Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Epic Winter Road Trip - Wild Spaces and Family Faces

(DISCLAIMER: I post NO ads through sponsorship. This blog is a labor of love - that is not subsidized by sponsorship at this point in time.)

The night we spent at Great Wolf Lodge was fantastic. It's always refreshing to be around folks where you pick up right where you left off - despite the years passing.

This time, we headed further south to spend 2 nights with my family in Southern California. We kept the evening simple with a sushi dinner to catch up with my mom and brother. After a good night's rest, we were ready for a day outside.

As a special treat, my mother offered to take us to the San Deigo Safari Park and take us on a jeep safari through the open savanna there. The Savanna is truly what makes this place stand out among zoos. (Well, that and a robust rhino and condor breeding program.) 

 I grew up in Escondido, so it'll always be the Wild Animal Park to me, but I loved seeing all of the improvements and expansion this park has made since my childhood.

It's very different than a typical zoo - mainly because of its wide open savanna and large open air exhibits. There is no traffic noise these animals have to contend with, and the staff is top notch as well.  The savanna includes hoof stock and herbivores from around the world. Their have had a special emphasis on breeding programs have aided in keeping condors, rhinos and other species on the map. All of that, and it offers all of the things typical zoos do as well. While zoos are a problematic attraction in the world, people tend to not care about things they don't experience - including animals. For example, carved ivory is beautiful - but so are rhinos and elephants. But if you've never really seen an elephant or rhino up close - but you've seen a lot of beautifully carved ivory - are you really going to care much about the plight of those creatures? For most, the answer is saddly "No". Just as we often don't think about where our food comes from. (This is NOT be advocating. Just bringing awareness.) 

  Anyway - I digress.

The weather cooperated to a lovely 70 degrees and sunny. It was a great way to get some energy out and go see some new creatures we don't get to see in the Pacific Northwest.

To get an idea of what a trip through the savanna might look like, check out this live cam (and other live cams). 

In my tween years, I spent a lot of time at this park. I even painted faces as a voluenteer during their winter holiday Festival of Lights. This trip to the Safari Park was really special though. I'd never been out in the savanna. Seeing the animals up close and free ranging was a magical experience. The jeeps weren't too loud, which made The Impossible Girl very comfortable - and we got her a buddy from the gift shop that she could hang on to. (Never underestimate the power of a stuffed animal.) 
 I left my phone and my camera off to enjoy the experience first hand, but luckily My Sailor captured lots of photos from the day.

We hiked for miles and spent lots of time learning about the natural world and why protecting it is so important. 

The Australia exhibit was fantastic, and included a platypus area! It was dark, so we didn't grab any pictures in there, BUT I'm so glad that the San Diego Zoo Safari Park follows along with KultureCity

It truly took the 'guess work' out of taking someone with SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) to a place like this. 

They offer packs of tools at the Ranger Station (including lap pads, fidgets, headphones, etc.). While we brought our own, they have clearly posted signs that indicate that indicate when noisy areas are coming up (and headphones might be helpful), or where quiet areas are, etc.
 For those of us helping someone with SPD, we know what these signs look like, so we don't get taken by surprise and can gear up appropriately to help our SPD kid enjoy the experience. I really hope this catches on. It will help SPD folks manage as adults as well - if they have a little warning, they can prepare themselves for what's coming. 

A big request on the way out was that we find the cheetah, so we hiked around the park and tracked down the cheetah exhibit. And it certainly showed us what cats do most of the day. Sleep! 

It was a long day on our feet, so we grabbed an early dinner at a local seafood place in Escondido and headed home for a bit of a movie and some more rest. Tomorrow was the BIG day! 

Epic Winter Road Trip - Christmas Eve on the Disney Wonder

(While it's closer to Winter 2023 than Christmas 2022, I'm loving reliving this adventure, so I'm going to get this posted so I can catch up on the rest of life. I've missed writing and missed the blog - and yes, I've missed my readers, ye brave, ye few.)

On land, I am rarely awake with the sun (unless I have to be). For some reason, on a Disney Cruise, I am awake with the sun. I never want to miss pulling into a port - which is a remarkable feat of human coordination to complete successfully day after day. But there is something inherentlyt magical about the sunrise from the deck of a ship. So on Christmas Eve, I got up early to get coffee from the Cove Cafe (all coffee is included in Disney Cruise line fair except for the goodies at Cove Cafe - which are priced on par with a local Starbucks and offers a frequent buyers card). The characters they put on our lattes are always a welcome touch. 

We looked on the schedule and found that Daisy, The Impossible Girl's favorite character, was greeting that morning, so we stopped to say hi to her on our way off the ship. 

What you may not know, is this type of interaction is a really big deal for her. She almost got out of line several times and it took other kids reassuring her to get her to stay. Her knees were shaking and she wasn't sure about meeting her hero. Daisy seemed to know just how to handle it, helping keep the interaction just the right length and letting us get some great photos to remember her by. A year later, she remembers meeting Daisy and said it was a scary experience at first, but she's proud she did it anyway.

Then our Mexican adventure began! 

A bus took us near downtown and we strolled through a pavillon where a few merchants were offering wares. The Impossible Girl was struggling a bit with the change of scenery, but a yoyo at a local shop caught her eye, and that became her momento from Ensenada. We strolled down the port as she worked to master her yo-yo skills. 
We were able to walk through the waterfront district nearly completely undisturbed - aside from a few overzealous coffee shop and bar barkers. Christmas Eve is a time when many families in Mexico celebrate at home, so much of the hustle and bustle of shop keepers was quiet. The day couldn't have been more beautiful.
Art abounds on this little stroll along the port and I found the statues truly fascinating. All in all the walk was about a mile on way. While I was disappointed I wasn't able to find an open place for a legendary fish taco, we were all ready to head back to the ship for a late lunch.

I held out hope that they would do a Mexican themed meal, but alas I was a little disappointed. Not in the food. Cabanas, the on board buffet is always delicious. It would have been a really nice touch though! While the kiddo took some time to unwind in the room after lunch, I spent a little down time on the verandah enjoying my score from a local merchant. (It's been almost a year and it's still a favorite blanket in our household.)
Have I mentioned how awesome the kids clubs are on Disney ships? I know I probably sound like a paid advertisement, but I'm not. I'm just a fan of a vacation where I can actually spend some time with My Sailor. It's a rare currency in our world - and certainly makes these cruises worth every penny. 

After lunch on board and some downtime in the room, The Impossible Girl went to the Oceaneer's Club (she loves the Frozen area, complete with a modest Oaken in a steamy sauna) and My Sailor and I got to enjoy some downtime together.

We got a drink at the New Orlean's themed bar beside Tiana's Place (a New Orlean's themed dining room), played a round or two of Bingo (the only gambling on Disney cruise ships - we didn't win, but it is always a fun time), and walked a few laps on the deck enjoying some time to reconnect (and maybe be a little but Goofy).

We picked up The Impossible Girl in time for dinner at Triton's. While it wasn't really a special holiday menu, any menu is special when it's at Triton's. This dining room is more elegant than the other 2 on board (Tiana's Place and Animator's Palace). I am chagrined to admit that on our first sailing on the Wonder, we had 3 meals in this room and I never noticed this giant mosaic. 

We did the early dining, so our dinner was followed by a show. Tonight was the Golden Mickeys - a fun little show that is set up like an Oscar style award show gone-awry, including a variety of Disney acts looking to win the Golden Mickey (instead of an Oscar). It's always a fun show, and we all enjoyed it. 
Since tonight was Christmas eve, it only made sense to stay up a little late and let Mrs. Clause pop in for a reading of The Night Before Christmas. On our 2019 cruise over the same dates, Mrs. Clause was in front of the Christmas tree, but this year they opted to use a D Lounge (the ship's small stage) instead. While it was slightly less magical, the kids had a great time (especially when Mickey and Friends came out after the show). 

On our way back to our cabin, the crew was handing out milk and cookies for Santa, so we could take them back to our room. It was a fun gesture that really made me smile. Our shipmates had gifted us a small mug with a slot for a cookie in it, so we used that to make sure Santa had an appropriate place to enjoy his goodie. 

And our cabin host didn't slack on the holiday cheer either.

 Now, our kiddo has never really been about the gifts at Christmas. If you've followed previous blogs (ye brave, ye few), she's more about the fun of it. I feel like Santa could have missed us all together and she still would have had a great time. Now that Santa was coming tonight, who knew what tomorrow would bring? 

Stay Tuned for Christmas Day! 

Friday, March 31, 2023

Epic Winter Road Trip - Wonder and EMBARKATION!

Back to The Mickey Boat for Christmas! (Our Shirts)

 Now we get down to the main event! This cruise was the reason we made the pilgrimage to San Diego.

 After our unexpectedly challenging Disney World trip in the Spring of 2022, we needed something more on the relaxing side to allow everyone to enjoy themselves. While a road trip is a fabulous adventure - nothing fits the bill quite like a Disney Cruise. The Impossible Girl has been begging to go back to 'The Mickey Boat' since we got off our first cruise in 2019. 
About to get on her first Disney Cruise, December of 2019

First Mickey Bar ever - on the first night of the cruise in 2019

Back in December of 2019, it seemed like an incredibly extravagant way to get away for Christmas. It was the gift that year. My Sailor got a bonus and leave which just happened to match up to a military discount on a Disney Cruise. We booked the whole thing a whopping 3 weeks out, and it turned out to be an amazing investment in our future.

 We had no idea how much we would rely on those memories to get us through the subsequent deployment and COVID lock downs that came unbidden in March of 2020. (Check out this blog  when the World Paused and we were called on to Seperate to Survive

 Talking about memories from The Mickey Boat kept us 'afloat' while we were struggling through school, park, store, and life shut downs. Every single day, the memory of our time on the cruise came back to shine a light in a terrifying time. 

When the stars aligned AGAIN (no bonus this time, but a significantly less expensive cruise that we could drive to in 20 hours) after all the stresses of reintegration we jumped at the chance.  This road trip took The Impossible Girl's entire winter break - but that also happens to be a time of year when My Sailor can get holiday Stand Down. While it's an expensive time to travel, making memories together means more than saving the money. 

After all, if Covid and military life have taught us anything it's "Seize the moment. Who knows what tomorrow may bring."

My brother graciously shuttled us to the port and said goodbye as we got on the Disney Wonder. 

We couldn't have asked for a smoother embarkation process or better weather to start this epic adventure. We didn't wait around in the San Diego terminal at all. We walked right through security, snapped a family photo, and were on board in no time. 

Our first stop was Cabana's, the buffet on the Disney Wonder. It was a beautiful sunny day, so we got a table outside to enjoy some rays and some lunch.

The Impossible Girl and My Sailor helped guard against the ever-watchful sea gulls while I grabbed my grub. 

Needless to say, lunch was fabulous. Even better than last time.
After lunch, My Sailor went to ask Guest Services about a few things while The Impossible Girl and I explored all over the ship.

Now, if you've never cruised this may be news to you. Rooms aren't quite ready when you hop on board, unless you enjoy boarding late. Like a floating hotel, it can take some time to turn over the rooms from the previous guests. We got on board at around 11:30am, and the rooms wouldn't be ready until closer to 3pm. Usually the pool is open along with the bars, spa, and at least one sit down eatery.

 One of the things we love about the Disney Wonder is that she is a small ship. While mega ships are basically floating cities (with over 7000 people on board), the Wonder is more like a small towns (max out at about 2700 if it were completely staffed and had every bed full). You can actually get to know crew members during some of the longer cruises, and it's a much more relaxed vibe than the megaships sailing the seas these days. 

That also means less shopping, activities, movies, ect, but we manage to have a great time and fill up our time despite the smaller size. Disney never disappoints.

We carried on things we'd need much like on an airplane, and schelped our backpacks around the ship for a few hours as we explored.
Watching planes take off from the airport just down the street - How cool is the Port of San Diego?! 

We went to ALL of the open houses of EVERY KIDS CLUB ON BOARD! It's one of the coolest things about embarkation day. Each Kids Club is in Open House mode - so anyone on board can come in and play. During normal operation, the kids clubs only allow in the counselors and the kids. 

The Oceaneer's Club has a couple fabulous themed play areas. The highlight is always the Slinky Dog Slide in an area themed like Andy's Bedroom. Typically, the Oceaneer's Club and the Oceaneer's Lab are for kids 3-10.

We also explored Edge. It's the kids club for ages 11-14. I didn't take pictures here, but we did some fun coloring and crafts there. 
Then we moved into the teenage club (14-17) - Vibe.

This might just prove what 'big kids' we are, but I feel like all of us could have hung out here for hours and hours... 

Finally our room was ready and we got to drop off our backpacks and check it out! 

Obligatory photo from the verandah, though still at port.

Now, let's talk about the Muster drill. For those new to cruising - before you leave your home port, each cruise line HAS TO have a muster drill, where they go over all of the emergency procedures on the ship, if there is ever a problem on board that would require evacuation. In our experience on Disney, this is accomplished by watching a short safety video on each room's TV, and getting to an assigned 'muster point', meeting the crew members that would be in charge of safely getting you to a lifeboat. It's a bit of a tense moment because it's the last bit of 'business' that needs to happen before the party of setting off on the high seas starts. It always includes blowing the ship's emergency whistle (in Disney's case, that means 3 loud blasts - and I mean LOUD.) It's a plain loud blast. Not the typical whimsical 'When you Wish Upon a Star' blast that the Wonder usually has. (Here's a fun little horn battle: Disney Wonder VS Royal Carribean, so you get the gist.)  While anxious souls may find comfort in all of the safety schpeel, it can also, obviously, increase anxiety as well.

Before our cruise, we learned that Disney will allow Guests who CAN'T sit through the Muster drill to check in with the crew member at their appointed station, and then go back to their room. Since The Impossible Girl sat through one a couple years ago (without the aid of headphones because back in 2019 - we didn't know what we know now) we were going to aim to sit through this one if we could. The ship gets pretty busy with EVERY guest trying to coral their families and check in at the right place. Another thing about the muster drill is that NO ONE CAN LEAVE until EVERYONE who was supposed to report to a station has indeed reported. Yes, they keep track. Yes, they know who's missing.  And Yes, they WILL track them down. While the odds of something going wrong on a cruise ship that would require evacuation are VERY low, it's still a good thing to participate in every time - and it's also a MANDATORY thing to participate in.

So the photo above was taken by My Sailor as we waited for the last folks to show up. What usually takes 5-10 minutes took over 30 (because someone didn't show up and it took FOREVER to track them down...). There is NO entertainment during this time. The pool and the free ice cream is even closed, so it makes NO sense to stay on deck and NOT participate. 

This was where we were on the edge of panic, but we made it through. She was begging to go back to the room and watch cartoons.

I really wanted to see the Sail Away party on Deck. I missed it in 2019 due to a storm making it impossible to dance outside (and the atrium, where they do it in the event of rain, was PACKED). While I was pushing, My Sailor knew there was a better way to handle it.

He'd stay in the room and watch cartoons with The Impossible Girl so she could unwind, and I'd go watch the Sail Away party solo. He recognized her overstimulation when I wasn't ready to, and showed the treasure of a Dad that he is. 

Moments like these are so good for them. Reintegration is one of the hardest parts of military life. Especially for kids. Daddy's and daughters have bridges to build any way they can in a typical family. Dad being away for months at a time out of contact doesn't help. Time for the two of them - especially when he 'gets' her - is deeply healing for both.

Off I went to the Sail Away deck party while they relaxed in the room. 

In the future, I'd be happy missing this shin dig, but it was a nice way to get the party started...
Only... we didn't sail away right after the sail away party. 
Due to fog, we were stuck in port for several more hours. 

Hard to believe it was sunny minutes before this massive fog engulfed us!

But after some rest, there was still a lot to do on the Wonder. As soon as the Kids Club was open, The Impossible Girl wanted to be dropped off, so we did! 

More to come later....

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Epic Winter Road Trip - Reconnecting with the Godparents at Great Wolf Lodge Anaheim

 The next day, we said goodbye to Hollywood and hello to Anaheim. We stopped off at Downtown Disney for lunch at Tortilla Joes. It's the closest we'd get to Disneyland this trip. This place always has a bit of magic and nostalgia for us.

Beignets beat wedding cake (Credit: White Rabbit Photography)

(For those readers that are new, our wedding was held at Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen (You can find out more about that here if you're really interested. It was a wonderful whirlwind.)  

After the world's best chicken tamale with verde sauce from Tortilla Joe's (Washington has me missing Mexican food badly - but I digress) we stopped at the Lego store to let The Impossible Girl pick out something to buy with her allowance money. She opted for a set of Minecraft themed Legos to open later. Our next stop was one she'd been talking about for weeks

Washington State is home to one of the smallest Great Wolf Lodge resorts, and we frequent it from time to time. This time, we visited the one in Anaheim/Garden Grove, California. This one is one of biggest and newest Great Wolf Lodge Resorts to date. 

But it was the company that was truly awesome.

This time, we got to include her Godparents! 

 The Impossible Girl hasn't seen them for about 5 years - and neither have we! There were a couple video chat happy hours When The World Paused, but other than that, it had been years since we visited each other face to face and got our families together. Luckily for us, everyone gets along pretty famously - and that hasn't changed.

We don't take the roll of 'godparents' lightly. These are the people in our will who will raise our children, should anything happen to My Sailor and me, so it's important that they are up to date with her life, and that we all stay connected and relevant to each other.

The big attraction at Great Wolf Lodge is the giant indoor water park. And it didn't disappoint. We didn't take many photos, but all three of us tried the FloRider, and all of us lived in the Lazy River quite a bit. 

Opening up a special Snowland goodie bag.
Heading out to a shopping center near by for some dinner. 

We all had a great time reconnecting. I'm incredibly grateful for those relationships where, it's obvious time has passed, but we can pick up where we left off, to a certain extent. They have a great understanding of The Impossible Girl and The Impossible Girl trusts them (not an easy feat for her). We don't have a whole lot of active friendships from our previous lives (pre Navy, pre Marriage). Having kids and moving away changed a lot of them. Makes me all the more grateful for the ones I have in my life now. This one, since we're entrusting our kid(s) to them, is especially close to my heart.

After two days of playing and a night at the Lodge, we headed into my hometown, Escondido, for some time with my family....

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Epic Winter Road Trip - Sticky times in Hollywood

Good Morning Hollywood!

We woke up as late as we wanted the next day and The Impossible Girl soaked up the city from her perch on our hotel room window before we headed downstairs for breakfast and were off to La Brea Tar Pits. 

This place had been on The Impossible Girl's bucket list since 2020, when we watched a family on Youtube visit it. (You know, that time when The World Paused and we lived vicariously through the past adventures of YouTubers and their families.) We hadn't been able to make it happen before, but this time, we planned for it.

This was the perfect road trip break destination. The park surrounding the museum is fenced in and very well maintained. It's a facinating place, not just because it's beautiful, but because it's history in the making. There are little bubbling tar pits all around the park. They are marked off by bright cones that say "Messy" or "gooey" on them. Larger areas are chained off to avoid making park-goers part of the exhibit. The day was beautiful and clear - and the air, of course, smelled mildly of sulfur. 
The exterior of the museum is stunning.
This place is a science lesson that's fun and nearly tangible. The lagoon out front shows the dramatic scene of how animals may have been trapped in the tar. Perhaps this mammoth was walking through what appeared to be a puddle of water - but was actually a tar pit where water had collected on the surface. Now he's trying to free himself, but if anyone tries to help, they too will become trapped. One of nature's booby traps.

The park is free to visit (aside from parking). The Museum was free to My Sailor. The Impossible Girl and I weren't free, but I think the overall cost was about $25 for both of us. The Museum is small, but I will definitely be back. It's a great way to pass the time and look at all of the things they discovered here - and explore how different Los Angeles may have been in the time of the Mammoth and American Lions.
This bear is SERIOUSLY tall. For scale, I'm 5'8".

Stunning skeletons of ancient camels and other animals found in the tar pits are scattered across the museum.

On our way down to California, we learned that P-22, a famous mountain lion in this area, had passed away. The lab technicians set up a lovely memorial to this beautiful predator.

Yes, real live lab technicians were on duty today, excavating fossil pieces very carefully. What a cool window into the scientific work-a-day world.

Maybe I shouldn't be on my phone just now....

With exhibits that encourage touching and others that simulated what it might be like to try to free yourself from a tar pit, this place is 100% stimulating. Though the Observation pit was closed today, we had a great time exploring and I could have lingered at least another hour. 

The little pink camera The Impossible Girl is holding turned out to be the perfect thing to help her step into the dark museum building. It kept her hands busy, and gave her a way to 'see' the museum while keeping a certain amount of distance, as view finders allow.

The Park surrounding the Tar Pits Museum is also home to the LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). We didn't go in, but worked up an appetite playing in the park before stopping at a cafe in the park for lunch.

Caught by a Giant Sloth!

Exploring an outdoor exhibit from LACMA

Luisa would be proud. (Encanto Reference)

Don't step in the TAR!

It was SO NICE to eat outdoors in DECEMBER! It's something we don't really do in Washington (without some serious cover and heaters to help). Everything was pretty good. Can you spot the new traveling buddy who came along from the gift shop?
Photo Credit: I.H.

Photo Credit: I.H.

After lunch, we walked around the light post exhibit on the street out. It was a hugely popular photo spot, and we contributed to that before walking the few blocks back to the car (very tired). We had one more destination in mind before heading back to the hotel.
Peek A Boo

(Yes, we still use a carrier. It's much more comfortable for all than extended piggy back rides! Yes, she's about 65 lbs. I can't think of a better reason to stay strong. We use a Kinderpack Child size. )

After a short drive, we parked at The Grove and found some dazzling decorations.  The Impossible Girl got a delicious way to cool off thanks to this marvelous candy/ice cream shop. (Seriously, it was some of the BEST ice cream I've ever had.)

Dylan's Candy Bar - SO GOOD!

The Farmer's Market was the goal for today. I grabbed a caffeinated pick me up at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (which we don't have in our neck of the woods - I miss their Winter drinks) and we strolled into the Farmer's Market. We said our hello to The Travel Angel and walked around the market for a while, exploring.

This is one of the first farmer's markets in the area and reminded me a bit of Pike's Place in Seattle - with more full service food counters. We enjoyed the stroll through all kinds of foods - from seafood, to cooked Indian and Chinese, to fresh sushi and cuts of steak to take home. I know if I was a local, you'd find me here on the regular with a cup of coffee and something scrumptious.

We ended up grabbing a cookie to split at a local pastry shop and heading back to the hotel for the evening. It was about 5pm when we got back so we made it a 'movie night' in at the hotel. My Sailor ordered California Pizza Kitchen pizza (from a California Pizza Kitchen - not the frozen kind we have access to in our local grocery stores). We watched a movie from our hotel bed on a laptop and called it a night early. The next day was going to be extra exciting.

Traveling with someone with Sensory Processing Disorder has taught me to truly slow down, savor, and process the little stuff. A visit to a cool new park and the farmer's market were a lot of fun, but also just a lot of new sights, smells, temperatures, textures, tastes and sounds.  Before I had a kiddo, I never even really considered that SPD was an actual thing. I thought it meant that a kid melting down just needed a nap or their parents were pushing them too hard. I thought kids wearing headphones were being rude - but then I learned first hand how helpful such tools can be.
 And when we know better, we do better. 
Now I know the kid in the headphones may just be making the world quiet enough that they can hear themselves think. The kid that needs carrying may be tired and too overwhelmed to take a few more steps. Having a plushy friend on hand gives the hands something soft and comforting to squeeze and something complete benign and 'safe' feeling to interact with when anxiety and excitement feel the same. 

 I'm very grateful that I'm able to use the tools we need to use to help us have a great time. They help us stretch our fun and slow down for the sweetest parts of life.  

Life is a constant game of adaptation. We're constantly adapting to everything around us. Some situations and things are easy to adapt to. Some take some more creative thought and patience. 

There is so much more that I didn't think to take photos of - and I'm so grateful for this little family that reminds me to live in the moment.

And I think we'll be back to Los Angeles someday to explore more amazing museums - and MAYBE finally get a goodie from the Farmer's Market.