Tag Archives: vacations

Not So Secret Agent Trip

me at UniversalIn just five days I leave for my first official agent trip as a part of the Magical Vacation Planner team. I will be spending three nights and four-ish days in Florida learning all I can about Universal Studios Orlando.

I have been to Universal Studios on both costs several times. I grew up in Southern California and have been to the original studios in Hollywood at least a dozen times growing up in the 1980’s. Of course that was before there were rides of any kind at the studio. Back then it was just the backlot studio tour and some pretty fantastic stunt shows. My favorite was the A-Team stunt show. Of course, I was obsessed with the show, so that’s not really a surprise. The Miami Vice show, which replaced it in the late 80’s was ok, but it didn’t have people pretending to be Hannibal, Face, Murdock and B.A., so it was not as cool. I haven’t been back to Universal Hollywood, so I have no idea what the current show is like.

I was actually hoping I could find one of the pictures of me with K.I.T.T., one of my favorite stops in the old park. The car actually talked to visitors, which as an 8 year old was so cool. I could not figure out how the car knew what I was wearing and who was with me. My kids were equally amazed when we visited Turtle Talk with Crush at Epcot when they were 3 and 6.

I’ve been to Universal Orlando quite a few times too. In fact, when I lived in Florida, my husband an I had annual passes, but that was about 15 years ago. Jurassic Park: The Ride was still open (I cried when I heard it had closed) and Harry Potter may have been on my bookshelf, but he wasn’t featured in any amusement park. Considering what a Harry Potter fanatic I am, the fact that I haven’t been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter yet is shocking.

And I’ve never stayed at a Universal resort before. The last time I was there, I lived like an hour and a half away. There was no need to even think about hotels. I think in theory I knew they existed, but I’d never paid any attention. But now, I will be staying at Lowe’s Sapphire Falls Resort.  I will also get to tour the other resorts, so I can find out all of the ins and outs in order to be able to make the best suggestions to my clients to fit their needs.

I will also get to experience the parks, including Volcano Bay, the water park that didn’t even exist when I lived in Florida. I cannot wait to check out the lazy river, and drink butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron. I am excited to see what has replaced my beloved Jurassic Park ride and to soar with Harry over quidditch fields. I want to get a donut in Springfield or maybe some Green Eggs and Ham in Seuss Landing.

But mostly, I want to soak up all sorts of information so I can pass it on to clients looking to have the vacation of a lifetime. I know it sounds totally trite, but I didn’t need to become a Magical Vacation Planner, I wanted to. I have a career that I have invested 22 years in, and for the most part, I enjoy it. But these last two months planning trips for people, I have found a brand new joy in my life. I may only have a handful of clients right now, but I am giving them my all because it is just so much fun!

Leave a comment

Filed under addictions, books, cool links, cool places, entertainment, food, good days, Magical Vacation Planner by Shannon Schiller, nostalgia, travel, TV, Universal Studios

Munchie Monday: Byrd’s cookies

byrd's cookies all.jpgLast week my family made our annual pilgrimage to Isle of Palms, South Carolina. Ok, so it’s not actually any sort of religious trip, unless you’re like my aunt and consider a trip to the beach a way to worship the sun. Ever since my daughter was a teeny tiny baby, 8 years ago, my husband’s family has headed to my SiL’s beach house in Wild Dunes (I can actually see my SiL’s house in the picture on this link) and we’ve spent a week together.

I know for many people this probably sounds like a dream. An entire week spent in a house that is not only right next door to a pool, but can also claim the ocean as its backyard, is the stuff that relaxation videos are made out of, right? Clearly anyone who thinks this has never met my in-laws.

I do not mean this post as a condemnation of my in-laws, who on an individual basis are almost entirely great people–except for that one. It is very hard to share a house, even a decent sized one with 15 other people for an entire week. The actual house only sleeps 10 people comfortably (12 with air mattresses), so thankfully four of those people didn’t actually spend the night at the house. My MiL and FiL had a hotel room at the Boardwalk Inn, which is actually right next door. Additionally, two members of my MiL’s extended family also spent the days at our beach house, but their nights at my SiL’s condo in nearby Charleston. However, for pretty much every waking hour of the day, there were 15 people in the house. Seven were children ranging from 8-14. That is a LOT of noise, especially when most of it is contained between two floors with walls that are surprisingly thin.

And don’t even get me started on the nightly “entertainment” from bands at the hotel next door.

But again, that’s not the purpose of this post. Inevitably what happens at some point during this trip, we all get more than a little sick of each other. For my family this means a trip to a matinee one day. It also means at least one lunch and one dinner (and this year one breakfast) away from the basically required family meals to have some alone time. It also means our yearly trip into downtown Charleston, where we always visit the City Market and the surrounding shops.

Despite a serious need for an extended break from everyone around Wednesday, we had a few hiccups and didn’t actually get into town until Friday, our last full day of the trip. I was excited not only to visit some absolute favorites from years past (Charleston Crab House, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits, The Spice and Tea Exchange of Charleston, and Kilwin’s to name a few), but to discover a brand new shop I’d never seen before: Byrd’s Cookies.

Byrd’s was so new, in fact, that they didn’t even have their official signage up on the building yet. They’d been open for less than a month and had I not seen a sign on their door offering a taste test of cookies when I walked into The Spice and Tea Exchange, we might have walked right on by. I am so glad we didn’t!

Byrd’s may be new to downtown Charleston, but they have been a cookie tradition for over 90 years. They started in Savannah, Georgia with their original Scotch Oatmeal cookie and now have over a dozen varieties, all of which were available to taste test when we went in. Although I wanted to try them all, I was good and only tried about five varieties. All that I tried were really good. It was hard to make a decision about which four varieties to buy (it was buy 3 get one for $1). In the end we decided to let each person in the family pick their favorite.

My daughter picked the Key Lime cookies. These powdered sugar covered cuties are VERY sweet. They definitely have a bright, limey taste to them, with vanilla undertones as the flavor wears down. My kids and husband LOVE them. I am not quite as big of a fan, even though as a rule I love key lime. I don’t like the slightly odd feel the powdered sugar leaves on the roof of my mouth. However, I have never been a fan of powdered sugar covered treats. One of the reasons I avoid many jelly-filled donuts is because they are covered in powdered sugar. I also don’t like the little Hostess Donnettes with the powdered sugar at all. I hate being messy and I HATE when my hands have food residue on them, which I think is part of the problem. The other problem is that powdered sugar always seems to leave a bit of a residue both on my fingers and in my mouth and I am not a fan. Anyone who likes powdered sugar will probably love these cookies though.

Next up were my husband’s pick: the original Scotch Oatmeal ones. These are quite good, although they do have the tiniest hint of a dark molasses flavor to them. Not that I mind, I just wasn’t initially expecting it and it took a few cookies to grow on me. They actually remind me a bit of one of my favorite childhood cookies: Archway Iced Oatmeal cookies. Yeah, I was that strange kids who really loved oatmeal cookies. I still don’t like Oreos at all and I never crave Chips Ahoy! but give me an oatmeal cookie, with or without icing and I’m over the moon. I’ll take a soft, fresh from the oven oatmeal raisin cookie over a chocolate chip one pretty much any day. I just love the creamy sweetness of oatmeal cookies. Although these little guys are crunchy, not soft, they are still amazingly good. They have that wonderfully oaty flavor that always reminds me just a bit of nuts. They aren’t overly sweet, which I think is perfect at times. I couldn’t eat an entire bag in one sitting, but I know I will be reaching into this bag quite a bit.

Since all of us are huge peanut butter fans, it was not a shock that my son picked chocolate peanut butter. These are so creamy and peanutty! With the crunch, they remind me a bit of eating a spoonful of chunky peanut butter (my favorite). The chocolate in them is subtle and really only in hints, which I don’t mind. The peanut butter is clearly the star here and that is great. I love that when I bite into them I can see real chunks of peanuts. These tiny treats are full of even tinier bits of peanut, but packed with tons of peanut flavor.

Byrd's salted caramelNot to brag, but my favorite, are without a doubt, the ones I picked: salted caramel. I know, I just had a post about salted caramel butter cookies. I also know that these days everything is salted caramel and that many people think it is way beyond cliche/overdone/boring now, but I don’t care. I am not a bit ashamed to say I LOVE these cookies. They are utterly amazing and I cannot stop eating them. They are sweeter than the peanut butter chocolate or Scotch oatmeal, but thanks to the salt, not as sweet as the Key Lime, so they are in that perfect sweet spot for me. They are buttery and delicate. They practically melt on my tongue. The caramel flavor is long lasting and simply amazing. No matter how much I try, I cannot stop eating these amazing cookies. Even though I haven’t finished the 8 oz bag yet (although I have come frighteningly close to it), I have already looked online about buying another bag. Now that I know these exist, they are a must have for me. I cannot imagine a world where my pantry is not stocked with them from now on.

Knowing that Byrd’s is now in downtown Charleston has already got me looking forward to next year’s beach vacation, even if it does mean squeezing into a house with 14 other people!

Overall:

Taste: 10/10 for salted caramel (8/10 for the others)
Appearance: 8/10
Value: 10/10 for the salted caramel (8/10 for the others)

 

Leave a comment

Filed under addictions, chocolate, cool links, cool places, entertainment, food, good days, married life, my crazy family, my daughter, my son, products, ramblings, travel, what makes me me

Throwback Thursday: Georgia with kids part 2

Rook and PawnOne of my top priorities when traveling with my kids is to get them to spend as much time as they can outside. Even though my kids always pack their backpacks and often a separate toy bag to the brim with some of their favorite ways to pass the time, when vacationing anywhere they will be forced to spend waking hours in either a hotel room or at a friend/family member’s house, inevitably they run out of ways to make those same toys fun to play with day after day after day.

It’s already hard enough for kids to be out of their usual environments for extended periods of time. But I’ve found that unless our vacations have the thrill factor of an amusement park vacation, my kids need a lot to do or boredom quickly sets in. At home, they are fine. They will play by themselves, or sometimes even together, for hours on end. However, even on our two yearly vacations to the beach, where there are cousins to play with and to Georgia, where my best friend always surprises them with fun crafting supplies, the sheer number of hours the adults would like to just hang out at the house and chat is too many for them.

Because I don’t want my kids to have to sit around a house that is not theirs for several hours every day of vacation, I always try look for lots of fun things to do outside. However, sometimes the weather just does not cooperate.

This year, during our bi-annual trip to Athens, Georgia, we had three days of rain. While only one day was a bit of a deluge, the other two were still fairly steady in their ickyness. After being trapped in doors the entirety of the first day, my kids needed out of the house.

Since my best friend was not on fall break and still had to teach classes, we decided our first activity that would get us out of her house, but also keep us out of the rain, was a trip to The Rook & Pawn. On our last three visits, we’ve had at least one rainy day and since my best friend and I both love board games, she has suggested we take the kids. It is a wonderful place to pass several hours with kids. Not only is the food pretty dang tasty (I highly recommend the grilled cheese with brie, tomato and spinach and the seasonal salad), but they have a wall of board games that stretches from floor to ceiling. Anyone who cannot find a game they want to play is just being a crab! Our trouble is not finding a board game we all want to play, but in limiting it to just a few so that we don’t spend the entire day there. For anyone who might need to take the edge off of another day spent indoors with whining kiddos, they also have a lovely drink menu. Since it was only day 2 and I had to drive back to the house, I just had a Diet Coke.

My best friend met us at the Rook & Pawn after her classes were done for the day and we spent several hours trying new games. Sushi Go! was my personal favorite this trip. My son really liked some Star Wars spaceship Wookie game he and his sister played while my BFF and I chatted. Last time we went we tried Settlers of Catan Junior, which was not only fun (my BFF and I are HUGE Catan fans), but was a great gateway to teach my son how to play the grown up version.

nature centerWhen it continued raining on Tuesday, I was more than a little disheartened. However, on our very first trip to Athens, we encountered similar rain storms and my best friend introduced us to the Sandy Creek Nature Center. Since I knew she was a bit burned out on it having just recently gone with another friend and her two young children, while she conducted classes, I packed up my munchkins and we headed over to the nature center.

The nature center is not a place you can spend hours at, at least not if it is raining and you are just exploring the educational center. With younger children you could probably kill two hours there without much trouble. However, since my kids are 7 and 10, an hour was pushing it for us. I kept having to redirect them to small pieces of the exhibits they hadn’t really looked at. I tried to get them involved in the scavenger hunt, but since they’d done it on our last visit, they weren’t having it. The educational center does have two classrooms and sometimes if they are open the staff will let kids go in and play in them, which provides even more entertainment. However, there were school groups at the center when we went, so we had to stick to the main exhibit room.

My hope is that one of these days it’ll be nice enough that we’ll actually get to go on the trail and look at the gardens as well.

Even though the rain had cleared on Wednesday, since it was my BFF’s last day of teaching for the week and she was going to be home by 2, I took the kids for a morning at the local Chuck E. Cheese. Even though they’ve been to our Chuck E. Cheese quite a few times, they actually managed to spend more time at this one, in part because there were so many different games and they had to really think about which ones they most wanted to play. My son managed to win the “jackpot” on some balloon game and walked away with enough tickets to buy an actual prize. He was thrilled!

We also found several really awesome programs at the library for the kids to attend. My son got to play chess while my BFF and my daughter found a nook to read books in. My son thought it was pretty great because even though he lost more games than he won, he was the youngest player (by 2 years) and actually beat a player who was 16. We also saw a magic show one morning at the library and both of my kids got to assist with different tricks.

Athens is a great town to visit with kids…even when the rain threatens to ruin the vacation.

Leave a comment

Filed under cool links, cool places, education, entertainment, good days, motherhood, my daughter, my friends, my son, nostalgia, ramblings, travel, what makes me me

Teaching Tuesday: Fall break

Starting school at the end of July is more than a little depressing. The weather is at its summery height, people are posting vacation photos, few stores have their school supplies completely out and almost all of my fellow teachers are starting their countdowns until school starts. Already having two or three weeks under my belt before they’ve even clocked in for their first teacher work day is upsetting.

The trade off comes at fall break. Sure, no matter what school I’ve worked at, I’ve always gotten a fall break. But up until my school switched over to the balanced calendar, that fall break was always just two days. At my first school it was a Monday and Tuesday. In Florida we lost it due to the make up days we had to spend because of hurricane closures. At my current school we got our four day weekend in the form of a Thursday-Sunday break.

But when we switched to the balanced calendar four years ago, suddenly those two days became 10 and it’s pretty darn glorious. Our summer may have gone from 10 weeks to 8, but those 8 extra days off during the first quarter are worth it.

Since our grading periods have always been 9 weeks, our fall break was still toward the beginning of October, however, when we returned from it we usually still had two weeks left in the grading period. It was a nice break, but most of it was spent catching up on grading so that I could get ready to head into finals. If we were lucky, our old grading period would end on a Friday and we’d have until the following Wednesday at 8 am to get all of our grades in. Basically fall break was a lot of grading.

A few times our grading period ended on a Wednesday and we’d start the next grading period the very next day, which meant grades were due by Monday morning at 8 am, so those years fall break just meant I got to sleep in until 9 or so and then grade non-stop.

And while I still end up grading over fall break, since I get to spread that grading over 14 days, I never really stress out about my grading. I get it done at a far more leisurely pace while sipping tea or in between trips to the children’s museum or even on car rides to Disney World.

Not only do I get time to do my grading, I actually get a break from school. I get to do things I enjoy. I get to read books for fun. I get to hang out with my kids. We go on family vacations. In fact, I just got home yesterday after spending my first week of fall break visiting my best friend in Athens, Georgia (she’s a professor at UGA). I did some of my grading while she was teaching classes and then when she got home, we got to hang out.

Having time off in early to mid-October is awesome. It’s the off-season for most vacation destinations, so prices are lower. The weather is still nice enough for travel, especially for going to places like Florida or Georgia where I can pull out my capris and short sleeves and frolic on beaches or in gardens. Plus, since most schools are still in session, crowds are much smaller and easier to maneuver. Our two Disney World vacations have been about 25% cheaper than if we’d had to take them in the summer.

If all this wasn’t reason enough to love the balanced calendar and our wonderful break, when I return to school next Monday, it’s a brand new grading period. No matter what mistakes students may have made in the first quarter, it all starts over fresh. The kids come back refreshed and so do I. Before fall break I am usually about at my breaking point. Kids are getting antsy, whiny and beyond annoying, but it is amazing how two weeks can change it all. They come back relaxed, recharged and ready to start it all over again. Discipline issues, which were on the rise in the two weeks prior to break, are back to start of the year levels.

Plus, everyone is generally excited that there are only 9 more weeks until winter break. And that includes two wonderful days off for Thanksgiving.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under education, entertainment, good days, life as a teacher, my friends, ramblings, reading, teaching, travel, what makes me me