Jake from The Neverland Pirates, the quality of the costume is so bad that it makes a not-very-creative mom like me decide to learn to sew it myself. (That Jake vest I made out of felt is still in use two years later and one of his favorite dress-up items. Thanks for the pattern!)

What about at the actual parks? There are plenty of dress up opportunities for girls. They can go to Bibbity Bobbity Boutique and get multiple versions of being a princess. Boys can choose a knight – that only includes the sword and not the outfit. At the Pirates League, boys can be a pirate (that usually includes scary face make-up) while girls can choose pirate princess or mermaid look. Why are girls always required to be a beautiful princess and boys are always required to be a protector with a weapon or a villain with a weapon? Yes, I know, boys can make swords and guns out of sticks. One of The Boy’s and my favorite games is to fight dragons in our front yard with special sticks we’ve collected. But boys and girls want to be able to do other things too.

This indoctrination happens young. We brought The Boy to the local Disney outlet a few weeks ago. He was picking up one of those cheap fans they have near the checkout counter. It had Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf, but was obviously geared more towards a feminine aesthetic. A little girl of about 5 years old explained to me that he shouldn’t play with that since it was a girl toy. She then picked up an Iron Man fan and said he could play with that one. How sad. There were other toys at the store that were so frustrating. Boys had bowling ball sets that were Mickey Mouse and blue. Girls could have the garden set that was Minnie Mouse and pink. What if a girl wants to bowl or a boy wants to garden? I think Disney actually does make opposite sex versions of these – but they are hard to find. This store certainly had none. Why not make them neutral?

Are we so afraid that by letting a boy play with a doll or letting a girl pretend she’s a firefighter that we are going to cause society to crumble? Sadly, many people in charge of toy companies either believe this or believe society feels this way to such an extent that they have to constantly categorize everything as feminine or masculine. Even things that shouldn’t be. I think things are changing. Slowly, but it’s beginning. Many parents are tired of the stereotypes.

I think our toy companies need to realize this. Wouldn’t it cost less to make gender neutral toys in some cases than specific boy and girl versions? Why alienate half your population who might buy a toy by making them feel like they shouldn’t get it for their child? Why are superhero toys or cars and planes considered to be boy only toys? Why is it such a terrible thing to think that a boy might want to play with a female car or superhero <or gasp!-> plant a garden or cook? Or a girl might enjoy race cars or want to pretend she’s a superhero, or play sports? The sexism goes both ways.

 

Stop offering only toys that have weapons to boys. Stop telling boys they can’t have feelings or take care of children. Stop suggesting that girls need to be either sexy or maternal but can’t be a hero and that they must ALWAYS be beautiful and smile. Just Stop It.

Keeping kids safe at Disney

walkingMK

Keeping your kids safe is one of those things you have to think about, but don’t want to when going to Disney. It’s the Happiest Place on Earth, after all. But it is extremely crowded and easy to get separated from your child. Depending on the age of your child, there are several things you can try to keep the kids safe. For older kids, who are going to be allowed to go off on their own for a bit, sometimes just giving them a cell phone, a place and time to meet up, and then a particular spot to go to in case of emergency is all you need. For younger kids, who might not be able to communicate everything they need to, you’ll want to take other measures.

Identification

How do you identify a child who is too young or too upset to tell a CM what your name and phone number is? What you should NOT do is write on the child with a Sharpie or other permanent marker. These are not designed to be used on skin. They contain chemicals that can cause problems.

If you would like a tattoo or something on your child you don’t need to worry about going away any time soon, check out www.safetytat.com. They have a great reputation for creating long-lasting and safe security tattoos for children.

If you’re looking for something that is less expensive, or something that won’t be on the child’s skin, you can go with an ID bracelet, necklace, or tag. You can buy ID bracelets and necklaces online, or you can make your own tags very easily. That’s what we did. Check out any local store that has one of the dog tag vending machines where you can enter your name/address on a dog tag. They have lots of different styles. We picked out a Mike Wazowski eyeball for The Boy’s tag. You can see it attached to the loop on the back of his left shoe in the picture above. We put both our cell phone numbers and our names. Then, I just attached that tag to The Boy’s shoe. We didn’t have to worry about him removing a bracelet or necklace and it was in an easy to spot place. Note: CMs will not search a child’s clothing for their names to be written inside the shirt. IDs for kids need to be in a spot that is easily seen.

Tip: buy one tag for each pair of shoes so you don’t have to swap them back and forth in the morning when your toddler decides at the last minute he wants to wear a different pair.

The Leash/Tether Question

So many people think that parents who use kid tethers are just doing it so they can let their child run around like a maniac. Yes. There are some lazy horrible parents out there. But the majority of parents who use tethers are doing it to keep better track of their kids. Some of us have runners. Some of us are paranoid about being separated from our child in a large crowd. Most kid leash/tethers are only a couple feet long. As you can see from the picture above, we used the tether as a safety net. I still held The Boy’s hand as we were walking, the tether was there just in case he wriggled free and tried to run off through a crowd.

The nice thing about the tether was that if we were in a fairly calm spot and The Boy was tired of me holding his hand, I could let him stand next to me and know he wouldn’t be able to suddenly dart away. It gave both of us a break from sweaty hands and gave him the chance to get a some blood flowing back into his arm. We didn’t do it often, but it was an option that if I didn’t have the tether, I would not have tried at all.

There are different styles you can use. The most popular seems to be the stuffed animal backpack where the parent holds onto the tail. I’d originally bought one of these for The Boy to use and then realized before the trip that was a bad idea. Instead, I bought a Baby Buddy Toddler Tether (cost about $5.60).

Why not go with the stuffed animal backpack?

  1. The backpacks make the child feel like they’re carrying a thick blanket. They are HOT. Too hot for Disney in any month other than dead of winter.
  2. You can’t easily transfer the child to and from the stroller with one of these on. You would have to remove it every time.
  3. Being bulky, it might not be a good idea to keep these on the child during some rides.

With the wrist tether, we could leave it on while hopping in and out of the stroller. If he was going to be in the stroller a while, we could easily slip it off after he was settled and slip it on again later. The backpack takes a bit of time to slide over shoulders and clip around the chest.

Drilling Information

Our son was only 2.5 years old when we went. But we were sure to drill the following information into him, just by repeating it over the course of weeks and asking him to repeat it back.

  • His name, First and Last.
  • Our names, First and Last.

We also made sure to introduce him to a CM as the very first thing we did on entering Magic Kingdom. We showed him that they could be in different outfits. We explained that the CMs were like his teachers at daycare and could help him if he needed them. The CMs were great. They are used to being introduced to children and will be sure to tell the child to always look for someone who has that style name tag above their heart. We made sure to introduce him to a CM who was dressed in the facilities uniform as well as a general CM. That way, he would be familiar with the outfits they wore as well. In a stressful emergency situation, I’m not sure how a 2.5 year old would handle this. But it would be helpful for an older child. And, at least with us introducing him to the CMs, he would be more willing to stay with them as someone who could take care of him than a general stranger.

Dressing alike

I do consider dressing alike to be a way to help keep your kids safe. Not only does it make for coordinated pictures, but it is a quick easy way for people to identify your child as yours. The very first night we got to Orlando, we had planned to have dinner at Ragland Road in Downtown Disney with my sister and her husband, who are locals. Unfortunately, between them getting off work late and all the construction at Downtown Disney, we ended up having to wait for them to arrive a fairly long time.  The Boy was getting pretty antsy. His toddler attention span rapidly degenerated and since we had figured we’d only be going to the restaurant and nothing else, I had left his stroller and tether in the car. At one point, he made a break for it through the large crowd outside the restaurant. Luckily, we were both in matching shirts and within seconds of him running off, a lovely mother up ahead grabbed him and immediately identified me as his mom, commenting on how she saw me with the matching shirt.  It made reuniting with him much faster.

Just keep in mind, it is possible to go overboard with safety plans and concerns at Disney, but taking a few precautions can also help settle some of our worries.

 

Strollers at Disney: Keeping safe and setting apart

resting feet

Once you’ve decided to bring a stroller to Disney, the next three things you’ll think about are:

  1. How am I going to keep someone from stealing it?
  2. What if I lose it?
  3. Even if I know where it’s parked, how am I going to find this generic stroller in a sea of other strollers?

Theft and Disney World

Everyone wants to believe that theft never takes place in the Happiest Place On Earth. Unfortunately, it does. When thinking of ways to keep your stroller safe, you have to find your personal balance between ease of use and security measures.

Some people go the route of buying a stroller lock. I actually did purchase one of these for our trip and decided not to use it.

Why?

Time and effort. I didn’t want to have to deal with threading it through the wheels while leaving it able to roll. Note: you must leave the stroller so that CMs (Disney employee Cast Members) are able to move it as needed. That means, making sure they can at least lift it up and roll it using some of the wheels.

Instead, I opted for the two-pronged approach:

  • Leave nothing in the stroller I cared about
  • Make the stroller look different from other strollers so it cuts down on the “I thought this was my stroller” argument.

We did leave items in the stroller. But they were things like The Boy’s swim suit, diapers, wipes, thermos bottles of water, snacks and frozen bottles of water. The diapers and wipes were in plastic grocery bags and the snacks and frozen water bottles were in a close-to-worn-out insulated lunch sack that had The Boy’s picture from daycare (one of those free gifts they give you to make sure you buy a package from picture day – it worked). I purposefully put these items in cheap bags because that also cuts down on the theft factor. Many people will think nothing of leaving a nice diaper bag in the stroller. Don’t do this!

For the second point, making the stroller look different not only cuts down on someone taking it thinking it was theirs, it also makes it easier for you to find later.

How to not lose your stroller

Many people will have that sinking feeling that their stroller has been stolen only to find that a CM has moved it – or that they forgot where they parked it. Here are some tips for keeping up with your stroller.

Park in a real stroller approved area. If it gets crowded, CMs are required to move strollers so that people can walk. If you put your stroller in a stroller approved area, chances of it being moved more than a few feet are slim.

Park your stroller as tightly in with other strollers as you can. Those people who try to park their strollers crooked and leave lots of room between their strollers and other strollers quickly discover that CMs will shove strollers in like sardines when it’s busy. If you park your stroller tightly to start off, CMs are less likely to shove it into a spot that physics would argue it really couldn’t fit in.

Park your stroller in a large, centrally located spot and LEAVE IT THERE. The people I saw who kept wondering where their stroller was were the people who would retrieve their stroller and move it after every ride. Find a large stroller parking area and leave your stroller there while you visit different areas of the Land. When you’re done in Tomorrowland, grab the stroller and take it with you to Fantasyland. Don’t try to move your stroller to be in front of every ride you’re doing. You’ll forget where you put it, not to mention waste a lot of time.

Setting your stroller apart

There are a ton of helpful tips out there for how to set your stroller apart. Here are some of them and my thoughts.

Ribbon

This is by far the most popular and one of the things I chose. You can pick any kind of ribbon you want. I will suggest staying away from the Minnie polka dot pattern. That was a popular one. For us, I chose green and brown ribbons, tied on the side and hanging down slightly in the back. I didn’t wrap the entire handle because I wanted a good grip on the stroller. They were fairly understated so didn’t pop out at first, but no one else picked that. I saw lots of reds, pinks, and princess ribbons. So in contrast, non-Disney colors seemed to stand out against that bright background.

Ribbons are easy and cheap to tie or wrap around the handle of your stroller. They also don’t have to be removed when you fold it up for carrying. Highly recommend.

Balloon

Many people will purchase a balloon to tie to the handle. I did not want to do this. They are expensive, they’re not allowed in Animal Kingdom and it’s a common way to set your stroller apart. Meaning – it doesn’t. Plus, they can pop and are pretty expensive.

Pinwheel

This is an alternate to the balloon idea. I brought a pinwheel with but decided not to use it. I realized I’d have to remove it when folding the stroller. I did though, buy it from Walmart for about $1 so it’s a lot less expensive option than the balloon and would be allowed in Animal Kingdom. If you’re looking for something that will make your stroller really stand out from afar that doesn’t cost a fortune or take up a ton of space, this might be an option to think about.

Nameplates

Check out all the online templates for creating your own Disney themed nameplate. These are great since it shows your name on your stroller. Usually it’s set up with a cute Disney background with “The Smith Family.”  But it’s an easy way to set it aside. I do suggest laminating this and making sure it’s either in an easy to see pocket or securely strapped and taped to the stroller. Taping another one to the bottom of the stroller in an out of sight spot might also be a good idea in case you’re worried about theft.

Glow sticks and glow necklaces

glow wand

This was something we did when we were at the park for MNSSHP (Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party). I bought several glow necklaces from a dollar store and wrapped them around the handle of the stroller at the beginning of the evening. This made it amazingly easy to find in the dark. Highly recommend this if you’re going to be there at night. As a side note, I also bought glow wands and sticks at the dollar store and gave these to The Boy that evening instead of buying them. He was just as happy with the dollar store ones as with the expensive Disney ones. I noticed other families doing the same thing.

Other decorations and final advice

Some folks go all out. They’ll hang stuffed animals, streamers, you name it. Ribbons and nameplates worked great for us because I didn’t have to worry about them as we were trying to fold the stroller. They were not expensive items hanging off the stroller to tempt a thief. I suggest finding your balance between setting your stroller apart and making it difficult to fold up and travel with.

Now that your stroller is fairly safe, in my next post, I’ll talk about how to not lose your kid at Disney.