February 26, 2015
by Mommy Gearest
1 Comment

That time we ran out of batteries (sponsored post)

It happens to the best of us. We’ve all gone to reach into our trusty battery repository in the far corners of our homes to grab a set of double-As, and – nada.

Your fingers hunt in the dark. Nothing. So you turn on the light to broaden your search: flashlight, check; screwdriver with the little “x” on it, check; those little pads for the feet of your furniture, check; random hooks to hang 13 different sizes of picture frames, check. But batteries? Zilch.

I don’t know about you, but batteries don’t often make it onto my weekly grocery list. I tend to buy a huge pack once we’re out, shove them into storage and reach in for a couple here and there when we need them. I don’t keep track.

But there are times when this strategy doesn’t work out so well. Like when your kid gets something so brand new and shiny and exciting that they can barely refrain from peeing their pants, despite being potty trained for three years.

And that’s precisely when it happened to us. The K Man had been given the opportunity to test drive a new Skylanders game (and basically fainted when he opened the courier box). So we unboxed it as quickly as possible, slid the DVD into our Wii console, picked up the controller, turned everything on and tried to start the game. We didn’t get very far. It was one of those slow-motion moments when you can see the train wreck that’s about to happen, but are keenly aware that you can do nothing to stop it.

As soon as we figured out that the wireless controller’s batteries were on their last legs, Big B raced upstairs to retrieve replacements. But when he reached for those two magical cylinders of joy, he was met with the sad realization that we were completely out.

You know what happened next, right? The crying. The devastation that can only come from a (then) five-year-old whose entire world is brightened and crushed inside of five minutes.

Oh, don’t worry…we weren’t total jerks. We ran out, grabbed some fresh batteries from the corner store and tried again. Successfully.

But maybe if we’d had the new Energizer® EcoAdvancedtm  batteries, we could have squeezed a bit more life out of that controller and avoided the corner store entirely that day. (Because I truly hate shopping at corner stores.)

I love that they’re the world’s first battery made with recycled batteries; it’s four per cent, but it’s a start. And if Energizer is telling you that it’s the longest-lasting alkaline battery they’ve ever made, that’s saying something. I mean, they’ve got that pink bunny who just keeps going, and going, and going, and…

Lucky for you, if you need to put batteries on your grocery list this week and you grab yourself a package of Energizer® EcoAdvancedtm, you get to visit energizerwinsmart.com where, now until March 16, you can enter your UPC and be entered  to win a smart fortwo vehicle (worth an incredible $26,000!). OK, OK – so there’s only one of those up for grabs but you could also win one of ten $100 President’s Choice gift cards, too. (Just think of all the batteries you could buy with that sucker.)

Just make sure you shop at one of these Loblaw banner stores to qualify: Loblaws, Maxi, Maxi & Cie, Atlantic Superstore, Real Canadian Superstore, Zehrs or Dominion.

And since we’re talking giveaways, let’s do one here, too! Enter HERE to win an Energizer® EcoAdvancedtm prize pack, with some fancy new batteries, an Energizer flashlight and a Loblaw’s gift card valued at $25.

Energizer ECO

DISCLAIMER: Energizer compensated me for this post, but my personal story and opinions are my own. Loblaw Companies Ltd. is one of my firm’s clients, and I am in no way beholden to promote brands or companies with whom we work. Unless I really, really want to…and if you see it on my page, you can trust that I wanted to.

February 25, 2015
by Mommy Gearest
0 comments

Wordless Wednesday: 23 Degrees Roastery

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When my brother-in-law told me that a friend of his was selling coffee, I had mental images of some guy hoarding beans in the back of a pick-up truck. Don’t ask. The real story is that his friend Ben actually makes this ridiculously delish, high-end coffee that’s sold in our favourite grocery stores. It’s called 23 Degrees Roastery, and  it’s organic, fair-trade and fresh. Our resident fave is Sucker Punch, which is one of the most flavourful coffees you’ll ever try. When these go on sale ($9.99/350 grams), we usually snap them up three at a time. And you should, too.

February 16, 2015
by Mommy Gearest
0 comments

Neo-Paws booties, fleece suit and hoodie for dogs

So we got a dog.

After years of children begging us, and 10 months of searching Petfinder for just the right pup, we brought Chester — a six-month-old Chihuahua and Manchester Terrier mix — home from a rescue in Virginia.

And our house has, predictably, exploded with all-things-dog. Dog sweaters, dog coats, dog boots, dog poop bags, dog socks, dog treats, dog vitamins, dog beds. You name it.

Much like what happened when children entered our lives, I’ve been down the many-travelled road of dog purchases, returns and exchanges. Because just like products for kids, products for dogs don’t always work out the way one hopes. Which means, obviously, here Neo-Paws outdoor dog shoescomes Doggy Gearest.

On the road to find the perfect pair of doggy booties to protect Chester’s paws from the industrial salt littering our sidewalks and roads, we’ve been through several pairs that just wouldn’t stay on. There I was complaining about the dog boot market with some dance moms, and one of them said “you have to try Neo-paws; they’re the only boots that stay on my dog’s feet.”

Fast forward a weekend and we found ourselves getting Chester fitted for his very own pair of Neo-Paws booties at the bricks and mortar shop in Toronto’s east end. Of course, while we were there we were also tempted by the full-body fleece suit and matching hoodie. Because Chester hates the cold and I was willing to try anything to get him to walk farther than five houses away from our own in this horrifically cold winter we’re having.

Big thanks to Neo-Paws for letting us try out these three products (Neo-Paws high-performance outdoor shoes, Neo-Paws fleece body suit and Neo-Paws fleece hoodie) …because dog stuff is bankrupting me as much as kid stuff ever did.

THE GOOD

Every product works the way it’s supposed to. The fleece keeps our pooch really warm, and the detachable hoodie allows you to attach a leash in a few different spots and lets your dog wear it with his ears in or out, depending on just how darn cold it is out there. The booties really do stay on, even at Chester’s top speed as seen here:

The fleece body suit is super-easy to put on because it very smartly Velcros along your dog’s spine instead of along the tummy, like so many of the outerwear we’ve tried on Chester. He doesn’t co-operate nearly as well when we’re trying to feed his paws through arm holes with a coat already around his back and rump. This design avoids that and lets you put your dog into it feet first.

The Neo-Paws booties have a good, hard rubber sole (rather than soft suede like many of the dog boots on the market), so they’re built to last more than just a season or two.

Plus, they’re highly water resistant. I haven’t yet had to wipe off Chester’s paws after a walk.

Oh, and they come up nice and high, which seem really supportive of lower leg joints.

The fleece hoodie attaches and detaches from the fleece suit perfectly, and on extra-cold days, we’ve been able to do a reasonable walk because it keeps Chester quite protected from the elements.

Neo-Paws offers so many sizes in each product that you’re guaranteed to find the perfect fit. Chester, for example, isn’t just an extra-small in the body suit — he’s an XS-plus. And for a dog who’s been a challenge to fit for clothing because of his skinny but long frame, it’s amazing just how well these products fit him.

Neo-PawsTHE GAFFE

The hoodie has a rather annoying drawstring that needs to be tucked in, lest your pup awkwardly get himself all caught up in it during a walk. I could totally do without the drawstring entirely on this particular product. In our case, anyway, it serves no purpose.

The booties present a learning curve. They just do. But that’s the reason they stay on — because there’s a whole layering and fastening system that you need to master. The first time I tried to put them on by myself, it took about 15 minutes. Now I can do all four paws inside of three minutes. (Hint: when you’re first getting your dog used to this process, give him a treat before and after each completed paw; we now don’t use any treats to get them on and Chester fully co-operates.) They’re still not something I do if we’re going out for a quick pee, but for longer walks it’s worth staying with it to get it right.

Neo-Paws’ fleece body suit fits Chester’s front legs perfectly but leaves about an inch of exposed leg at the rear once paired with the shoes. (And not just when lying down like in the picture to the right.)

THE GEARS

  • Neo-paws booties = 4/5
  • Neo-paws fleece = 4.5/5
  • Neo-paws hoodie = 3.5/5

So…where can you get it?

February 13, 2015
by Mommy Gearest
1 Comment

Genius: my little Arbonne secret

If you have a friend, cousin or so much as even acquaintance who sells Arbonne skin care, you’ve had the talk.

It might be a simple, straightforward one like it was with my friend Danielle Broadhagen who told me she was an Independent Consultant in case I wanted to try anything from the Swiss line; or it might be a long, drawn-out conversion masquerading itself as something other than a sales pitch.

I wasn’t interested. I was pretty happy with my skin-care routine and I had been down the Mary Kay road before and assumed Arbonne would be the same — but with prettier packaging.

And then she did it to me. She reeled me in by inviting me to be part of a trial group of customers for a new product. We’re all aware that I have product issues, and getting the inside scoop on a new product piqued my interest enough to cheat on my regular brand.

The Arbonne Intelligence Genius pads, soaked in a retinoid liquid.

The Arbonne Intelligence Genius pads, soaked in a retinoid liquid.

Along with my seven-day sample of Arbonne Intelligence Genius was a sample set of the RE9 skin-care line. Danielle asked me to follow the routine morning and night as directed and would follow up at the end with a survey. Well, I made it to day five and noticed such a huge difference in my skin that I called her and just said, “I want it all.”

That was a year ago and in between I’ve used other products — because as a blogger who sometimes writes about beauty, I have to — but nothing makes my skin glow like Arbonne. And I credit 80 per cent of that glow to the Genius retinoid complex. It’s my little miracle, and I have told so many people about it offline, I thought it was high time to do so online, too.

The other little gem of a product, which is brand new and launched as part of Arbonne’s 35-year anniversary this year, is the Genius Booster Serum for Body lotion, which does for the body what the Genius complex does for the face.

THE GOOD

They work. Really. I am about as jaded as they come and I just won’t stand for products that don’t live up to their brand promises. Both of these Arbonne Intelligence Genius products do what they say they’re going to do. The retinoid complex (which is activated when you pour a bottle of magic potion on these textured pads that come in a little jar) will change your skin inside of a week, likely, but definitely within two weeks. I don’t know anyone who’s tried it who hasn’t seen a dramatic difference. I only wish I’d done before and after shots. My skin is just brighter, more even and far clearer from the lovely hormonal acne that sometimes rears its ugly head. The Booster Serum sloughs away those mid-winter bumps on the back of your arms and smooths out rough elbows beautifully. I noticed a difference after just three days of use.

Another miracle in a bottle, this body booster will do wonders for the winter blahs on your body.

Another miracle in a bottle, this body booster will do wonders for the winter blahs on your body.

Arbonne doesn’t promise to be “all natural” but many of its products are botanically based. So if you’re half-crunchy like me, you’ll be glad to know that you’re using products from a brand that doesn’t use many of the nasty ingredients that make you go “ew.”

A little goes a long way. So, the trick to maximizing those pricey Genius pads (see gaffe…) is to use it for about three to four weeks, and once your skin is in impeccable shape, cut the pads in half. Your skin won’t absorb nearly as much product by this stage, and you’ll end up getting an extra month out of this product. The Booster Serum can be added to your regular body moisturizer — but only once you’ve fixed your issues entirely. I’m not ready to reduce the potency yet because I want the backs of my arms to be 100 per cent free of the bumps and rough patches I get every winter; once they’re as perfect as a baby’s bottom, I’ll extend the product by combining it with “normal” moisturizer.

The Booster Serum has this lovely iridescent shimmer in it, that’s lovely slathered on your collar bones and shoulders.

THE GAFFE

Nothing from Arbonne comes cheap. This is a brand worth paying for if you can afford it, but at $110 for a 60-day supply of the Genius pads and $66 for a 30 mL bottle of Booster Serum, they’re not for women on a tight budget.

Unless you have an Independent Consultant like Danielle who will actually make the trip to an Arbonne warehouse to pick up your products and deliver them to you, you need to tack on shipping charges to your order. (Although one of the best ways to help share the shipping is by ordering with friends, family or neighbours.)

THE GEARS

4.5/5

So…where do you get it?

February 11, 2015
by Mommy Gearest
0 comments

Wordless Wednesday: Aisabobo introduces luxury kids’ clothes

Designed in Canada, the new Aisabobo line is perfect for those times your child needs special-occasion clothing. With price points in the $65 to $90 range (per piece), this isn't your average play date wear. And you get what you'd expect forking out this kind of money: details, high-quality fabrics and a generous fit. Miss Q usually wears a size 5 and The K Man usually an 8, but the Aisabobo clothes had tonnes of room (she's in a 5 with the back cinched, and he's in a 7 with the cuffs rolled up half an inch or so).  We don't love the fit of the boys' trousers, though, which could be much slimmer through the hip and thigh. While the brand doesn't currently have much in the boys' line, there's a good starting selection for girls with dresses that are more unique that what you might find in your local mall.

Designed in Canada, the new Aisabobo line is perfect for those times your child needs special-occasion clothing. With price points in the $65 to $90 range (per piece), this isn’t your average play date wear. And you get what you’d expect forking out this kind of money: details, high-quality fabrics and a generous fit. Miss Q usually wears a size 5 and The K Man usually an 8, but the Aisabobo clothes had tonnes of room (she’s in a 5 with the back cinched, and he’s in a 7 with the cuffs rolled up half an inch or so). We don’t love the fit of the boys’ trousers, though, which could be much slimmer through the hip and thigh. While the brand doesn’t currently have much in the boys’ line, there’s a good starting selection for girls with dresses that are more unique that what you might find in your local mall.

February 5, 2015
by Mommy Gearest
0 comments

Better Life cleaning products

When you have products with clever names like Simply Floored, what-EVER, Take it for Granite and Einshine — among others — you’re going to immediately get my attention.

Big B thinks this is hilarious because I am, in case you didn’t know, a marketer by day. I am part of the whole marketing dance, and yet I’m just as much a sucker for it as the next girl. I love good, smart marketing. And even though I know that picking up a bottle of Better Life‘s new I Can See Clearly, Wow glass cleaner isn’t guaranteed to make my windows shine with streak-free wonderment (scroll through the slideshow for reviews on each product we’ve tried), brands stand a much better chance of me even noticing it on the shelf if it’s got great packaging or a name that makes me look twice.

We’ve been testing many of Better Life’s products now for the better part of four months — because, frankly, it takes that long to get through bottles upon jugs of at-home cleaning products. Thanks for sending along so many great products, Better Life…we’ll be repeat customers for most of them.

 

  • Spin-Credible Laundry Detergent

    THE GOOD

    • Smells fantastic 
    • Requires only about an ounce of detergent to wash a full load (I have a big front-loader!)
    • Around $16 for 64 loads (or 25 cents per load)
    • Gets out all pee smells and stains from bed sheets and mattress protectors, but...

    THE GAFFE

    • Can't cut through the stench of a urine-drenched cloth diaper, no matter how hot your water is or even if you double up on your detergent
    • It's not as all-natural as making your own or buying something from a specialty brand (but it's more natural than most of the brands you'll find beside it on big-box and grocery store shelves)

    THE GEARS = 4/5

  • Simply Floored

    THE GOOD

    • Works on hardwood, tile, marble, bamboo, vinyl, laminate and other sealed floors
    • Easy to use: squirt and mop!
    • Really does leave my hardwood shiny and streak-free
    • Smells lovely

    THE GAFFE

    • You'll go through it very quickly, so it's a good thing it only comes with a $6ish price tag
    • As a new pet owner, I need to do a cross-check against some of the ingredients with which I'm not familiar (but so far, our pup has had no problems...other than sliding clean across that sparkly floor of ours)

    THE GEARS = 4.5/5

  • what-EVER!

    THE GOOD

    • When Better Life called this an "all-purpose cleaner," it wasn't joking! Anywhere, anything you can think to clean, what-EVER can take it on. From the walls to the bathroom to the kitchen and even down to laundry stains...really
    • It could help you reduce the number of products you use around the house, and thereby save you money

    THE GAFFE

    • When I do a search on Skin Deep for one of this product's ingredients (Methylisothiazolinone), I get a disturbing rating of "5." I don't like seeing anything in that zone in products calling themselves natural; sure, the product contains less than 0.1 per cent of it, but...no thanks

    THE GEARS = 3/5

  • Automatic Magic

    THE GOOD

    • Actually gets my dishes really clean! (And we're not the best rinsers in town)
    • No scent = no added fragrance = fewer chemicals to worry about
    • Great price point: only about 8.5 cents per load

    THE GAFFE

    • If you have really stuck-on food, it's not going to cut through it like Cascade. It's just not

    THE GEARS = 4/5

  • I Can See Clearly, Wow!

    THE GOOD

    • The streak-free promise is true, every time
    • Concentrated enough that the $7 price tag doesn't hurt so much

    THE GAFFE

    • There's that Methylisothiazolinone ingredient again...which makes me rather stick to good ole vinegar-water

    THE GEARS = 3/5

  • Dish It Out

    THE GOOD

    • It has...a nice bottle?

    THE GAFFE

    • Sadly, this is the one product in the line that we just didn't like: it doesn't offer anything in the way of suds! I need me some suds to feel like I'm cleaning dishes
    • Four different people tried this and no one said they would buy it again

    THE GEARS = 2/5

  • Take it for Granite

    THE GOOD

    • Love, love, love, love, LOVE this product! Let's start with the name: cute...
    • But more than that, I love that it's the only product I've found to date that works on both my granite AND quartz in our kitchen; most products are one or the other. And it cleans brilliantly. While a lot of stone cleaners do a great job making the surface shiny, they aren't exactly the best in the cleaning department. Take it for Granite does BOTH jobs, beautifully
    • It smells WOW, and I love that the scent comes only from essential oils of pomegranate and grapefruit

    THE GAFFE

    • It contains Methylisothiazolinone...ack! But considering I can't use vinegar-water on my quartz, and I've found nothing else that cleans stone surfaces this well, I'm sucking it up on this one

    THE GEARS = 4.5/5

  • Even the Kitchen Sink

    THE GOOD

    • Like what-EVER, this is very much an all-purpose cleaner -- but think of it for tougher stains, like toilet bowls, laundry tubs, the inside of your green bin, really cooked-on foods and, yes, even the kitchen sink (har, har)
    • Another option to reduce your overall product footprint at home if you tend to use several different products for many of the jobs that one like this can tackle

    THE GAFFE

    • Again with the Methylisothiazolinone
    • I'm not as big of a fan of products that you have to rinse off

    THE GEARS = 3.5/5

  • Einshine

    THE GOOD

    • I mean, seriously...fantastic product name
    • Oprah loves it (isn't that basically enough said?)
    • Works on more than just stainless steel (think chrome, nickel, titanium and more)
    • Scented only with lavender and chamomile essential oils
    • One of the best stainless steel cleaners I've ever used, but...

    THE GAFFE

    • You gotta buff it good, baby! You'll need to add some elbow grease to bring out the "sparkle" in your stainless
    • Dear Methylisothiazolinone: please go away

    THE GEARS = 3.5/5

January 20, 2015
by Mommy Gearest
0 comments

Stokke Steps system

If you have kids who are in the four to six age range, you’re probably facing the same dilemma I did: to buy a transitional dinner table chair or stick with a booster seat or just flat-out let them navigate a grownup chair on their own terms.

Boosters don’t seem to work well for us from day-to-day; they’re harder for younger kids to get into on their own (so, frankly, why not just keep them in a high chair if you need to help them in and out of it anyway?).

But transitional options usually come in the form of convertible high chairs, like the Tripp Trapp, keekaroo, HiLo and other similar options. The question is: are they worth the extra hundreds just to make it through this awkward post-toddler, pre-tween age range? For something like the Tripp Trapp or keekaroo, I wholeheartedly believe that if you use it from the baby stage right through to teen years (as a desk chair in your kid’s bedroom), that—yes—the price tag is worth it. You’ll undoubtedly get good value for your money once you factor in cost per use. Some of the other “convertibles,” however, may not be wide enough for a tween’s growing bottom or provide enough support to counteract the weight of a young teen who’s already weighing more than 150 pounds.

All that to say, you really need to think through your long-term use if you plan to spend more than pocket change on something like the IKEA Antilop high chair.

One of the newer contenders in this convertible high chair category is the Stokke Steps system, which takes you from those early baby bouncer days right through to up-to-the-table eating.

Stokke Steps system

The K Man, 6.5, just moved to a “big” chair last week, so we still need to readjust the footrest for Miss Q (age 4).

THE GOOD

If you’re really organized, and you think through multipurpose baby products well in the moments any time before you actually have a child and your brain turns to complete mush for anywhere from seven to 16 months, or longer, you can really make this system work for you. And that’s because it all starts with a bouncer. (Seriously—who doesn’t have a bouncer for her baby? WHO?) The Stokke Steps offers several stages of convenience for you and your child, starting pretty much out of the womb. And it’s a bouncer that just does more, because you can also bring that brand-new baby smell right up to the table with you when your family eats. (But please remember to NEVER feed a baby who is reclined; babies need to be able to sit up independently to eat.)

The Stokke Steps Chair is unbelievably easy to assemble and get working for you right away. This is the edge it has on the Tripp Trapp, which is a total pain to put together. You can also more easily adjust the footrest on the Steps Chair than the Tripp Trapp. The chair fits my four and six year olds equally well, and I think it’ll fit them until at least age eight or 10, depending on how tall they each get. And it just so happens to match my kitchen table perfectly because we have a white quartz top with dark brown legs.

There’s no getting the footrest wrong. What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ve ever assembled the Tripp Trapp and didn’t exactly follow the instruction manual, you may have made the same mistake we did and install it incorrectly—meaning that your kid stepped on it and sent it soaring out from under him. Oops. But not with the Stokke Steps Chair; there’s only two holes into which you can connect the footrest on either side.

The bouncer in and of itself is a pretty fabulous bouncer. It’s stable on the floor and in the chair, nicely padded, and portable. Plus it looks clean and modern and will match your contemporary décor should you choose to keep it near your furniture rather than stow it away.

The chair is also easy for my kids to get in and out of, and is the perfect height at the table (at least for now). Miss Q’s been able to climb in and out of it since she was three, so even toddlers should be able to manage for the most part—once the baby/toddler seat has been removed, that is.

Although I’m not usually a proponent of plastic goods for kids, when it comes to a high chair or chair, plastic is your friend. It wipes down so easily and if (no, WHEN) food gets stuck on because you didn’t happen to wipe it off right away, you can pick it off with your finger without working that you’re going to nick paint or a wood stain. The parts of this chair that are most likely to get dirty are plastic, and so easy to clean and get “white-white” again.

We’ve tried a few Stokke products now, and they are always incredibly high-quality. And its customer service is really just shockingly good if you ever do encounter a problem.

Once your little one is ready for a proper seat at the table, the Steps Chair transforms into a high chair with the help of a harness, tray and seat-back—only adding to the overall function.

THE GAFFE

But, darn it all, there’s no harness option once the toddler seat comes out. Maybe you don’t need a harness for YOUR four year old, but at times I do. With the Tripp Trapp, sometimes that was the only way to keep her in her seat after a bout of bad listening.

You can’t, sadly, move the seat up and down with the Steps Chair, which means it won’t last as long for your child as something like the Tripp Trapp.

It also only comes in two colour options: you can get a white seat and footrest with either a light wood or dark wood stain. It’s similar to the keekaroo in that respect, but pales in comparison to the Tripp Trapp with its 458 different colours (OK, OK…slight exaggeration).

My chubster bottom doesn’t fit into the Steps chair as easily as the Tripp Trapp or keekaroo. This is clearly not going to be a problem for your kid. But I thought I’d mention it.

And of course because this is a pick ‘n mix seating system, there are many price tags to consider along the way. The chair, the bouncer, the tray, the baby/toddler seat… it all adds up. In all, it could be $650 or more, depending on where you buy your Stokke Steps set. That’s not exactly cost-friendly for the average family. (Though you could easily do without the tray; just pull your babe right up to the family table!) You can of course soften the blow by having at least one or two more kids make use of the thing. Just have them at least four or five years apart so you’re not in the precarious position of needing a new chair each time to connect to the other components.

THE GEARS

3.5/5 (the ability to adjust the seat height would have garnered this product a much higher mark)

So…where can you get it?

 

January 14, 2015
by Mommy Gearest
1 Comment

Glama Gals Tween Spa birthday party

My birthday isn’t really very important to me. It’s probably because my parents never really made a big deal about it.

Sure, I remember having a couple of birthday parties (one in my backyard in Cobourg when I was perhaps six; and one when I turned 12 that ended up in my parents’ basement, with me sobbing in one corner because “Love Bites” came on and it was — for whatever reason — the song I’d dedicated to my crush-at-the-time, Sean Sawyer; while in another corner, Sean Cook and Paul Lagroix sneaked booze into their cans of Pepsi. OK, now it sounds like there were only boys at my party and that’s simply not true; I swear I had girl friends).

But there was never really a big show put on. And while I never felt slighted by it, I’ve also been the exact opposite with my own kids. We’ve had parties at everywhere from our backyard to Great Wolf Lodge and Kidville. They nearly always involve me making a lavish birthday cake, and I generally want to fall down and sleep for three days afterwards.

Oh, but the smiles. The laughter. The joy. Their appreciation is written all over their faces, and I wouldn’t let go of those images for the world.

But I have gotten smarter. I work less, and enjoy more.

And nowhere is that easier to do than by booking your next party at Glama Gals Tween Spa.

Glama Gals birthday party

THE GOOD

I don’t even know where to begin. Because I just need to gush. So I supposed I’ll work my way through this chronologically. First off, planning a party at Glama Gals is just about the easiest thing: select a date, a time, whether you want chocolate or vanilla cupcakes, tell them how many guests you’re having and how old the birthday girl is and — voila! — you’re done. Well, just about; use the invitations that your Glama Gals location will provide and you’re all set.

Someone will call you the week of your party just to confirm the final details. I liked this. Sometimes, I have the memory of a fish, and I’ve forgotten about entire doctor’s appointments for my kids (just last week, in fact). So reminders are key.

There are only two adults allowed to stay. Some of you may balk at this, but for me this is a blessing. It gives the kids a chance to just be with each other (and be remarkably independent without mommy in sight), and it means you — the adult host — can chill and enjoy watching your baby girl get pampered without feeling beholden to entertain other grownups.

The Lil’ Miss Positive package, for kids under five years old, was just perfect from beginning to end for Miss Q and her friends. The activities and timing were spot-on for that age group. They started with pedis, where Frozen-themed sparkle combos were all the rage; then they moved to manis. Some light makeup (very, very light and really just for fun) and then there was the Princess Oath (or Ceremony. Or something…), where a Glama Gals staffer had the girls repeat a you-go-girl-power chant that also involved eating vegetables. Very cute. And tiaras and wands made the rounds. Then they were off to the bubble bath-making station followed by the shopping wall. Yes — a shopping WALL! If you opt into the (reasonably priced) loot bags at $9 per child, each guest gets to choose three items off this wall, ensuring loot bags are personalized. Satisfied with their pickings, the party then went upstairs for lunch.

Lunch is pizzza with pink lemonade in ornate plastic goblets, amidst a totally girly-fied room and table setting. Lunch was silent. The girls had really spa’d up an appetite.

On the pink lemonade front, I  have to say that I was thrilled not to see any pop or heavily sugared drinks of any kind in sight.

There was a birthday countdown (from four, because Miss Q had turned four) and everyone sung Happy Birthday. She blew out a candle, and we cheered. The usual, but I didn’t have to light the candle or miss the photo opp. In fact, in all of this, I was completely hands-off. It was so relaxing.

But the best part (for me, anyway) came as the girls were munching on cupcakes. It’s called the Pink Toast, and each guest was invited to say something nice to or about Miss Q. How lovely is that?

The cost is pretty reasonable, all things considered. Our package was $299 and that included six girls, all of the treatments, the bubble bath-making experience and lunch (cupcakes, too!). Add a guest? $29. Want those loot bags? Another $9. When you look at this compared to several other indoor experience-centric birthday party options, it’s well-priced. Frankly, just being able to show up and do nothing (plus not have to make our beds or clean our house) is worth at least a hundred bucks on its own, right?

The Glama Gals team sent us home with the leftover pizza, ensured all of Miss Q’s gifts were near the door, and we were on our way two hours after arriving.

Miss Q fell asleep, shimmery nails and all, in the back seat on the way home. With a smile on her face.

THE GAFFE

I would have loved to be able to offer our young guests healthy side options with their pizza. Some fruit and veg platters would be great, even if you have to pay more for them.

OK, why is it a “tween” spa? I find this very ageist. After all, Miss Q started enjoying pedicures at 19 months old, so I really think it should just be Glama Gals Kid Spa. We’ll wait while you get on that re-branding…

THE GEARS

4.5/5

So…how can I book it?

 

DISCLAIMER: I am a Glambassador and receive special perks and experiences from Glama Gals Tween Spa. This was not a sponsored (compensated) post, and it reflects my personal opinion about our experience at Glama Gals Ajax.

January 4, 2015
by Mommy Gearest
6 Comments

#NikonMOMents, part IV: Orlando, Florida (sponsored post)

Looking back on 2014, there was one common thread that tied our year together as a family: travel. Whether it was Punta Cana (where we visited both the Hard Rock and Club Med) or the several Southern Ontario road trips we took — not to mention my jaunts to Aruba and New York — we wrapped up the year as we started it, travelling together and making incredible memories.

Even a one-night stay in a Toronto airport hotel is enough to excite my kids, but faced with a surprise trip to Orlando, Fla., their reaction was priceless:

OK, so The K Man’s reaction was priceless and Miss Q decided to act like a seven month old who can’t actually speak real words. Perhaps I shouldn’t have confused her by putting jammies and socks in with her surprises. Lesson learned.

Neither Big B nor I had been to Orlando since we were little kids, so this adventure was as exciting for us as it was for them. And with nine months of planning behind us, four carry-ons, two iPods (with headphones!) and one shared piece of luggage — we were off.

You’ll soon be able to read some of my top tips for visiting Orlando over at CanadianFamily.ca; but in the meantime, here’s a rundown of everything noteworthy that we did, ate and saw (all captured on my trusty Nikon D3300!). Think of it as the ultimate highlight reel for everything AWESOME in Orlando:

  • Waldorf Astoria Orlando

    When this is your view, you know your vacation is off to the best start possible. 

    The Waldorf brand stands for luxury and if you have a bigger budget or want to really splash out, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando will not disappoint. A one-bedroom suite overlooking Epcot and the hotel's stunning golf course is the perfect fit for a family of four. Featuring a king bed (with a feather topper on the mattress that makes for dreamy slumber) and master ensuite in a separate room adjacent to a living room (with pullout couch), dining room and kitchenette, there's more than enough space to get really comfortable during your stay in Orlando. While the Waldorf -- part of the Bonnet Creek Resort, connected to a Hilton -- is actually inside the Walt Disney World gates, it's not a Disney hotel. And that can be a good thing, since it's nice to be able to remove yourself from the hustle and bustle of Disney-mania. It does, however, offer free shuttles all day and night to the parks should you not have a rental car or prefer to avoid the USD$17 parking fee per park.

    I have literally no critique of this property. It's pretty much perfection and I hope we have an opportunity to return again -- without kids!

  • Harvest Bistro beet salad

    A short walk from along the Waldorf Astoria's lower level leads you to the Hilton Bonnet Creek hotel (which has some fab amenities that you get to use as a guest at the Waldorf). We enjoyed dinner here at one of the onsite restaurants, Harvest Bistro. Everything we ate was delicious, and the portions for the kids' meals were enormous.

    Most notable was this deconstructed golden beet salad with goat's cheese, candied nuts and arugula -- outstanding. Oh, and try the flourless chocolate cake, too!

    Be sure to get your hands on a Kids Eat Free Orlando card if you plan to dine here more than once; kids' meals at lunch and dinner are gratis when you order adult entrees and show your card.

  • Oscar's waffle

    When someone tells you that a waffle was six weeks in the making, you have no choice but to try it. At least four times (just to be sure the first three were as good as the last).

    And I could try to describe the waffles at Oscar's buffet breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria, but I would fail to do it justice. But trust me when I tell you that it's unlike any other waffle you've ever had; it's almost like a cross between a croissant and a waffle. So light and airy, yet crisp, buttery and full of flavour (the Madagascar vanilla helps...). The whole buffet is spectacular, but the waffle is a must-try among all else.

  • Oscar's buffet breakfast

    There were two other highlights for me at Oscar's Brasserie during breakfast (aside from the fact that kids five and under eat for free): the local honeycomb dripping into a honey pot, and the almond-marzipan croissants. 

    There's a bee farm (or some such thing) in one of Orlando's suburbs where a fresh honeycomb is delivered daily to Oscar's. It sits on an angle at the bar, slowly -- delectably -- oozing golden nectar into a waiting glass jar below. I opted for honey over maple syrup on my fancy waffles, and was glad to have made this choice. 

  • Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (BBB)

    Miss Q turned four years old just a couple of weeks after our Orlando trip. And because she's the ultimate girly-girl and sooooo into all-things-princesses, I just had to book her into the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. But heed these words: you must be on the phone with Disney's (truly amazing) call centre folks exactly 180 days before your scheduled arrival or you can just forget about a reservation. In fact, I called on the 180th day and still didn't manage to get a reservation in Cinderella's Castle at Disney World! But we did score a great time slot in the Downtown Disney location and just worked our itinerary around it, scheduling in many other great sites and bites in the area to make a day of it.

    Everything good you will ever read about BBB is true. Yes, it's expensive (about USD$230 by the time we were done), but how many times are you ever going to do this? For us...this is it. It's magical from start to finish, and the staff truly make your little girl feel like a princess. You take home the nail polish and makeup, along with professional photos if you book the Castle package as we did. And you leave with rounds of applause and perfect strangers oohing and aahing. I actually welled up with tears because of everyone's kindness. Worth every penny.

  • LEGO store - Downtown Disney

    So much more than just a retail store where you can buy a few LEGO sets, the Downtown Disney Marketplace LEGO store has a life-size Hulk in all his green glory and several areas to just play. There's a wall of LEGO that puts some rainbows to shame, and even a little covered outdoor play zone reminiscent of some of the activations at Toronto's LEGOland Discovery Centre -- and perfect to while away the 10 minutes (or hour) you might get of rain from day to day in Orlando.

  • Bongo's Cuban Cafe Mojito

    When we secured a dinner reservation at Bongo's (about five months before our visit, via the My Disney Experience site), I didn't know it was owned by Gloria Estefan. I just knew that (a) I could make a reservation, (b) it had great reviews and (c) it was a short stroll from the Cirque du Soleil show we were seeing that night.

    I was not prepared to drink the best mojito of my life, complete with sugar cane (which I sucked dry), nor to have Gloria herself follow me on Twitter. It was a very good day.

  • Bongo's Cuban Cafe Cuban paella (Downtown Disney)

    I think you can gather that I'm a foodie. Die hard.

    So when a plate piled high with seafood passed our table just as we sat down at Bongo's, I pointed and quickly asked a server, "What's that?!" It was the Cuban paella. We ordered it. A whole lobster, shrimp galore, mussels, clams, squid, fish, chicken and Spanish sausage all nestled atop rice and served with a side of fried green plantains for USD$75. It could have fed four people; which is saying a lot, because with Big B around there are rarely leftovers.

  • La Nouba

    If you've never seen a permanent Cirque du Soleil show and you happen to find yourself in Orlando, please (PLEASE!) get tickets to La Nouba. I say permanent, because a travelling Cirque show simply isn't the same. It isn't as grand because it can't be -- it needs to be more compact so it can pick up and go to the next city. But a permanent show that has a bespoke theatre...well, it'll blow your mind.

    Go for the acrobatics, the clowns, the aerial ballet, the gymnastics, the holy-crap-please-don't-fall moments -- or just go for the abs, ladies. La Nouba will not disappoint. Our kids were mesmerized from the pre-show (arrive 30 minutes early and get in your seats so you don't miss it) to the bitter end. No one asked to go pee, for a drink or to sit on either Big B's or my laps (this is huge, people). The female singer (who we were told was relatively new to the cast) was so brilliant with a voice so beautifully haunting that I wept through at least three of her songs. You can't miss this show!

  • 903 Mills Market Cafe

    When you're visiting a new place and looking for something to eat, my best advice is to check out TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon. Generally, the public isn't wrong; so you can trust that if a restaurant has a 93% rating or is considered the No. 2-best restaurant in a given city, it's gonna be good.

    And 903 Mills Market Cafe proved this theory correct. It was off in a residential part of Orlando, far off the beaten path. So far that unless you went looking for it, you'd simply never happen upon it as a tourist. But if you've rented a car and you're up for a drive that'll take you 15 to 20 minutes away from the action, please go here for breakfast. What you'll spend in gas, you'll save on your bill because it's ridiculously inexpensive.

    Pictured here is the breakfast sandwich -- made with pancakes as your outer layer! Holy smokes, talk about yummy. Oh, and if you've got kids who love smoothies, these real-fruit smoothies are so big that you'll need to ask your server to split the order into two cups as we've done here (those are about 16-oz. cups each!).

  • Nikon Photo Stop at Disney World

    Lo and behold, as we were about to ask one of Disney's own PhotoPass+ photographers to take our picture in front of Cinderella's Castle, I noticed a little sign on the fence that read "Nikon Picture Spot." So it felt extra-fitting that I would pull out my Nikon D3300 DSLR and test out one of the tips I'd read in one of the many online Disney Hacks available. I'd read that if you ask a Disney photographer to take your family's photo with YOUR OWN camera, s/he will.

    And it worked -- time and time again. Now, you have to have your camera's settings all queued up and ready to go, but we had our photo taken on three or four occasions between the two Disney parks we visited.

  • Meeting Cinderella at Disney World

    I cannot stress enough how phenomenal every staff member and character were who we encountered at Disney World. From asking directions to helping me figure out the My Disney Experience app in the park (I'd only used the desktop site before arrival), the genuine kindness and generosity we were shown was second-to-none. 

    And this extended to every character. These actors play the part and never miss a beat -- even with the parents. I found myself again in tears, overwhelmed by the amount of time characters took with my kids. Especially considering the long lines behind us. In particular, Cinderella's soft and gentle touch was the most magical start to Miss Q's day at Magic Kingdom; and she even came over to me after chatting with Q and said in a voice that you feel you've known all your life, "Oh my, isn't she such a dear..." (SNIFF!)

  • Meeting Rapunzel at Disney World

    Rapunzel followed suit, and was the playful (and almost goofy) character from Tangled that you'd expect. I have no idea what she and Miss Q talked about, but it went on for ages (no joke, probably three solid minutes, which for a three year old probably felt like an hour), and it was very intimate.

    Miss Q was beaming and clearly on Cloud 9. Those princesses made her day. Maybe her whole year. Especially when they referred to her as Princess Anna because she decided to wear the dress she got at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique the day before.

  • Enchanted Tales with Belle

    This was one of the most interesting, unique and interactive attractions in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World. Enchanted Tales with Belle is a small-group attraction that generally has long lines, so consider using this as one of your three FastPass+ selections; you won't be sorry.

    And it's not just for girls! Dads and boys will thoroughly enjoy this, too. First, you're guided into a room with a talking dresser, and one of the "helpers" comes out and takes everyone through some exercises (like, "Now neigh like a horse!") and hand-picks several guests to participate in the story. Miss Q obviously neighed with confidence, because despite being the youngest in the room, she was chosen to play the horse from Beauty and the Beast. Then you go into another room and the cast all play a role in the story with Lumiere up on the mantel and Belle herself who comes in from an adjacent room. Again -- magical.

  • Dole Whip

    OK, look. If you go to Disney World and you don't get a Dole Whip, I question your sanity.

    If there was one thing I remembered from my first trip to the Magic Kingdom (nearly 30 years ago), it was our daily Dole Whip indulgence. Think Dairy Queen meets Hawaii. Simply divine. Get one. And do not share with others.

  • New England Pot Roast at Liberty Tree Tavern

    Again, with the 180-day reservations. We found it pretty challenging to get into some of the most highly rated restaurants at the Magic Kingdom. As a backup, I booked us in for lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern -- an inn-style restaurant that clearly nods to American roots and colonial times.

    When we didn't manage to score a last-minute cancellation, we kept our Liberty Tree booking and hoped for the best. Neither the description in the menu or the look of the New England Pot Roast dish should have made me order it, the waitress insisted that it was the establishment's signature dish. I'm not one to argue with an opinionated waitress; I've been one. They know their stuff. 

    And -- whoa (and I mean that in the most Joey-from-Blossom-sort-of-tone). The braised beef melted into my fork and made love to my mouth. This is not an exaggeration. For the USD$18.99 price tag, I wasn't expecting magic. But when in the Magic Kingdom, magic ye shall get. The kids' mac 'n cheese was also really tasty, but if your kids are quite little or lighter eaters, they could easily share one kids' meal. 

  • Main Street Electrical Parade at Walt Disney World

    Every night at Walt Disney World, there are three things you need to do:

    1. Cast your eyes on Cinderella's Castle, all a-glow with lights against the night sky.
    2. See the Wishes Fireworks display.
    3. Catch at least a glimpse of the Main Street Electrical Parade.

    If you happen to luck out and get a 9:30 p.m. dining reservation at Cinderella's Royal Table (more on that shortly), you can actually walk through the castle and watch the first half of the parade from one of the best vantage points in the park. Away from the crowds who are lined 20-deep at street level, here you're perched up above it all and you also happen to be at the tip of the turn -- dead centre. Can't be beat.

  • Cinderella's Castle at night

    Yeah, yeah... the castle during the day is cool. I mean, it's iconic. It embodies everything magical about the Magic Kindom and basically represents the Disney brand.

    But at night. Oh, at night, she's such a beauty. This past Christmas, the castle was decked out like Elsa's ice palace from Frozen and it was jaw-droppingly beautiful. I know it makes for a long day, but if you're only spending one day at the Magic Kingdom, come when the gates open and stay until they close. Because you don't want to miss this in person.

  • Cinderella's Royal Table

    I tried. I tried on the 180th day before our visit, and just about every day thereafter for the six months leading up to our trip to Orlando. 

    Cinderella's Royal Table is like the Holy Grail of Disney dining. Reservations are notoriously hard to get, and it's because the experience is like no other, the food is actually very good and there are remarkably few tables in the castle. Yes, in the castle. As in, you get to walk up the spiral staircase and feast like royalty in the castle. With four princesses who each come and visit you while you dine. That's after you take a photo with Cinderella and have the photos delivered right to your table.

    So all I can say is keep trying! At 7 a.m. the day before our Magic Kingdom visit, I checked the My Disney Experience site for cancellations and scored a late dinner reservation (9:30); I had no idea at the time that it would prove to be one of the best vantage points from which to watch the Wishes Fireworks Spectacular, too.

    Unfortunately, poor Miss Q fell asleep on Daddy before dinner even arrived (she'd never in her life stayed up that late without a nap!), but the rest of us had a great dinner and some fun with the princesses who were all happy to take photos with our sleeping beauty.

  • Wishes Nighttime Spectacular

    If you miss the Wishes fireworks (nightly at 10 p.m.), you're missing out on one of the Magic Kingdom's most impressive attractions. The display goes on for 12 minutes, which in fireworks time is at least three hours. And it's just one gorgeous boom after another, with colours lighting up the sky and topping off the most magical day you may ever have.

  • Nickelodeon Hotel suite

    If you have SpongeBob, Dora or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans at home, the Nickelodeon hotel is going to blow their minds. Their favourite characters can be spotted throughout the resort, stationary, in the gardens, on the water or along the shoreline. But they can also be found wandering around, interacting with guests and even posing for photos -- especially during the character dining experiences.

    This is an all-suite hotel, with suites ranging from one to three bedrooms. Some have full kitchens while others -- like our two-bedroom -- had mini kitchenettes, with just enough "kitchen" to get by if you want to have, say, breakfast in your room each morning. Just grab your own bowls and spoons down at The Mall from one of the restaurants (for free). 

    What I love most about the Nick is that -- aside from being really well-priced -- it's got enough happening onsite that if you can only afford to do one big attraction (like Disney World or Universal Orlando), you won't feel like you've missed out on a super-fun vacation. There are two water parks, several restaurants, plus events and activities all day and night. The K Man called this "the Waldorf for kids." And he's not wrong.

  • Ahi tuna at Nicktoons Cafe

    I had to take a picture of this ahi tuna and devote an entire slide to it because it was super delicious and just such an enormous surprise. Walking into the Nicktoons Cafe at the Nickelodeon Hotel doesn't exactly scream "fine dining." And it's not supposed to; this is the ultimate kid-friendly resort and it's rife with bright colours, zany characters (stationary and otherwise) and all manner of fun. It's not the epicentre of luxury -- nor is it trying to be or should it be.

    But when you walk up to an all-you-can-eat buffet where Sponge Bob makes a daily appearance, you just don't expect to dine on sushi-grade tuna that is melt-in-your-mouth divine and done to absolute perfection. This was. Perfection.

  • Dancing with Dora

    Since we visited the Nickelodeon Hotel leading up to Christmas, there was a weekly "Let it Snow" spectacular that was essentially a night-time dance party for kids -- with snow! OK, not exactly real snow, but as the white stuff is falling from the sky, it certainly LOOKS real (even though it turned out to be more of a foam-like substance).

    There was music pumping, some live entertainment and several of the featured characters hanging out with guests.

    Miss Q just stared at Dora the whole time she danced with her. She was in awe and talked about Dora in almost utter disbelief for days. It was a pretty special moment for her.

  • Mass sliming

    This happens every day at the Nick. 

    You know that green slime for which Nickelodeon is so well known? Well, this is the super-sized version. And it gets dumped from the 400-gallon bucket atop the play structure in the Lagoon Pool...right on top of (totally willing) guests down below on the pool deck.

    Neither of my kids were willing to be guinea pigs, so we watched from our balcony as dozens of kids and adults alike got slimed! 

  • Sponge Bob character dining

    SpongeBob's Bikini Bottom Breakfast takes place five mornings a week at the Nick hotel -- at 7:50 a.m. Yeah, early enough...but if you're sleeping later with little kids on vacation, you should stop reading this before I break up with you.

    The all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast has most of the dishes you'd expect at an American buffet, including an eggs and omelette station. I would have liked to see a bit more fresh fruit, but you're there more for the experience, right? And what an experience it is: the entire cast of SpongeBob comes out, dancing up a storm and getting your morning off to a great start. They all come around and spend time with diners, gladly taking photos with everyone. My kids have never even seen the SpongeBob Square Pants TV show before arriving at the Nickelodeon Hotel, but they loved every second of this breakfast. 

  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle character dining

    There's rockin' music, dancing for everyone, seriously high energy and divine pizza. It's Antonio's Pizza Rama Dinner featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT)! And it happens every Friday and Saturday night at the Nick.

    While we didn't feel rushed at all during the SpongeBob breakfast, from the minute we sat down at the TMNT dinner, it was very clear that we were on the clock. 

    "This is a timed dining experience," were the first words out of our server's mouth. We had about an hour to eat, meet and take photos with all of the Ninja Turtles. It was no problem getting one picture with each Turtle, but request more than one and you might get the stink eye from the Turtle's handler.

    The good news is that the Turtles are fab with the kids -- fist pumping left, right and centre -- and the pizza was so spectacular, we ordered it the next night for dinner.

  • Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex & lunch with an astronaut

    What are the chances that, when planning a pan-Orlando visit for several months with an intricate itinerary and zero knowledge of what's happening on the space-exploration front, you'd manage to plan your day at the Kennedy Space Center on the same day it's test-launching Orion -- the next frontier in space travel? Pretty slim.

    But that's exactly what happened to us. Sadly, we only discovered the coincidence around 8 a.m. on Dec. 4, 2014, when we turned on the TV as we were getting ready for the day. It was on every news station. The launch had been delayed for a couple of different reasons but they had until just after 9 a.m. to make it happen. We raced to Cape Canaveral, but we didn't make it. And it failed to launch that day anyway thanks to a series of unfortunate obstacles. All the same, the energy was incredible at NASA that day and there were heaps of really cool events and speakers scheduled to celebrate what was supposed to be a successful launch.

    One of my favourite parts of the day was having lunch with an astronaut. I have no photos of this experience, however, because I was trying to pacify my then-3 and 6 year olds, who were just too young to sit still during what is mostly an interesting chat and Q&A with an astronaut in a banquet hall while you eat a buffet lunch. But as someone who has always wanted to go to space camp, this was right up my alley. Other highlights:

    • Space Shuttle Atlantis -- wow. I can't say enough about this installation. You get so close to the actual, real shuttle (see next slide)
    • The Angry Birds Space Encounter exhibit, where you MUST try the laser-beam challenge to capture four golden eggs as quickly as possible while maneuvering up, over, around and through wall-to-wall lasers  
    • The 3D IMAX movie about the Hubble telescope was infinitely fascinating, and I didn't want it to end. It piqued my son's interest so much in space, that I wished we'd seen this before our astronaut lunch because I think he would have been a lot more keen
    • And far and away the absolute COOLEST activity is the Shuttle Launch Experience; for whatever reason, my normally fear-ridden boy was ecstatic about going on this "ride." Of course I was totally game and we spent about 15 minutes in line before going into a space shuttle simulator that mimics G-forces and weightlessness as the "roof" opens into the starlit sky
  • Space Shuttle Atlantis

    Love, love, love, love, LOVED every part of this experience at the Kennedy Space Center. 

    As you can see from the photo, you get close enough to the shuttle (which, through the exhibit, you learn just how ahead of its time it was) to make out the exterior beautifully. My Nikon DSLR really captured the details, too. The bottom half of the photo shows the heat shields patched together, which is so neat to see after you've just learned that those very shields were the reason the Atlantis was behind schedule for an additional two to three years because they had to find a way to prevent them from falling off during re-entry.

    Just...just go.

  • Buttons and things at Kennedy Space Centre

    This is pretty much every kid's dream...flicking buttons to and fro while pretending to be commanding a spaceship.

    Do the buttons do anything? Not really -- you know, except ignite imagination.

  • In a space capsule (or something)

    There was something about getting into all of the nooks and crannies found in the outdoor visitor areas at Kennedy Space Center that my kids were just drawn to over and over again.

    This might have been their 17th time in a capsule.

  • Mommy Gearest was here

    I had to.

  • Second-story tunnel

    OK, I swear this is the last pic I'll share from the Kennedy Space Center. But I thought this shot ended up looking pretty interesting with all its swirls.

    This is a tunnel that's on the second floor, and gives you a 360-degree view of that section of the Space Center as you crawl through it.

  • Disney Hollywood Studios

    We managed to sneak in a few hours at Disney Hollywood Studios thanks to a park-to-park pass that could be used for any of Disney's parks. The shuttle ride from the Magic Kingdom was only 11 minutes there (but more than 45 on the way back because we left with throngs of other guests and waited for about five shuttles before we made our way to the front of the line), and we were so pleasantly surprised by this park.

    In a nod to Disney movies, we were greeted by The Sorcerer's Apprentice magic hat -- one of my favourite books as a child. We participated in the Frozen Sing-Along, which worked out well since the line to meet Anna and Elsa at Magic Kingdom was a hefty 105 minutes (and we just refused to spend our time there that way). We watched little Jedis-in-training, played in the snow (yep, for real -- see next slide), and watched Fantasmic! -- truly one of the highlights of our entire visit to Orlando. There were a couple of scary characters and the unexpected fireworks were a bit heart-stopping for my kids but overall it was absolutely WOW!!!

  • Do you wanna build a snowman?

    Wandering Oaken's Frozen Snowground was a pretty thrilling experience.

    Picture it: eighty-degree weather outside, all of us in shorts and T-shirts and here we were playing in real snow. With shovels and pails and snowball makers.

    You get about 10 to 15 minutes with a small number of other people so it's not crowded and you feel like you get a really long turn. It was so much fun, our kids asked to go back for a second turn!

  • Keke's pancakes

    If you're in Orlando and even have the slightest interest in pancakes, I emplore you: go to Keke's for breakfast.

    I like pancakes well enough, but I'm no connoisseur. I never order them at restaurants. So, I ordered a very tasty eggs Benny with a portabella mushroom and roasted red pepper but was really regretting my choice once I had a nibble of Miss Q's pancakes. I don't know what kind of heavenly batter Keke's prepares or delicious bacon fat or butter or love oil in which they fry them, but -- OMG! -- these are like crack. Or, what I imagine a crack addiction would be like if you substituted the crack with these pancakes.

  • Universal Orlando

    I did not go to the Universal parks expecting to be wowed. Don't get me wrong -- I fully anticipated that we'd have a great time, ride some fun rides and do our family thing. But, WOW. We were wowed all day long. And it was the only day we had with terrible weather through our whole trip; but, guess what? It didn't matter. At all.

    Universal Orlando blew us away.

    A couple of important notes: if your youngest child is less than 40 inches tall, you'll find it tough to go on any rides outside of Seuss Landing. Miss Q barely made the cutoff, and thank goodness she did because she had a blast on everything. Also, if you arrive and it's a beautiful/busy day, upgrade to the Express tickets to get you to the front of the line at just about every ride; it'll be a very worthwhile investment. Know that there are "child swap" options for many of the rides, which means you can stay with a smaller child while your partner goes on the ride with your older child and -- without waiting in line again (!!!) -- you swap and go on the ride with your older child while your partner hangs back with your youngest. The amazingness of this option can not be overstated. 

  • Suess Landing at Universal Orlando

    Be sure to do the monorail ride! It's slow enough for even the most cautious of children but gets you high enough to give you an awesome view of one side of the Universal Orlando resort (which is two parks, connected by the Hogwarts Express train ride). It swoops and swerves through Seuss-ical wonderment with some of your most beloved characters in all their Suess-ness.

    Great for aerial shots like this, especially when it starts to rain and you're too scared to take too many photos because you don't want the rain to ruin your fancy camera.

  • Hogwarts Express

    If you only buy park-to-park tickets at Universal Orlando to ride the Hogwarts Express, do it. No, really! It has major cool-factor and your whole family will be talking about it for weeks. It leads you from one side of the expansive Universal resort to the other; if you've visited or lived in London, you'll instantly recognize King's Cross station -- replicated down to the train staff calling your stroller a "pram" and kiosks selling "jacket potatoes." You're treated to an individual train car and the window is actually a TV that shows the rolling English countryside and the cast of Harry Potter on their Quiddich broomsticks flying right beside you at times. I won't describe too much more because I don't want to ruin some of the neat surprises this experience offers.

    Then, as you step off of the train, you're instantly transported into Harry Potter's world. The Harry Potter ride is a must-do, the Butter Beer in Diagon Alley is a must-try (not because it's especially delicious but because it's WHAT YOU DO), and just meandering the cobbled streets is enough to make you want to race out and buy the entire Harry Potter series. Which is exactly what we did when we got home; The K Man is enamoured.

    Temporary photo credit: for some reason, my photo of the Hogwarts Express won't load. In the interim, this one courtesy of Visit Orlando.

  • Hogwarts at Universal Orlando

    It's in this incredible replica of Hogwarts Castle that you'll find the Harry Potter ride, but just looking at this monstrosity from below when you get off the train is enough to leave your jaw agape.

    We heard that J.K. Rowling herself had to come and give the entire installation her approval before it opened.

  • Fried Caprese salad at Vivo

    After you've paid to park, you might as well take advantage of the restaurants and shops at CityWalk, which also has a big AMC movie complex.

    We had a fantastic meal at Vivo Italian Kitchen along Universal Orlando's CityWalk. Open for only about six months, we thought our server (Joe, from deep New York) was one of the best we had during our entire vacation, and the food was noteworthy from beginning to end. This fried Caprese salad is just one example of the interesting foodie experiences you'll have at Vivo. Think fried green tomatoes with hand-pulled buffalo mozzerella. YUM!

  • Beef short rib risotto

    We tried a number of dishes at Vivo, but this risotto with a melt-in-your-mouth chunk of short rib was the clear winner. The risotto was cooked to perfection in a sauce that was flavourful but light enough to allow you to finish the entire dish. 

    I would have also included a picture of the Nonna's Cake we enjoyed for dessert had I actually taken a picture before devouring the whole thing. It was beyond delicious.

  • Welcome to Gatorland

    You just can't go to Florida and not go see some gators! So off we went to Gatorland, and Miss Q here failed to display a healthy fear for these cold-blooded creatures.

    This is a good stop on a day after one of the big parks, when you want to sleep in a little and have a more leisurely breakfast before getting on with your day; when you want to visit somewhere that doesn't involve miles of walking or any shuttles; when you want a place you can enjoy for as little as a couple of hours and still feel like you saw a lot.

  • It's for the birds

    Nope - it ain't a gator, but this was one of my favourite parts of Gatorland: feeding the budgies! Several times a day, you can go into the bird sanctuary, buy a stick of food for a dollar and these adorable little birds will just fly right over to you.

    Want to avoid the $1 investment? Just work up a bit of a sweat before you come in and they'll flock to your neck to peck at the salt coming out of your pores. Big B had three on his neck at one point!

  • Foliage and such

    We took a tranquil walk through Gatorland's swamp (thanks to a series of wooden pathways about a foot above the swamp land), and I couldn't help taking some nature shots.

    I love how you can see the individual dew drops so clearly here.

  • Look up (wayyyy up)

    I looked up walking through that Gatorland swamp, and this is what I saw. Stunning.

  • Macaw at Gatorland

    Who doesn't love watching macaws? And trying to make them say "hello"? And taking pictures of their colourful feathers?

    Let's be honest: macaws for the win.

  • Rare white alligator

    This is a leucistic "white" alligator -- not to be confused with an albino alligator. Much more rare, legend has it that looking into its blue eyes brings good luck.

    Oh, yes, I looked. Bring on the luck!

  • The big guy

    Aside from being a rather magnificent creature who deserved to be captured on film, I just wanted to share one example of why I love my Nikon D3300: exposure compensation at the touch of a button. I took this pic (of a gator who had to be at least 12 feet long) and thought it was a bit over-exposed; I adjusted the exposure in less than five seconds and took it again and got the shot I wanted.

December 24, 2014
by Mommy Gearest
2 Comments

Wordless Wednesday: Jenga Quake from Hasbro

Jenga

Our Elf on the Shelf, Sparkle, brought the new Jenga Quake game for the kids to play with on Christmas Eve. Although it requires batteries and is plastic (which are two of the upsides of the original Jenga: wood, no batteries), Miss Q and The K Man had a lot of fun waiting for the random shakes that sent their game tumbling down.  (DISCLAIMER: I received this game  from Hasbro Canada as part of  my affiliation with the P&Gmom program. All opinions expressed are my own.)