January 30, 2013

We're Back!

We're home from a wonderful time at Disney World! I'll share all about our trip soon - it was full of special, precious memories. As much as I love Disney, it's always nice to come home and just be where we are the most comfortable. Stay tuned for our trip recap!

January 11, 2013

Friday Randoms

-My kids have been SO CUTE lately! Evy is in this really talkative, expressive phase where she is so animated when she talks. I'm seeing her take on so many little personality quirks that make me smile. Lately she has INSISTED on only wearing knit dresses that come to at least her knees (??). She does NOT want to wear any shirts/pants combinations. It's so funny. Because of this, over the holiday season she rotated about 2 (maybe 3) dresses with leggings. I had saved away several cute Christmas outfits for her that I had found on eBay, sales, etc. but if it was a shirt and pants of any kind, it wasn't happening. 

-Recently Evy and Liam bumped heads while jumping on their little bouncy house in the basement. Liam walked away unscathed but Evy ended up with a HUGE black eye. It's gotten better over the last week but sometimes she uses it to her advantage. She kind of half-shuts her eyes and last night looked at me and said in this pitiful voice, "Mommy, my little bruise just hurts. It's just my little bruise." 

-Obviously, our upcoming Disney trip is a HOT TOPIC of conversation around our house. Evy is just beside herself talking about it, and she is just making all sorts of plans. Liam has gotten to where he likes to identify who all is going. He points to each person and says "Sa-Sa, Da-Da Wuh?" (Sissy Disney World?") and we'll say "Yes! Sissy is going to Disney World!" and this goes ON and ON for each family member. :)

-Evy is also so excited about Lynley coming. She plans out her clothes already and will just talk and talk about her plans for when the baby comes. Liam is very much oblivious to what's happening, but what's adorable is that HE is the one who is acting very, very nurturing with baby dolls. He loves (and needs) to be wrapped in blankets a couple of times a day (just for soothing/sensory purposes) and he will come hand me his blanket and say "Up! Up!" (meaning "wrap me up"). Now he has started bringing me baby dolls to wrap up. He'll rock the baby and put it on the sofa to rest and kiss it on the cheek - seriously the SWEETEST THING. He is so, so tender with babies and I can't wait to see how he is with Lynley! 

-Liam is learning his colors! He can identify orange, red, and blue the easiest. It's so adorable - this morning I walked in to get him from his crib and he immediately said with a huge smile, "MAMA! MAMA! Orange, orange, orange, orange! MAMA! Orange!" I was indeed wearing an orange shirt. :) He is SO PLEASED with himself when we understand and affirm the words he's using. He just beams his precious, huge smile and you can tell something inside of him is cheering!

-This morning we were getting ready to go have lunch with my Dad and brother and I had gotten the kids dressed. Without any prompting from me, Liam came and stood next to me and I heard him saying something. I was getting Evy situated and I couldn't hear him clearly. Then I looked over and his hands were behind his back. Then he said (well, made close sounds for) "One.....two.....three......SHOES!" and presented his shoes to surprise me! I cheered for him and said "Were you hiding your shoes from Mommy?!" and he fiercely nodded his head, smiled so big and said "HIDE! Mama, HIDE!" It was so adorably cute because he came up with it completely by himself to surprise me. :) 

-I've been making a few changes to our master bedroom after being here almost 3 years. I'm excited to share pictures, because I'm loving how it's turning out! Pictures are coming!

-Lynley's room is painted, her light fixture is installed, and we had the built-in desk that was there torn out. This was the desk area before:

....and you'll have to wait to see the after! I know, I hate it when people do that. But it really is in no condition to show pictures of yet. I did see several inspiration posts on Pinterest where they used a built-in desk as a changing area, but I decided to have ours taken out. Mostly because I never use a changing area in the kids' rooms. Our bedrooms are all upstairs, and we're downstairs 90% of the day. I just tend to change my kids on the floor or couch, etc. Also, by the time our kids are old enough to need a desk in their room, we'll probably have built our "forever" home (that's the plan anyway). But the biggest reason is that we're keeping a daybed in Lynley's nursery so we have a place for Kurt's mom to stay when she visits and I can sleep in the nursery if I need to with the baby. Therefore, we needed to make room for a dresser. The room has a fair sized closet but I just like the look of a dresser, and extra storage is always a good thing. I found one for a STEAL at my favorite local craft mall and I can't wait for it to be painted!

-Speaking of house stuff, I stumbled upon this post that I wrote as we were moving away from our first home. I got so emotional reading it all over again. It's one of those posts that perfectly expressed how I felt (and still feel). :)

I think that's it for now...we're having a wonderful, low-key New Year season and that's my favorite. I definitely feel my nesting instinct kicking in, and I have a list going of what I want to get organized/accomplished before Baby. There are actually some Pinterest ideas I want to utilize (I think it's funny that we all "Pin" at an astonishing rate but the actual "Pin-to-Reality" ratio is extremely low). I'll keep you posted - literally. :)

January 7, 2013

My Disney Planning Process

As y'all know, I am the biggest Disney fan ever. I LOVE planning our trips and making sure that we have a game plan so we can really enjoy our time at Disney and NOT STRESS. I mentioned on Facebook recently that I had reworked our touring schedule based on crowd predictions and that generated a lot of questions. I have a Disney blog that I sometimes write on, but it's been a little neglected lately. I decided to write a post here on my main blog to answer a lot of questions people usually email me with. This is kind of an outline of my planning process and the resources that I use. I hope it helps! Since I have the Disqus commenting system, I can reply to individual comments. If you have a question, feel free to ask. There are DEFINITELY people who know more than me and everyone is going to have their own opinions on how they "do" Disney - all I can share is my experience! :)

The first thing is to know (and decide) when to go. We never go during the summer months to Disney World - too hot, too crowded, and the prices are higher. It's considered peak season (the holidays are also considered peak season). So that leaves a few weeks in the fall, winter and a few in the spring. Before everyone panics and thinks you can't go to Disney any other time, that's not true - I know lots of people that regularly go in the summer and they enjoy themselves. All I'm saying is that your first line of defense against a stressful vacation is going at a time that has lower crowds, temperatures, and prices. However, if you need to go when school isn't in session, the BEST thing you can do is use a touring plan (more on that in a minute). Look at your calendar and come up with several weeks that are options for you to travel, then go and look at a Disney crowd calendar to choose the best week out of your options. 

As far as planning (and seeing all of these crowd calendars, etc.), I would HIGHLY, HIGHLY suggest joining touringplans.com. It's run by the same people that author my FAVORITE guide book, The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Seriously, GO BUY THIS BOOK and read it!!! You will have so much more knowledge and you will feel like you have a game plan. When you join the website (a year's subscription is NOT expensive, and you get a discount if you own their book), you have access to all of their crowd calendars, and the most important thing - THEIR TOURING PLANS. Do not, and I repeat do not, go to Disney World without using a touring plan for each park. It saves you an amazing amount of time, and their research is unbelievable. They have it down to a science! Get familiar with their plans and you can customize them online when you're a member (again, it's WORTH the subscription!). That's exactly what I use for our trips and we have NEVER been disappointed. 

Other websites that are really helpful:

allears.net - This is good for looking at every single dining menu at Disney. Very helpful in deciding where to eat! 
yourfirstvisit.net - This has more crowd calendars and has useful "first time" information.
mousesavers.com - This is a great way to look at discounts and deals.

After you've decided what week to go, you need to sit down and decide how many days you want to spend in the parks. With young kids, I find that 4-5 days in the parks is perfect. We spend one day at Hollywood Studios, one day at Epcot, and two days at Magic Kingdom. Because of time constraints, we aren't visiting Animal Kingdom this time. I would MUCH RATHER spend two, more leisurely days at Magic Kingdom that fit in Animal Kingdom, but that's just our family preference. If we were in the parks an extra day or so, I'd absolutely do Animal Kingdom, but sometimes you have to prioritize. Some people might decide to leave out Epcot if they have young kids, but we really do enjoy Epcot. That's just an example of why it helps to read the guidebook and make educated decisions. Don't wing it! 

Another thing to consider: if you get Park Hopper tickets (which I strongly recommend), you can leave a park early if you aren't feeling it or if you just want to split things up. Epcot is not a very kid-friendly park (but there are really cool rides for adults that you don't want to miss). There are a couple of things to interest them, but definitely not a whole day's worth. For non-toddler kids/adults, there are more options, so you just have to figure out how you want to spend your day. Bottom line: the Park Hopping option GIVES YOU OPTIONS. You aren't stuck in a park for an entire day without the ability to hop to another park. All that to say, figure out how many days you want to actually tour the parks. 

After you've done this, on the Touring Plans website there is a spreadsheet that shows you which parks to go to on which day, based on historic crowds and predictions. This is how I decide in which order we tour the parks. You can look at each specific day of your vacation and find out which park is recommended, what the crowds will be like, etc. For instance, on this upcoming trip, we're going to Hollywood Studios, Epcot, then two days at Magic Kingdom. This decision was entirely based on crowd trends. When you combine this knowledge with a touring plan, you have VERY good tools to make the most of your trip. Believe me - you can trust these people and their research. It's INSANE how accurately they can assess what's going on in the parks and how to make the most of your time.

Once you've decided in what order you'll visit the parks, then MAKE DINING RESERVATIONS. You can do this 180 days out. If you want any type of character meal or sit-town ("table service") meal, you MUST make a reservation as soon as you possibly can, especially if you're going in the summer months. We typically do one quick service meal a day and one nicer, sit-down meal a day. We do 1-2 character meals per trip. I get a pencil and a piece of paper and make a chart of each day, then I simply write down which restaurants we want to go to. I've already decided which day we'll be in what park, so this part is easy. You can make good, informed decisions about restaurants by looking over the menus at All Ears. You'll also know how to plan financially (prices are listed on the menus). You can make your own reservations at disneyworld.com or call 1-407-WDW-DINE to talk with a real person. As long as you're doing things at the 180-day mark, you should be able to get most (usually all) of the dining reservations you want. Character meal reservations go VERY quickly and certain table-service restaurants do too (for instance, Be Our Guest, the new Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant, is EXTREMELY popular for dinner reservations). But if you have a game plan together before your 180-day mark, you should be fine. 

*Character meals are totally worth the money. You get to knock out a meal and you're guaranteed one-on-one time with each character that's there. This saves you time in the long run! For instance, we always do a Princess character meal and this means we don't have to spend part of our day waiting in the "meet and greet" lines in the parks. Most (if not all?) character meals are a fixed menu and you normally required to PAY IN FULL when you make your reservation. You can always cancel your reservation, but just be prepared to pay the full amount for your entire party when you book. Also note which characters are typically present at each meal. This trip we are doing the Princess Dinner at Akershus (the Norway Pavilion) in Epcot, and we're doing Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary resort to meet Mickey and the other members of the Fab Five (Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto). 

*People often ask about the Dining Plan. I've heard from many sources that unless you eat a TON of food (and I mean a LOT), it's not worth the money. I've also heard it can be confusing keeping up with your credits, etc. We've never used it, and the only time I would use it would be if Disney offered a free dining promotion (which they sometimes do). I think you're better off paying out of pocket, but you will find differing opinions on this.

I book our hotel through my friend Heather Montgomery, who is a Disney travel agent. Her services are FREE!!!!! She has access to all of Disney's discount codes and specials, and she can save you MONEY. Contact her at heather@travelwiththemagic.com. I would contact her at the beginning of your planning process. Financially, your best bet for doing Disney on the cheap is to stay at a Disney Value Resort. They are great! I've stayed at them and you get all the Disney magic for less money. Keep in mind that the Value resorts are the furthest away from the parks, so if you're using the Disney transportation system (which is free to use), you'll need to allow travel time to and from the parks (I'd ask Heather about how much time to allow). Disney Moderate resorts are just that - they're in between the Value and Deluxe categories. Deluxe resorts are right on the monorail line and are the most convenient. But they're (obviously) also the most expensive. Just compare your options and see what fits your budget. There are good hotels off Disney property, and we've gone that route before, but overall I encourage staying on Disney property. 

I buy my park tickets through Undercover Tourist. You save around $15-20 off the gate price, and shipping is free. They are a licensed dealer and definitely legit. I've used them for every trip and have never had a problem. 

As far as how to GET there, we have driven to Disney many times, and it's definitely a good option! We only fly because we live in the Midwest and driving would just be WAY too far. Plus we found some great deals through Southwest's website. They offered a "Wanna Get Away" rate and that was the better option for us. But driving is great, too! There's a blog I read called Dixie Delights and she did some really cute things for their road trip to Disney. :) If you do fly, Disney offers a free shuttle/luggage handling service called the Magical Express that will drop you off right at your resort.

You need to decide what stroller you're going to use. You have three options: 1) Bring your own. 2) Use Disney's. 3) Rent from an outside company. We brought our own last trip, and it was fine. It was kind of a hassle to fly with, but not too bad. We enjoyed having the stroller we were familiar with in the parks. The Disney strollers are hard plastic and don't recline. Also, you can't take them out of the parks, which means you can't use them while getting back to your hotel at night (or midday). Renting a double stroller from Disney is around $27 per day (that's WITH the multiple-day discount). For this trip, we're trying Orlando Stroller Rentals. We're saving about $20-$30 by going through them. I've heard great things about them, and to me, it's the best of both worlds. The company delivers the stroller to your hotel, and you keep it with you the entire length of your stay. You simply leave it at your hotel when you check out. You don't have to fly with it, and you get a clean, top-of-the-line, padded, reclining stroller while you're in the parks. We've never done this before, so I'll give a report once we're home. 

Consult Pinterest and blogs for packing lists, tips from other moms, and more. You'll find lots of resources and blog posts from moms who share their experiences. You can start here at my Disney board, but keep clicking and you'll find tons. If you really want to grab a snack and hole up for hours, I write with a group of Disney bloggers called the Magical Blogorail. Each month we blog about different topics. Click here for a list of topics we've written about - this is a GREAT resource with everything in one place!

I know this was a LOT of info, and planning can be very overwhelming, but I promise the planning is the most intensive part. If you do your work ahead of time, your vacation will be wonderful. You want to take your vacation; you don't want your vacation taking YOU. Of course flexibility is key, and anticipating a few hiccups is to be expected. I suggest getting a big manila envelope to keep everything together. I have our park tickets, printed touring plans, daily notes* in my envelope.

*"Daily Notes" is my own little creation. I simply go day by day and type out the details of the day. Here's an example:

Tuesday, January **th - Magic Kingdom
HOURS: 9:00am - 8:00pm

LUNCH: Columbia Harbor House (Opens at 11:00am)

DINNER: 5:45pm, Be Our Guest Table Service
ADR# *************

Mom takes kids back to hotel for a nap at 1:15pm. Rest until 4:30pm or so, then leave the hotel at 4:45pm to come back to Magic Kingdom for dinner reservation at 5:45pm.

All I'm doing is creating a quick cheat sheet with everything in one place. It helps me remember what I thought through and decided when I was planning at home. When you're in the parks it can sometimes be hard to remember what you're supposed to be doing, so this helps. It's NOT complicated, just a very quick synopsis of each day. I print this out and stick it in my envelope. I also include hotel confirmation numbers, stroller rental info, etc.

I know this might sound crazy to some, but stop, breathe, and have fun planning your vacation. Make it a leisurely process where you do a little planning/research each night, and it won't get overwhelming. Figure out when your 180-day mark is for reservations and make that your deadline for at least knowing when you're going, which parks you'll visit on what days, and where you want to eat. You can buy your tickets, make your detailed touring plans, and figure out packing and other details after that. When you break it down and take it step by step, you can do it! 

Saying Goodbye

I've been quiet on the blog lately because our family has experienced a devastating and very sudden loss. It is with deep, soulful sadness that I share that my uncle (my mom's only brother) passed away on Christmas Eve very suddenly. He was only 51. My mom didn't share the news with me until we got home from visiting Kurt's family the day after Christmas. As with any loss, there are many stages of grief and honestly, my grief was very much delayed. It didn't actually "hit me" until Saturday evening, but when it hit, it hit hard. It was almost overwhelming. There are many layers to every meaningful relationship we have in life, and sorting through those after a loss can be very complicated and quite a process. I'm doing better today, but the last two days have been very, very difficult to walk through as I grieve a very significant loss.

In my childhood, the one word I associate with my uncle was laughter. He would have my family absolutely rolling in laughter (much like my brother does), and he had such a quick wit. I am so thankful for the home videos we have of him so I can always remember what it was like when we were all together laughing and loving. I told Kurt yesterday that I know without a doubt that he adored us as his nieces and nephews. You could just tell. My very favorite video contains footage of me dancing with him when I was about 6 or 7. Poppy (my grandfather) was playing some sort of a jig on the piano and we came up with this impromptu dance routine that was so cute. Later in the video I had built a "motor home" (?!?!) out of Legos and he insisted that Poppy film us as he interviewed me for a "commercial" about the "motor home." He pretended to hold a microphone and interviewed me, while making me laugh so hard. He always teased my mom and gave her the hardest time (in the most loving way). In fact, he's the one who started calling her the "Jukebox" because my mom literally has a song to fit EVERY OCCASION. She's always been that way, and he started calling her that when they were young. I know he adored her too.

The most thorough and complete way I can honor my uncle's life is by sharing his beautiful obituary, written by my grandfather (who is a prolific and anointed writer). We have all said that after reading this, we all want my grandfather to write our obituaries ahead of time. While no parent should have to write their child's tribute, no one could have honored my uncle better.

Kevin Dwight McCarty, 51, went to be with his Savior and Lord on Dec. 24, 2012, in San Diego, Calif. He was born Dec. 21, 1961 in Ft. Worth, Texas. Kevin grew up in Fayetteville where his parents were called in 1965 by University Baptist Church for his father to be Senior Pastor. He graduated from Fayetteville High School in 1981. He loved athletics and music. He won the state high school tennis doubles championship twice and was a skilled drummer and guitarist. He attended both Baylor University and the University of Arkansas. He was, without doubt, a natural-born salesman and began his career selling insurance before he started his own company, Sky Connection, Inc. He was one of the first to see the potential for satellite television and became one of the most successful Dish dealers in Northwest Arkansas. The Northwest Arkansas Times did a feature on him using his widely known nickname, "The Dishman." When the satellite market proliferated, he turned to other interests and ventured into upscale bathroom remodeling. He had recently moved to San Diego to begin a promising new sales job. Several vacation trips with his son, Hayden, to San Diego had made the area their favorite location. 

Of all of Kevin's ambitions, he loved being a father the most! To the end of his life his vision, though heavily tested, never wavered to be an overcomer and to follow Christ. He loved Christian worship music and quoted the words and played the music often for his family and friends. It is with a deep and tearful sadness that we give him up. But this is all temporary and the promises of the Savior enable us to focus on our beloved Kevin's gain rather than our loss! We gratefully possess a confident and abiding joy in his present perfection and fulfillment with his Lord Jesus. He is survived by his parents, H.D. and Shirley McCarty of Fayetteville, his son, Hayden McCarty (16) of Little Rock, and stepson Landon Friend (20) of Benton; his sister Karen and husband Mark Anderson of Cape Girardeau, Mo.; his nephew, Will Anderson, and nieces, Alyssa and Andrea Anderson; Ashley Anderson Lancaster and husband Dr. Kurt Lancaster, Evy Kate (4) and Liam (2) all of Cape Girardeau. He is also survived by several uncles, aunts and numerous cousins in Texas. The family deeply appreciates all the people who loved, enjoyed, prayed for and encouraged Kevin all of our years in Fayetteville and beyond. We loved him with all of our hearts. We are so deeply thankful and content that our Kevin belonged to the Lord Christ and is now tasting the fullness of the love of God the Father. A private family praise and worship remembrance was held at the Fairview Memorial Gardens Mausoleum on Jan. 5. In lieu of flowers the family asks that all who had special love for Kevin help create what would please him most, a fund in his memory for his beloved son, Hayden. Contributions should be made to the Hayden McCarty Fund in care of Priority Bank; 3401 East Mission Boulevard; Fayetteville, AR 72703. To place an online tribute visit www.mooresfuneralchapel.com.

"He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. The Lord has spoken!" Isaiah 25:8

January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

Wow - 2013! I can't believe another year has come and gone. The other night I pulled out my fresh, new planner (I LOVE starting a new planner each year) and started filling in the things we have planned. I got so excited for 2013!

At the end of this month, we're going to DISNEY WORLD! I can't wait!!! Obviously it's common knowledge that I'm the biggest Disney fan there is, but I'm extra excited because it will be Liam's first time, and Evy is so excited to "show him everything!" Also, my family is going with us and it will be the first time we've been to Disney all together since 2006. We have some fun meals planned and we'll get to see the New Fantasyland, but most of all I'm just thrilled to have all that time together!

In February, Evy Kate will turn 4 years old! I seriously can't even believe that. I will have a four year old. She has been MAJORLY into "planning parties" lately (she likes to wrap her toys in dishcloths and give them to Liam as surprises, etc.) and it's been so cute to see what she wants for her party this year.

In March, I will go to my awesome adoption conference, Created for Care, in Atlanta. This is such a wonderful investment of time, and I'm in a very different place than I was when I first went last year. Last time I went, Liam had been home 5 months, and when I go this time almost a year and a half. A year makes a big difference in so many areas. It will be wonderful to be around adoptive moms and hear messages that really speak to the experience that is adoption. Kurt will also go on a medical mission trip to Honduras in March, so it will be a busy month.

In early April, Kurt and I are hoping to take a short "babymoon" trip to Chicago! We're hoping his schedule at work will allow for it, because neither of us has ever been there. It's not very far from where we live, so we look forward to getting to know the city and hopefully become familiar with visiting there. We also look forward to our niece Abby being born in April. :)

May is the big month - Lynley arrives!!! I can't even believe that as I type it. It's really not far away at all. I'm 21 weeks and feeling more flutters each day. I can't wait until Kurt and the kids can feel her kick too! I'm getting a nursery plan together and I'm excited to start working on everything. We did take a major step on Sunday - look what we did!

No, this is not the wall color - I'm painting it! Also slipcovering the rocking chair, etc. The only thing to show off here is that the crib is put together!
After that - NOTHING is on my calendar! Ha! I'm trying to remember back to newborn days and all I recall is that you just live in the moment and make no plans. :) I got so excited these last few days when I started to really think about Lynley joining our family and how the kids will react. I love every stage that I've had with Evy and Liam, and I'm so excited to do it again with our next little girl-child.

As far as goals for 2013, I really don't even know that I can name any, other than growing in my walk with Christ and being the best wife and mom I can be. Practically, I'd like to be more organized, and thankfully I might have a nesting instinct that will help with that in the next few months. I want to continue to keep our schedule clear and very simple, with few commitments and responsibilities. I've seen how much that helps my sanity and I've realized that while it might make me look like a recluse, it's a requirement for me to stay peaceful - it's just how I'm wired, and I've really come to own that and be confident about it. It feels good to realize who I am and releasing myself from what I think others think of me.

I think this is going to be a great year. Welcome, 2013!
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