Thursday, February 28, 2013

10 Things We'd Do Differently

"Is there anything that you would change if you were to start out on the road again?"

This is a paraphrased question that I've been asked several times over the past week from our readers. One that has really made me think about the past year of preparing to launch and our first 8 months of full-time travel.


Yes, there are many things that we would have done differently, and some that we have/are changing as the right time comes.

These are the top 10 things (in no particular order) that we would do differently, if we had it to do all over again:

1) I wish we'd known what sitting in one place for 2 years does to tires and had replaced all 4 tires on our fifth wheel immediately after purchasing it. 
Our 5th wheel was 2 years old, barely used and in nearly-new condition, and had been towed a total of 20 miles in those 2 years prior to our purchase. Tires that didn't roll for 2 years were likely the greatest factor in our first-day-out blow-out.

2) Had we known all of the strikes against our first truck and its ability to tow, we would have opted for a different tow vehicle.
We planned to replace it after 1 year, but that timeline was moved up to replacing after 5 months when we had to decide if we were going to continue traveling and replace our truck or stay put in Moab, UT indefinitely and just suck it up with our lemon.
Let me be clear: If you plan to tow a fifth wheel or travel trailer, avoid 6.0 Liter Fords like the plague. If you want to just throw your money somewhere for the heck of it, I'll email you our PayPal account address and you can just send your hard-earned dollars our way instead. Seriously--just don't do it!

3) We would not have brought so much stuff.
In our first 3 months we took several truckloads of donations to the local thrift store in Glenwood Springs, CO. While we were grateful to help a local outreach, we really didn't need to haul so much extra crap along with us. We also dropped off a significant amount of unnecessary "essentials" in storage when we passed through the Midwest again last Fall.

4) We would have changed our state of residency sooner.
While maintaining Indiana residency made sense for us while we owned a house there and makes mail forwarding pretty simple on our end (HUGE thanks to our "housemates" Chris and Holly who do our mail forwarding for us!!), the income taxes and vehicle registration fees are enough to stop us in our tracks. We are in the process of deciding where we will change our domicile to within the next 6 months to minimize the financial impact on our budget. Hey, if you can choose to take residence anywhere, why not choose the best place to set up residence?

5) I would have learned earlier how awesome the laundromat is.
While I still use my Wonder Wash for all of our hand washables like our bathing suits and handmade or boutique dresses and for small, quick loads, I've found that taking 90 minutes once a week and setting up shop in the laundromat to wash 5-6 loads of laundry is soooo much more efficient use of my time and energy. I have to use the laundromat for Jason's work clothes anyway. So if I'm washing one load, why not wash a handful all at once?

6) I wouldn't have tried to make homeschooling look like school at home.
This was a steep learning curve for me as a former classroom teacher. It took us almost 6 months to find our rhythm with homeschooling and while it looks nothing like I thought homeschooling would look like, it's exactly right for our kids. It's also always changing and evolving as interests and needs change. I feel much more confident as we move into our second homeschool year to know what works for our kids and when to scrap an idea and move onto something else.

7) We would have kept travel days shorter and travelled slower.
Granted, since we (more or less) travel following Jason's work, we don't have complete control over the pace that we travel. However, we have discovered that travel days longer than 6 hours become very difficult and stressful for our family. Arriving to a campsite at dusk or later is no fun. And back-to-back travel days become torture for little people that require time and space to run and play.

8) We would have removed all expectations.
We've stopped planning more than 24 hours in advance, because we don't really know what we are doing or where we are going unless we are actively en route--and even then plans can change. This is a great thing, because it requires us to remain present where we are, but a challenge to family and friends who always want to know "where to next?". We've stopped speculating because it really doesn't benefit anyone. I hope that we can carry this mindset over if we ever choose to settle somewhere permanently or semi-permanently again.

9) We would have taken the opportunity to get lost more often.
Admittedly, I'm less directionally oriented than Jason. I've been known to get us lost a time or two. As long as it doesn't involve being lost while towing a 36-foot rig behind us, getting lost has always led us to someplace off the beaten path and a treasure that we'd never have found otherwise.

10) We would have done this years ago.
While the time was exactly right for us to take off down the highway when we did, there are many times that I wish we'd had the courage to leave sooner. Our biggest reason for putting our dream on hold for years was due to pregnancies and newborns and uncertainties as to how to maneuver through those years while on the road. Now that we've met other families out here like us, we've learned of several families who have navigated pregnancies and life with newborns on the road with such grace and ease that I'm certain that we could have made it happen.

One thing that is for certain, if we had to do it all over again, we absolutely would. In a heartbeat and without hesitation. While life on the road is not always easy, it's always been grand.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I Like You. I Like You. I Like You Just The Way You Are.

My son made my heart swell and then stop for just a breath today.

He makes my heart skip a beat every day when I look into those big blue eyes, full of joy and wonder. But today was different.

We've loved having access to a pool this winter and the kids have really taken off with their swimming skills in just the past couple of weeks.

Ian, just a month ago, was so cautious around the pool that he preferred to dip his toes in, but otherwise sit on the deck and avoid getting in the water. Over the course of the past month he has developed much more confidence in the water and actually enjoys swimming--as long as he kept his head above water. Just this week he has surprised me by jumping in over his head and swimming to the edge of the pool with a smile. Huge progress, folks!

But I digress. I say all of this to set the stage for this afternoon.

So, today was a perfect warm, sunny Florida late-winter day, so the kids and I went to the pool for a swim this afternoon. The big girls were practicing their underwater swimming, Eliza was enjoying floating on her back in her puddle-jumper swim floaty, and Ian was jumping in then climbing out to jump again like it was his job.

Then he jumped in, but instead of climbing back out to jump again, he swam over to me and sat down on the steps next to me. He looked up at me, dripping and smiling and wrapped his arms around me in a hug. And then it happened.

He looked into my eyes through his little blue goggled eyes and started singing, "I like you. I like you. I like you, just the way you are."

My heart stopped. My son hugged me again and swam away as quickly as he had come to join me.

It took me a moment to regain my composure, then I recognized the song from his new favorite PBS Kids show, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, a spin-off of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood which I grew up watching.

Surely Ian had no idea how poignant that little song was to me. You see, Ian is not my easy child. He'll never be my easy child, and it's taken me a long time to come to the understanding that it's okay that he's not going to be an easy child.

His first year was met with an endless stream of tears from both of us. He had extreme colic. I had postpartum depression. We were both a hot mess.

His next two years were a challenge as he tried to develop independence with older sisters who love to dote on him. We also had huge communication barriers to overcome and are still working to overcome some of these.

Ian is a passionate person, and that means when he's happy he is exuberantly happy--you'll never meet a more joyful little boy. However, when he's sad or mad, the same passion comes forth and sometimes he struggles to direct that energy in a manner that is not destructive to himself or others around him. His anger is as deep as his joy is high.

I love my son. Deeply. He has opened my eyes and my heart to a world that I never experienced before he came into my life. It's not always been easy, but it's always been good. However, there are times that he has been hard to like.

When his stubborn streak takes over and he cannot, will not, shall not cooperate he can be hard to like. When frustration or social anxiety boils over and an outburst of screaming occurs as he tries to gain control of a situation, it's not an easy time to like someone. When anger escalated to stomping, pounding fists and growling, he's not easy to like in that moment.

However, listening to his sweet little voice singing, "I like you. I like you. I like you, just the way you are," to me this afternoon was a marker in time that I'll not soon forget.

Four years and some change into parenting my precious son, my heart resonated with those words.

I do like him. Just the way he is.

There is not a single thing that I would change about him, and while he continues to grow, develop and refine his character, I will continue to like him just the way he is. Today. Not the man he will grow up to be (although, let me tell you--this man will move mountains!). No, I like him just the way he is right now.

With all of the struggles that we endure and all of the challenges that we face together, I like him just the way he is.

And it is an honor to know that he likes me just the way I am. I am so undeserving, but those words are healing and life-giving to me.

I am blessed. We are blessed.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Animal Kingdom: More than meets the eye

The first thing that you'll notice as you enter Disney's Animal Kingdom is the Tree of Life in the middle of the park. You cannot miss this enormous, beautiful centerpiece of the park, which upon further inspection is found to be carved with hundreds of animals. It is truly a sight to behold, and not only sets the stage for your experience at Animal Kingdom, it lends itself as a clue that there's a lot to miss in this park, if you aren't looking.

Disney's Animal Kingdom is the largest of the four theme parks, with six main areas to explore.

Camp Minnie-Mickey is set up like a wilderness camp where you can meet many of your favorite Disney friends including the Fab Five (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto), Pocahontas, and more characters who appear on a rotating basis. This is also home to The Festival of The Lion King musical, which is arguably the most spectacular show in Animal Kingdom. It's worth making the time to see at least once.

Discovery Island is in the middle of the park and home to the Tree of Life, which houses the 3D show It's Tough To Be A Bug. Very fun and interactive, but can be frightening to small children (or anyone with an insect-phobia). Ian is our brave little guy, but his response after the show (which includes a few sprays and pokes during the performance) was, "Mommy, I didn't like that. Please can I not do it again?" So, be forewarned, if you have anyone in your party that might not appreciate the performance.

Africa houses the Kilimanjaro Safari ride, which takes you for a safari truck ride through the landscape where you can spot many species of African animals. Each ride is different, due to the migration of the animals, and early morning rides often are best for viewing the most animals before the heat of the day kicks in.

You can take a train ride out to Rafiki's Planet Watch and Conservation Station. This is the on-site veterinarian clinic for all of the animals within the park and there are a lot of fun activities to encourage conservation and education about various species of animals. There's also a great petting zoo area where our kids thoroughly enjoyed brushing the goats.

Asia is home to two of the more thrilling rides in Animal Kingdom. Kali River Rapids is an exciting water ride with unexpected twists, turns and sprays of water. Great for the afternoon or early evening when you need a quick cool-down! Expedition Everest is a fast-track roller coaster that takes you on a journey through the Himalayan Mountains in search of the elusive Yeti. You'll run into broken tracks, break-neck speeds, and racing backward through the dark mountains until you do find the Yeti--or rather the Yeti finds you! If you like thrill rides and roller coasters, this is one not to miss! Expedition Everest also offers a single rider queue, if only one member of your party wishes to ride. When lines for this ride can easily extend between 1-2 hours, the single rider queue is rarely longer than a 10 minute wait.

DinoLand USA is one of our kids' favorite areas of not only Animal Kingdom, but all of Walt Disney World. It's themed like a carnival at the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs. There's the Triceratops Spin (much like the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride at Magic Kingdom), which is great for all ages and especially fun for the little ones that have to sit out on several of the bigger rides within the park. Primeval Whirl is a combination of a roller coaster and the spinning teacups ride. Our 7-year-old loved it, but it's not for anyone prone to motion sickness! The Boneyard is fun if you have preschool or elementary-age kids that need to climb and burn off some steam. It's a large play area with many paths that twist and turn through the playscape, so be aware of this before you send a preschooler climbing up to a slide without someone by their side. It was a bit too much for our 2-year-old, but the older three kids enjoyed it. Finally, Dinosaur is a great simulated experience of going back in time to capture  the last dinosaur before the extinction. Again, this is something to know your kids with. We knew that Lydia would not appreciate the ride, so we didn't encourage her to ride. Caroline was not a fan either, but this was hands-down Ian's favorite ride in the park!

Throughout the park are many trails and paths to discover unique animals, plant-life, and simply explore. Don't miss the rabbit trails that will take you somewhere beautiful, new and unexpected. The theming in Disney's Animal Kingdom is second to none, and if you do nothing more than take in the details of the park, you will have an amazing experience.

Hollywood Studios: Movie Making Magic

Living up to its name, Hollywood Studios is more of a 'show' park. There are a few rides to enjoy, but it definitely offers a lot of spectacle appeal. Popular attractions include the Tower of Terror, Toy Story Midway Mania, and the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster with Aerosmith. If any of these three are of interest, I recommend getting fast passes for them early. Toy Story is usually the one that runs out of fast passes by lunch, and the standby line is rarely shorter than 2 hours once the park has been open for at least an hour, so plan accordingly.

Since the park offers many shows, your plan will be made based on the daily schedule. If you are trying to hit all of the shows, you will most likely be in the park for 3-4 days, because some shows may only have 3 showings. Obviously, Fantasmic, their big night-time show, is a strong recommendation. Some nights they offer two shows, but most of the time it is just one show per day. The venue is large, holding about 10,000 people. Most of what I can say is be patient and move with the herd. Don't bother trying to get concessions inside, it is much easier if you bring your own snacks. We usually have waited about 30-40 minutes from when we got our seats to when the show starts, so a snack is a great way to keep the kids calm and happy. It is outdoor benches, so if you need some padding bring a sweatshirt or something to sit on that you don't mind carrying around (strollers are great for this). If you opt for a Fantasmic dining experience at one of the select restaurants within the park that offers a meal and reserved seats, be advised that the reserved area is off to the side, not any where prime. I haven't seen a bad seat, but some do prefer to have the front and center view.

Other hands-on show experiences include auditioning for or participating in the audience of the American Idol Experience. Your children between the ages of 4-12 can sign up to participate in the Jedi Apprentice Academy where they can battle Darth Vader and become young Jedis. The Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular is another show to see at least once and involves audience members in each show.

Breaks are easy to come by, since most activities at Hollywood Studios are sit and watch, but if you are needing a place for the little ones to climb and wiggle, head over to Honey I Shrunk the Playground by the Backlot food court. Try to not hit it in the middle of the day when it is busiest, because then you may have a wait to get in, and once you do, it is so crowded that it becomes not fun. If the kids are a little more independent, it is good to post one parent by the entrance/exit and the other to run around and herd the kids. There are some water features inside, so cooling off is not a worry.

Sporadically during the day there are some street shows. These impromptu sessions offer a great diversion. Usually I am against these and recommend avoiding the diversions, but these can be fun entertainment and some require audience participation. I have found these to be very helpful when some of the party is riding something that the rest does not want to, and the time passes quickly while waiting. Don't miss walking through the Streets of America, where you never know who or what you'll find!

Finally, Hollywood Studios has several great options for table-service dining at reasonable prices. The Sci-Fi Drive-In restaurant serves your dinner to you at booths in a 50's-style car with servers on roller-skates, while you are watching B-movies on the big screen. Another fun dining experience is at the 50s Prime Time Cafe where you are seated at a kitchen table straight out of the 1950s, with a server who is named "Cousin Jack" or "Aunt Sally" and you'll be served up hearty portions of comfort food favorites. Just be careful to set the table, keep your elbows off the table, and leave your smart phones in your pocket, lest you be scolded by your server! If you finish all of your dinner you'll even be awarded a membership into the "Clean Plate Club".

While a smaller park than the other three, Disney's Hollywood Studios is full of magic, mystery and excitement around every corner, just as you would expect from Disney.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Epcot, more than a big ball

In my opinion, Epcot is all about rides and food. The park itself is broken up into 2 sections: Future World and the World Showcase. The opening and closing times for the 2 sections are offset from each other, with Future World opening and closing before the World Showcase. I recommend that Epcot be broken up into at least 3 days if time allows. There is a lot to see and do.

Upon entering the park, you first enter Future World, where most of the rides and attractions are located. This is the point where you choose your own adventure (come in with a plan), because the rides and attractions are in different directions. Rope drop definitely brings a rush to the big ones, such as Soarin', Test Track, and Mission: Space. If any of these are a priority, go get a fast pass right away. Stephanie and I did a divide and conquer, where I went to Test Track right away and hopped into the single rider queue while she retrieved fast passes for Soarin'. I definitely recommend saving Spaceship Earth (the big ball) for later in the day. We have had much success riding it as we leave the park in the evening and only having at most a 5 minute wait.

If you have anyone in your party that wants to meet some characters, a great time to go find them is right after you have retrieved your fast passes first thing. There is a character spot in Innoventions West near the ice cream place. It is inside and deserted first thing, and a great time to meet 3-4 of your favorite characters (Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto). Other characters will appear around the park throughout the day, and the World Showcase is a great place to find the princesses.

Inside the Lands Pavilion is the popular Soarin' ride. If not all of your party can ride, make sure that you get a rider swap pass. This allows 3 people to ride on one fast pass, so one parent can wait with the youngin's while everyone else rides, and then swap parents. If all of the kids like a ride, this allows them to ride twice without having to wait more than the time it takes to ride and having to get more fast passes. This is available on any ride, and we use it almost everywhere. Also, if someone has to wait, a great diversion is riding the Living With The Land boats that tour through the greenhouses. Both rides take about the same time, so no one is left sitting bored.

Should the little ones need to get some silliness and wiggles out, head over to the Journey into Imagination. After a ride with Figment and a catchy tune, there is an area to play, wiggle, and create. This area is a lot of fun, as long as it is not too crowded. Usually it is not, because everyone is at the big rides.

The Seas With Nemo and Friends is a very neat underwater experience. If the line is too long to get onto the ride itself (inside is about 15-20 minutes, so if there is a line outside, factor that in), you can walk around to the left (facing the building) and go in through the store to view the aquarium and other features. Inside is a play area with Bruce the shark, Turtle Talk with Crush (fun and interactive), a scuba diver demonstration, and a lot of underwater friends swimming in the 6 million gallon tank.

Innoventions East and West are some great places to take a break. They both offer some activities to do, but since they are away from everything it can be a quiet area to chill.

The World Showcase offers the culinary delights from around the world. It opens at 11, so you can plan a lunch or dinner here. If you are not on the Disney Dining Plan or have a Tables in Wonderland card, stop, go rectify the situation, and then come back. One of the best deals with the Dining Plan is Akershus House in Norway, where you get a character meal with 4 princesses (Belle, Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White). This is one of only two character meals (the other being Cinderella's Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom) where a photo package is included with your meal, not an additional charge.

Some of the countries offer rides (Mexico, Norway), others a movie or presentation, but all offer shopping and food. Just walking around can be a full day if you are the browsing, take-it-all-in type. If you plan your meals ahead of time, you can enjoy a later dinner followed by the evening show, Illuminations. The show is not until 9, and because of the offset hours (Future World pretty much shuts down at 7), there is not much to do except eat. So, either plan your schedule to come back to the park for the evening show, or time is so that you are done with dinner before the show. The whole lake offers good seating since the show is on the water. Obviously, the spots right on the fence are claimed early. You can see the show pretty well along the walkway to Future World, if you want to get a head start on the rush after the show.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Where it all begins, The Magic Kingdom

If you haven't read our post about visiting Disney World, I recommend that you start there.

Disney World in Florida began with the Magic Kingdom, as do most peoples travel plans. It is the iconic setting, complete with castle and all. Just glancing at a map of the park and seeing all that it has to offer can be daunting, which is why I recommend beginning with a touring plan.

If you happen to be staying at a Disney resort and the Magic Kingdom is the park offering extra magic hours, I definitely recommend taking advantage of them. Being at the park an hour before they officially open offers a much lower crowd level and the chance to quickly get through a few attractions within that first hour. The park always opens with a show, and it is one that is not to be missed. Mickey and friends ride up to the rail station on the train, complete with musical numbers, fireworks and confetti. They even choose a family to help them open the park by randomly selecting them from the crowd, but you have to be there up to an hour early for this. Once the park opens, the crowd moves down Main Street USA. Don't get swept up with the photo pass photographers or other cast members along the way, they are there as a distraction to slow the crowds down. Pick a path and keep moving to your first destination. Come back to Main Street to wander through the shops at a later time, when it is less congested. Just be careful it is not close to a parade time.

The park is set up with the hub and spoke design that Disney has made famous. Each area of the park has its attractions, but you can read about those just about any where.