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Style & Fine Dining – For Kids, Too – at the Westin Peachtree Plaza & Sundial Restaurant

Note: We received a media rate and a restaurant credit to help facilitate our review. All opinions are honest and are entirely our own.

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When I walked into the lobby of the Westin Peachtree Plaza, I felt as if I’d walked onto the set of a movie.

It’s sleek and has HIGH ceilings with tons of natural light pouring in through windows and skylights. The elevators are housed in a cylinder of sorts, painted with a modern black & white floral pattern. It feels like a place execs would stay and make high-powered mergers, or that celebrities would stay while shooting on location. I have to admit, my first impression of the hotel left me in awe… but wondering if this was going to be a great place for our family with three kids to stay. Would we fit in?

For those of you that haven’t seen the Westin Peachtree Plaza before, it’s a gleaming, towering cylinder that’s the fifth-highest building in the city, and is the tallest hotel in the United States. You can see it as you approach Atlanta, and it definitely stands out in the skyline.

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Our hotel room was on the sixty-fifth floor. Yep, you read that right. This hotel has 73 floors and includes a rotating restaurant and bar, called the Sundial Restaurant, Bar & View. We were pretty near to the top, which meant we got amazing views of the city.

Full disclosure: I have a total phobia of elevators. So, as you can imagine, riding one up 65 flights was a little nerve-wracking for me. However, these elevators are QUICK, and we rarely had to stop on more than one other floor on our way up or down, because they’re so well-organized.

Once we got up to our room and opened the door, I could immediately see why people love staying here. The views are simply breathtaking.

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The kids thought it was the coolest thing ever to stay up so high, and couldn’t get enough of looking out the windows and pointing out various things they saw (built-in entertainment, folks – can’t beat that!).

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As you can see, a lot of time was spent at the windows. The lights of the city at night are spectacular, and make for a perfect nightlight as the kids go to sleep.

The rooms are slightly compact, but we still had plenty of room for the five of us. There are twenty rooms on each floor, but we felt almost like we had the floor to ourselves; we barely heard other guests. Everything is modern and sleek, down to the finishes in the bathroom – I’m kind of in love with the tile work around the mirror!

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The next day before we left we decided to have lunch at the Sundial Restaurant, Bar & View. I was a little uncertain, again, if our family of casually-dressed tourists would be appropriate, but was assured it’d be just fine for a weekday lunch.

There are two glass elevators housed in a smaller cylinder on the side of the building, and these are what you take to get up to the restaurant. It takes less than 1 1/2 minutes, and I even enjoyed the ride – the views are so great! You can see part of our ride in the video above.

The Sundial is just what you’d expect to be on the top of the Westin Peachtree Plaza. It, too, is sleek and modern and beautiful. It’s Atlanta’s only tri-level dining complex featuring an upscale restaurant, a rotating cocktail lounge and an observatory View Level.

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The kids quickly noticed what makes this restaurant extra-special: the dining area rotates! This meant our view changed as we ate, and we made the full rotation throughout our meal.

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It’s not every day you look out your window at lunch and see the top of a skyscraper.

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Or this. Gorgeous.

Elsie wasn’t too sure what she thought of it all, but the rest of us thought we had the best seat in the restaurant!

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The food was absolutely wonderful. Seriously. We loved every bite and I honestly don’t have a single negative comment. The flavors are masterfully balanced and it was probably our best meal of the trip. It is pricier than your average restaurant, but still affordable, and there’s even a kids’ menu.  Our waitress, Shauna, was great – attentive and friendly, which was especially great for the kids. Shauna, if you read this, thanks for exceptional service!

Here’s what we ate:

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Warm corn madeleines with house-made strawberry jam and local honey butter for our appetizer

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Chicken tenders with parmesan fries for the kids (surprise, surprise)

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Hand cut pasta with tomato, basil, ricotta and spring squash for me

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NY strip au poivre for Brian – a 10 oz. steak with horseradish whipped potatoes, carrots, and bordelaise sauce

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Fried apple pies with vanilla bean ice cream, cinnamon ice cream, and candy apple sauce for dessert

This was a great special treat for our family during the day but at night I can easily see how this is a perfect date (and proposal) spot. The menu is impressive, the servers and hostesses are friendly, and did I mention there are some pretty great views?

Before we left we checked out the observatory level and pointed out the aquarium, where we’d be heading next. You can really see all of downtown Atlanta from up there!

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I have to mention our bellman, Jose, before I close out this post. He was SO great with the kids. He let them ride on the cart with the luggage and asked them questions about themselves, and they thought he was awesome! We really appreciated that he made the extra effort to help the kids feel special and it ended our stay on a perfect note.

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If you’re looking for a special experience, I’d highly recommend staying at the Westin Peachtree Plaza. Whether you’re on a business trip, a romantic getaway, or – yes – a family vacation, you’ll fit right in, and will love it. You can make a reservation by clicking here. Keep up with them on Facebook & Twitter, too!

Tasty Travel: A Trip to the Denny’s HQ & Test Kitchen #DennysDiners

Note: I am participating in a compensated campaign as a Denny’s Ambassador. All opinions in my posts are entirely honest and are my own.

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I’ve always loved behind-the-scenes looks at things, so when I had the opportunity to travel to the Denny’s headquarters in Spartanburg, SC I was pretty excited. I’ve been eating at Denny’s since I was a kid, and I consider myself a quasi-foodie, so this was right up my alley!

You can see our awesome ambassador group in the photo above – it was great meeting the other bloggers that are a part of the Denny’s team! We were all treated to a great day, starting with a meeting in the Denny’s board room to hear about some of their marketing – both past and future – and hear from various members of the Denny’s team.  I love that they employ both traditional media and social media to really get their message out and connect with people (PS – If you’re not following them on Facebook and Twitter, you should be!).

After we finished in the board room, we got a tour of the new Denny’s test kitchen, led by Sharon Lykins, Sr. Director of Product Innovation.

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She told us about all the smart details they put into the kitchen for storage and efficiency, and I was incredibly impressed at all the research and testing they put into each and every menu item. Sharon also told us about how they provide freshness  in Denny’s food – from the grapes in their chicken salad to bringing in fresh fruit and cutting it in-house, they put in a lot of effort to make the food great.

Speaking of chicken salad, we got to sample their chicken salad sandwich and it is SOO good. I definitely know what I’ll be ordering next time we go!

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We also got to try their Alaska salmon filet, a great option on their Fit Fare menu:

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I wish I could tell you about a few of the other things we tried that will be on the menu soon… I’ll have to wait, though! There’s one item in particular that I just couldn’t stop eating at the test kitchen, and I can’t wait to take the whole family to try. Trust me when I say it is scrumptiously delicious!

Thanks to Sharon and the Denny’s test kitchen chefs for an amazing meal!

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We got to provide our feedback while we were at the test kitchen, too. It meant a lot to me that Denny’s really cares what consumers and moms think, and I’m glad I got to help contribute to the process!

One other thing we talked about while at the Denny’s HQ was their No Kid Hungry campaign,  a national movement aimed at ending childhood hunger by connecting kids with healthy food where they live, learn and play.

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Did you know 1 in 5 kids struggle with hunger in the U.S.? Just text “Dennys” to 877877 to donate to No Kid Hungry and receive a coupon worth $5 off your next meal at Denny’s.

In addition, guests are invited to contribute to the cause via two alternative means this year, including making a monetary donation of their choice at dennys.com/nokidhungry; all who donate online will be e-mailed a coupon for $5 off their next $20 meal at Denny’s.

Customers can also pledge their support by purchasing one of three exclusive No Kid Hungry campaign t-shirts – designed by Denny’s team members in Texas, Nevada and Kentucky – for $10 each. T-shirts are produced by Booster, available at dennys.com/nokidhungry and a portion of all sales goes directly to No Kid Hungry.

Don’t forget, stay connected with Denny’s: Denny’s Site • Denny’s Facebook • Denny’s Twitter

Hilton Sandestin is a Dream Destination for Families

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Note: We received our stay and a meal at the Hilton Sandestin to facilitate our review. We were not compensated monetarily. All opinions are honest and are entirely those of myself and my family.

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Our next leg of our family road trip was in Destin, Florida at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. We were all pretty excited about this stop – our family loves spending time at the beach, and the boys couldn’t wait to start playing. I was thrilled because the Hilton Sandestin is right on the beach, which meant we could walk out of our hotel and straight onto the sand without having to pack up the car or walk with the kids for a long distance.

The Hilton Sandestin is breathtaking from the moment you walk inside. The lobby was updated this year; it’s modern, light, bright, and gives you an immediate view of the coast. Our room was on the 13th floor facing the beach, and the instant we walked in we were awestruck by our even better view of the beach. It was raining around us (which only lasted about 30 minutes, thankfully!) but even with the sun hidden away it’s a gorgeous vista.

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From our balcony (which the kids loved), we also had a great view of the property:

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There are two large pools, a hot tub, and a shallow toddler-friendly pool, too. See that dark green roof? That’s the Barefoot’s Beachside Bar & Grill, an open-air restaurant that you can eat at – you guessed it – barefoot. We really enjoyed eating here and I’ll tell you more about it later in this post. The green awning to the right of Barefoot’s houses an ice cream shop that we also enjoyed, and to the right of that is the indoor pool. There’s even more not captured in this photo, from ballrooms to other dining options, but this was the area which we frequented the most – it’s such a great setup for families!

Our room was equally impressive. It consisted of a kids’ area with BUNK BEDS (oh my word did the boys think that was cool!) and their own TV, a bathroom and separate vanity area, and then a large space with our bed, a living area and desk. And, of course, floor-to-ceiling windows with a sliding door out on to the balcony.

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The rooms in our part of the hotel were renovated in 2013, and it’s very apparent in how they’re decorated – clean and crisp, beachy and airy, they’ve achieved the perfect balance for a vacation destination. We loved the colorful pillows on the kids’ beds, and the beadboard-inspired bedframes (complete with an awesome porthole on the bottom bunk that I managed to just crop out of the photo above (whoops!). And did I mention they had their own TV? They loved watching cartoons in the morning while Brian and I got ready, and they each claimed one of the shelves below to house their books and toys.

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As you can see below, they really nailed the design for the rooms. The peaceful blue on the walls with some light green accents was serene and so relaxing. We loved the little beverage center – and as parents of a toddler, we used this as a place to charge our electronics out of her reach, so that ended up being pretty great too.

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The living area was really nice, too – we enjoyed sitting on the couch and looking out the windows, and it really made the space feel like a home away from home, and the chest under the TV was great for storing our things.

If you’re looking to travel with your family like we did, you’ll appreciate this – there was a standard bathroom, but there’s also a separate vanity area with a sink, which allows for multiple people to get ready at the same time and was a really smart setup.

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Oh, and did I mention the amazing views? :)

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We spent most of our time in Destin outside, though. We checked in around 4:30 in the afternoon, and by 5:30 we were out on the beach.

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The next day we reserved an umbrella and chairs ($40 for the day, and totally worth it – I’d highly recommend it!) by calling the beach shack, and we set up camp with all our beach gear so we could get started playing early in the day.

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The beach for the Hilton Sandestin is great, too, because it’s not overrun like public beaches can be. It’s also serviced by staff that can bring food and drinks straight out to your umbrella – and boy did we enjoy some cold lemonade mid-afternoon! We did venture off the beach just a few yards to eat lunch at Barefoot’s. It was so easy because we could leave most of our things down at our umbrella and go as we were to eat. You can see in the photo below the green roof; that’s how close it was. Love that!

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It’s a bright, airy space with views straight out to the water, and the food is delicious, too. I couldn’t get over the variety of things they offered.

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The top left photo above is a salad with sesame-coated tuna; the bottom photo is the best patty melt I’ve ever had, and the photo on the right is delicious chicken quesadillas. The kids really enjoyed their food, too, which is crucial when they need plenty of energy to play on the beach some more!

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After a lot more playing and dinner back at Barefoot’s, we went out to the beach at sunset to read and relax a little before playing in the pool. This is one of my favorite memories of our time here.

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We spent time at the outdoor & indoor pools, too – the kids loved them!

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I can’t even convey how much we adored our time at the Hilton Sandestin. It was everything you’d want a beach vacation to be. Everything was gorgeous, the staff was friendly, it was convenient and completely relaxing. We didn’t want to leave, and the kids already asked if we can go back next summer. If you’re looking for a place to travel with your family, this is it.

Be sure and keep up with the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa on Facebook & Twitter

Beauty & History Combine at the Battle House in Mobile, Alabama

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Note: We received a reduced media rate to facilitate our review. All opinions are honest and are our own. 

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When we embarked on our first big road trip as a family of five, I knew I wanted to stay at hotels that would be kid-friendly, but still places that Brian and I would enjoy staying, too. I’ve been teased that I’m a “hotel snob” because I am pretty picky about where we stay. My thought is this: vacation is an escape, and I want the places we stay to serve as restful retreats, not punctuations of meh along the way.

We really set the bar high with the first place we stayed – the Battle House Renaissance Hotel & Spa in Mobile, Alabama.

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When we pulled up to the hotel it was 10:00 at night and raining, but we could still see through the rain that this historic building is stunningThe uprights really highlight the architecture of the building, and it feels special from the start.

There’s parking around in the way of garages and some metered spots, but since it was late and wet we decided to splurge on valet parking. I walked up to check in and was greeted with two friendly faces, letting me know they were available to help us if we had any questions or needed anything. Atmosphere is important at hotels, but staff can make or break the experience – and the Battle House has staff that obviously care about guests and enjoy what they do.

We stayed on the 7th floor in a suite at the end of a hallway, a perfect location for our potentially loud brood. I loved our suite. Loved. The living area was roomy with a loveseat (which folds out into a bed), armchair, coffee table, and armoire topped with a TV; it also had a desk and closet – there was plenty of room to spread out!

The kids watched some cartoons the next morning while Brian and I finished packing up our things:

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Love how elegant and seamless the office space is to the living area:

 

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Our room was gorgeous: floor-to-ceiling curtains and a big, plush bed with a mirrored headboard. Luxurious and serene – perfect for the start of our vacation.

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And don’t even get me started about the bathroom. HUGE. A shower and a deep soaker tub, and a pretty vanity. Our whole family could fit in there all at once (and let’s be honest – with kids, you’re never going to be in the bathroom alone anyway so having some extra space is appreciated).

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Obviously the hotel was a hit for Brian and I, but the kids loved it too. They each got an activity book with stickers:

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Another thing they loved? Going in and getting breakfast (free, with the level we stayed on). They drank juice out of coffee mugs  “like Dad” and had fun picking out which cereal and pastries they wanted. I loved that there was fresh fruit and yogurt available, too. It was a nice variety, and it meant that there was something for everyone in our family to enjoy.

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As we left the hotel, I showed the boys some of the architecture in the lobby. The ceiling is breathtakingly beautiful and the history of the building shines through all the details.

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See the woman in the last photo walking toward us? She is Emilie, an awesome Battle House employee that came over and told us about a really cool part of the hotel – the whispering arch. And not only did she tell us about it, she walked up with us to show the boys. She had J stand at one side of the arch, and then C stood at the other side, many feet away. When they whispered into a channel of the arch, they could hear each other as if they were standing a foot apart. They thought this was so cool, and I was incredibly impressed that Emilie went out of her way to show us the feature. She also took us to see the Tiffany ceiling in the dining area – yet another gorgeous feature:

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We would definitely stay here again. It is high-end, but you can often find deals on the rooms that make it an affordable place to stay. They even offer free wifi, which is still a rarity in many 3- and 4-star hotels. The historical element makes it unique and special, and I honestly don’t have anything negative to say about the property or our stay there.

Keep up with the Battle House on Facebook, or click here to go ahead and book your room now – you know you want to!

Padre Island – Weekend Getaway

One of the great things about living in Texas is that we’re close enough to the coast to take a weekend trip to the beach. Texas has really beautiful beaches along the Gulf of Mexico – a few years ago we went down to Corpus Christi, and while we were there we spent time on Padre Island. (FYI, Padre Island and South Padre Island are two very different locations, several hours apart, so make sure you’re aware if you do plan a trip!)

The beaches there are perfect for young kids – the water is shallow and not too rough so it’s great for playing. When we went before J & C were just 2 & 1, but they still had a blast. We knew they’d have even more fun this year, when we joined some of Brian’s family for a trip to Padre Island. And of course it was E’s first trip to the beach, so we couldn’t wait to see what she thought.

We stayed in this gorgeous condo, which was incredibly close to the beach and made for a great home base, especially when there were quite a few of us there all at once.

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We spent hours at the beach each day and had a great time building sand castles, riding boogie boards, flying kites, and even lounging and reading some Harry Potter together as a family. It was fun and absolutely relaxing, just what we needed.

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E was scared of the water, but she warmed up to playing in the sand!

 

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Brian and the boys worked on a sand castle creation together, complete with a Zelda triforce.

 

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Selfie!

 

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Our condo also had a pool overlooking the bay, which was gorgeous! We spent most of our time at the beach, but we went down to the pool our last morning on the island to fit in a little last-minute swimming.

 

If you’re looking for a perfect family getaway, whether you’re in Texas or not, Padre Island is a great choice. We loved it so much that we’re planning to go back again later this summer.

Adventures in Legoland (Florida)

I think I’ve mentioned before what a huge Lego fan my husband is.Now that we have the boys, Legos are even more prominent in our house! We have a Lego table in our living room, if that tells you anything! We’ve been to the Legoland Discovery Centers in Schaumburg, IL and in Grapevine, TX but were really excited to finally get the chance to visit Legoland in Winter Haven while we were on our trip to Florida.

Legoland is the perfect theme park to visit with small children, whether you’re big Lego fans or not. For one thing, the size isn’t overwhelming. We arrived around 10:30 and they closed at 5:00 that day, and it was plenty of time to do everything we wanted and ride some rides twice. J rode his first rollercoaster EVER and absolutely loved it! What I loved was that there were plenty of rides C could be a part of, too, so it truly was a place for the whole family.

There are also play areas all around, providing parents with a chance to sit and watch the kids run around (and burn off energy). The food offerings were all high quality (albeit a little pricy). Our pizza at lunch was great, and we really enjoyed a snack of apple fries complete with a side of fresh whipped cream.

Of course, one of our favorite parts walking around was noticing all of the amazing Lego sculptures. The detail to these is insane, and they’re so well done!

Here’s Brian with J next to a dinosaur (notice J’s face paint? He got a dragon, and was SO proud) – look at all of the shading done with various Lego colors… so amazing, right?

J with the pizza man outside the restaurant where we ate lunch:

We really got a kick out of the life-sized Ford Explorer, since that’s what we got to drive for our trip. I can’t believe what a good job they did of replicating the vehicle!

There’s a whole section of Legoland where they create mini-versions of famous buildings and landmarks. We spent a lot of time wandering around this area, and Brian said he could’ve stayed a lot longer!

New York City:

Statue of Liberty:

Capitol Building:

Hollywood Bowl:

The “Legowood” sign:

I totally got the theme song to Full House in my head while looking at these Victorians:

There were fun details all over, too – like this girl tripping and her soda shooting out of the bottle:

Besides all the Legos to look at, we rode a ton of rides – several rollercoasters (including the one I mentioned before), train rides, boats, racetracks, horses, fire trucks, and more. We had a blast!

I’d highly recommend making the trip over to Winter Haven if you’re in Florida. It’s a 45-minute drive from the Orlando area, which is an easy trip to make especially since the park has shorter hours of operation (during fall/winter season, anyway).

Note: We received free tickets to Legoland to facilitate our review. All opinions are honest and are our own. We were not compensated monetarily for this post.

Ford Explorer Extras Provide Luxury & Safety in a Family-Friendly Vehicle

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You know how you attach fond memories to objects? Well, my 1995 black Ford Explorer is one of those things for me. I had it all through college and at the beginning of my marriage, and I loved that car. So, you can imagine that I was just a little excited to have the chance to drive the 2011 Ford Explorer LTD on our trip to Florida!

I’ve got to say right off the bat that this is not the Ford Explorer I remember… it’s so much more. I’m continually impressed with how technology is incorporated into vehicles, and our experience with the Explorer taught us just how far technology has come. Several features stood out to me, but one was my absolute favorite and has been something I’ve gushed about to friends and family, so I’ll tell you about it first, and then move on to others.

Adaptive Cruise Control: I loved the cruise control on the Explorer to begin with because of the simple fact that it’s digital. I want to go 70? Easy – and it’s easy to adjust it up or down a couple of miles. But my absolute favorite part is that it adapts to the vehicle’s surroundings. See the little car graphic & the white bar? That’s the gap between you and the car in front of you. Let’s say we are driving 65 miles per hour, and we come up behind a car going 55. Normally I’d have to cancel cruise control, but not in the Explorer – it senses the car in front of us, and slows down accordingly. Once we’re able to change lanes, the cruise goes back up to 65 MPH. It’s absolutely amazing, and is such a valuable safety feature for families. It also makes caravaning much more pleasant – everyone knows it’s difficult to sync two cars up at the exact same speed, but with this feature it’s not an issue.

Blind Spot Alert Lights: So ingenious! Whenever a car passes on either side of the Explorer an orange light appears in the sideview mirror. I loved this feature too – I think we can all remember a situation in which we’ve thought it’s all clear to change lanes, only to realize suddenly (hopefully prior to hitting someone) that there is indeed a car there after all. That’s not an issue with this feature, because it’s easy to glance up, take a look at the light, and realize there’s a car there even if I can’t see it.

Heated and Cooled Seats: A lot of cars have heated seats, but the Explorer takes it a step further; there are three levels of heating available, and there was a noticeable difference in the level of heat between each of the options. I also liked that the heat traveled up the back and wasn’t just contained in the seat. We tried the cooling just for the experience of it – it’s a strange sensation, but I can imagine that in the heat of summer (especially Texas summers) it’s a really useful tool.

Control Panel: I’m not sure what the official term for this would be, but the touch screen truly is a central hub for information. It’s well-organized and easy to find different elements. Yet again, Ford takes it one step beyond and also incorporates two smaller screens behind the steering wheel that allow the driver to easily access important information, answer calls or change the radio. There are controls on each side of the steering wheel that make it easy to navigate through to the element you want to access.

Folding Rear Seats: Yet another area that Ford takes what’s expected and bumps it to the next level. There’s a third row of seating in the Explorer, which is fairly standard in many SUV’s now. However, there’s no awkward folding or tugging to get the seats in the position you want – it happens with the touch of a button:

That’s the “stow” arrangement, but you can also fold the seats up or down individually or together, making the back of the vehicle truly versatile for families. Additionally, I feel the need to mention that the back row of seats is actually a comfortable space with a reasonable amount of room, unlike many vehicles. I rode in the back several times with J in his car seat, and we both had plenty of space.

Ambient Lighting: This is totally just something for fun, but you’re able to select a color scheme for all of the ambient lighting in the vehicle. I had fun playing with it while Brian drove one night, and the kids thought it was cool to pick a color and watch the lighting change.

Navigation System: Since we were on a road trip we used this feature quite a bit. I have a mostly positive opinion of the navigation, but there are two areas with room for improvement. First, there was a little bit of a lag between starting up the car and the navigation beginning. It was only a matter of 2-3 minutes, but it did mean that we needed to sit and wait before getting started on our next leg of the trip. That’s not generally a big issue, and wouldn’t even bother me at all, except for the other aspect I think could be improved – you’re not able to type in an address while the vehicle is in motion. I completely understand that being an important safety feature to prevent drivers from being distracted, but it’s still not allowed even when there’s a passenger in the car. The Explorer senses whether there’s a passenger for the air bags, so it seems like it’d be a natural step for navigation to sense this too, and allow text input when passengers are present. There is the option to speak commands, and it works quite well… unless you have a vehicle with two screaming/singing/whining/giggling preschoolers. Overall we were content with the system. We liked the split screens, the voice directions that could be muted, and the ability to pick between multiple suggested routes.

Back-Up Camera: Loved having this, especially when the car was full and heads were blocking the view a bit. It was also nice that guides popped up as you turn to show you the projected path of your vehicle. I SO miss this feature and actually looked at my console for a screen out of habit when we first got back.

Space: The Explorer had plenty of interior space. If you follow me on Twitter you saw me mention that we were able to fit six people, including two in car seats – plus luggage and souvenirs – comfortably. We noticed the amount of space right off the bat, when transferring our luggage from our car to the Explorer:

There was plenty of room for the boys – they loved having the cup holders fold down in between their seats, too.

 

We logged over 2,300 miles in the Explorer so we really got a feel for how it handles (excellent, even in rain) and its features. I was really sad to return it! It’s a great family vehicle that has the space, safety, reliability, and luxury to suit every member of the family, and it reminded me yet again – in a whole new way – why I love the Ford Explorer.

Note: Ford loaned us the 2011 Ford Explorer LTD to drive on our trip, for the purpose of facilitating our review. All opinions are honest and are our own. We were not compensated monetarily for this post.

Family-Friendly Lodging at Global Resort Homes

FrontOfHouse

The majority of us have stayed at hotels before. We know the drill and what to expect, and it might even be our first thought when deciding on a place to stay for vacation. I’d always been that way, so I was really curious to see what it would be like staying at a vacation home. We got the chance recently on our trip down to Orlando, and we absolutely loved it. It’s the perfect option for family or large groups:

  • Common areas and dining areas
  • Large, full kitchens
  • Separate bedrooms & bathrooms
  • Private pools & spas
  • Covered porches, perfect for outdoor dining & socializing
  • Game rooms in many houses
  • Key code for front door so everyone can have access without having to dole out keys
  • Gated communities with amenities like big pools, theaters, and clubhouses

The house we stayed in was a 5-bedroom, 5-bath home with a dining area, breakfast nook and spacious kitchen open to the living area. It had a great covered porch with fans that looked out onto a gate, private pool & hot tub. The garage was converted into a game room and we even had laundry setup. I can tell you all about the great features, but you’ve got to see this house for yourself.

Another perk – parking right outside your door. No schlepping luggage across a huge parking lot with luggage in tow.

Idyllic, gated neighborhood – this is a view down the street of the house we stayed at.

The common area was great – plenty of space to move around and hang out in – and it extended out into the back yard:

And it gets better… the back porch looked out onto our private, screened-in pool and hot tub. As a parent of two small children, I also really appreciated that the pool area was gated – we could leave the sliding doors wide open and let the breeze blow in.

It was mild but slightly cool during part of our stay, but the pool was heated so we could still enjoy it. Brian and I swam once, and J loved splashing around. Oh, and of course, there’s more…

Lighting! It was really pretty at night, and since it was cooler out you could even see a little bit of steam coming off the water.

Let’s talk about the bedrooms a little bit – we had six people in our group, so we only occupied the three downstairs bedrooms. Our bedroom was large and had a view out on to the pool. Each bedroom had its own bathroom and its own television, so it was nice that everyone could retreat to their own space. Check out our digs:

The boys thought the stairs were fun, so we did go explore the upstairs area a little.

So, the house could sleep 12 comfortably, and rents for as little as $340/night, which is really reasonable. If you don’t need that much space, though, Global Resort Homes also has a selection of condos available, like this one that rents for as little as $143/night and sleeps 6 people.

Now, there are a couple of things I thought of that might be concerns for staying in a home:

  • Housekeeping – in a hotel, your room is cleaned for you. We were at our vacation home for 4 days/3 nights so cleaning didn’t become an issue for us, but I wondered what it would be like if you stay in a home for a week or more. Tara from Global Resort Homes let me know that there’s a cleaning service you can have come in and clean for a small additional fee.
  • Parking at Disney – you’ve got to deal with this if you’re staying off-site, but to me it’s not a big issue. For one thing, the value you get from the home compared to the cost of a Disney resort more than makes up for parking costs… but I’ve also heard from some sites about saving money at Disney, there are places you can park and avoid paying for parking.

I can’t say enough good things about our experience at Global Resort Homes. The staff was professional and quick to respond to any questions we had, and they have a huge variety of homes in different communities, all close to Disney and other fun things in the Orlando/Kissimmee area. We’ll definitely stay with them again, and I’d confidently recommend them to anyone looking for a place to stay on an Orlando vacation!

Note: We received a stay at the vacation home from Global Resort Homes. We were not compensated monetarily for this post. All opinions are honest and are our own.

Road Trip Update

Well, we’ve made it to Orlando! We’ve now clocked over 20 hours in the car, and we’ve survived remarkably well! We’re getting to test out the 2011 Ford Explorer on the trip, and it has definitely made the trip much more enjoyable. We’ve loved the space for passengers and cargo, the navigation system, and many other features I’ll wait and share with you in my review post. There’s one in particular that I am seriously in love with, and it’s transformed the road trip experience for me!

We arrived at our vacation home from Global Resort Homes today – it’s amazing! It’s in a gated community with a community pool, park, and theater; each home has its own screened-in pool and hot tub. Our house is huge and could easily sleep 12 people. Even having only been here a few hours I can already see the benefits of staying in a home vs. a hotel. The space, the common area, the full kitchen, the private pool… it’s just a much more family-friendly setup! I’ll take you on a tour of the place soon, but for now here’s a glimpse of the view out our back windows:

Tomorrow we’re off to Legoland! If you know us at all, you know we’re HUGE Lego fans, so this should be a really fun day. There’s a big chance for rain, so hopefully it’ll still all work out!

I’ll be back soon to talk about our Legoland experience, and to share more about our awesome vacation home!In the meantime, I’d love to hear – what’s your favorite road trip experience?

Note: We’re borrowing the Ford Explorer to review, have been provided with a vacation home to stay in while in Orlando, and received tickets to Legoland to review the park. We were not compensated monetarily for any of these reviews, and all opinions in this post are honest and our own.

Ten Tips for Road Trip Survival

We’re leaving on a road trip next week. But not just any road trip. An 18-hour road trip. With a two-year-old and four-year-old in tow. In honor of this trip, I decided to create a list of things that might help us survive – and maybe even really enjoy – the drive.

  1. Three words: Portable. DVD. Player. Every parent who’s ever gone on a long trip with kids will extoll the virtues of this device. I don’t typically advocate using videos as a babysitter, but in the car I think it’s valuable tool for breaking up long spurts of essentially just sitting around, especially when kids are too young to read. Here’s another idea – take advantage of Redbox and pick up new movies at various stops along your trip. You can return the DVDs to any machine, so you can always just have one or two out at a time and your kids will get a new variety of entertainment.
  2. Pack plenty of blankets and pillows. I’m a nester… I want any space I’m spending time in to be comfortable and feel homey, and I’ve always been that way. It’s a lot more pleasant to be stuck in the car for a long time if you’re snuggled up with a blanket and pillow!
  3. Offer prizes. Yep, I resort to bribery on long road trips. We usually go buy up some cool-looking Hot Wheels cars for $1 each, and some other items from the Target dollar section. In the past I would just periodically pull one out for each of the boys, but now that they’re older I want to incorporate some fun into it – the small toys can serve as prizes for correctly guessing an I Spy, coloring a great picture, or for winning a round of the quiet game.
  4. If possible, travel when the kids are sleeping. I really hate driving (or, ahem, traveling… Brian does most of the driving on our road trips) at night, so we very rarely abide by this one. It can really make things easier, though! Our boys typically go to sleep around 8:00, so if we drive until midnight that gives us four hours of quiet drive time.
  5. Listen to audiobooks and FUN music. Growing up, we always listened to music on road trips, but now with how easy it is to load up audiobooks on your MP3 player, these are a great option for listening material in the car. Chick Fil A and Taco Bueno are both offering great audiobooks in their kids’ meals right now, by the way! We’ve amassed a collection of VeggieTales stories from CFA, and two Scholastic books from Bueno. Another idea: After you listen to a story, ask the kids questions to see what they remember, or what they thought about certain things that occurred. It’s a great conversation starter! As far as music goes, it’ll vary with the ages of your children. With small kids like ours, though, sacrifice your musical integrity and listen to some Old MacDonald. A family sing-along can be a lot of fun for everyone.
  6. Play games. I referred to it earlier, but games definitely make trips go by faster! Brian and I play “My Father Owns a Grocery Store” where you take turns thinking of an item from the supermarket that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet, and the other people have to guess. It’s surprisingly fun and helps make the time go by more quickly. If you’re looking for other game ideas besides the standard I Spy, here’s a list of 101 ideas you can choose from. I’m also a huge fan of MadLibs, and so are the boys. I like to come up with my own basic stories for them because then I can center the subject around something the boys really like.
  7. Drive a vehicle with plenty of space. I know it’s not always possible, but the more space you have, the happier everyone will be. We get to try the 2011 Ford Explorer on our road trip, and are excited about having a lot of space for both luggage and our family.
  8. Provide a variety of snacks. If you have a cooler along with you, I’m a big fan of string cheese. The boys take forever to eat it, and it’s a healthy option. Grapes (I cut mine in half because I’m paranoid about the boys choking) are another good choice. Crackers and chips can crumble all over the place, so think about the mess potential when you’re picking food to bring. Oh, and always have lollipops on hand. Those can buy us a good 10 minutes of happy silence!
  9. Art time! Instead of pulling out coloring books, bring cardstock along and let your kids create masterpieces to mail to family and friends. Another idea is to work together as a family to create a storybook – draw all the pictures first, have the kids place them in the order they want, and then write the story to go around the images.
  10. If you’re stopping overnight on your trip, pack one “hotel” bag. Nothing’s more annoying than getting to your hotel late at night and then having to dig through luggage to find everyone’s suitcases and toiletry bag. Instead, pack PJ’s and the next day’s outfit for everyone in one duffel bag with toiletries. If you have small children, pack some outlet protectors in the bag too for a little childproofing.

I’ll be writing a series of posts starting next week that chronicle our trip, so I hope you’ll tune in and follow along. In the meantime, you have any tips for traveling with small kids, I’d love to hear them!

Our Trip to Legoland at Grapevine Mills

If you didn’t already know it, our family is, um, kind of a LEGO family. Brian grew up playing with them (and still has all of his bricks from childhood) and now the boys love them too. I love the creativity they instill, even if I’m not that great at building things! Anyway, a couple of years ago we had the chance to visit Legoland in Schaumburg and had a lot of fun. C was only a few months old, so he missed out on the fun. Now there’s one in Grapevine, so we decided we needed to go sometime soon.

It ended up working out that we were able to surprise the boys with a visit to Legoland on Easter – they loved it! Our timing probably wasn’t the best, because it was really crowded and we had to do a LOT of waiting around (not so fun with a 2 & 3-year-old). Regardless, it was still a great time overall.

There was this giant minifig (giantfig?) out in the waiting area, and since we were out there about 15 minutes waiting to get in the boys entertained themselves with riding his bike.

We got to see LEGO DFW, including the Stockyards, airport and more. The boys’ favorite part by far was the train. They thought it was cool seeing Great Wolf Lodge, too (they still talk about that trip)!

Brian snapped this next photo of C playing, and it’s my favorite one from the trip:

Giant stack of LEGOs! We wish we could have some like this at our house but apparently they’re hard to come by:

J & I went on a ride where we “flew” – here he is pre-flight (don’t worry, I buckled him in!):

He loved it!

Afterward we had to make a stop in the LEGO store, of course. C was in love with the pick-a-brick wall and kept pacing back and forth along it, looking at all of the colors.

We did some damage in the store, but I left with three very happy guys so I guess it was worth it. :)

Great Wolf Lodge Review

If you’re not familiar with Great Wolf Lodge, it’s a company with indoor water parks located around the country. Right now they have eleven locations:

We recently got the opportunity to visit and review the Grapevine location. When we drove up to the lodge I could tell that this wasn’t going to be a typical hotel stay – this place is HUGE!

The entrance is really grand with wolf sculptures around it, and when I walk in to the lobby it felt almost like I’d been transported to somewhere else (certainly somewhere other than Texas!).

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