Tuesday, June 20, 2017

DISNEY SPRINGS, FORMERLY DOWNTOWN DISNEY



Why would I, as a non-shopper(I really don’t care to shop), write about a shopping/entertainment complex?  Because just going window shopping in this massive center is an experience in itself.

There is free parking available, but it is a good distance from the main action, crowded and after you have walked the entire shopping complex and back to your car you might wish you had rode the transportation system from the parks or one of the resorts to get to it.  Especially considering the traffic.


We drove over on this fall trip, but wised up in 2017 and parked for free with our annual pass at the transportation ticket center.

There are no direct buses from the transportation ticket center to Disney Springs so you will either need to take a boat or monorail to a park or resort and catch the bus for Disney Springs from there. 

In the past we have rode a boat from one of the resorts to the shopping complex, but I am not certain that mode of transportation is still available.

To say Disney Springs is breath taking in just its sheer size and design would be an understatement. 

What other shopping complex do you know of has not only all the top brands, but dinosaurs, a volcano that erupts periodically, a giant Lego sea monster, giant tinker toys, The House of Blues, Disney Quest, Circque du Soleil and the Earl of Sandwich?

There is also an amphitheater where free concerts are performed.

Right after we left Florida they had a holiday drone show in the air over the lake that we would have loved to see.  Hopefully it will be going on again in 2017.

We spent all afternoon and most of the evening there in the fall just walking around and trying to soak it all in. It had grown immensely since the last time we had spent any real time at all there so we were gob smacked at all the new construction.  Including two, soon to be three parking garages.

















Our late lunch that day was at the Earl of Sandwich where we each got a very good sandwich. The sandwiches are large enough we could have done quite well with splitting one.  I ended up taking half of mine back to the camper to eat the next day. 

The prices are not that bad, especially if you have an annual pass because they do honor it for the discount.  I may be wrong, but I believe this shop is also on the various dining plans.

The sandwiches, custom t-shirts for us (more on these in a minute) and new parts for our Mr. Potato Head collection at Once Upon a Toy, were our only purchases that day.  The rest of our time was just walking and taking photos.  Considering neither one of us is big on shopping and it took us a full day to visit the complex you can imagine how long it will take you if you are into shopping.

Of course you might not be the photo bugs we are and that would speed things up considerably.

About the Mr. Potato Head parts.  Whether you collect potato heads like we do, or you just want a single one Once Upon a Toy has a different approach to how you purchase your potato head and/or parts.

You are given a box that you can pack as tight or as loose as you want and as long as the top closes, even if it is just barely closed, it is $20 plus tax, and in our case less the annual pass discount.

The cast members there will even give you hints how to get the most for your money.  Over our many visits here is what we have figured out.  Think the grains of sands concept. 

You know the one where you fill a jar with rocks, but you can still fit in grains of sand.
If you are buying a Mr. Potato Head body, take advantage of the fact the body is hollow and there is a trap door on the back of the body.  Fill this cavity with smaller pieces nestled inside middle sized pieces inside larger pieces.

Then when you have that packed as tight as you can get it you place the body in the box that you have filled the bottom corners in the same manner.  Fill the entire box all the way to the top around the body until you can barely latch the slotted tabs that form the top. It doesn’t matter if your box bulges and is mishapened, as long as you can latch those tabs. You will be amazed how much you can fit in that small box.

Don’t need a body, even better.  Use the smaller to middle, to larger concept for all the parts and fill the box entirely with parts.  It is all the same price whether you get a body or not.

The challenge of getting the most parts as possible for your $20 is actually kind of fun.  Be prepared to unpack and repack your box a few times to get it as tight as possible.  There is no rush, take as long as you like.

Don’t need a lot of parts?  Just need to replace an ear or an arm, or other part?  You can do that too, for $2.50 a piece.  No need to tell you which is the better deal.

We did of course go into the Christmas shop, and the huge World of Disney Store, but found nothing we absolutely couldn’t live without at these locations. 




The Disney photographers are there too, so be sure and get those special photos that your annual pass includes.


Now about those custom t-shirts.  There is a store, Design-a-Tee just across from the Christmas store at the far end of the complex where you design your own custom t-shirts.  We tend to do this at least once every trip.  The shirts run about $25 each and during the time we were there we did get an annual pass discount on our purchase.

Here is how it works.  Inside the shop are individual computerized ordering stations.  They are self-explanatory, but there is always a friendly cast member nearby to help you if you have any questions.

You start by choosing what type of t-shirt you want, long sleeve or short sleeve. 
Then you choose your size.  Never fear, they have example shirts there in the shop you can try on if you are unsure of the size.

 One of the reasons we love doing this is they carry the larger size t-shirts in this Disney shop.  While t-shirts are sold everywhere on the Disney properties what few XXXL or larger shirts they get in sell out quickly.  We have never had any trouble getting the larger shirts here.

Next the color (I may have two and three reversed, but both steps happen before you choose your design.)

Once these decisions are made the real fun begins. 

You choose your character or your theme that you want in your main design.
I went with Christmas and Chip ‘n Dale.  Gary chose Carl from the movie UP!

Then you add your lettering.  This can be a lot of fun.  As long as you keep it clean, the staff does have the right to refuse to create anything objectionable, you can put whatever you like, in whatever format, lettering and color you like.

Once you are satisfied with your design you have the option of either placing the order or cancelling it.

A cast member goes over your order, checks your spelling and grammar (we had a question about the spelling of a  word on one of ours), takes your payment and gives you a receipt.

You are then free to leave the area for the time it takes them to produce the exact shirt you ordered.  Generally less than an hour. This is usually when we go look through the Christmas store across the way and/or visit the adjacent restrooms.

Once you come back they show you the shirt and make certain you are happy with it.  Then they bag it up in a t-shirt material drawstring bag similar to the oh so popular drawstring backpacks, one for each shirt if that is what you desire (they have the store logo on them) and you are on your way.

These are our 2016 t-shirts.  There are no others on the planet exactly like them, and that makes us very happy.   BTW they are quality t-shirts, not cheapos.
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So whether you like to shop or not, if you want a day of doing something away from the parks there is a lot to see and do at Disney Springs.


Friday, May 26, 2017

IS A WALT DISNEY WORLD ANNUAL PASS WORTH IT FOR YOU?


I will be the first to admit that when someone first suggested that we, as Oklahomans, get an annual pass for Walt Disney World I thought they were certifiably NUTS!

Then I started doing my research and we soon purchased our first annual passes.  That was over 30 years ago and we have never regretted our purchases of an annual pass (AP) every few years.

When you first see the cost of an annual pass you are very likely to gasp and say “this is definitely NOT shoestring budget travel”, but it will all work out IF you are a frequent visitor.

Because I am writing this in the spring of 2017 I will use the current prices of the various tickets, although our most recent passes were purchased in the late fall of 2016 at a slightly lower rate and with a few extra benefits.  Those benefits I will mention as I go along so you can see why we purchased it when we did.

Say you are going to go on a two week vacation to Walt Disney World and plan on going into one park or another for 10 days of the 14.  Hey laundry has to happen sometime right?

Disney now has a number of ticket options.  What ticket works best for your family only you know.

Gary and I no longer do the water parks, so the water park option is not one we even consider when purchasing tickets.  You on the other hand may want to do mainly water parks, so your numbers will vary from the scenario I am building. They do have, I believe it is two, water park add on options for the annual passes

Park hopper is mandatory as far as we are concerned.  Many a day we start in one park and end in another. 

No black out dates, is another biggie for us.  We want to go, when we want to go.  If we are foolish enough to be there during super peak times.  That is our  choice. We simply do not like being told we can't use the AP on certain days.  You could of course go those blackout dates, but you would have to purchase tickets for those dates and it would defeat the purpose of the AP.  So we just go with the no blackout dates option. 

Based on these options a 10 day pass with park hopper and no blackout dates would be, according to the website, is currently $548.48 each. 

An annual pass good for 366 days from the day of first use. You can purchase the pass ahead of time and the days do not start ticking off until you actually use it. This is particularly handy if you are making your plans early in the year and you aren’t going until after the annual rate hike later in the year. Or if you want to pre-pay all you can before you hit the parks. 

The annual pass currently, May 14, 2017 costs $829.64.  Don’t gasp there is a whole lot more to the annual pass than just admission. Even at that you are paying less than $300 more for 356 additional days.


When we purchased our 2016/2017 ticket they were running an anniversary special and we got 13 months for the price of 12. Considering the fact by today’s date, May 14, 2017 we have already gone into the parks over 20 times that has paid for the price difference right there and we still have five months to go on our pass.  However, the argument can be made that if we didn’t have the AP then we wouldn’t have gone in that often. So you need to consider that in your planning as well.

Before retirement we would make a minimum of two ten day trips almost a year apart so that right there would pay for the price difference of the two tickets (two ten day tickets vs the annual pass).  We often also made one or two long weekend trips down from Oklahoma, just the two of us by catching air fare on sale and using pre-purchased gift cards at a discount (see Paying for Your Magical Trip post) to save more money.  

The AP includes FREE Memory Maker downloads, this was new in 2016 but it appears they have decided to keep this bonus, which is a wonderful one.  These are photos taken by the Disney photographers throughout all the parks, as well as photos from the various rides that snap your photo.  Some of the photos have animations on them.


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Some with add ons



While most are normal still photos



Then there are the ones from rides.
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Because of the purchase price of $169 it is not something we normally would buy, but are so thrilled to have it with our AP that we use it constantly.  This lets Gary actually be IN the photos of our trip, rather than the camera man all the time.

If this is an option you would use then add the $169 to your 10 day ticket price. $548.48 + $169= $717.48. Of course you only need to add it in for one person because you can download and share the photos. So either divide the cost up between the number of tickets or just add it on to one for your calculations. If not, then leave it out in your calculations.

Depending on where you eat the annual pass has a 10% -20% discount on meals.  Not all restaurants and quick service food venues offer it, but many do and the savings can add up quickly depending again on your personal preferences. 

A simple burger meal at a quick service can run close to $15 and if it is one that takes the AP discount (Cosmic Rays does not) then you save $1.50 to $3 per meal per person.

Periodically they do run free meal plans with the staying on site reservations, but then your rooms will cost you more.  You have specific places you have to eat and a limit on what items you can eat with those dining plans, so again it all depends on your personal preferences.

We personally prefer the discounts because we often split a meal and saving $2-$3 off that meal each when we aren't splitting a meal ( the meals are generally large at the park, so we often split the meals) is better for us.

There are also shopping discounts, and hotel room discounts if you are staying on site. They can range from 10% to 25% depending on the deal. Alas, it has been a long while since I personally have seen a discount on Ft. Wilderness.

If you are staying off site the next AP bonus is a huge savings that can add up very quickly.  It is parking.  Parking is $20 per day for your basic parking.  That parking is free with the AP. 

So if you are staying off site and paying for parking for 10 days that is a $200 savings right there.   Again, that would only apply to one ticket, because you pay by the car not by the guest.

If you are staying on site then parking is free. 

We also enjoy the speed we can now get into the gate by entering through the Annual Passholders only gate.  This combined with the "guests with no bags" security check point, which I have recently read now has an AP entrance for that as well,  can save a lot of time on getting into the parks. 

With the AP there are also discount tickets for recreational rentals, special events, special merchandise (I am wearing an AP holder Figment t-shirt right now), special pins if you are a pin collector, and so much more.

Whether or not the AP is the best purchase for you all depends on your wants and needs.  Oh and by the way only one ADULT member in your party has to have the AP to qualify for all the discounts for up to a certain number of people in your party.

So if you want the photo pass, room discounts, shopping discounts, etc then one AP could do your party. However, the passholder has to be the present when the pass is used.  Everyone, but the passholder, will have to purchase their tickets separately and there is no discount for getting those.  But if you are only going into the park x amount of days one ap and tickets for that number of days for the other members in your party may be the way to go.

For us an annual pass each is the only way to go because we simply don’t know how many days we will go in and there are times we will purchase separate meals and separate locations so we each need a pass to do that. Not to mention gift shopping for each other.

One more thing.  If when your annual pass does expire if you need more Disney, then you can get a discount on the renewal if you do it within a certain time period.  We are already doing a sinking fund for our renewal this winter, because we are going to spend part of the winter in Winter Garden, FL again and we love the lazy pace an AP allows.

Oh that is another bonus I hadn’t mentioned that is HUGE in our book.  A slower pace.  With a limited number of days you tend to go, go, go from rope drop to when they run you out of the park.  With an AP we go in around noon, stay until we get tired, then leave because we always have another day to go in.

Now that you have read all these options and comparisons you can generally use this same type of information for any amusement park as they all have similar discounts and options.


Hope this helps someone make their decision and maybe get more amusement park fun for less money.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

BOLDING MILL COE CAMPGROUND, GAINESVILLE, GA-Camp 24



As we pulled into this beautiful campground we knew we were in for a pleasant stay.  The camp host greeted us immediately and suggested campsite #1 that offered a newly created beautiful view.  They had just cleared the area a few hours earlier of some undergrowth that had previously blocked this gorgeous view from our camper.


Of course we had to drag the fall decorations out to match those of the various campers in the campground.







I do have to admit our closest neighbor, Mr. Squirrel did not take kindly to  ghost on his tree.  He in fact chatted with Gary about it for awhile, as shown in this video.

Plus, I must admit I wanted the campsite to look nice because my facebook friend, Sharon Hudson was going to come for a visit during our brief stay.  I was very excited to meet her face to face.



I was not disappointed, she was so much fun and brought the most delicious cake with her.  One of her own making I might add.  She is the owner and baker of AKAKery and ships her beautiful cakes every where. 

This little gem was key lime in flavor and oh so good!  I would highly recommend her cakes to anyone.



After our too short visit with Sharon we headed out after just a couple of days at this very well maintained and beautiful campground.




We had been hoping to get into Ft. Wilderness at Walt Disney World, but had been told they were booked solid.  Stubborn soul that I am we headed that way anyway once we were certain all threats from Hurricane Matthew and the storms that followed him were over.


We weren’t certain where we would stay, but we were certain it was time to go back to the Mouse House. 

HAGAN STONE CITY PARK, PLEASANT GARDEN, NC—Camp 23



We were in North Carolina for around a week, which was long enough to get to meet my facebook friend and steadfast cancer support buddy, Lea. 

She was the person I leaned on the most besides family when I was going through those scary times.  It was her I shared the news with that Christmas Eve that the doctors had been successful and I was cancer free. 

Until our visit to NC Lea and I had never met face to face.  It was a joyous occasion for me.  We had a wonderful meal at Cracker Barrel halfway between our two base locations. 

Our home base was at the Hagan Stone City Park in Pleasant Garden, NC. The campground was a basic simple campground.  

Our first night there we were told to set up wherever there was not an orange cone and we would be fine to stay for several days.  So we did just that, in a nice level graveled spot that was plenty big enough for our long fifth wheel as well as an individual water spigot.  We got completely set up and settled in for the night. 

The first thing the next morning the staff had changed their mind and told us that despite the fact there were no reserved signs or cones we had to move because there were others who had plans for our site.  They never used the words, “reservation” when we were discussing moving. The staff carefully worded their statements to not include the word reservation.  Instead they said things like “We have someone else who wants this spot.”

 We try not to rock boats with anyone, so we moved to the campsite they told us we needed to move to.  A short, sloped, grassy/muddy spot that was so short we had to park our truck in the middle of a grassy area across the road from our camper.  Our water spigot was a shared one, the park did not provide a splitter connector either.  Luckily, we had one. 

You can see by the first photo on this post how close our trailer was to the road in the park, where the dirt is showing is the road.

Having to move was not a big problem, but it did irritate us that we had  been told we could park there because it was not reserved and the people who “wanted” that site did not come in for five days. When they did it was a group of tent campers on an rv site, that blocked paths around their campsite with signs you were not to walk on the park paths while they were there. 

If there hadn’t been two LARGE designated tent site camping areas we could have understood better tents with no rvs being in the rv area.. In fact that weekend the tent campgrounds were fairly empty, while they were turning away rvs due to the large number of tents on the rv sites. 

We were told by permanent residents there that what happened to us had happened before because that group tent campers were locals that were friends with the staff. 

If they had reservations, that is fine, but why were they not in the tent area that was just one loop over either direction?  Why on rv sites?

Other than that our visit at the campground was pleasant, our very close neighbors were friendly and helpful, we had some charming evenings with them.

We also enjoyed walking the nature trails in the campground and seeing the marathon runners.





Other than taking long walks in the park and seeing Lea we just chilled in this area without visiting any local sites.


We would stay there again, but we would make certain that we had a guaranteed reserved site. 

DOUGLAS DAM HEADWATER CAMPGROUND, SEVIERVILLE, TN-CAMP 22


We were lucky that the town we were directed to after our throwing a wheel not only had a trailer building business, but it was open on a Saturday.  While they didn’t have an exactly matching to our other trailer wheel rim they had one that was so close you had to look twice to realize it was a different rim.  Even better they had a trailer tire the right size AND a brass valve stem.  It took them no time at all to take off the temporary fix lug bolts and put new properly fitting ones on all the way around.

We were soon on our way and arrived at the Douglas Dam Campground near Sevierville, TN in the late afternoon of that same day. However, it was late enough that since we did not have a reservation we were put in a campsite that was just slightly too small unless we left the truck hooked up.

Which we did because they said they would have several available the proper size the next day. 

This is a pleasant campground ran by some very nice folks who work very hard to keep it clean, even keeping the leaves blown off the pads every day in the fall. 

Since the camp hosts had decorated the campground for the impending autumn holidays we decided that Malecifient Dragon should make her campground debut, along with Snoopy and the gang, and Jack Skellington, once we were in our campsite #31 for the duration of our stay.





The neighbors all enjoyed the huge dragon stopping by to see where we had purchased it and just to chat in general.

The “camp cat” was just more or less bored by it.  He did come over periodically to check out the inflatables, but never offered to be “naughty” around them.


That first full evening and a few others we walked around the campground to take a few photos of this laid back campground.










Of course being that close to Dollywood, we had to spend some time there as well as visit the Bush Bean Visitor Center

We did spend time just driving around Gatlinburg and through the Great Smokey Mountains National Forest too. 





There are numerous shows, restaurants, and shops we could have been tempted by, but our time there was limited and there were certain things we really wanted to do.
One, for me, was visit the Scrapbook Superstore in Gatlinburg, not once but twice.  

That place is HUGE.  It is a good thing I had just reassessed my crafting budget before going in there or I could have done some various serious damage to that sinking fund for certain. 

 They had just about everything you can imagine for paper crafting.  Next door to it is also their clearance center, although by the time I went in there I was tired enough I just sort of just did a quick look thru and then decide to come back another time when I had more time.  After all Gary was aging greatly out in the truck in the heat as I drooled all over the die cuts, stickers, stamps and papers of this huge shop. 


We would definitely recommend this campground to others.  If we were to have a complaint at all it is a minor one.  Their public restrooms are so well lit the outside light on them can temporarily blind you at certain angles if you are coming in after dark.  That is such a tiny thing we feel this campground deserves a very good rating.